The Joy of Finding My Enslaved Ancestor in 18th Century Louisiana Spanish Judicial Records

A guest post by Michael Nolden Henderson*

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Michael N. Henderson,  LCDR. Commander, USN Ret. Past President, Button Gwinnett Chapter, Georgia Society, Sons of the American Revolution. For more on this site, see blog post titled Unveiling of New Historical Marker: Bernardo de Galvez, 27 Sept 2012.

When you’re on the hunt for answers as a genealogist and a family history researcher, nothing will stop you. That’s how I was during my early search for documents related to Agnes. I had come to know Agnes as the daughter of my fifth generation great-grandmother. Agnes was the last in a line of enslaved ancestors on this particular family tree branch, and I, as a native of New Orleans, wanted to know how and when she had gained her freedom.

As I researched more about the families that had enslaved Agnes—the Mayer and Harang families of the German Coast, an area about 30 miles outside the city of New Orleans—I learned of Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s Louisiana Slave and Free Databases. These incredible resources introduced me to a several documents that dramatically changed the trajectory of my family history research. From the moment I found Agnes, named on a 1771 succession slave inventory, along with her mother Elizabeth and two brothers Pierre and George, and the price they were being sold for, I had become obsessed with learning more about her.

According to Hall’s Freed Slave Database, the manumission document of Ignez/Agnes was located at the New Orleans Notarial Archives among a collection of 18th Century Spanish Judicial Records. I knew I had to see the document for myself. This single document, I believed, would answer all of my questions about Agnes’ freedom—when it had occurred, how she had managed to gain her freedom, and who else had been involved.

The day I arrived at the Notarial Archives, I was greeted by Sally Reeves, the (then) senior archivist. I was surprised at how patient and helpful she was, considering that this was her last day on the job before she retired. After a few minutes of searching, she located the enormous book that held the manumission document. As she turned to the appropriate page, I inhaled the musty odor of the book that held the 200-year-old document, and watched the fragile parchment fall gracefully to one side as she turned the page.

Reeves translated the document, which was written in Spanish and dated December 16, 1779. Here, a dramatic event in Agnes’ life was being described. She had initiated her own manumission, which was being contested by her owner. Through a year-long court battle, and with the help of her consort, Mathieu Devaux dit Platilla, Agnes was granted freedom. Just as surprising was that the colonial Governor and General, Bernardo de Galvez had signed Agnes’ manumission document!

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Left: Emancipation de Agnes Mathieu.  A. Almonester, 16 Dec 1779. Ink on parchment. Courtesy of Honorable Dale N. Atkins, Clerk of Civil District Court, Parish of Orleans.  As Documented in 300th Tricentennial of the city of New Orleans Commemorative book, RECOVERED MEMORIES, Spain, New Orleans and the Support for the American Revolution, pages 162 and 163. Right:Manumission of Agnes, December 16, 1779, Record Group 2, Spanish Judicial Records, Louisiana State Historical Center, New Orleans. La.

Years later, I ran into Sally Reeves at a meeting of the Louisiana Historical Society. When I introduced myself and reminded her of that day, I wasn’t sure she remembered. As life-altering as the encounter had been for me, I suppose it had been just another day for her. I explained the significance of the document to my genealogy research. And then she started to remember.

“You know,” she said, “now that you mention it, I spent nearly six hours today with a television production crew discussing that very document.”

I chuckled. As it turned out, she had been contacted by producers of the PBS program, History Detectives, to take part in the filming of a segment titled “The Galvez Papers”, a program I was scheduled to film the very next day.

My hunt for answers about Agnes had taken me on a journey of discovery that would lead to the story of Agnes as the focal point of a PBS program. But Agnes’s story didn’t end there. That one document found at the New Orleans Notarial Archives connected Agnes to Mathieu Devaux dit Platilla, who, as it turns out, is my fourth generation great-grandfather. I discovered through several other Spanish Colonial Louisiana records that he and Agnes produced seven children, owned land, and maintained a decades long life partnership.

Mathieu Devaux dit Platilla served in the New Orleans Militia under the command of the General Bernardo de Galvez during Louisiana’s participation in American’s fight for independence. As a result, I became the first African American in Georgia (where I currently live) inducted into the National Society, Sons of the American Revolution.

I have shared Agnes and Mathieu’s story across the country in countless presentations and appearances where I discuss my memoir, Got Proof! My Genealogical Journey Through the Use of Documentation, which details the story of Agnes, Platilla and other ancestors, and my journey to find them.

This journey would have been impossible without the immaculate records kept within these Louisiana Spanish Judicial Records, and the help of so many archivists, staff, and volunteers who preserve these gems for access by family historians and genealogists like me. My family and I am forever grateful for the continued preservation and access to these valuable 18th century Colonial Louisiana records.

*Author Bio:

Michael Nolden Henderson, Lt. Commander, U.S. Navy retired, began his genealogy journey 30 years ago. He is the author of Got Proof! My Genealogical Journey Through the Use of Documentation, for which he was awarded the 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Award by the Independent Book Publishers Association. Henderson’s publishing effort also won him Finalist in the 50th Georgia Author of the Year Awards by the Georgia Writers Association. 

Through his research, Henderson has documented his Native American, French, French-Canadian, African, and German-Swedish ancestry as far back as 1657. In 2010, the PBS program, “History Detectives” featured Henderson and his research. That same year, Henderson became the first African American in Georgia to be inducted into the National Society Sons of the American Revolution.

He lectures nationwide, and is a member of several lineage societies, including the General Society of the War of 1812; Order of the Founders of North America, 1492 – 1692; and La Société des Filles du Roi et Soldats du Carignan, Inc. His memberships in historical and genealogical societies include the Louisiana Historical Society, National Genealogical Society, the American-French Genealogical Society, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and the Georgia Genealogical Society.

A native of Algiers—a suburb of New Orleans, LA—Henderson is a graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana. He currently lives near Atlanta, Georgia.

 

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