"Lieux de Mémoire" in Louisiana : The Maison Chenal and Julien Poydras [fr]
The « Lieux de mémoire » (places of memory ) is notion put forward by French historian Pierre Nora as a new way to conceptualize, understand, and connect with our past.
Mr. and Mrs. Holden have a passion.
One day in 1974, Dr. Jack Holden and his wife Pat bought this tract of land along Bayou Chenal and they had the late-18th-century house they would call Maison Chenal moved to the site the following year. Abandoned and in disrepair, the house demanded significant restoration, and the Holdens helmed the project themselves. By the early 1980s, the structure was finally ready for the family to move in with their growing collection of period antiques.
But this isn’t the end of the story.
In 1996, the couple’s collecting reached new heights with the acquisition of the Nicholas LaCour House, one of the oldest surviving buildings in the Mississippi Valley. The restored two-room home, which dates to around the early to mid-1700s now sits across the road from Maison Chenal and only a few miles from its original location.
But what makes Maison Chenal remarkable is probably the identity of one of the owners.
Julien Poydras de Lalande, born in 1740 in Rezé near Nantes, is one of the most important figures in the history of Louisiana. Enrolled at a very young age in the French Royal Navy, he was captured by the British Navy during the Seven Years’ War against France.
Detained in England, He escaped on board a West Indian merchantman to Saint-Domingue, from which he emigrated to New Orleans in 1768, then under Spanish rule.
First a peddler then a merchant, he travels from Baton Rouge to Saint Louis, from Mississippi to Arkansas, and one thing in a row makes his business grow.
As one of Louisiana’s most prominent entrepreneurs, he invests in cotton and sugar cane plantations. From New Orleans to the Pointe Coupée Parish where he settled, he acquired many properties, including Maison Chenal in 1808, which Pat and Jack Holden restored nearly 170 years later.
As a landlord, buying and selling properties, he also owned slaves.
He gained the reputation of being an indulgent slaveholder, yet he didn’t hesitate to severely repress a rebellion that occurred in 1795 at his Alma plantation and that has extended to other properties in the Pointe Coupée area.
The conspirators, whose evidence shows that they were incited to revolt by white immigrants with Jacobin ideas, were quickly apprehended and several others executed.
Julien Poydras nonetheless expressed the wish that his slaves and their descendants be manumitted 25 years after his death and that an annuity would be allocated to them in the meantime.
His heirs were willing to respect his will, but the period of the assumed enfranchisement (1849) coincided with a certain rise of the abolitionist movement in Louisiana. By fear of contagion, the state legislature therefore forbid all enfranchisement until the siege of Port Hudson and the arrival of Union troops during the Civil War in 1863, fourteen years later.
If Julien Poydras’ career was limited to the trade, the purchase and resale of goods - including human beings - he probably would not have had his name attached to one of the largest avenues of New Orleans.
A Founding Father
Like many prominent personalities at that time, he naturally turned to politics.
This is the year 1803. Louisiana has just been purchased by the United States. It is no longer a French territory. Unlike a population mostly hostile to the American presence which they perceived as an occupying force, Julien Poydras decided to get American citizenship.
The following year, he won the presidency of the first legislature of the territory of Orleans at the House of Representatives.
In 1809, perhaps with a little help of his new friend Governor William C. Claiborne, he was elected representative for what was still called the Territory of Louisiana in the United States Congress. For two years, he relentlessly fought for Louisiana to become a state of the Union, which will be done on April 30, 1812.
The same year, he became the first president of the new Louisiana Senate and director of the Bank of Louisiana.
He will be re-elected in 1820, four years before his death in his parish of Pointe Coupé, where he is buried.
Poydras was also a poet and was particularly interested in educational issues.
In 1807, he created the first orphanage for girls in Louisiana, followed by another school for boys. He also became one of the founder and benefactor of the new Charity Hospital that opened in 1833.
The last act of his life will be to bequeath half of his property to charity which makes him a pioneer in the great tradition of American philanthropy.
One of his most surprising contributions, however, was surely the funds allocated to needy families of future brides. Legend has it that Poydras, who remained single all his life, could not get married to his bride simply because her family could not provide her with dowry.
These funds continued to be distributed until 1982 ...
Like most of historical figures having lead such an adventurous life, most of he information collected over time on Julien Poydras, upon scholar examination, was proven to be legendary at best.
He personifies, in his own way, a form of individual narrative that matches perfectly the great myths of American history.
Photos : Melissa Oivanki