Abstract

While it is well known that a widespread minority of white women owned agricultural land in the early South, scholars rarely interpret them as landowners actively involved in acquiring or managing their lands. This paper investigates women as landholders in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, between 1813 and 1845. Using a combination of documentary property information with a GIS reconstruction of women’s landholdings in the parish, this article assesses the quality of land that women owned and their involvement with it. The study argues that women, like men, understood that land promised economic opportunity and security for themselves and their families. Their efforts to maintain and build upon their estates challenge their image as mere caretakers. Land was a vital concern to women because it helped them to fulfill their responsibilities as wives, mothers, and widows in caring for their family’s current and future welfare.

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Notes

1. Sara Brooks Sundberg,
“A Female Planter from West Feliciana Parish: The Letters of Rachel O’Connor,”
Louisiana History
67
(Winter
2006
):
44
45
. For O’Connor’s published letters, see, Allie Bayne Windham Webb, ed.,
Mistress of Evergreen Plantation: Rachel O’Connor’s Legacy of Letters 1823–1845
(
Albany
:
State University of New York Press
,
1983
).
2. Anne B. Effland et al.,
“Women as Agricultural Landowners: What do We Know about Them?”
Agricultural History
67
(Spring
1993
):
235
61
; Susan Turner, ed.,
The Garden Diary of Martha Turnbull, Mistress of Rosedown Plantation
(
Baton Rouge
:
Louisiana State University Press
,
2012
),
30
. In one exception, the editor notes that Turnbull’s garden fed the “enslaved population” (35). Elise Pinckney, ed.,
The Letterbooks of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, 1739–1762
(
Columbia
:
University of South Carolina Press
,
1997
).
3. Kirsten E. Wood,
Masterful Women: Slaveholding Widows from the American Revolution through the Civil War
(
Chapel Hill
:
University of North Carolina Press
,
2004
),
25
,
34
36
.
4. Free women qualified to own property in the state.
The 1820 census demonstrates that the vast majority of potential female property holders in West Feliciana Parish were white women (2,360 white/32 black)
.
Historical Census Browser, University of Virginia Library
, http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu/php/ (accessed July 13,
2016
).
5. Pirrie’s records are typical of the information available about women from this region and time period, consisting largely of property and business papers. See, Turnbull-Bowman Family Papers, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, Special Collections, Hill Memorial Library, Louisiana State Libraries, Baton Rouge, La.
6. Bennett H. Wall et al.,
Louisiana: A History
(
West Sussex
:
Wiley-Blackwell
,
2014
); Andrew McMichael,
Atlantic Loyalties: Americans in Spanish West Florida, 1785–1810
(
Athens
:
University of Georgia Press
,
2008
).
7. Robin Fabel,
The Economy of British West Florida, 1763–1783
(
Tuscaloosa
:
University of Alabama Press
,
1988
),
15
;
USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service
,
Soil Survey of East and West Feliciana Parishes, Louisiana
(
Washington, DC
:
USDA
,
2001
),
10
; Thomas Hutchins,
An Historical Narrative and Topographical Description of Louisiana, and West Florida, Comprehending the River Mississippi with Its Principal Branches and Settlements ...
(
Philadelphia
:
R. Aitken
,
1784
),
61
. The frontier line of settlement is based upon the criteria of roughly two people per square mile established by the US Census Bureau. See,
US Bureau of the Census
,
Compendium of the Eleventh Census: 1890, Part I: Population
(
Washington, DC
:
GPO
,
1892
),
xxxv
cxxvii
.
8. Francis Andrei Elliott,
“The Administration of the Public Lands in the Greensburg District of Louisiana, 1812–1852”
(master’s thesis,
Louisiana State University
,
1969
); Francis P. Burns,
“The Spanish Land Laws of Louisiana,”
Louisiana Historical Quarterly
11
(Oct.
1928
):
557
81
; Harry L. Coles,
“The Confirmation of Foreign Land Titles in Louisiana,”
Louisiana Historical Quarterly
38
(Oct.
1955
):
1
11
. The percentage of Anglo names is drawn from the Greensburg Land District, Tract Book #4, State Land Office, Baton Rouge, La.; Light T. Cummins,
“An Enduring Community: Anglo-American Settlers at Colonial Natchez and the Felicianas, 1775–1810,”
Journal of Mississippi History
55
(May
1993
):
133
35
.
10. Katy Simpson Smith,
We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750–1835
(
Baton Rouge
:
Louisiana State University Press
,
2013
),
2
.
11. Greensburg Land District, Tract Book #4; Ory G. Poret,
History of Land Titles in the State of Louisiana
(
Baton Rouge
:
State Land Office
,
1972
); John Whitling Hall,
“Louisiana Survey System: Their Antecedent, Distribution and Characteristics”
(PhD diss.,
Louisiana State University
,
1970
),
9
; Carolyn O. French,
“Cadastral Patterns in Louisiana: A Colonial Legacy”
(PhD diss.,
Louisiana State University
,
1978
),
25
.
12. William Darby,
A Geographical Description of the State of Louisiana
(
New York
:
James Olmsted
,
1817
),
89
; French,
“Cadastral Patterns,”
130
.
13. French,
“Cadastral Patterns,”
133
; Webb,
Mistress of Evergreen Plantation
,
59
.
14. The most well known planter journal from West Feliciana in the 1830s and 1840s is from Bennet Barrow. Barrow makes frequent references to the weather and the success of his crops, but very little about the land itself. Edwin Adams Davis, ed.,
Plantation Life in the Florida Parishes of Louisiana, 1836–1846 as Reflected in the Diary of Bennet H. Barrow
(
New York
:
AMS
,
1967
). Darby,
A Geographical Description
,
94
; Fred B. Kniffen,
Louisiana: Its Land and its People
(
Baton Rouge
:
Louisiana State University Press
,
1968
),
76
.
15. Donald McDaniel et al.,
Soil Survey of East and West Feliciana Parishes, Louisiana
(
Washington, DC
:
Natural Resources Conservation Service
,
2001
),
15
; Daniel Drake,
A Systematic Treatise, Historical, Etiological, and Practical, on the Principal Diseases of the Interior Valley of North America ...
(
Cincinnati
:
Winthrop B. Smith
,
1850
),
111
; Charles M. Allen et al.,
A Vascular Flora of St. Helena and West Feliciana Parishes, Louisiana
(
West Lafayette
:
University of Southwestern Louisiana
,
1975
),
2
; Poret,
History of Land Titles
,
639
; Hall,
“Louisiana Survey Systems,”
2
.
16. We define “suitable” as an 8 percent grade or lower. Although considered susceptible to erosion, Louisiana soil surveys include 8 percent slopes or lower to be well or moderately suited for cultivated crops. Each soil unit is individually assessed in the soil survey. By our reading, the units with 0–3 percent slope (typically ridge tops, terraces, flood plains) are “well suited” and side slopes (typically 3–8 percent) are “moderately well suited” for cultivation. McDaniel et al.,
Soil Survey.
The Louisiana survey includes information about slope in their assessment of soil quality.
17. Whitney J. Autin,
“Landforms and Surface Geology,”
in
Soil Survey
,
123
25
; Hazel R. Delcourt and Paul A. Delcourt,
“Primeval Magnolia-Holly-Beech Climax in Louisiana,”
Ecology
55
(May
1974
):
639
.
18. Thomas Hutchens,
An Historical Narrative and Topographical Description of Louisiana and West Florida
(
Philadelphia
:
Robert Aitken
,
1784
); Andrew Ellicott,
The Journal of Andrew Ellicott...
(
Philadelphia
:
Budd & Bartram
,
1803
),
181
.
19. John R. Stilgoe,
Common Landscape of America, 1580–1845
(
New Haven
:
Yale University Press
,
1982
),
141
;
“Nature of Soils,”
Farmers’ Cabinet: Devoted to Agriculture, Horticulture, and Rural Economy
1
(Oct. 1,
1836
):
81
82
.
20. Pinkney,
Letterbooks
,
39
; Peter B. Mires,
“Relationships of Louisiana Colonial Land Claims with Potential Natural Vegetation and Historic Standing Structures: A GIS Approach,”
Professional Geographer
45
(Aug.
1993
):
342
50
.
21. Dwight L. Agnew,
“The Government Land Surveyor as a Pioneer,”
Mississippi Valley Historical Review
28
(Dec.
1941
):
369
82
; Delcourt and Delcourt,
“Primeval Magnolia-Holly-Beech,”
641
.
22. For Pirrie’s life, see, Sundberg,
“Lucy Alston Pirrie (1772–1833): A Woman’s Life in Early Louisiana,”
in
Louisiana Women: Their Lives and Times, Volume 2
, ed. Mary Farmer Kaiser and Shannon Frystak (
Athens
:
University of Georgia Press
,
2016
),
85
100
.
23. Joseph A. Groves,
The Alstons and Allstons of North and South Carolina
(
Atlanta
:
Franklin
,
1901
),
199
,
206
; Township 3S, Range 2W, Greensburg Land District, Tract Book #4.
24. Sundberg,
“Lucy Alston Pirrie,”
93
; Township 3S, Range 2W, Greensburg Land District, Tract Book #4.
25. Sundberg,
“Lucy Alston Pirrie,”
92
; Norris B. Fazekas et al., eds.,
Archives of the Spanish Government of West Florida Translations and Transcriptions
,
20 vols.
(
Baton Rouge
:
Survey of Federal Archives
,
1937–1940
),
4
:
198
.
26. Sundberg,
“Lucy Alston Pirrie,”
94
; Groves,
Alstons and Allstons
,
206
; Township 3S, Range 2W, Greensburg Land District, Tract Book #4.
27. Succession of Ruffin Gray Jr., Probate Record Book C, 1832–1837, probate box 40, Clerk of Court, West Feliciana Parish, St. Francisville, La.; Laurie A. Wilkie,
Creating Freedom Material: Culture and African American Identity at Oakley Plantation, Louisiana, 1840–1950
(
Baton Rouge
:
Louisiana State University Press
,
2000
),
45
; Sundberg,
“Women and Property in Early Louisiana: Legal Systems at Odds,”
Journal of the Early Republic
32
(Winter
2012
):
660
.
28. Pirrie owned 1,529 acres worth about $14,200 or about 21 percent of her estimated total worth of $66,734. Sundberg, “Lucy Alston Pirrie,” 96; Inventory Record Book B, 1830–1834, p.
34
, Clerk of Court, West Feliciana Parish, St. Francisville, La.; Sundberg, “Women and Property,” 120; Last Will and Testament of Lucy Pirrie, Notarial Record Book E (1833–1836), pp.
105
107
, Clerk of Court, West Feliciana Parish, St. Francisville, La.; Township 3S, Range 2W, Greensburg Land District, Tract Book #4; Wilkie,
Creating Freedom Material
,
52
.
29. Probate Inventories, Clerk of Court, West Feliciana Parish, St. Francisville, La.; Sundberg,
“Women and Property Legal Systems,”
120
.
30. Webb,
Mistress of Evergreen Plantation
,
254
.