October 31, 2013 by Gina Costello
Re: Rousseau collection
The documents about Jeanne Marie Mallet in the Rousseau collection challenge the received notion that antebellum women of color were a uniformly victimized group. A wealthy, free woman of color, she purchased slaves, owned property, married a free man of color (Jean Rousseau), and held his full power-of-attorney. A succession receipt, drawn in 1814 records her inheritance of $1,048.75 from her mother, Hyacinthe Demazilieres, also a free woman of color. Far from being subjugated, bills of sale and financial statements indicate that she owned at least six slaves: Helene, Rosalie, Charity, Henriette, Victoire, and Azenor. The financial statements also reveal that she inherited a property in Faubourg Clouet on Louisa St. A power of attorney, notarized 21 June 1826, grants her the full authority to act in her husband’s absence. Not exactly destitute, by the time Jeanne Marie died in early 1828, she and her husband shared $24,905 in joint assets.
But, while Jeanne Marie’s life provides proof that a free woman of color could achieve a high social status in New Orleans before the civil war, her death complicates that story. Indeed, the documents generated after her death expose the family’s financial downfall. A statement of the couple’s separate and joint assets, an account book, and a memorandum in the probate office, all reveal that the family held $22,234.15 in liabilities.
Because the exact date of Jeanne Marie’s death is unknown, it remains uncertain whether her husband, Jean, knew he was spending his family into debt when he purchased a Bourbon St. property on January 15, 1828 for $3,800. Regardless, the documented conveyance meant that there would be no remaining funds from which their six children could draw their inheritance.
Perhaps that debt explains why the Rousseau family collection largely ends after Jeanne’s death. In 1838, a court record indexes the marriage of Aurore Rousseau, a minor. But, from 1828 until that point, there are no traces of the Rousseau family. The absence of documents about her children–Joseph, Eliacinthe, Roussoline, Doralice, Lanceline, and Jean–perhaps suggests that were too poor to have their lives recorded at the court or in financial statements.
The financial records that are present do not list all of the family’s liabilities, so it is not clear who caused the family to fall into financial paucity. Jeanne Marie’s purchase of slaves certainly contributed to their expenditures, but the financial statements demonstrate that her purchases did not account for the full debt. Responsibility might also lay with Jean for depleting the family’s remaining funds with his Bourbon St. purchase. But, it is possible that he did not know that the family held such high liabilities, or that he thought the investment would eventually benefit the family. Rather than pointing fingers, it is perhaps more valuable to recognize that this family of free people of color cannot be tethered either to the antiquated historical mode that casts all people of color as victims or to the contemporary mode that prefers stories of empowerment. What may be more accurate than either interpretation is the simple observation that the lives of the Rousseau family members were complex. They were free people of color who owned slaves and generated wealth, but whose social position turned out to be precarious.
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