Editor’s note: For Women’s History Month, The Root is spotlighting less famous figures from the African American National Biography, whose stories exemplify the extraordinary, and often unsung, accomplishments of African-American women from our past.
Regular readers of The Root are likely familiar with the fact that a small number of African Americans owned slaves, from the earliest days of 17th-century North America until the Civil War. In the 1830 U.S. census, 3,776 free blacks owned 12,907 black slaves, predominantly in port cities like Savannah, Ga.; Charleston, S.C.; and New Orleans. We also know that several free black women owned slaves, and that in 1850 Charleston, at least, women were a majority of black slave owners. In most cases, the persons “owned” were spouses, children or siblings the owners were attempting to protect and, if possible, liberate.
But a smaller number of African Americans took part in the domestic slave trade for financial advantage, as well as family protection. Notable among these are the antebellum businesswomen Eufrosina Hinard, who owned a brickworks and 13 slaves in Florida, and Maria Weston, who purchased 20 slaves on behalf of her millwright husband (who was legally still enslaved) in Charleston. Another, and perhaps the best known, was Marie-Thérèse Coincoin, who lived for eight decades in Natchitoches Parish, La. She would help to found a family dynasty of free, colored planters, the Metoyers, who by 1830 owned over 200 slaves—8 percent of all enslaved people in the parish.
Coincoin was born a slave in August 1742 in Natchitoches, a struggling frontier outpost on the borderlands of Spanish Texas and French Louisiana. The community then had only a few hundred residents, evenly divided between white settlers (many of whom had married or were the children of native Indians) and their black slaves. She was the second daughter born to François and Marie Françoise, African-born slaves owned by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, the post commandant and founder of Natchitoches. Although forced to become Roman Catholics and adopt French names, her parents gave at least five of their 11 children African names, including Coincoin, a name similar to that given to second daughters by the Ewe people in Togo, West Africa.
Coincoin would have labored from an early age, and we know that she was kept busy as a nurse in the St. Denis household while it was gripped by a plague in the 1750s. The plague killed both of her parents and her mistress, so that by the time she was 16, Coincoin had entered the household of her godmother, Marie de Soto. Around that time she also began a relationship with a fellow slave, with whom she would have five children, the last being born in 1766 when she was 24.
The following year, de Soto loaned Coincoin to a white French merchant, Pierre Metoyer, who had recently arrived in Natchitoches, which was by then under Spanish control. Over the next two decades she would have 10 children with Metoyer, living openly in the same household but remaining enslaved. In 1777, however, a Spanish Roman Catholic priest denounced the “negress Cuencuen as a public concubine” to the colonial authorities, and ordered her out of Metoyer’s home.
The priest’s actions finally spurred Madame de Soto, who still legally owned Coincoin and her children with Metoyer, to action. She sold Coincoin to Metoyer, who freed her in 1778, and then set about buying the freedom of their enslaved children from the de Soto family. Coincoin, Metoyer and their children then lived together for the next decade, a time of relative financial and familial stability in Coincoin's life, although her three oldest children remained enslaved.
As well as looking after her children, Coincoin ran the plantation household. Since Metoyer was one of the wealthiest men in the parish, slaves probably took on the heavier housework and agricultural labor. This relatively stable period in Coincoin’s life ended in 1786, however, when Metoyer succumbed to community pressure to marry a “suitable” white French woman. We have no way of knowing how Coincoin responded to this formal ending of their relationship—but we do know that Metoyer gave her a plot of land close to his plantation on the banks of the Cane River and an annuity of 120 piastres.
Coincoin, now at least 40 years old and the mother of 13 children, finally became independent. She built a house, earned a living through farming tobacco and trapping bears, and in 1793 successfully petitioned the Spanish government for more land. Tradition has it that she was knowledgeable about the medicinal properties of native plants and was known as a gifted healer.
Initially, Coincoin would have undertaken much of the work at the plantation herself, since the freed children living with her were still young. Her oldest children, born before her relationship with Metoyer, were still enslaved, and Coincoin began the process of remedying this situation. By 1797 she had bought and freed her daughter Thereze and grandson from de Soto; her sister Marie Louise; as well as Catiche, the illegitimate daughter of her son Louis Metoyer.
Coincoin was unable, however, to purchase the freedom of all of her children and grandchildren. And so, perhaps because of an ongoing desire to complete that goal, she began to buy slaves to work the land she owned. The logic of a slave society and economy perhaps required it—how else could she earn the capital she needed? But she must have also been painfully aware that to secure her own children’s liberty, she would have to deny freedom to the children of others. Coincoin had negotiated the difficult transition from slavery to freedom, and she perhaps justified her actions by believing that her own slaves might do likewise.
But as with much of Coincoin’s life and choices, we cannot know for certain because she left behind no written record. We do know that in the 1795 Slave Census she is recorded as owning five slaves. By 1816, when she was in her 70s and had divided her property among her children, she owned 12: six women and six men, who appear to have been bound by family ties. The presence of family groups and equal numbers of men and women suggests that the slave community at Coincoin’s plantation was settled and stable.
As well as dividing her slaves among her children in 1816, Coincoin also sold her main plot of land on the Cane River to a white neighbor. Twentieth-century accounts incorrectly depict Coincoin as the grand and wealthy mistress of Cane River’s Melrose plantation, but that classic antebellum mansion was built by her son Louis some time after her death around 1820. The reality was more prosaic but no less remarkable. As her biographer notes, Coincoin was “born a slave … and became an independent black woman in a world dominated by white men. She adapted successfully to all the situations that life presented to her; from being the concubine and housekeeper of a rich white man, she became a profitable farmer and businesswoman in her own right.”
Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008; a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center.
Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.