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South of Slavery

For a Time, the Road to Texas was the Road to Emancipation


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Page one of Dortolant's report that slaves have left Opelousas, Louisiana, 1789/05/30
Page two of Dortolant's report that slaves have left Opelousas, Louisiana, 1789/05/30

May 20, 1789: An enslaved black woman takes her four-year-old son, flees Louisiana, and seeks freedom in Texas. Her enslaver actively pursues her. “I am sending you this official letter with the end to make you aware,” he writes to officials in San Antonio de Bexar. But the letter doesn’t focus on the mother and child. They are treated more like items on an inventory of stolen goods—along with a teenager, some horses, and other items—property believed to now be in the hands of a man named “Bocou.”

What united this group? Where were they going? Who was their leader? The unnamed mother? Bocou? What became of them? Did their pursuer, Bernard D’Ortolant, recapture them as he had others who escaped his plantation? Or, as on a different occasion, was he forced to grudgingly recognize their freedom?

“It’s hard to fully comprehend the hardships and tribulations this valiant black woman experienced,” says Maria Esther Hammack, a doctoral candidate in UT’s Department of History and the 2018–19 recipient of the Briscoe Center’s graduate research fellowship. “But we know that the pathways to freedom undertaken by her and her child were difficult and perilous.”

Hammack came across D’Ortolant’s letter in the center’s Bexar Archives during her recently concluded fellowship year. Her research focuses on the experiences of those who fled the United States and sought freedom in Mexico. D’Ortolant’s letter, written in French, falls just outside of Hammack’s research scope (1793–1868) and was penned at a time when Louisiana and Texas were both possessions of the Spanish crown. Nevertheless, it made an impression on her, and she wanted to know more. 

“I wanted to know the woman’s name, who she was, what she felt, where she went, and how she survived,” says Hammack. “This letter offers us a window into her world and the arduous undertaking she participated in. Such escape attempts were hardly uncommon, but their clandestine nature renders them hard to trace and study.”

Indeed, is impossible to know if mother and child made it to freedom or not, let alone to know who her companions were and how they might have been related. In fact, we learn more about D’Ortolant than we do about the others. However, Hammack is determined to view the letter, and others like it, through the lens of the oppressed rather than the oppressor, with a particular focus on the experiences of women. Trained as a social historian, she hones in on certain details that place the mother and her child at the center of the story.

For example, the letter states that they took three horses with them, “as well as other effects.” 

According to Hammack, these items would have been vital to their survival: “clothing, livestock, horses, guns, and ammunition were commonly taken as these could be sold or bartered for shelter, sustenance, or safe passage.” Traveling with a child would have made the journey slower. Furthermore, the woman is described as “mullatto,” as is the teenager accompanying her. They were enslaved to different masters, and it is reasonable to presume that “Bocou”—perhaps derived from the French word beaucoup, meaning “much” or “many”—was a free man. These little details join others in delineating a more fluid racial hierarchy and plantation system than would exist in the American South within a few generations.

Other sources help build a more complete picture. One source records that D’Ortolant was imprisoned in 1808 along with his son for severely beating a slave, evidence that points both to his brutal nature and the comparative protections that the enslaved had under Spanish auspices compared to those emerging in America. And then there are the stories of others. “Not too long before D’Ortolant penned his letter, he had written another very much like it regarding a woman named Marie Jeanne,” says Hammack. “Little is known about her journey, but records show that she subsequently secured her freedom in San Antonio. She fled with her child as well, but sadly he was captured and returned to D’Ortolant. Marie Jeanne spent the next 20 years fighting for his freedom. Eventually, in 1808, the Spanish governor of Texas forced D’Ortolant to sell him to her.”

Marie Jeanne’s story is profound, but it makes sense to Hammack: “According to other documents I’ve found at the Briscoe Center, the governors in San Antonio were issuing decrees as early as the 1770s, stating that enslaved people who sought freedom in Texas from Louisiana ‘must not be returned to their masters, but allowed safe passage.’ In fact, in the early 1800s, a Spanish commandant was fired by a governor for mistakenly sending eight freedom-seekers back to their ‘American masters.’”

Thanks to the Briscoe Center fellowship, Hammack has been able to expand and elaborate her research. The story being unearthed sheds light on how many enslaved Americans saw Mexico as a safe haven. In the 1780s and 1790s that might mean fleeing to San Antonio or Nacogdoches. But things have always changed fast in the borderlands. During the early 19th century, Anglo slave power was expanding from the Upper to the Deep South all the way to East Texas. The 1810s saw Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama become American states. Freedom increasingly meant going through rather than going to Texas. D’Ortolant’s letter points to an embryonic network of routes and methods that went on to be used by multiple generations of black Americans who sought freedom from slavery in Mexico.

The journeys across Texas were sometimes successful but always fraught with danger. Evidently they thought it was worth it. “It is unimaginable what freedom might have meant to this woman who fled Louisiana and what freedom she envisioned for herself and her young son in Texas,” says Hammack. “But that vision of freedom was undoubtedly powerful. It prompted her to risk both of their lives.”


 

 

Hammack is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History and the recipient of the 2018–19 Briscoe Fellowship. The center provides a $25,000 fellowship each year to a student in the Department of History who needs to conduct extensive research at the center.

 

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