A River and Its People
The Cane River region is home to a unique culture; the Creoles. Generations of the same families of owners and workers, enslaved and tenant, lived on these lands for over 200 years. The park tells their stories and preserves the cultural landscape of Oakland and Magnolia Plantations, two of the most intact Creole cotton plantations in the United States.
Oakland Plantation History
Oakland Plantation was founded by Jean Pierre Emanuel Prud’homme, who began farming the area in 1785 and received a Spanish land grant in 1789. Eight generations of his French Creole family lived and worked on this land, managing to keep the physical complex intact for two centuries. Because of the integrity of the resources here, the site has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.
The plantation’s first cash crops were tobacco and indigo, followed by cotton in the 1800s. According to family tradition, the Prud’hommes were the first family west of the Mississippi River to farm cotton on a large scale. As textile mills in the north increased their demand for cotton, the use of enslaved labor increased in cotton-growing plantations such as Oakland. In this way the industrial revolution in the northern states encouraged the expansion of the plantation labor systems of the south.
The skills and strengths of enslaved African-Americans are evident in the buildings they constructed at Oakland Plantation (originally called Bermuda). The proficiency of enslaved blacksmiths such as Solomon Williams, for example, can be seen in iron latches and hinges, in numerous grave crosses from the slave cemetery, and in a collection of skillfully made well-drilling tools found on Oakland Plantation.
Descendents of many enslaved workers remained at Oakland as tenant
farmers and sharecroppers throughout the 20th century. These farmers sought to glean a small living as well as a bit of freedom from their labors. The vibrant African-American communities in the Natchitoches region today trace two hundred years of cultural history to this fertile land surrounding the Cane River.
Today, nearly 60 historic buildings of Oakland Plantation remain, set within a rural, pictureque cultural landscape. The main house, pigeonniers, store, cook’s cabin, overseer’s house, tenant cabin and various outbuildings are all open to the public.
Magnolia Plantation History
Magnolia Plantation was established by Ambrose LeComte II and his wife Julia Buard LeComte in 1835. However, Magnolia’s early history is rooted in mid-1700s colonial Louisiana. In 1753, Jean Baptiste LeComte I received a land grant on both sides of the Cane River laying the foundation for a cotton plantation unrivaled in the Cane River region.
By 1860, Ambrose II owned multiple properties of over 6,000 acres. Cotton and other crops were cultivated and harvested by 275 enslaved persons housed in 70 cabins. As many as 24 of the Magnolia Plantation cabins were two-room brick structures, accommodating a family or group in each of the two rooms. Converted to single family tenant housing after Emancipation, eight cabins of the Magnolia Plantation Quarters have survived.
Two of Ambrose and Julia’s daughters married into the Hertzog family, another prominent French Creole planter family. Ambrose gave part of Magnolia to his daughter Atala and son-in-law Matthew Hertzog in 1852, and they assumed the management of the plantation.
The Civil War had devastating effects for the plantation and the LeComte and Hertzog families. Many family members were killed or wounded in the conflict. According to Hertzog family tradition during the Red River Campaign of April 1864, retreating Union troops killed the Overseer and burned the plantation’s main house.
After the Civil War and through the Civil Rights Movement Magnolia continued to function, though in a distinctly different way. Among the many challenges was establishing a new relationship with the formerly enslaved workers who remained on the plantation as sharecroppers, tenants, and day laborers. All of Magnolia’s residents worked to find a new level of social and economic understanding and accommodation. The plantation’s main house was rebuilt in the 1890s. Increasingly mechanization would replace the need for tenant farmers; what began in the 1930s was accelerated by World War II bringing the end of plantation agriculture at Magnolia. In spite of difficulties the African American community still maintains a strong presence in the Cane River region. Traditions rooted in African, French, Native American and Spanish influences give this area its character.
Today, 20 historic buildings remain at the Magnolia Plantation grounds. The store, overseer’s house/hospital, blacksmith shop, tenant cabin, and gin barn are open to visitors. The main house is still privately owned and is not open to the public.