During the period that the institution of slavery dominated the economy of Colonial Louisiana, a settlement of mixed-race free people of color thrived on the west bank of the Mississippi River just north of the present location of the western foot of the U.S. 190 bridge. The community, called Mulatto Bend, originated more than 250 years ago. Its residents were property-owning, French-speaking Catholics who participated in almost all facets of social, legal and economic life.
Historian Lee Smith, adjunct professor of history in the Tulane School of Continuing Studies, spoke on the early history of Mulatto Bend at a lunchtime lecture Jan. 24 at the West Baton Rouge Museum. Among those in the overflow audience were several who traced their roots to Mulatto Bend.
Smith, who has her doctorate in history from Tulane, became intrigued with Mulatto Bend while studying the Spanish records of the Florida Parishes and a map from 1799 by Vicente Sebastian Pintado. “In a bend in the river, Mr. Pintado put the names of everyone who owned property,” Smith said. “From the records, I recognized these as names of free people of color. I realized it was Mulatto Bend.”
How did such a community develop when slavery was so important to the economy? Smith believes it is because of the French and Spanish influences of the 17th and 18th centuries.
“We all know that Louisiana was different. It was not influenced by British sensibilities,” she said. “Society in Louisiana is completely different from the way societies were structured in the other American colonies.”
To the French, settlement of Louisiana was vital to protect the Mississippi River, the most important lane of travel in its territory. Interaction of the settlers with their slaves was governed by the Code Noir, which, Smith said, codified a French concept of paternalism. The idea was that the home would take care of everyone in it including the slaves. Slave owners could be brought to court for not obeying the established rules.
Even though interracial marriage was prohibited, this French concept of paternalism along with liberal ideas of race resulted in a group of mixed-race offspring of French men and African women who were freed by their fathers and often given financial assistance.
Under the Code Noir, slaves could not be emancipated at will, but they could be emancipated according to certain exceptions such as saving the life of one’s owner or performing a meritorious act. In actuality, the code was often loosely interpreted. “In real life, much is honored in the breech,” Smith said. “There were a lot of mixed race people being born and a lot of people being freed.”
Smith gives the example of Antoine Ricard de Rieutard, a white landowner who had a long-term relationship with a free black woman whose name was Marianne. They had a number of children who became landowners.
The paternalistic French society as well as the close personal contact between owners and slaves led the two societies to take on cultural traits of each other. As a natural result, the free people of color who settled in Mulatto Bend behaved in many ways like their white neighbors.
“They have very much in common with their white neighbors,” Smith said. “They are French-speaking. They have self-sufficient households either through inheritance or work. They are capable of taking care of their families.”
Following the Treaty of Paris of 1763, Spain acquired Louisiana. The Spanish approach to colonization was different from that of the French, Smith said. The Spanish sent a few administrators and soldiers, but for the most part, they wanted to work with the people who were already in the colony. “Their goal was to protect the Mississippi River and keep England out of the West,” she said.
The Spanish treated slaves as valuable members of society. Although there was no intermarriage between white people and slaves, concubinage was permitted, Smith said. And under Spanish law, slaves could purchase freedom for themselves.
Free people of color fit perfectly into Spain’s colonization effort. “They are native. They are Catholic,” she said. Many obtained Spanish land grants. Others purchased property.
One Mulatto Bend resident, Jean Baptiste Bienville, became very wealthy. At his death in 1802, he owned property and 19 slaves. “He was very civic-minded,” Smith said.
By the 1830s, Mulatto Bend began to decline. Floods, crevasses, levee setback and changing attitudes caused people to leave the community. “By 1857, the manumission (emancipation) laws had changed so much,” Smith said. “It was made illegal.”
In her lecture, Smith told the story of the sister of one of the wealthy free people of color. “She was sued by her white first cousin to be re-enslaved,” she said.
Ellis Gauthier, an expert on the cemeteries of West Baton Rouge, said most of the old Mulatto Bend community is in the river now. “The bend is very treacherous, and the number of levee movements have taken out most of the old plantation homes and old Mulatto Bend,” he said.
What remains of the settlement is a street called South Mulatto Bend Road and a post-Civil War Mulatto Bend cemetery, where blues musician Slim Harpo, who also performed under the name Harmonica Slim, was buried in 1970. The road, the cemetery and the descendants of the Mulatto Bend families are the legacy of the unique community.