When Jackson Cantrell went to Fontainebleau State Park as a young boy, there was no significant spot on the site to remember the enslaved people who once lived there.
But because of research Jackson completed recently in conjunction with his Eagle Scout project, future visitors at the Mandeville-area park can see markers dedicated to the memory of those people and more.
Cantrell, 16, is a Mandeville High student and member of BSA Scout Troop 119, Istrouma Area Council. During the course of his research, he uncovered the names of 153 of Bernard de Marigny’s slaves who were quartered at the Fontainebleau Plantation in the mid-1830s. That discovery has culminated with a pair of historical markers being placed in the spots under the park’s massive oak trees where those slave cabins once stood.
The markers are scheduled to be unveiled in a dedication ceremony on Friday, June 7 at the park.
One marker is dedicated to the slave families who lived and worked at the former plantation from about 1830 to the mid-1860s. A second marker is in memory of the native people who occupied the land in that area for thousands of years.
The markers are located at Fontainebleau's renowned "Alley of Oaks" and at the southern hiking trailhead.
Jackson’s research is also summarized in a report available for review at the park’s visitor center, along with corresponding archaeological specimens and historic photos.
“This is a story that needed to be told,” Jackson said. “My family and I come to Fontainebleau State Park often to either hike or go to the beach, and every time we pass the alley of oaks, I would think of those people and know that others needed to know that they once lived there.”
Growing up, Jackson’s love of history often drew him to historical re-enactments, museums and memorabilia.
“On vacations, we were always going out of our way to see forts and monuments,” said his mother, LeAnne Cantrell.
She said that once while at the state park visitors center, they got to speak with Grawhawk Perkins, a Choctaw and Houma Nation descendant, Louisiana history expert and Native American history consultant.
“It’s like the two were meant to meet,” LeAnne Cantrell said.
Perkins told young Jackson the story of what used to be underneath Fontainebleau’s iconic alley of oaks, where today, families can be found year-round taking portraits with the massive oaks as a stately backdrop.
Perkins told him research showed that 12 cabins once stood in that spot, to house the slaves who worked the sugar mill at Fontainebleau — the name Bernard de Marigny gave to his plantation. It's the same name as a forest near the former owner's ancestral home in France. The plantation became a state park in 1943 and today is Louisiana's most-visited state park.
Jackson said that when it was time for him to select a project required to earn his Eagle Scout designation, he knew he would investigate the lives of those who lived in the cabins.
Using Census documents and working with historians around the U.S., he found that of the 153 enslaved African Americans and Native Americans, 57 were under age 10. Through mortgage documents he learned even more about them, including that many were sugar chemists and engineers as well as sugar cane field workers.
But he said the most unexpected result of his research was learning the names of the slaves.
He collaborated with Sharon Murphy, of Providence College in Rhode Island, who was writing a report on how enslaved people were mortgaged as collateral. Together, Jackson and Murphy found mortgage documents for Bernard de Marigny that listed names of the slaves at Fontainebleau Plantation.
“It was something I did not expect — to find records of the actual people who lived there,” Cantrell said.
“Reading some of the documents was certainly sobering, and we were certainly a little emotional," LeAnn Cantrell said. "We all know what slavery was, but to look at this document and see newborns named as collateral on a loan, it was tough and eye-opening.
"(But) Jackson's work will stand through time as way for others to learn what slave life was like in the St. Tammany area.”
Jackson said his research also painted a vivid picture of Bernard de Marigny, who he previously knew by name only. While he said he can’t truly admire the man because he owned slaves, Cantrell said he respects Marigny's ingenuity and progressive thinking.
Marigny developed a complex system to get sugar cane from Fontainebleau Plantation to New Orleans that included railroads, canals and schooners that were all connected, Jackson said. “It was ingenious, highly ambitious and risky,” he said.
Jackson said the slaves who worked these systems were highly skilled.
He still has one merit badge to secure before being named an Eagle Scout, but he expects to have all the requirements completed by September.
He said he is proud of the honor, but even more of bringing a piece of local history to life.
“It is a really special occasion to have the markers completed,” he said. “I knew once I heard the story of the slave cabins that I had to get that done.”