Jean Noël Destrehan

(1759–1823)

Planter Jean Noël Destrehan served as first deputy to the French colonial prefect in New Orleans during Louisiana's transition from a French colony to a United States territory after the Louisiana Purchase. Learn more »

As one of the most prominent Mississippi River plantation owners of colonial Louisiana, Jean Noël Destrehan built a prosperous farming operation around the stately River Road manor that still bears his family name. Like his father and grandfather before him, the French-speaking Destrehan involved himself in governmental affairs in addition to attending to the family business. He occupied political positions both before and after the Louisiana Purchase transferred the territory from France to the United States, including a brief tenure as a US senator after Louisiana gained statehood.

 

The Destrehan Family in Colonial Louisiana

The father of Louisiana’s Destrehan family was Jean Baptiste Destrehan (ca. 1670–1740), councilor to King Louis XIV and treasurer of all the arts and crafts guilds in Paris and its environs. Jean Baptiste Destrehan’s son, also named Jean Baptiste (1716–1765), came to Louisiana as a clerk in the office of ordonnateur, a position responsible for the finances of the colony; his signature appears on an official document in 1739.

In about 1745 Destrehan married Catherine de Gauvry, whose father had been the French commandant at Natchez, more than a hundred miles upriver from Louisiana’s capital of New Orleans. For the next twenty years, until his death in 1765, Destrehan accumulated substantial land holdings and survived scandals in the office of ordonnateur. Jean Baptiste and Catherine had ten children. When Catherine died, Destrehan sent all of the children except the eldest son to France to live with their aunt, Marguerite Marie Destrehan, who had never married. Jean Baptiste Noël Destrehan des Tours (hereafter, Jean Noël Destrehan), the youngest, would eventually return to Louisiana and carry on the family name.

Between the death of Destrehan père and the settlement of the estate, three of the daughters—Jean Noël’s sisters—married into prominent Louisiana families: Boré, Marigny, and D’Aunoy. The marriages served to protect the Destrehan sisters’ inherited assets through prudent and experienced management. These alliances also helped to forge economic, political, and social ties in the Creole community, where these families were highly esteemed.

Emancipated at seventeen years old upon the death of an older brother, Jean Noël inherited a plantation and slaves in St. Charles Parish near the present Destrehan Plantation. Though his father had landholdings throughout the area on both sides of the Mississippi River, Jean Noël’s residency in St. Charles Parish solidified the family’s name with the area of the river known as the German Coast (because of its early settlement in the 1720s by farmers from Europe’s Germanic states). Jean Noël’s plantation fronted twenty-three arpents—one arpent equals approximately 192 feet—on the Mississippi River and extended to the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, more than eight miles distant. Not all of the land was arable; as the tract receded from the river to the lake into marshland, it became more liquid than solid. For the next decade, Jean Noël operated an indigo plantation. By this time, he was the only surviving male Destrehan—all of his brothers and uncles had died.

In 1786 Jean Noël married Marie Céleste Robin de Logny, the daughter of a neighbor, and they lived on Jean Noël’s plantation in St. Charles Parish. The couple remained in residence there until the end of 1792, when Destrehan’s father-in-law died. In mid-December 1792, Jean Noël purchased Robert Antoine Robin de Logny’s plantation at auction along with some of its household furnishings, livestock, and farm equipment. With three children—Célestine, Eléonore, and Jean Etienne—and a fourth, Nicolas Noël, soon to be born, they moved into the house in 1793. The Destrehans had a total of fourteen children, but only eleven survived infancy. The father of this large family resided in the home for the remaining years of his life, and it is this property and manor house that are known today as Destrehan Plantation.

 

Agricultural and Political Transition

Until the early 1790s, Louisiana’s (and Destrehan’s) major cash crop was indigo. Plantations not only grew the plants but also engaged in the labor-intensive process of manufacturing indigo dye. Earlier in the eighteenth century, attempts had been made to cultivate and process sugar in the region, but these met with little predictability or success. In the early 1790s crop failures and indigo blight in Louisiana, along with the disruption of the lucrative sugar production industry on the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue—where a slave insurrection led to a full-scale revolution—prompted Louisiana’s planters to give sugar a second look; some planters began to pursue sugar production in Louisiana with renewed zeal. Success was ensured through the introduction of enhanced granulating techniques, which prevented spoilage in sugar shipped over long distances. Louisiana’s sugar production helped fill a commodity vacuum left by the void in Saint-Domingue. Destrehan, the man and the plantation, embraced sugar as indigo’s replacement and rode this wave of prosperity from the end of Louisiana’s Spanish period, through the brief transition of Louisiana to France, and into the era signaled by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. By this date, Destrehan was one of the largest sugar-producing plantations in the parish and Jean Noël a leading citizen of the region.

Jean Noël’s good character and reputation were corroborated by credible testimony from people who met him. These included William Dunbar of Natchez, a friend of Thomas Jefferson’s, and Pierre Clément Laussat, the French colonial prefect who resided in Louisiana from 1803 until early 1804. Though Destrehan did not speak English and had little formal education, those involved in orchestrating the transition of Louisiana from a Spanish to a French colony and then to an American territory sought his advice and opinion on a variety of matters. During the brief French governmental period in December 1803, Laussat appointed him first deputy; Destrehan’s brother-in-law Etienne de Boré was appointed mayor. Once transfer of Louisiana to the United States occurred on December 20, the youngest son of Louisiana’s last French treasurer returned to his plantation.

But Jean Noël was not entirely finished with politics. Initially a spokesman for the Creoles on issues of slavery and an immediate path to statehood for the new American territory, Destrehan served in the first Legislative Council (1806) for the Territory of Orleans, a portion of the Louisiana Territory roughly corresponding to today’s state of Louisiana. Destrehan ultimately recanted his early position on immediate statehood; his reason for delaying admission to the Union was the government’s failure to establish an educational system. Gov. William C. C. Claiborne was often at odds with the Creoles and liberally used his veto to thwart legislation passed by the council, causing Destrehan and fellow legislator Pierre Sauvé to resign in protest. Destrehan remained out of politics until 1810, when James Madison, by then the president, appointed him to a second Legislative Council.

 

The Tumultuous 1810s

The following year, the German Coast experienced an event that reverberated throughout the region—a revolt by plantation slaves. On January 8, 1811, the insurrection began at the plantation of Manuel Andry in St. John the Baptist Parish. A group of slaves on the Andry plantation attacked the owner, wounding him and seizing weapons stored there. Other slaves were organized and began to march downriver toward New Orleans, recruiting additional slaves for the cause and creating havoc as they advanced. By the morning of January 9, the group had traveled six miles to St. Charles Parish. Word of the action had begun to reach downriver plantations, and residents either fled to safety—often aided by their own slaves—or tried to resist. A detachment of United States troops from Baton Rouge under the command of General Wade Hampton finally met the improvised army in the present Jefferson Parish city of Kenner early on the morning of January 10. Tired, outnumbered, and outgunned, the slaves fled into the surrounding countryside and marshes. Many were captured and tried, and 157 were identified as participants in the revolt. Jean Noël Destrehan was a member of the tribunal appointed by Judge Pierre Bauchet St. Martin that ruled death by firing squad an appropriate punishment for the forty-five found guilty of insurrection. Destrehan’s plantation was the site of the trial. Among the executed slaves, three were from Destrehan’s plantation; a fourth had been killed in the skirmishes of January 8 and 9. In the end, the revolt changed little on either side: slavery in the United States persisted for half a century and slave-dependent plantations, including Destrehan, continued to operate.

The 1810s did bring about changes in other areas of life in Louisiana. Destrehan briefly returned to politics following Louisiana’s admission to the Union as the eighteenth state on April 30, 1812. He ran for governor but lost to Claiborne, who had served as appointed territorial governor; however, Destrehan did win a US Senate seat. Although he soon resigned that position, he served in the Louisiana state senate until 1817. A second run for governor in 1820 netted the same result as his first: he finished last in a field of four.

January 1815 saw the final days of the War of 1812 played out near New Orleans, where Andrew Jackson’s American force defeated the British troops intent on capturing the city. The ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, formally ending hostilities, soon followed. Jean Noël’s three sons served as mounted troops in the conflict, and he himself was named to the short-lived Committee of Defense.

Against this backdrop of political tumult and financial success, personal tragedy visited Jean Noël during the second decade of the nineteenth century. His oldest daughter, Célestine Trudeau, died in 1811, and about four years later a second daughter, Eléonore Macarty, died. Of Destrehan’s eleven children surviving infancy, only five were alive at the time of his death on October 4, 1823. Two sons preceded him in death—Etienne and Guy, who had died only the month before. The inheritors of Jean Noël’s estate, which was valued at nearly $850,000, were Nicolas, René, Eléonore Zelia (Zelia), Louise Odile (Louise), and Céleste. Nicolas’s son, Nicolas Azby Destrehan (Azby), born in 1833, would be the last male bearing the Destrehan name.

Ownership of Destrehan Plantation eventually passed out of the family’s control and the mansion fell into disrepair, but a long-term restoration project in recent decades has elevated the property’s profile as an architectural gem of the Mississippi River’s German Coast and ensured the continued recognition of the Destrehan legacy throughout southeastern Louisiana.

 

Cite This Entry

Chicago Manual of Style

Lawrence, John H. "Jean Noël Destrehan." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published June 18, 2013. http://www.knowla.org/entry/1558/.

MLA Style

Lawrence, John H. "Jean Noël Destrehan." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 18 Jun 2013. Web. 22 Sep. 2014.

Suggested Reading

Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?

Click to browse full digital version of: Lawrence, John. Destrehan: The Man, The House, The Legacy. Destrehan, LA: River Road Historical Society, 2008.

Powell, Lawrence N. The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Rasmussen, Daniel. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. New York: Harper Collins, 2011.

 

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Destrehan: The Man, The House, The Legacy

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