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W OODLAND P LANTATION

OVERSEERS DIARY: 1861


Ed. Chris Higginson

FORWARD


Woodland Plantation was built in the 1830s by river pilots Captain William Johnson and his partner George Bradish. After traveling from Nova Scotia and working for Juan Ronquillo, they built the Magnolia Plantation, south of where Woodland would be built.
Captain Johnson, 40 years after Magnolia Plantation was built, sold his shares and built Woodland Plantation with his four sons. Woodland made its business in sugar cane and the slave trade. Captain Johnson was in partnership with Jean Latte, the pirate. Latte would steal slaves from ships offshore and bring them to stay in one of the four slave barracks on the Plantation. From there, the slaves would be brought upriver to New Orleans to be sold in the auction houses.

Sick Ones Some Better



My uncle, Foster Creppel, lives on and runs a place called Woodland Plantation. Its in West Pointe a la Hache, Louisiana, and is the only remaining plantation along the west bank of the Mississippi River south of New Orleans. Folks elsewhere may think of this tip of land--these days mostly water--as part of Cajun country, and my greatgrandmother who passed away nearby in Barataria, Louisiana, lived in this delta region her whole life, as did generations before us. She spoke French at least as well as she spoke English. But my story isnt about her, though her life is a wondrous story.
I worked for my uncle last summer, in the kitchen and also outside, planting and trapping turtles and alligators. Woodland is open to the public, especially folks who sh in the Gulf of Mexico. My uncle cares a great deal about coastal restoration. He has to. Ive learned to care too. But my story isnt about coastal restoration or Gulf shing, though those are big stories.
A century and a half ago, hundreds of slaves worked at Woodland. You can still see the foundation of the barracks where Africans, brought to North America by slave traders, were kept before they were sent upriver to auctions in New
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Orleans. It seems accepted that the pirate Jean Latte proted in this nighttime business and horror. His story has been told and embellished, and its not my story.
I know with more certainty that there were 198 slaves on the plantation in 1856. I know this because there is a Louisiana Supreme Court case (which I include as my Afterward) about Woodland that tried to interpret a preCivil War will dealing with the property and the slaves. The original will bequeathed slaves from one brother to another brother with the condition that after enjoying the fruits and revenues of this plantation with the result of the labor of all the slaves thereon, for ve years, he was to liberate them all, send them to Liberia, and give them each fty dollars. Its an amazing story, but the Louisiana Supreme Court told that story in 1874.
My story is about something just as old that came alive for me last year. On Woodland, there is a slave overseers house still standing, though Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac battered it. After Katrina, my uncle was repairing the structure and something wedged in the rafters caught his eye. It was a water-logged and rodent-gnawed book, but the pages were legible.


I asked my uncle if I could try to preserve it. He said yes. And thats what Ive done and thats this story. My dad helped me nd a preservationist, Renee DeVille, who unbound it so I could image every page. That way, reading the pages, I wouldnt be opening and shutting the book countless times. Since then, Ive been deciphering the journal entries. The overseers handwriting is owing cursive, cleaner than mine. He wrote in pencil on yellow paper. His book was published by Philip J. Cozans, a bookseller, stationer, and valentine manufacturer.
The book could t in your pocket, but because I have imaged every page, I work on it on my computer. I have done much of my work at Tulanes Amistad Research Center, and I am grateful to the Center and its director, Mr. Lee Hampton. The ledger begins with New Year's Day, 1861. Come with me to Woodland Plantation on February 8, 1861:

16 wheeling dirt 18 women with Will topping off back levee. 4 young ones stirring up & burning off trash 2 cleaning out drains back of plows.
I am interested that the overseer had everybody working, men, women, and children, at hard labor. Throughout the journal, throughout 1861, the women were put to the same work as men. Often the young ones were too.
I am interested that he calls one slave, Will, by name in this entry and elsewhere. The only other proper name referenced in this entry is the neighbor, the Huffs. The naming of neighbors is common throughout the journal. The naming of slaves, like Will, is rare. In fact, the overseers frequent name for groups of slaves is the word gang.
What is most interesting, evident in this entry and every other, is what Hannah Arendt once referred to as the
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Clear Slight Frost 8 Ploughing up middles in pt [plant] cane at Huffs nished at 3 oclock & continued Same work in grave yard cut.

banality of evil. This overseer, 150 years ago, starts each entry with the weather, here, Clear Slight Frost. Then he gives an accountants description of the slave labor, wheeling dirt, topping a levee, burning trash, and cleaning drains. Again, men, women, and children. By contrast, describing himself, he can be light-hearted. On March 10th, he tells us he was in bayou & caught a ne lot of sh. Even speaking about his tools and livestock, he expresses concern. Often, we read mules taken care of. Ironically, the closest we glimpse of concern for slaves comes two days before the rst shots were red beginning the Civil War. Down in Plaquemines Parish, the overseer was oblivious to the fatefulness of history. Instead, he conducted his business, but on April 10th, his business had him concerned: Clear. 4 Plows breaking up middles 5 barring [?] off Plant Cane 2 cleaning out Drains Gang weeding & choping in pt Cane
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1 whitewashing 40 young & old Sick.


Forty young & old sick. He does not describe the sickness. He certainly does not describe any treatment. Matter-of-factly, he just says the next day: Gang weeding/ & chopping in/ plant cane/ Sick ones Some/ better. On the third day, April 12th, he records, Sick ones are/ a great deal/ better.
I will continue to read each word in this book. The book never indicates the overseers name. It does not indicate whether he was a slave himself, though a privileged one. I have gotten to know him through his business, but that business was the enslavement of other humans. The book describes it as I would describe planting seedlings at Woodland last summer. A book can describe indescribable horror. Is the book just the paper, or does it represent something more? The book connects me to these people forced to work every day of the year, torn from their homes. Where they worked is now my home. The book is their memory. It is my remembrance.
Holding any book, but especially this book, makes me aware of time. In an instant, I read and travel back 150 years. The overseer writing it had no awareness both of the brutality of slavery, and of its imminent end. On January 26, Louisiana seceded from the Union. On April 12, the Civil

War began. But the overseer simply records days of slavery. Even more remarkable, he had no foresight that the property he called slaves would become his equals under the law by 1864 when Louisiana was readmitted to the Union without slavery. Nor did he sense that in 1874 the Louisiana Supreme Court would conrm the liberty and equality of the people he referred to as nameless slaves throughout the 365 pages of this book. In my hands, this book is full of pain and irony; in his hands, holding it so long ago, it was nothing more than a business ledger.
This tiny, pocket-sized book sat for 150 years up in the rafters. And now I read it, and provide it to you. As I read, I wish for adjectives and adverbs to introduce me to the humanity of these people. Instead, I turn to the place and, as I walk their land, I think of them, especially the "Sick ones Some better."

OVERSEERS DIARY

This book is comprised of digital images from the true diary of the Overseer of Woodland Plantation for the year 1861. While this was a momentous year for the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America, you will see that day-to-day life in southern Louisianas plantations remained relatively constant. This diary provides us a unique insight into how plantations were run in the early stages of the Civil War.

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AFTERWARD

FREEDMEN: LOUISIANA OR LIBERIA?

1874- THE LOUISIANA SUPREME COURT SPEAKS



As mentioned in the Forward, history was swirling around Woodland in 1861. Even more remarkably, 1861, the year described in the previous pages, was meant to be the year that many of the slaves on Woodland Plantation were to be sent back to Africa, each with fty dollars in their pocket.
For this extraordinary epilogue, one need only read the words of Louisianas Supreme Court, in 1874.

26 La.Ann. 570 Supreme Court of Louisiana. Heirs of E. A. Johnson v. Bradish Johnson. No. 3360. | May, 1874.
Appeal from the Sixth District Court, parish of Orleans. Cooley, J. Morgan, J. George W. Johnson died in September, 1856. He owned large estates in New York and in Louisiana. Forming part of his possessions in this State, was a tract of land known as the Woodland plantation, situate in the parish of Plaquemine, of which he owned the eleven-sixteenths. The other ve-sixteenths, belonged to his brother, Bradish Johnson. He also owned twenty-ve slaves in his own right, twelve slaves in common with his brother Bradish, and the eleven-sixteenths of one hundred and sixty-one others. He died without leaving any forced heirs, and bequeathed his property to his brothers. To Bradish he gave the Woodland plantation and all the improvements thereon. Upon this bequest he imposed a charge. This was, that after enjoying the fruits and revenues of this plantation with the result of the labor of all the slaves
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thereon, for ve years, he was to liberate them all, send them to Liberia, and give them each fty dollars. His will was accepted by his heirs as a just disposition of his property, and in two separate deeds, made at dierent periods, they ratied the same. Under the will and in virtue of these acts, each heir was put in possession of the share which was coming to them. His heirs were three brothers. It is the heirs of one of these brothers who are the plaintis in this suit. In 1857, the Legislature of Louisiana passed a law prohibiting the emancipation of slaves. In 1858, J. D. Johnson and E. A. Johnson (father of the present plaintis) instituted suit against Bradish Johnson, in which they alleged that the provisions of George Johnsons will by which he directed the emancipation of his slaves were null and void, the same being prohibited by law. They prayed that all of the provisions of his will relating to the Woodland plantation and the negroes thereon might be declared null and void, as contrary to the laws and policy of the State, and they prayed to be decreed to be the owners each for one-third
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thereof. This suit was decided by the Supreme Court to be premature. The opinion was read on the fteenth of June, 1859. It has not been reported. Subsequently, John Johnson instituted another suit in which he declared that Bradish Johnson, in deance of the laws of the State, contemplated the emancipation of the slaves mentioned in George Johnsons will, and, averring that he feared they would be removed out of the State, applied for and obtained an injunction directed against him prohibiting him from so doing. This suit remained on the docket until twelfth November, 1861, when it was dismissed. The slaves were never sent to Liberia, and they were not emancipated by Bradish within the ve years as required by the will. The heirs of E. A. Johnson, claiming through their father, ask that they be decreed to be the owners of the one third of the eleven-sixteenths of the Woodland plantation, and that Bradish Johnson may be compelled to account to them for the revenues thereof since he has been in possession of the same under the will. By a special agreement the rents and

revenues are disconnected from this suit, and the only question before us is, the title to the land. Plaintis contend that inasmuch as the terms of the will were not complied with, and inasmuch as the terms of the will were the conditions of the legacy, the legacy lapses and the property falls into the mass of the succession, to be divided equally among the heirs. Every one who was in Louisiana at the time knows, that it would have been impossible for any one to have emancipated a slave in September, 1861, and that it would have been equally impossible to have sent one, much less one hundred and ninety-eight to Liberia. Late in April, 1862, the United States forces took possession of New Orleans and the neighboring country. By a military order, issued in May, 1863, the statute of 1857 was declared never to have been in force during the occupancy of the country by the federal troops, and owners of slaves were authorized to manumit them on presenting a petition to that eect, to any court of record.

In March, 1864, Bradish Johnson led a petition in which he prayed leave to emancipate the slaves mentioned in his brothers will. The application was granted. The slaves were freed. It is contended that this proceeding was unnecessary, inasmuch as two months before, General Banks, the then military commander here, had declared all slavery laws null and void. This does not follow, but it is not necessary that the matter should be inquired into. In the construction and application of testamentary dispositions, the object of the testator is one of the rst things to be ascertained. What was the object of George Johnson with regard to the slaves which he owned? Was it to send them to Liberia? In our opinion this was a mere incident to the bequest, and made simply in what he considered might be the interest of those to whom he desired to be bountiful. His main object we think was the emancipation of those whom he had held in bondage and whose labor had contributed to his wealth. His principal end was to make them free; the place where they were to enjoy their freedom was a very secondary
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consideration. They were freed, and thus his object was accomplished. They were freed also by the act of his legatee, and thus the provisions of his will were carried out. They were not sent to Liberia, it is true, but this is not the fault of the legatee. In this regard he tendered to those who wished to go, the means stipulated in the will, which they declined. Besides, this was a stipulation in their own behalf, and not one in which the heirs have any interest; for it would hardly be contended, we think, that if they could have been emancipated under the laws of Louisiana when they would have been entitled to their freedom under the will, with permission to remain in Louisiana, and they had been emancipated and had refused to go to Liberia, that this portion of the will would have been set aside. The rst privilege of freedom is the right to choose a home from out the world; it might have been worse than slavery to them to force them from the place of their birth, to break up their associations and to sunder even such weak ties as were socially known to them, and to drive them across the seas, among strangers, and in a distant land. Being free to go or not to go, was the question which their own choice alone could determine, and whether they went or staid was
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not a matter in which the heirs of their liberator had any say. It is their ground of action against the legatee to force a compliance with the terms of the will, if they choose to occupy it, but it is no reason why his bequest should be set aside. Beyond this, all the heirs of George Johnson ratied and conrmed his will, as has been seen; they were recognized and put in possession of their respective shares; his succession has been fully administered, and his executors have been discharged. After all these proceedings, and in the face of their solemn acts, the heirs can not, we think, be heard, when they seek to annul the will in any of its parts. Judgment armed.