When Research Gets Real
Or how I randomly stumbled upon some wild family history
Just to clear the air, my name is not “Amy.” It’s also not “AWW-mee,” “ahh-MAY,” “eh-MAY,” “AY-MAY,” or any of the other strange variants I’ve been called in the past. Do I accept these interpretations of my name when directed toward me in conversation? Virtually every day of my life. But I want you, dear reader, to know that my name is, in fact, “ah-MEEEE.” Helpful trick: Sing the song “Prince Ali” from Disney’s Aladdin, but replace the “L” with an “M.” Voilà! You’ve got it.
If you happen to know French, you may be scratching your head right now. That would be because my name isn’t actually French French. It’s Cajun French. My maternal ancestors were, as my grandmother puts it, “Kicked out of France and sent to Canada, and then kicked out of Canada and sent to Louisiana.” The French Acadians (or Cajuns) have been in Louisiana for more than 200 years. They’re people with surnames like “Boudreaux,” “Thibodeaux,” “Chauvin,” and “Bourgeois.” However, my grandma, who’s about as Cajun as it gets, had the maiden name “Toups” — a German name. Let’s circle back to this later.
The year is 2018. I’m a girl from Houston, with family in Louisiana, considering pursuing a Master’s in adolescent education at Adelphi University in New York. Through the application process, I come into contact with a professor of adolescent education at Adelphi who happens to be from Houston, with family in Louisiana. It turns out, he wants me to come to Adelphi, be his graduate assistant, and help him conduct research on the history of slavery in Louisiana.
I honestly couldn’t quite believe how good of a fit it was. I had already written about the connection between the Haitian Revolution and the Grand Dérangement of the French Acadians while at St. John’s, and I had access to a wealth of both oral and written Louisiana history through my grandparents and other relatives. I was both academically and personally invested.
My first task was to visit the Whitney Plantation in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana (roughly between Baton Rouge and New Orleans). Don’t get too excited — this wasn’t some glamorous, Adelphi-sanctioned trip — I was only a grad assistant, after all. I happened to be visiting family in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas, so my mom and I made our own arrangements to take a tour of the Whitney. Again, I was more than happy to do this, even before I knew just how transformative the experience would be.
If you’ve ever spent some time in South Louisiana, you’ve probably seen signs advertising different historic plantations to visit. Most of these places glamorize the Antebellum, slave-owning lifestyle, offering visitors tours of the tastefully-decorated “big house,” porches to sip tea on, and scenic oak-lined paths for photo ops. The Whitney Plantation Museum, which has only been open to visitors since late 2014, is not like that at all. It focuses instead on the lives and experiences of the many enslaved people who lived, suffered, and died there. Sure, the “big house” is onsite and part of the tour, but it’s decorated in a simple manner so as not to draw attention to itself. Our tour guide, who was a descendant of slaves from St. John’s Parish herself, led us through the slave quarters, the onsite church, the fields, and more, always keeping the focus on the enslaved people.
Before the tour, though, we walked through the museum welcome center’s exhibit on the historical background of the Whitney Plantation. To keep a long story short (though it really is worth reading about if you’re interested — see here), the land was first purchased by a German farmer named Ambroise Haydel (originally Heidel) in 1752. He, along with several other German and Swiss German farmers and their families, were recruited by Scottish businessman John Law to work the land along the east bank of the Mississippi River north of New Orleans. That area along the river thus became known as the German Coast.
At this point, a few lightbulbs went off in my head. For one, I know a lot of people with the surname Haydel in South Louisiana. I figured they must all be descendants of Ambroise Haydel, which in itself was fascinating to me. Additionally, the term “German Coast” was familiar to me through Ancestry.com.
You see, for several years now I’ve been playing around with my family tree on Ancestry.com. (Yes, I got the DNA test, too, but nothing super exciting came out of that). At this point in time, I had already learned several things about my extended family tree through Ancestry. On my dad’s side, we have British nobles, one of whom was present for the signing of the Magna Carta. There’s also some Germans, potentially a Native American princess, and lots and lots of Swedes. On my mom’s side, there were of course the French Acadians, but also some Germans and Swiss Germans mixed in there. Hence the aforementioned name Toups (originally Dubs). I remembered seeing “German Coast, Louisiana” listed many times as a birth and/or death place and asking my family where that was, but no one was ever 100% sure. But now my mom and I knew! We couldn’t help but wonder how close the Toups immigrants might have lived to the Whitney Plantation.
After our lovely and impactful visit to the Whitney, my mom and I headed down to my grandparents’ house in Houma, LA, eager to revisit the family tree on Ancestry.com. We arrived, greeted my grandparents, told them about the plantation visit, and quickly got to looking on Ancestry. I went a few generations back on the Toups line, looked at a few different branches, and was suddenly stunned. There, on our virtual family tree, was my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Ambroise Haydel.
THE FOUNDER OF THE WHITNEY PLANTATION.
So, here I am, casually doing research for a professor back in New York, thinking I might find a tangential family connection to this place at best, and I discover that I am a literal direct descendant of the plantation’s founder. Turns out, one of Ambroise’s granddaughters married a Toups. I was at a loss for words.
In some ways, it was exciting. I’m such a history nerd, both family and otherwise, so stumbling upon a find this big and this crazy was truly just unbelievable. But then in other ways…it was deeply unsettling. It’s no secret that the American economy would not be a shred of what it is now without the many decades of slave labor that once fueled it. In other words, one could say that we all have blood on our hands. But to discover, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you descend from slave-owners is…well, it’s kind of next level, frankly.
My professor was similarly shocked when I told him about my findings, but he was definitely interested in pursuing the connection and writing about it. We still haven’t written anything together on that, though (no shade — I know he’s got lots of other projects), so I figured I might as well put this story out there myself. The connections between this plantation museum and me are just too numerous and bizarre.
For one, I also learned about the German Coast uprising of 1811 that day, thanks to the Whitney’s poignant memorial to the slaves who lost their lives during that struggle. Remember, I had already written about the connection between the Haitian Revolution and Louisiana before I even knew the largest slave revolt in US history happened basically in my family’s backyard. Social studies curricula in American schools barely touch on the Haitian Revolution as is, so it’s no surprise that the German Coast uprising is virtually unheard of, even in Louisiana itself. I think there’s just too much shame when it comes to slavery.
So that’s why I’m acknowledging my roots. I mean, sure, everyone who’s from the South and is white kind of knows there’s probably slave owners somewhere in their lineage. But to visit a plantation and see its founder’s name on your family tree all in the same day really forces you to face the music. So no, you won’t catch me saying things like, “sLaVErY enDeD 150 YeArs aGo, gET oVeR iT.” Instead, you’ll catch me sneaking information about Toussaint Louverture and Charles Deslondes into my 8th grade ELA curriculum.
Originally published on May 12, 2020