Fr. Paret’s Watercolors & Journal (1859)

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Watercolors from St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, 1859 Painted by Fr. Joseph M. Paret

Bird\'s Eye View
Father Paret’s watercolor painting depicts the Little Red Church and its surroundings in the heart of St. Charles Parish. The area displays present-day locations of Dufresne (Esperanza) and Hahnville on the west bank, across the river from Destrehan and New Sarpy on the east bank. The east bank Little Red Church, its cemetery, and the presbytery are surrounded by several dependency buildings. A visual of pre-Civil War St. Charles Parish.

At the time of discovery of the Paret watercolors, in a proposal to publish the 1859 paintings, Louisiana State University (LSU) Art Museum Director Pat Bacot said the Paret paintings were “the most important single group of landscape paintings done before the Civil War in Louisiana. Nothing is comparable to them. Yet, these paintings have never been displayed in Louisiana.”

Red Church
Red Church, March 20, 1859. The Little Red Church on a Sunday afternoon. The German cemetery is one of the oldest in the South, with tombs dating back to 1770. Many earlier gravesites fell victim to the Mississippi River. Deceased west bank residents were transported across the Mississippi River in boats to be buried at the Red Church cemetery. A replica of the Red Church is on display on the grounds of St. Charles Borromeo in Destrehan at the entrance to the cemetery.

His paintings were subsequently published by LSU Press. His journal, Mon Journal d’Amerique, a collection of correspondence with his family in 1853, was published in France by Marcel Boyer 140 years later, in 1993. More information regarding Fr. Paret’s watercolors and journal can be found in Plantations by the River by Marcel Boyer, edited by Jay D. Edwards and published by LSU Press. (Photos courtesy of Fred B. Kniffen Cultural Resources Laboratory, Department of Geography and Anthropology, Louisiana State University)

Home of M. O. LaBranche
Home of M. O. LaBranche. La Branche Plantation. The German Zweig family surname was Gallicized to LaBranche. Octave was the son of Alexandre LaBranche. He was a member of Captain Trudeau’s Troop of Horse and a veteran of the Battle of New Orleans. Octave served as speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1827 to 1829. The LaBranche family and Fr. Paret enjoyed a warm relationship. The LaBranche’s owned several plantations. The house pictured was located in the present St. Rose area. Watercolor by Father Paret.

Fr. Paret’s paintings provide so many aspects of life in St. Charles just two years before the Civil War, giving firsthand views of plantation layouts, fence and building materials, gardens, and so much more. Many plantations in St. Charles appear to be small villages, which included amenities such as a family cemetery, chapel, and schoolhouse.

Oxley Plantation
Oxley Plantation. The residence of Charles and Martha Kenner Oxley, daughter of William Kenner (Roseland), was located in the presentday Bonnet Carré Spillway. Charles Oxley was a native of Liverpool, England, and became a New Orleans cotton broker. The Greek revival architectural style became popular in Louisiana as early as 1830. However, the Creoles continued to favor the West Indies style. Located at this site is an African American cemetery named Kenner Cemetery. Fr. Paret displays his sense of humor by including himself in this painting.

Prominently featured in almost all of Father Paret’s paintings are the Mississippi River and its many diverse modes of transportation. Using canoes to transport goods and to travel, American Indians traversed the river long before Europeans arrived. Samuel Clemens’s Mark Twain was fascinated with and came to love and respect the Mississippi River and all surrounding it. It was the backbone of the German Coast. The most coveted and valuable land was that fronting the river. Many styles of boats were designed for different uses. Flatboats were popular and even had living quarters. When a destination was reached, most were taken apart and lumber was used for construction or firewood. As with limestone used for ballasts in sea-going vessels and eventually used as masonry for New Orleans homes, many houses from this era include salvaged flatboat wood. Many early sidewalks (banquettes ) were constructed of flatboat wood. Those settling downriver in St. Charles Parish also reused all salvageable materials onboard. Bargeboard houses are located throughout St. Charles Parish.

Good Hope Plantation
Good Hope Plantation was the home of brothers Thomas and Edouard Oxnard and brother-in-law, Brice Similien LaBranche. Brice LaBranche served in the militia, was a member of Captain Trudeau’s Troop of Horse in the Battle of New Orleans, and served as a churchwarden and member of the Louisiana State Legislature. The Oxnard family remained involved in the sugar industry throughout the twentieth century. Good Hope was bought by Leon Sarpy after the Civil War. This site is now the town of Norco and home to Shell/Motiva. Note the many dwellings and support buildings (“dependencies”). Each plantation was designed to be as self-contained as possible.

Buggies appear to be the main mode of travel in the parish. Those traveling by water are seen in luggers, bateaux, pirogues, flatboats, padd le wheelers, and steamboats. Creole architecture dominated the landscape. Except for Ormond, all of the Paret plantations, including all of the accessory buildings, have disappeared from the landscape, perhaps destroyed by the Civil War, Mother Nature, or progress.

Hermitage Plantation
The Hermitage Plantation was owned by Judge Pierre Adolphe Rost and was located at the center of the present Bonnet Carré Spillway. Judge Rost was married to Louise Odile Destrehan and also owned the former Destrehan Plantation. He was considered one of the most significant and wealthy plantation owners along the German Coast. The Hermitage was seized by the federal government after the Civil War and later returned to Judge Rost. George Frederick Kugler served as overseer for Judge Rost and later acquired Hermitage Plantation. The property was subsequently sold to the United States government to be used as the site for the spillway project. Lumber from demolition of the Hermitage Plantation was used to build houses on Apple Street in Norco. Another African American cemetery known as the Kugler Cemetery is located at this site. Legend lends an interesting story that George Kugler planted many of the oak trees along the River Road.

The presbytery of the Red Church, now called a rectory, was Fr. Paret’s residence and is so vividly portrayed in his watercolors. But it lasted not even a quarter-century, burning in 1877. During his tenure at Red Church, Fr. Paret convinced his brothers to visit the financially stable civil parish and his home at Red Church. One brother became a permanent resident of the parish, leaving descendants in Louisiana today.

Ormond Plantation
The Ormond Plantation is one of the few houses that escaped fires, floods, and the Civil War. It was originally built in 1790 by Pierre Trépagnier on land granted to him by Spanish Governor Bernardo deGalvez for his service during the time of the American Revolution. In 1805, the property was acquired by Richard Butler, who named the plantation Ormond after an Irish ancestor, the Duke d’Ormonde. Upon his death, Ormond was deeded to Butler’s sister whose husband was naval officer Samuel McCutchon (Fr. Paret spelled it McCutcheon). Ormond Plantation adjoined the Little Red Church property, housed a post office, and had a large boat landing. Ormond is the only plantation included in Fr. Paret’s series of watercolors that survives into the twenty-first century.

But not all of the people in St. Charles were wealthy, affluent plantation owners as depicted in Paret’s watercolors. The small farmers of the German Coast continued to exist with the larger plantations. Many “Americans” immigrated to the parish in search of riches they often did not find. The plantation economy depended on slaves and census reports at the time show St. Charles had five slaves to every white person. Only about one-third of the white population did not have slaves at this time. Of the fifty-two plantations in the parish, the largest were on the west bank. Since it has been documented that there were more doctors than schoolteachers in the parish, plantation laborers may have been very well cared for by their owners as reported.

Estate of Jean Baptist LaBranche
Estate of Jean Baptist LaBranche. After Widow J. B. LaBranche (nee Marie Trépagnier) died in 1868, her three sons, Judge Jean-Louis, Euphemond, and Cyprien, inherited the Jean Baptist LaBranche Plantation. By 1850, it was one of the German Coast’s most prominent and successful. Note the Spanish style dependency building. This is the site of the present-day Esperanza Plantation owned by Judge Edward A. Dufresne, Jr.

Interestingly, at that time, many of the Catholic churches had either slaves or free blacks living at the rectory address. Apparently the slaves living at Red Church were not listed as belonging to Fr. Paret, but to his French housekeepers, a couple he recruited from France.

Judge Jean-Louis LaBranche Plantation
Judge Jean-Louis LaBranche Plantation. Judge Jean-Louis LaBranche was born in 1805 in St. Charles Parish. A major crevasse occurred on May 8, 1858, at this site, followed a few days later by another levee break in the same area. On February 13, 1869, the L’Avant Courseur reported, “The hard times, the family losses, the brutalities of subordinate officers who acted like military police in St. Charles during and after the war, and finally the recent death of his aged mother all took their toll on Judge LaBranche’s fragile constitution.” He died on February 7, 1869.

One could assume that Fr. Paret’s appetite for sketching the beautiful plantation estates of St. Charles was completely tempered by the destruction he witnessed during the Civil War—to the point that his sketchbook is silent on the subject. But perhaps not—perhaps he gave some of his watercolors to friends in St. Charles. The discovery in France only emphasizes the possibility that other such treasures could be hidden in family closets, albums, or attics in St. Charles or elsewhere.

Ranson Plantation
Ranson Plantation. Louis Ranson was a member of a very prominent and influential New Orleans family that were formerly involved in Spanish government. He was the son of Zenon Ranson, one of the wealthiest planters in the parish, and married Flavie Troxler, a descendant of early German Coast settlers. The Ranson Plantation was located across the Mississippi River from present-day Destrehan. In 1866, as head churchwarden, he was asked by Father Paret to find a site for a west bank chapel. He served briefly in 1866 as sheriff of St. Charles and served as a captain in the Confederate Army. During the Civil War his property was seized and not returned until 1867.

Fr. Paret’s watercolors and journal are presently owned by the Choretier family in the Forez-Viennois region of the Department of Loire, France.

“Although travel accounts, diaries, and collections of correspondence exist from this same period, the importance of these colorful visuals (by Fr. Paret) survives not only as a chronicle of social history, but as documentation of properties that, for the most part, no longer exist…The ability to compile records that mean little as individual items and much as a group is central to the recording and understanding of the history of any region. Seen in conjunction with the array of materials for the study of the plantation culture of south Louisiana, the watercolors stand out as a unique body of work…As former colonies search for validation and connection with their parent countries, a bond through observed realities reaffirms their mutual influences.”
— Mary Louise Christovich, President, Kemper and Leila Williams Foundation

Information on Fr. Paret and his paintings has been extracted from Plantations by the River by Marcel Boyer published by LSU Press.

The citizens of Louisiana, in particular the citizens of St. Charles Parish, are grateful to Fr. Paret’s family for agreeing to share the journal and watercolors.

Fashion Plantation
Fashion Plantation was located in Hahnville and was owned by former U.S. President Zachary Taylor, although he never resided there. It was inherited by his son Lieutenant General Richard Taylor in 1851. General Taylor served with distinction in St. Charles Parish and throughout the south in the Confederate Army. Fashion Plantation was plundered and destroyed by Union troops. Personal accounts attest that it had been one of the most splendid in the area. The Mississippi River claimed the original site. Fashion Plantation residential developments are now located on the remaining portions of the plantation.

This text is copyright © material by Marilyn Richoux, Joan Becnel and Suzanne Friloux, from St. Charles Parish, Louisiana: A Pictorial History, 2010.

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Further Reading

Proposal for the Publication of a Book of Louisiana Paintings from the Year 1859
The F.B. Kniffen Cultural Resources Lab Department of Geography and Anthropology, Louisiana State University