The Clue in the Dust-Covered Will


My name is Libby Neidenbach, and I am a PhD candidate in the American Studies program. This summer I am living in New Orleans for seven weeks to conduct archival research for my dissertation. For the past five weeks I have split my time between the Notarial Archives, the Historic New Orleans Collection, and the Archdiocese Archives.

Ok, so maybe it is not covered in dust, but Marie Couvent’s last will and testament is a fascinating document. In it, this free woman of color left property to establish a school for indigent free black children, which continued to operate on the same site after 1848. Using her will as a starting point, my dissertation recovers the life of Marie Couvent, and the early nineteenth-century New Orleans world she inhabited. Enslaved as a child in the late eighteenth century and taken to St. Domingue, she died a free and wealthy slaveholder in New Orleans in 1837. Tracing Couvent’s life as she moved from property to property owner provides a unique lens onto the ways in which free people of color built a community through social networks, property ownership, and collective institutions in New Orleans.

I plan to use Couvent as a focal point within larger social, cultural, and historical contexts to open new avenues to study New Orleans’ gens de couleur libre. Determining Couvent’s social landscape will illuminate the spaces free people of color created in the city to sustain their community as the center of slavery shifted to the Deep South. Analyzing the land, material, and human property Couvent owned will enhance our understanding of what property ownership could mean for black people in a slave society based on the chattel principle. Throughout my project I will pay particular attention to the ways gender inflects the experience of freedom for black men and women, particularly as this relates to the opportunities and experiences of free women of color.

While at times the research process can be highly frustrating, it is by far my favorite part of the work I do as a scholar. Perhaps my obsession with Nancy Drew books as a kid developed this passion for tracking down clues in the archives. And in the case of Marie Couvent there is certainly no shortage of mysteries. Although she could not sign her own name, Couvent left a meandering trail of documents throughout the archives in New Orleans from baptisms to wills, buying and selling slaves, and a host of social and business contacts.

When I first began this project I had no idea what I would find. I knew there was a very good chance that I would learn little more than I knew when I wrote my Honors Thesis on Couvent and the “Couvent School” as an undergraduate at Tulane. I am both thrilled and grateful that I have recovered so much about her life- more than I ever imagined.

This is actually the second summer I have spent researching in New Orleans. Last year I was here for ten weeks so I felt comfortable getting back into the habit of spending eight hours a day six days a week in the archives. Unfortunately, this familiarity with a routine did not always translate into a clear idea of what I needed to be doing in the archives. Of course, I came with a plan. But I also discovered that it is very easy to get overwhelmed once you start the research, whether you have a plan or not. This is especially true for the Notarial Archives which have tens of thousands of documents (and, if I had my way, I would look at every single one!) Zeroing in on what is most important can be tough, and it took me a few weeks to really get a clear sense of the direction I wanted to go.

I continued to work hard throughout this time no matter how frustrated I felt when I got home. One of my advisors told me that the things you need will just come to you in the archives, and I have found this to be my experience. I feel that I have stumbled upon most of the major discoveries I have made about Marie Couvent. Some of it is paying close attention to details, some of it is being very thorough, and the rest is going with your gut feelings. I really began to hit my stride about two weeks ago when I made some major breakthroughs concerning Couvent’s early life before New Orleans.

Now I feel like I have so much to do in these last two weeks. I know I cannot look at every document I want to or take notes or make copies of everything I need. This creates more difficult decisions about what is the most important versus what is interesting but not necessary. My first priority is any document that deals directly with Marie Couvent or the individuals closest to her. After that I am focusing on property ownership by free people of color and sources that will help me map where they lived and what land they owned in the city. This is a tall order, but I will do my best to gather as much as possible in the time I have left.

While I had hopes that this trip would get me everything else I needed to finish my dissertation, it does not look so promising, at least from this moment. I feel good knowing that I have worked hard and found some really great stuff. And I certainly can’t complain about having an excuse to return to my two-hundred year old books in the archives of my favorite city!