Just twenty miles outside of New Orleans stands the oldest documented plantation home in the lower Mississippi Valley. The walls and columns that make up the home at Destrehan Plantation hold within them stories of a growing infant country and the people at the helm of the fabric of the Louisiana territory. Here history was created and explored, and the memories held within the walls of Destrehan speak of leaders and legends, disaster and restoration.
The plantation home was built in 1787 by Charles Paquet for wealthy indigo planter Robert Antointe Robin DeLogny. The previous year, his daughter, Marie-Claude Céleste, married Jean Noel Destréhan (with whom she had fourteen children), son of the royal treasurer for the French colony of Louisiana. Upon his father-in-law’s death in 1792, Destréhan purchased the indigo plantation. Under his ownership sugarcane replaced indigo as the major cash crop, and rightfully so. His brother-in-law, Etienne deBore, had perfected the sugar granulation process, making it a lucrative crop for the South. In 1803 Destrehan Plantation was the leading sugar producer in St. Charles Parish.
The year 1803 was a lucrative year for Destréhan for more than his crops. Like his father before him, he was destined for the political arena. Just after the Louisiana Purchase in April of that year, Destréhan was appointed as New Orleans’ first deputy mayor, serving beneath deBore, the city’s first mayor. The following year Destréhan served as Speaker of the House of Representatives for the territory, before President Thomas Jefferson appointed him to the Orleans Territorial Council, a position he would also hold under President James Madison. Oddly, he served just a month in the United States Senate in 1812 before resigning but served the Louisiana State Senate from 1812–1817. Despite his clout, wealth, and reputation, he also made two failed runs for Louisiana governor.
In 1811, Destrehan Plantation made history when some of the estate’s slaves joined nearly two hundred others under the leadership of Charles Deslondes, in what would be known as the 1811 Louisiana Slave Rebellion. The slaves, armed with axes, knives, and makeshift weapons, marched to New Orleans in hopes of building a free black community away from the oppression and harsh reality they lived in. But their hopes came to an end in Kenner, where they were met with armed military troops. Unable to turn back because of the local militia that had formed behind them, dozens of the rebels were killed. Destrehan Plantation was named as the site of the trials to be held. Interrogated by a panel of slave-holding planters that included Destréhan himself, eighteen men were sentenced to death, including three from Destrehan Plantation.
After his final failed attempt at governor in 1820, Destréhan retired from his public service and continued his work on the plantation until his death in 1823. Two years later, the estate was bought by his son-in-law, Stephen Henderson, a Scottish immigrant who had come to the U.S. without a dime. He became a wealthy entrepreneur and married Destréhan’s daughter Zelia, who was thirty years younger than Henderson. Upon his death in 1838, his will stated that all of his slaves be freed. The family contested the will which was never fulfilled, and another son-in-law, Pierre Adolph Rost, purchased the plantation in 1839. The home stayed in the family for 123 years before Destréhan’s grandson, Emile Rost, sold the estate to the Destrehan Planting and Manufacturing Company in 1910.
As history itself graced the halls and grounds of Destrehan, the home’s construction saw many a change as well. Built in the French Creole colonial style, the original columns were replaced with plastered brick Greek Revival Doric columns in the 1830’s or ’40’s, along with the addition of semi-detached wings. The home was captured by Union Troops at the end of the Civil War and subsequently made into the Rost Home Colony in which former slaves could learn different trades. But after a pardon from President Andrew Johnson, Pierre Rost returned to the plantation demanding his property returned.
In 1914 Destrehan Plantation became the property of what later became the American Oil Company, and a refinery was built on the property. In 1959 the refinery was taken down and the once thriving plantation abandoned. For many years the home lay in disrepair. Rumors of the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte frequenting the home when it was owned by the Destrehan family led to fortune seekers tearing the walls apart in hopes of finding a piece of his treasure. In 1971 the oil company donated the house to the River Road Historical Society who has since renovated it to its former glory.
Over its lifetime, Destrehan Plantation has seen the building of a new country and the ravages of a country torn apart. Leaders were built within its walls and those seeking nothing but their freedom were punished with the most tragic fate. Thus the history of the home and the history of Louisiana intertwine in those who roamed the halls of one of Louisiana’s oldest homes in the Mississippi Valley.
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