SEAC: Gabe Nargot's Cabin-Investigations at a Nineteenth Century Slave Domicile in Northwest Louisiana
Christina E. Miller and Bennie C. Keel
In 1725 Jean Pierre Philippe Prudhomme emigrated from France to Louisiana where he married Catherine Mesllier Picard. They settled in northwest Louisiana, in Natchitoches, on land granted to them by the King of France. In 1789, his grandson Jean Pierre Emmanuel secured a land grant from Governor Estavan Miro thirteen miles south of Natchitoches. According to an 1816 surveyor's plat Emmanuel owned 716.74 acres and by 1827 had increased his holdings to 796.14 acres. Initially his primary crops consisted of indigo and tobacco, which gained a reputation for good quality snuff. Cotton cultivation coincided with the United States’ acquisition of Louisiana in 1803. In fact, Emmanuel was supposedly the first man to have grown cotton in the state.
The cultivation of indigo, tobacco and cotton required a large labor force. According to the 1810 census, Emmanuel owned 53 slaves. By 1820 he owned 74 slaves; by 1830 the number had increased to 96 and in 1840 to 104. In 1860 there were 145 slaves living at Oakland in 30 houses. Only 3 of these cabins are still standing. One, the cook's cabin, was moved north of the big house and converted into a fishing cabin. The other two cabins are located south of the big house, near the overseer’s house, cotton gin and seed house. The cabins were constructed of bousillage and wood lathe on raised brick piers. Those near the cotton gin have been covered with wood siding. A fourth exists as a ruin. Family tradition, site maps and local oral history claimed the cabin had been of poteaux-en-terre (post in the ground) and bousillage construction. Furthermore, the cabin was the residence of Mr. Gabe Nargot, the last surviving slave of the plantation.
In 1997 the National Park Service purchased the 42-acre plantation complex as an inclusion to the Cane River Creole National Park. Investigations, which included auger testing and formal unit excavation, were conducted to determine the nature of the archeological record and as a precursor to structure stabilization. Auger tests were conducted at intervals corresponding to historic use; low use areas were tested at 50-foot intervals, while high use areas were tested at 25-foot intervals. In all, 1,660 auger holes were excavated. In conjunction with the auger tests, forty-six formal excavation units, covering a total surface area of 1,187 ft2, were placed at various locations around the plantation. In the course of these investigations, units were excavated at the cabin ruin to evaluate the integrity of the archeological deposits. In late spring 1998 we returned to determine whether or not the structure was a post-in-the ground cabin.
When the French colonists arrived in Natchitoches, Louisiana in 1714, the only available construction material was wood. Timber frame buildings were common in Europe, but these half-timbered constructions were filled with stone, known as colombage. The French borrowed the idea of using clay kneaded with moss, called bousillage, as a substitute for stone from the Native Americans.
Post in the ground construction went through phases of popularity and decline in the Natchitoches area. According to a study of conveyance records by Carolyn Wells (Gregory and Stokes 1981: 30), construction of post in the ground structures steadily decline until 1769, at which time its popularity began to increase. It reached a plateau in 1785.
In the poteaux en terre construction, two methods were used to place the posts in the ground. Timbers were either placed upright in individually dug holes two to three feet apart and two to three feet deep or in a trench. Using the trench method, the timbers were rolled into place, pulled upright and the spaces between the posts were filled with earth, stones, bones or other debris. Barreaux or wooden bars were placed between the upright posts, forming a lattice for the bousillage. Preparing and applying bousillage to a structure was often a social affair. The women cooked a large meal, while neighbors and friends prepared the bousillage. Alternate layers of earth and green moss were placed in a hole called a tache, and soaked with water. Men, called tacherons, crushed and mixed the moss and earth with their bare feet until it was the consistency of mortar. The ingredients of bousillage varied. Different combinations of mud, moss, deer hair and lime was also used. The mixture was then applied to the lattice of barreaux between the upright posts. Boards were placed diagonally between the upright posts as support. The walls were plastered and whitewashed or covered with weatherboard. Chimneys were built in a similar fashion but were often replaced with brick as they fell into disrepair.
According to investigations by Dr. Hiram Gregory at the Badin-Roque House, the only standing post in the ground structure in Louisiana, located some ten miles south of Oakland, the traditional technology of bousillage construction had definitely reached the "re-order point" by the 1920s. Holes in the wall of the Badin-Roque house had been filled with can lids and glass bottle fragments, and covered with shingles, newspaper and wallpaper.
Using Dr. Gregory’s findings and additional descriptions, we could assume that if Gabe’s Cabin had been a post in the ground construction we would uncover some evidence of post molds or a trench containing post molds. Given the number of posts required for construction and the amount of debris packed into the trench required to hold the posts upright, some evidence would surely remain. Since the cabin had not been torn down but allowed to slowly deteriorate, we hoped to find some indication of the bousillage construction.
The site of Gabe Nargot’s cabin, entirely covered with brush, was cleared. Wooden beams, lathe, brick and other construction materials lay strewn across the site. Two large piles of brick were located on the north and southwest sides. The site was mapped and photographed prior to further clearing. Elevations were recorded with an optical transit, which showed a rise in ground elevation where the structure would have stood as compared to the surrounding ground surface.
Brick and boards were removed from the area and placed in separate piles adjacent to the site, where the structural elements were measured and documented. Removal of the north brick pile revealed the remnants of a fireplace. Two 5 X 5 foot units were excavated around the fireplace to enable full documentation. The fireplace was constructed of handmade as well as commercially manufactured brick, which indicated that repairs had been made to it sometime after 1918 when the standard brick size of 8 x 3 ¾ x 2 ¼ inches was adopted by the National Brick Manufacturers Association (Gurke: 1987). Meanwhile, an intact brick pier was uncovered in the southeast corner. The position of the fireplace and the brick pier indicated that additional piers for the east side of the house would likely be situated in a northeasterly direction. Probing and subsequent excavation uncovered two piers. From these known locations, we were able to extrapolate the approximate locations of the west line of piers, which were also excavated.
We uncovered six piers. This evidence demonstrates that the cabin was raised on brick piers rather than a post in the ground structure. The contour map, which demonstrates a slight rise in elevation due to occupational deposition, corresponds with the position of the fireplace and piers. Surface stains and further excavation proved that bousillage had been used in its construction. Length-wise or north to south, the cabin measured 23.5 feet; east to west—14 feet wide. We compared these measurements to those of the two-slave/tenant cabins nearest the ruin. They didn’t match. The third standing cabin (the cook's cabin) had been moved north of the big house and used as a fishing cabin. The measurements from that cabin matched exactly with those of the cabin ruin.Some changes had been made throughout the years to the cabin such as replacing the cypress shingles with a tin roof and removal of the chimney but we had an idea of what the cabin would have looked like. Subsequent to our investigations, the Prudhomme family provided us with pictures of the plantation’s structures taken by Craig A. Estes, an architecture student at Louisiana State University, in 1969. Gabe Nargot’s cabin was among the numerous photographs (photograph 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) he made at the plantation. Estes commented that the cabin "will in all probability deteriorate completely within a year or so.It is currently being used as a pigpen. It is of bousillage construction with vertical posts and lateral corner bracing."
Dr. Fred B. Kniffen, in his article Folk Housing: Key to Diffusion, stated that housing "reflects cultural heritage, current fashion, functional needs, and the positive and negative aspects of noncultural environment." To completely understand this heritage and these needs requires an interdisciplinary approach. In this instance, the archeological record disproved the oral tradition but the two worked together to answer a question. There needs to be open communication between all disciplines concerned with a site, especially a historic site. In the case of Oakland, the interaction of historians, architects and archeologists is a requirement for documenting and understanding the complex of human culture that existed at the plantation.
Gregory, H. F.
1982 The Archaeology of the Badin-Roque House: A Nineteenth-Century Poteau-En-Terre House, Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. Louisiana Division of Archaeology, Baton Rouge.
1987 Bricks and Brickmaking: A Handbook for Historical Archaeology. University of Idaho Press, Moscow.
Kniffen, Fred B.
1990 "Folk Housing: Key to Diffusion," Cultural Diffusion and Landscapes. Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge.