“Refugee from St. Domingue Living in This City”: The Geography of Social Networks in Testaments of Refugee Free Women of Color in New Orleans

Friday, January 4, 2013: 8:50 AM
Preservation Hall, Studio 7 (New Orleans Marriott)
Elizabeth Neidenbach, College of William and Mary
On May 11, 1811, a free woman of color named Barbe recorded her last will and testament in the room she rented at the intersection of Hospital and Burgundy streets in New Orleans. A “creole of St. Marc on the island of Saint-Domingue, refugee in this city,” Barbe arrived in the Crescent City from Cuba between 1809 and 1810, along with 10,000 other former residents of the French colony. Although she left behind both family and property, her will indicates that she drew upon a Saint-Domingue refugee network in New Orleans to help her navigate and survive in the city. By identifying Barbe through her physical location and movement in her new home, this document also exposes underlying cultural, racial, and political geographies of New Orleans. Cross-referencing the individuals in her will with other notary documents, sacramental records, and city directories reveals that she not only lived in close proximity to her associates but likely knew some of them while living in Saint-Domingue.

Wills provide a valuable source to uncover the networks and spaces utilized by free refugee women of color as they resettled in New Orleans. Through Cuba and other points, the Haitian Revolution drove thousands of free women of color to Louisiana between 1791 and 1810. This significant influx coincided with the United States’ acquisition of the territory, not only tripling the city’s Francophone free black population at a transitional moment but culturally bolstering it as well. In addition to settlement patterns, mapping the social geography of refugee women in New Orleans through their wills renders visible the ways in which their work, property, and leisure structured the growing city.