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Up Through Slavery

Coincoin's descendants varied in their treatment as much as did their white counterparts. Augustin was known for rarely selling his slaves and occasionally setting one free. One of his younger brothers, Mills relates, would ask to "try out" slaves from his neighbors with the purported intention of buying them, then return them exhausted and overworked and say he'd changed his mind. One family member was known for being mean to her slaves, a descendant reported to Mills, but "the good Lord got even . . . her mansion was burned during the Civil War, her second husband ran through her money and she was forced to live the rest of her days, bedridden, in one of her slave cabins."

A 1974 study of slave life, based on the 1860 census, found slave housing and conditions in the area rude but adequate and far less crowded than in much of the South. Mills notes that some slaves were furnished firearms to hunt with.

Coincoin's eldest son, Nicolas Augustin Metoyer, founded the Church of St. Augustine near Melrose. Whites sat in back. (Northwestern State University of Louisiana - Watson Memorial Library, Cammie G. Henry Research Center)

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As a guide at Melrose, Kitchery La Cour says, she sees "some people who get all emotional" about the fact that Coincoin had slaves after being one herself.

"They act like if you had slaves you couldn't ever treat them decent, that you had to spend all your time beating them. They don't seem to understand that she had to work the system as best she could for her children."

But slavery was still slavery: Occasional bondsmen ran away, and just down the river lay the plantation of Robert McAlpin, alleged to be the prototype for the villainous Simon Legree in "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

A Tangled Patch of Roots

Though they initially lived frugally and worked tirelessly to build their fortunes, Coincoin's descendants, like other gens libre de couleur, eventually attained a remarkable level of wealth and sophistication. Insistently French and Catholic in the face of a growing influx of Protestant Americans, they sent their sons to France to be educated and sought cultural solace and marriage partners among their counterparts in New Orleans's Creole elite.

Like much of the planter class in the South, they reached their peak of prosperity between 1830 and 1840. Wealthy Metoyers of color loaned money to and entered business with their white neighbors and, documents show, occasionally were asked to administer white estates.

But economic depressions and the onset of the Civil War eventually threw the economy of the region into chaos. White planters also suffered, but the gens libre de couleur found their French Creole society increasingly restricted by the narrower racial confines of the United States they had joined.

Yet the culture and the family pride endured.

"Does Coincoin still have descendants here? I guess she does!" said Janet Colson, assistant director of the Creole Heritage Center at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches. "Down there near Melrose there's nothing but Metoyers. They pronounce it met-TWYRE now. Some of them are Metoyer-Metoyers: Both parents are descendants. And a few are Metoyer-Metoyer-Metoyers: Both parents were Metoyers and then they marry a Metoyer. The family trees are as tangled as a briar patch and they've shaped a very distinctive culture. But it all started with Coincoin and what she did with what she had. There ought to be a monument to her."

For more than a century, Creoles of color like the Metoyers held themselves apart from both whites and blacks, sustained by their French heritage and language and their unique family history. By the time Betty Jo Metoyer, now 56, grew up in the 1960s, however, change was in the air.

"My grandmother would tell me all these stories, but I didn't care about family history or learning French," she said. "Like most young people I was looking to the future."

She grew up, married her boyfriend and moved to Chicago. There she found herself comptroller of a major company. But she was a Metoyer-Metoyer-Metoyer and discovered that her family story was more a part of her than she realized.

"When Gary Mills's book came out in 1977, my sister sent it to me and I was absolutely fascinated. I couldn't believe how much of the story I'd never known, particularly about Coincoin. So I asked my mother-in-law -- a Metoyer, too, you know -- why she'd never told me about Marie Therese. And she turned on me fiercely and said, 'Our family doesn't have one drop of Negro blood.' So I said, okay, better leave that one alone. Because that's the way her generation dealt with it, pretending we were all part Indian or something."

But when she moved back to this area in 1981 to take care of her aging parents, she decided that whatever else her life involved from then on, she wanted to be a part-time guide at Melrose. It was a part of her. And Coincoin was, too. A few years ago when the foundation that owned Melrose asked her if she would work up a historical monologue to deliver in the person of her indomitable ancestor, she jumped at the chance.

Coincoin's Legacy

For those bewitched by Coincoin's story, the great frustration is that no visual image of her exists. What must she have looked like, this woman of such legendary beauty, intelligence and strength of character?

We'll never know, of course, but hanging in Melrose is the portrait from the 1830s of one of Coincoin's granddaughters, believed to be Marie Therese Carmelite Anty Metoyer. Something in the eyes seems to repeat itself 170-odd years and multi-generations later in the eyes of Kitchery La Cour and Betty Jo Metoyer. It's most evident when Metoyer stands proudly in the sunset before Melrose and delivers her Coincoin monologue.

"I feel I've achieved my life's ambition in helping my children gain their freedom," she says with a moving smile. "And I'd like to think that 200 years from now my descendants will still be here to welcome you into this house."

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