Bernard de Marigny (1785 – 1868) was born into wealth and as the oldest son, in accordance with Louisiana’s primo geniture inheritance laws, pocketed most of his parents’ wealth upon their passing. Most of that fortune was a plantation on the northern border of the New Orleans French Quarter. Marigny was in his teens and not yet old enough to execute legally binding contracts. A caretaker managed the property and its six slaves until the heir became of age, which was more than long enough for him to realize agriculture was not his raison d’etre.
Housing was scarce and costly in The Crescent City, and he subdivided the old farm’s 1200 acres into small residential lots. This new suburb, or faubourg in the French was marketed as the Faubourg Marigny. The smaller the lots, the more he could sell, and at more affordable prices. Credit was hard to come by, and he hit upon the idea of seller financing, at interest of course, 8% at that. The Faubourg sold out in only a few years earning him nearly $1,000,000 or around $22,000,000 today.
As New Orleans’ wealthiest Creole, he became a city father, and held various elected and appointed political positions. In 1814 he sprung Jean Lafitte and his pirates from jail to help fight the British in the last battle of the War of 1812. Andrew Jackson employed the pirates’ experienced cannoneers to help him and citizen volunteers beat the Redcoats in the winter of 1815’s Battle of New Orleans. Rumors abounded that Lafitte had been persuaded by the delightful opportunity to shoot at British troops legally. De Marigny was an aide to Old Hickory in that battle, which wasn’t his first fight. Over the years he survived 15 duels, sometimes as both men missed, others by hitting his adversary, and even a few where he was missed and fired into the air.
De Marigny bought Bonnabel Plantation on the northwest shore of Lake Ponchartrain early in the 1830’s. Its main crop was sugar cane, and came with a main house, several slave quarters, barns and livestock. He added skilled slaves to build and operate a sawmill, then a sugar grinder and ovens to reduce the juice to molasses. A brick kiln was added with more skilled slaves, then an infirmary. The “terrapin pen” impressed me – he kept it to make turtle soup on demand. At its peak the northshore plantation “employed” around 150 slaves, including the entire crew of a steam powered passenger boat to ferry summer tourists to the little town of Mandeville. The destination proved so popular than de Marigny began building small homes in and around Mandeville for permanent residents.
It is said the he treated his slaves well, sensibly as a healthy skilled craftsman carried a much higher market value (or mortgage value) than the unskilled. But we cannot know that he did. Slaves were never free, nor could they work slowly to punish the master; to keep their families together they had to hope his business was highly successful. Failure in business then and now comes with serious consequences to its labor force. Now we might lose a job, then a house. Then some of the mortgaged slaves would be sold, or repossessed by the bank. It must have been a highly worrisome way to subsist.
The Panic of 1837 eventually broke de Marigny and all his slaves. There was no central banking system then, nor did the government have the funding for a Keynesian defict spending path out of that depression. The hard times ground on and on until 1845, but de Marigny held on for a few years after that. He died in New Orleans, not completely indigent, but still in relative poverty.
His sugar cane plantation became a Louisiana State Campground in 1942. We have RV’ed there nearly every year since 2013. It is the state’s most popular campground, and is now in excellent condition. But Kat says she can feel the presence of the ghosts of those early laborers who lived, died, were bought or sold there. The brick ruins of the sugar kiln, the deep black soil, and some massive live oaks planted to shade the slave quarters are all that remain of the Bernard de Marigny estate. That and the spectral Spanish moss on those old live oaks swaying in the wind.