women's/negress' role in the town market

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Mississippi Historical Society

Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Women and the Town Market in Eighteenth-Century Louisiana

Simultaneous with preparing my first book for print, I continue to study the colonial history of what is now Mississippi, and I learn interesting tidbits almost every day. That knowledge-gained forces flexibility when putting the final touch on my story, and I sometimes wonder if I will truly ever finish it.

Case in point: I have an important scene in the book where a minor antagonist invites himself to tag along with the heroine and the servant Baby who is “accompanying the heroine to market.” Well, Baby was “accompanying the heroine” up until last week. That was when I rewrote the scene so that now it is the heroine who is “accompanying Baby to market.”

Who accompanied who has no relevance to the story—the fact that the antagonist went along is what drives the scene. However, the fact that Baby would be the primary shopper in the story has everything to do with historical accuracy. Angelique (the heroine) went because she wanted to, but she left business to the person whose business it was to haggle with vendors. And, as I now know, Baby would have been that person and she would have been good at it.

Women, regardless of race or origin, played the dominant role in the eighteenth-century Louisiana market, both as buyers and sellers. That’s hardly a surprise, but what’s important here is that, arguably, the most influential of these women was the Negress (slave or free woman). She went to market not only to provide for herself and her own family, but she would also have been the primary buyer for the [white] household where she worked and lived. For some reason, many people assume every white household owned slaves. Of course, this was not true. In fact, it doesn’t even come close to being true. Nevertheless, many households did own/hire female servants, and in those homes where only one servant might reside, that servant was normally bought/hired to help the wife. Truly, “a woman’s work is never done” and smart husbands know that.

Another argument in favor of the Negress’ role in the Louisiana marketplace is historical precedent. In West Africa, from where the majority of Louisiana’s early eighteenth-century slaves came, the female was responsible for buying and selling food in the local markets. Moreover, the west-African market provided a social outlet for these women beyond their husband’s home. This tradition extended to the New World, but instead of providing a life beyond that of home and hearth, it provided the Negress with an outlet outside her master’s control. Now don’t jump to any assumptions about her conducting business surreptitiously without her “wicked” master’s knowledge and hiding her money so he wouldn’t take it from her. The master would have been fully aware of her dealings in the market, and in many cases encouraged it. The greater her self-sufficiency (and this is true of male slaves, also), the less money she cost him. In French Louisiana, a much larger percentage of Negro women purchased their freedom than did their male counterparts.

Another factor, which may have contributed to the Negress’ role in colonial economic exchange was the impact of slavery on the African male. In the majority of cases (but not all), the Negro came from a polygamous, patrilineal society. In the earliest days of American slavery, two out of every three slaves shipped from Africa were male. There simply were not enough women to reconstruct a polygamous social structure among the New World’s slaves. Additionally, sociologists argue the position of the slave owner usurped the Negro “father’s” role within his own household. I have my doubts about the everyday truth of that argument. Granted I am on the outside looking in, but I am a Southerner and I can see and from my position, the black male is every bit as patrilineal [and polygamous] today as his white counterpart. I suspect he always has been. In my personal (and granted, uneducated) opinion, the biggest threat to the male slave’s “polygamy” and dominance in the home was, and is, the same threat as that to every other man’s polygamous desires and dominance, and that would have been his female, now free of the social structure that promoted it.

The addition of female Indian slaves did not help the male’s plight. Indian women, themselves a product of a matrilineal social structure and having a privileged position within their own society, were not likely to submit to a man who was himself a slave. Lastly, the ratio of male to female in the slave society enhanced the female’s leverage. In cases where separation of families was deemed necessary (i.e. death of the master followed by creditors and executors), the female and her children were kept together. This undermined patrilinealism in the slave household and subtly elevated the position of the Negress within her home and within the social hierarchy.

The Indian female held similar prominence in the market (not necessarily in the marketplace, per say, but certainly in the food exchange economy, in general). This was true particularly in the earliest days of the French Dominion when European powers (still short of colonists and manpower) wooed the various tribes for military and economic advantage. The Indian Tribes of the Southeast had social structures that were primarily matrilineal. The female owned the family property and enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy from her husband.

During the brief Spanish era prior to the close of the eighteenth century, Spain enacted laws limiting the autonomy of slaves in the marketplace. These laws evolved not so much to curb legal economic enterprise, but to gain control over illegal, subversive activities, which were, in fact, common throughout the century and a half of American Slavery. I maintain that given the inhabitants of Spanish Louisiana (primarily French, British, Indian, and slave) the town market and economic exchange continued much as it had throughout the eighteenth century, as did the slave’s role within it.

And this brings me back to where I began this article. My fictional Baby was a young woman of mixed blood, half Negro, quarter-blood Choctaw and quarter-blood French. Her dark skin and her origins made her well suited for a market place that evolved from that of French Louisiana. My story takes place during the last years of Spanish Natchez, but the household in which she grew up, and in which her parents were an integral part, extended back well before the Spanish hegemony.

On one side, Baby descended from West African women, who over centuries made the local Senegambian market their meeting place. On the other side, she came from a Choctaw woman who would have probably regarded her role in bartering for the family’s foodstuff sacrosanct. Furthermore, at the time my story takes place, Baby would have been going to the Natchez market for years. Not only did she purchase/trade items for the running of the household, she also would have routinely taken items she produced to trade and sell for herself alone. Baby would have been familiar with the vendors and their products. Likewise, the vendors would have known her.

Yep, it was definitely Angelique who accompanied Baby to the market.

My primary source for this article was Daniel H. Usner, Jr.’s Indians, Settlers, & Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy. In addition I used Robert M. Weir’s Colonial South Carolina, A History. See also, Africans in Colonial Louisiana by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall


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