Resting places of Pointe Coupee’s early residents
One of the primary questions researchers of Pointe Coupée history and genealogy invariably ask pertains to the burial place of the parish’s earliest residents. Though the area has been the site of continuous settlement since the 1720s, the systematic encroachment of the Mississippi River and other vicissitudes of time have obliterated all physical evidence of the first century of internments.
Legend has it that the first Pointe Coupéeans buried their dead across the Mississippi River, on the bluff upon which is now situated the town of St. Francisville, as the high ground was immune from the seasonal floods of the great river. No markers are known to have been found to substantiate this claim.
The original St. Francis Church of Pointe Coupée was dedicated in 1738 at a site unknown at present. Logically, it would have been somewhere along the Mississippi River in the greater New Roads area, as that was the only cleared and inhabited territory until the mid 18th century. It stands to reason that a burial ground would have been attached to the church. Owing to transportation difficulties, however, it is obvious that many internments were also made at homes for more than a century. A sacramental record, for example, states that George Chüstz died in 1865 and was buried on his property in the present-day Frisco area.
According to an undated and unpublished manuscript by Reverend J.P. Gutton, the first St. Francis Church was destroyed in a storm. The second St. Francis was built in 1760 and stood until dismantled during 1892-1893. It was located in what is now the bed of the Mississippi River, a quarter mile west of the present day New Roads-St. Francisville ferry crossing. Much documented evidence and several illustrations survive of this church and its surrounding cemetery, the latter of which was blessed in 1764. Some of the tombs were pyramidal in shape, as evidenced in woodcuts and photographs from the 1880s.
For nearly a century, “Old St. Francis” as the 1760 church is commonly referred, served as the only official burial ground in Pointe Coupée Parish. Not until the 1850s were other cemeteries established: old Immaculate Conception Catholic at Chenal and St. Stephen’s Episcopal at Williamsport (present-day Innis). Old St. Francis was the final resting place of countless Pointe Coupéeans: French and Anglo-Saxon whites, Native Americans, African-Americans and persons of mixed ancestry. It also received the remains of the victims of the Constitution steamboat explosion which occurred nearby in 1817 as well as the Native American chief Chicago who died en route down the Mississippi River. Sacramental entries and succession proceedings indicate that some influential citizens were buried the under the floor of the Old St. Francis Church, among their number members of the Allain and Découx families.
Though the first St. Mary’s Church was built at New Roads as a mission of Old St. Francis in 1823, no attendant cemetery was established at the time. New Roads area residents continued to bury their dead at Old St. Francis until St. Mary’s Cemetery opened on the New Road (present-day New Roads Street) in 1865. Oral tradition states that St. Mary’s benefactress Marie Pourciau Robillard Olinde, who died in 1833, was buried beneath or adjacent to the original St. Mary’s Church. This claim is supported by the discovery in 1995 of three brick lined earthen pits, at least one of which contained human remains, by workmen engaged at ground level below the Blessed Sacrament altar of the present St. Mary’s Church.
As much of the old “Pointe Coupee Coast” along the Mississippi was located on the recessive shore of the great river, all known colonial structures were lost – if not by other means – in the caving of the banks and resultant setbacks of levees and roads. Disastrous crevasses occurred near Old. St. Francis in 1865, 1867, 1882 and 1890, each of which spelled ruin for Pointe Coupée and numerous parishes to the south. In his above-cited manuscript, Father Gutton stated that between 1865 and 1890, some six arpents (more than 1,100 linear feet) of land in front of the church were lost to the river, owing to caving banks and levee and road setbacks. The June 2, 1888 Pointe Coupee Banner announced that a new levee – located in the rear of the historic church and cemetery – was nearing completion. The fate of the site was set and it was evident that the ancient house of worship and its surrounding graves would soon fall into the river. On October 27 of that year, the Banner reported that the removal of bodies from Old St. Francis to St. Mary’s Cemetery in New Roads had begun.
In one instance, an entire tomb at Old St. Francis was dismantled and moved to St. Mary’s: the magnificent structure which had been erected at the front of Old St. Francis after the 1842 death of Claude Vincent Ternant II, builder of Parlange Plantation Home. This tomb – notable for its temple-like superstructure and ornamental miniature sarcophagus – contained the remains of Ternant, his parents, brother, first wife and son by his second wife. The burial date of Ternant’s father, Claude Vincent Ternant I – 1818 – is the oldest known of all the St. Francis transfers.
According to later written affidavits and new articles, Van Matthews was contracted by the Parlange family to disassemble the Ternant tomb, transport its elements and rebuild it in St. Mary’s Cemetery. When he and the driver arrived at the New Roads graveyard with the wagon containing the cargo on the morning of November 15, 1888, Matthews purportedly left the driver and load at the gate, then proceeded on foot to Main Street. There, in front of what is now Regions Bank but then site of Gosserand’s Saloon, Matthews is said to have gotten into a dispute with J. B. Woodruff concerning a land purchase. Numerous shots were fired by both men and Matthews was killed instantly. The portions of the tomb are said to have remained in the middle of New Roads Street for a considerable period of time before other parties could be contracted to proceed with the rebuilding.
Conditions at Old St. Francis continued to disintegrate and on February 8, 1890, the Banner announced that the front levée had fallen into the Mississippi, thereby leaving the venerable church and graves at the mercy of the encroaching river. Local attorney and journalist Albin Provosty spearheaded a movement to dismantle and rebuild the church at another site, but the horrible flood of 1890 and resulting impoverishment of area residents meant that little of the necessary capital could be raised in the parish.
The plight of the landmark, meanwhile, captured the attention of New Orleans writers. A feature article, complete with several woodcuts of the old church and tombs, appeared in the April 26, 1891 Daily Picayune, in which it was written:
The old churchyard was the pride of the surrounding country, but presents to-day a very sad appearance. Many of the monuments and tombs have been removed, but some still remain. The river has destroyed the graveyard piecemeal, and there is nothing left but crumbling bricks and rubbish. The sight is a ghostly one, as in their sepulchral whiteness the tombs loom up above the waters. The bones of the dead are now being lashed and washed by the angry waves of the mighty river, and as the water recedes they will sink deeper and deeper in the seething eddies unknown and forgotten.
The writer further commented that relatively few of the bodily remains had been removed, offering the following explanation:
“Tradition tells that an epidemic of cholera visited this section of the state and that its many victims were buried n this little resting place. The events of those perilous times are still fresh in the memories of the oldest inhabitants, and although the period is quite remote the people still have a superstitious awe of the dreaded scourge. They therefore loathe to engage in the work of disentombing, and this, it is said, is one of the reasons why so few of the dead have been removed from the impending danger.”
The author of the article then listed the following families as having tombs in the forlorn burial ground: Gosserand, Porche, Gremillion, Carmouche, Lebeau, Major, Robillard, Tounoir, Bourgeat, Poydras, Dayries, Pourciau, Langlois, Joffrion, Ledoux, Cooley, Bergéron, Van Wickle, Morgan, Falconer, Swain, Lejeune, Décuir, Jarreau, Allain, Trenonay, Boisdoré, Boudreau, D’Hauterive, Bara, Labatut, Lagrange, Chênevert, Samson, Olinde, Olivier, Gauthier, Provosty, Lacour, Armstrong, Desormes, L’Hermite, Lecoq, Jewell, Lacoste, Plantevignes, Laurans, Labry, Beauvais, Bouis, Plauché, Gondran, Du Bertrand, Croizet, Breza, Labbé, Dormenon, Riché, De La Roullière, Chüstz, St. Çyr, Fabre, Monceret, Favre, Labauve, Le Bedel, Saizan, Aguillard, Guérin, Robin, Vignes, Découx, Janis, St. Germain, Delage, Enete, Delamare, Fuselier, Sicard, Mourin, St. Éloi, Bush, Lamathe, Demourelle, Trinidad and Nugent. (Note: The author’s misspellings corrected by me.)
As regards Pointe Coupée’s most noted figure, Julien Poydras, the Picayune article stated that his remains had been moved from their original 1824 resting place next to the Ternant tomb in the front of the cemetery to a grave “without headstone or inscription” at the rear of the doomed premises. On October 18, 1891, these revered bones were reinterred in a conical mound and topped by the Poydras Monument on the campus of Poydras Academy in New Roads. In 1961, the mound was enclosed in the present octagonal vault.
As previously shown, St. Mary’s Cemetery at New Roads was established in 1865. Sacramental records show the first burial there as being of little Amélina Olinde, which occurred on February 7, 1866. Markers in this cemetery predating 1866, therefore, are obviously those which were transferred from Old St. Francis. Most appear on tombs in the southwestern quadrant of the graveyard, i.e., near the corner of New Roads and East Fifth Streets. In several instances, the markers brought from Old St. Francis are located on the lateral, side and rear walls of the tombs. The visitor to Sr. Mary’s Cemetery in the year 2009 can note the following transfers from Old St. Francis:
On the Ternant tomb, located at the corner of the center aisle and first aisle in the northwest quadrant of the cemetery: (on the base of the now demolished miniature sarcophagus above) Claude Vincent Ternant 1786-1842. Note: This tomb, transferred from Old St. Francis in 1888, was donated by its owners, the Parlange family, to St. Mary’s Church to be used as an ossuary for remains retrieved from ruined and unclaimed tombs that were demolished by church authorities in 1981. The original slabs of the Ternant tomb were removed, but bore the following inscriptions: Sainville Ternant, died 1820; Dorothee Legros, wife of Claude Vincent Ternant, Jr., 1791-1835; Claude Vincent Ternant (Sr.) 1757-1818, Constance Lacour, his wife, 1766-1837; Marius Claude Vincent Ternant 1836-1861. The present slabs, as well as those surrounding the tomb, bear the names of those whose remains originally lay in other tombs in St. Mary’s, now demolished, and which were transferred to the Ternant tomb after the Parlange donation. Since that time, the decorative iron fence which formerly surrounded the Ternant tomb was moved to St. Mary’s Church and, in the 1980s, church authorities demolished the temple-like superstructure and ornamental miniature sarcophagus atop the burial chambers. This mutilation is lamented as one of the state’s greatest architectural losses.
On the Provosty tomb, east side of first aisle in northwest quadrant: (on three slabs on rear of tomb) Auguste Provosty 1818-1868, Elma Provosty 1845-1846, Anna Provosty 1846-1848, Valentine Provosty 1849-1851, Auguste Provosty 1848-1873, Delphine Ledoux Provosty 1799-1838, Volma Provosty 1813-1821, Delphine Provosty 1822-1870, Adélaïde Gosserand 1778-1848, Jean Laurans 1797-1849, Mathilde Laurans Provosty 1848-1879, Paul Découx 1826-1888, Séverine Porche Labry 1823-1847, Anna Masterson Labry 1824-1859, Caroline Vignes 1800-1844, Emile Hubert 1837-1855, Otis Provosty 1880-1882, Frédéric Provosty 1887-1887, Alexandre Labry 1780-1840, Mélanie Vignes Labry 1794-1844, Emilie Labry Hubert 1812-1869, Mélanie Labry Laurans 1812-1851, Julie Labry Vammalle 1815-1880, Alexandre Labry 1819-1869, Adèle Labry Découx 1820-1864, Lucien Labry 1825-1857, Alexandrine Labry Plantevignes 1827-1851; (on north side of tomb), Mrs. Alexandre Labry 1830-1859 and mother, Marguerite Lolla, widow of Henry Masterson, and an unmarked slab.
Vignes tomb, west side of second aisle in northwest quadrant: (on north side of tomb) Delphin Verges Vignes 1798-1853; his wife, Anna Vignes, died 1843; Pierre Alcide Bondy, no date but aged three years, 10 months ; Anna Augustine Vignes 1853-1854.
Découx-Cambre grave, east side of second aisle in southwest quadrant: twin sisters Blanche and Rose Découx 1853-1861.
Mix tomb, east side of second aisle in southwest quadrant: Adélina Bergéron 1838-1855.
Hesley tomb, east side of second aisle in southwest quadrant: (on front of tomb) Evelina Hesley 1841-1863; her husband, Omer Samson, 1839-1865; their children, Joseph Louis Aristide Samson 1860-1865 and François Mathieu Omer Samson 1859-1863; Mathieu Hesley, died 1878; Josephine Janis 1839-1852; Joseph Eugène Janis 1854-1863; (on north side of tomb) Eliza Hesley 1839-1844. Note: Four members of this extended family died in a single year, i.e., 1863.
Pourciau tomb, west side of second aisle in southwest quadrant: (on front) Antoine Gosserand 1770-1834; (north side) Marie Anne Jarreau, wife of Antoine Gosserand, died 1828; (south side) Séverin Gosserand 1801-1848 and Jacques Gosserand 1799-1853; (on rear) Joseph Boisdoré 1790-1829.
Cazayoux tomb, east side of fifth aisle in southwest quadrant: Perrine Jarreau, wife of François Samson, died 1829; François Samson II, died 1850; Hélène Gremillion, his wife, died 1867; Virginie Gosserand, wife of A.O. Lebeau, 1831-1853.
Samson tomb, west side of fifth aisle in southwest quadrant: St. Ville Gosserand 1807-1855, François Gosserand 1833-1865, Térence Samson 1798-1858, James Volsey St. Dizier 1852-1854, Auguste F. St. Dizier, died 1859.
Owing to their death dates coming so soon after the establishment of Sr. Mary’s Cemetery, it is possible that the remains and markers of two individuals in the tomb of Familles Des Deux Freres Lieux (Families of the Two Lieux Brothers) – located on the east side of the fifth aisle in the southwest quadrant – could likewise have been moved to St. Mary’s from Old St. Francis: J. P. Albert Lieux, 1846-1867; and Julie Térencine Samson, wife of François Lieux, 1824-1867. It is unknown for certain when the Lieux tomb was built and the sacramental records of the period rarely differentiated whether the burials were made at Old St. Francis or St. Mary’s.
It is obvious that other remains and markers were transferred from Old St. Francis to St. Mary’s but these the stones have been destroyed or otherwise removed through the years. Veneta De Graffenreid Morrison, for example, in her circa 1960 unpublished compilation “Catalog of Cemeteries of Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana,” lists at least two names for whom markers no longer exist in St. Mary’s: François Lebeau, died 1847, and Chéri Anatole (Demourelle), son of Amélie Lebeau, 1847-1852. Their tomb, formerly located immediately south of the present Echelard tomb on the east side of the fourth aisle in the southwest quadrant, was demolished during the time of the cemetery renovation and the fate of the markers remains unknown at present.
Of the markers not moved from Old St. Francis to St. Mary’s Cemetery, marble fragments may be found in the front yard of the home of Emily and John King, located near the Mississippi River and just southwest of the site of the colonial church and cemetery.
One grave slab from Old St. Francis found its way at some indeterminate time to the present St. Mary’s Church. Turned over, its plain rear surface served as a stepping stone for the church’s northeast door. When lifted to make way for a new sidewalk in the 1990s, the marker revealed the epitaph of Eusèbie Tounoir, wife of Alexandre Leblanc, whose dates were 1796-1831. Moved once again, the slab now rests beside the Ternant tomb in the church cemetery.
The third St. Francis of Pointe Coupée, a mission chapel of Sr. Mary’s, was built in 1895 on land donated by Jules Labatut, at a site several miles upriver of its 1760 predecessor. The only remains and markers which appear to have been moved from Old St. Francis of Pointe Coupée to the present St. Francis Chapel grounds are those of the Labatut family. Their tomb appears to have been built at the time of transfer, but the elaborate iron fence is obviously older and probably surrounded their earlier resting place at Old St. Francis. At present the only markers on the Labatut tomb are those of Mr. and Mrs. Jean Pierre Labatut. Mr. Labatut’s stone, bearing the dates 1788-1827, is located in the front pediment. The marker for Mrs. Labatut, née Euphémie Bara, bears the dates 1802-1838 and is located on the north side of the tomb. It is similar to the horizontal slabs which appear atop low brick burial vaults in the old cemeteries of Natchitoches, Opelousas, St. Martinville and other early communities.
St. Ann’s Catholic Cemetery in Morganza contains one burial and marker that logically would have come from old St. Francis of Point Coupée, that of Bernard E. Dayries, 1800-1829. As St. Ann’s Cemetery was not established until 1918, it is most probable that Dayries’ remains and marker would have been moved from old St. Francis at the time of its abandonment (1888-1892) to Our Lady of Seven Sorrows cemetery at Raccourci (established 1872), then, upon the abandonment of Seven Sorrows (circa 1940), they would have been moved to St. Ann’s.
From the above chronicle, it is apparent that only about 70 known persons – or markers representing that number – were transferred from Old St. Francis of Pointe Coupée. This is a small number, indeed, considering the fact that the 1891 Daily Picayune article stated that thousands of pioneers had been buried in the 130 years that Old St. Francis was used as a burial ground. Moreover, the evidence is clear that no known markers transferred to New Roads predated 1818, before which time nearly a century of lives, deaths and burials had elapsed in Pointe Coupée Parish.