…My Claim to Creole Status
The Guerin name is an old one in New Orleans. As I understand, the “Guerin House” in the 800-block of Esplanade was built by the twin brother of my direct ancestor in the early 1800’s. It has been a proud family in spite of a Whig or two in its history. I can trace the earliest Guerin to the very beginning of Louisiana when a sergeant by that name was listed among the soldiers coming by ship in 1719. (While I wish I could claim him as an ancestor, that would take some brazen history revelations as he and his children were slaughtered in the Natchez uprising of 1729.)
My real claim, however, comes from my grandmother’s side. She was a Bezou, whose home before my grandfather married her was in her father’s medical clinic on Rampart Street. That building still stands. When last observed it was an alternative lifestyle bar, and so I once took advantage of a Sunday morning special when they had one dollar Bloody Marys. I was able to tour the main room and the patio where once my grandmother must have played as a child.
The Bezou name is a good one. In more recent times, my father’s first cousin was Msgr. Henry Charles Bezou, once head of all the Catholic schools in the archdiocese of New Orleans. A scholar, he authored what I believe to be the best history of Jefferson Parish; it is Metairie, a Tongue of Land to Pasture.
But it is not the Bezou name either by which I lay claim to Creole status. That comes from my grandmother’s maternal side, the Olivier branch, better known in history as Oliver de Vezin.
The progenitor of the Oliviers in Louisiana was Pierre-Francois Olivier de Vezin, born in France on April 28, 1707. His father is recorded as being of noble standing, but it is not known when a title was first granted.
An excellent document of the story of Pierre and his descendants was published in January 2005 for the Genealogical Research Society of New Orleans. It was authored by Anita R. Campeau and Donald J. Sharp. I wish to acknowledge credit to these authors for some of the details that follow.
Their study finds that Pierre “was chosen as the king’s consultant to investigate the ironworks of Saint-Maurice in New France.” This was in 1735, when he was age 28.
That enterprise was located on the St. Lawrence River, downstream from Quebec. It was from this endeavor that Pierre became an entrepreneur but had a business failure a few years later. After returning to France, he was appointed commissioner of roads in Louisiana, arriving in New Orleans in May 1743 to take up his new duties. Documents of the day refer to him as “Sieur Olivier,” and lead to the possibility that he was appointed by the new governor, Vaudreuil, successor to Bienville.
A new responsibility was given Olivier in 1747, naming him Grand Surveyor of the Colony. In that capacity, he was charged with establishing roads and levees. (A disclaimer: descendants accept no blame for the failures of levees in recent past, including those of Katrina.)
Olivier then petitioned for a place on the Superior Council, which was granted.
On orders from Vaudreuil, Olivier made a return trip to Canada in 1749. It was then that he married Marie-Joseph Duplessis. A copy of the original marriage certificate is contained in the Campeau-Sharp report; it is dated 14 June 1749, at Trois-Rivieres.
Olivier returned to New Orleans with his bride in 1750.
The couple produced eight children, the third of whom was Charles Frederic, born on September 6, 1752. He was my direct ancestor, who took the “dit”name de Forcelle.
Siblings of de Forcelle distinguished themselves in their own way. They had plantations in St. Bernard, at Bayou Teche near New Iberia and in Algiers. When brother Nicholas Godefroy died, his widow moved from the lovely manor house called Kenilworth in St. Bernard to New Orleans. She then lived at the city house now known as the Olivier House Hotel, on Toulouse Street.
Happily, when my friend Dr. Marco Giardino and I were researching Spanish West Florida surveyors, I came across maps of a plantation on the Mississippi River owned by one of the brothers, Nicholas Godefroy Olivier de Vizin. (I have copies of these maps, taken from the papers of Pintado, the surveyor general of the king of Spain. The name appears on these documents with spelling "Vizin.")
The seventh born, Francoise Victoire, became a nun, rising to the rank of Mother Superior. She had spent forty years in educating poor colored women at the Ursuline Convent. Quoting the Campeau-Sharp history, “…she was in office when ‘two great miracles were wrought through the intercession of Our Lady of Prompt Succor’ – the saving of the City from the 1812 fire and the great victory of the battle of New Orleans.”
Reading the accounts of baptisms and marriages, one cannot but be impressed with the names of those who became family or stood as sponsors; they include Galvez, Lafreniere, Lebreton, de Grandpre, de la Houssaye, Trudeau, Beauregard, Bienvenu, Reggio, Marigny de Mandeville, and others.
From a separate source, The Louisiana Historical Quarterly of October 1928, I have an article including a transcription of the will the father, credited to Laura L. Porteous. As it was written during the Spanish period, it is in Spanish, and is called the will of Pedro Francisco Olivier Devezin.
The will is complete, listing many possessions from slaves by name and value, to the plantation itself and to 18 pairs of sheets, salad dishes and a large mirror, each with its value. The total came to 34,684 livres and 15 sols. An interesting observation is the relative value: the first slave mentioned, a 20-year old Negro named Charles, was valued at 2,250 livres; the plantation, consisting of ten arpents front was worth only 3,000 livres.
Similarly, the city house, with plastered kitchen and cabins for the negros and a hen house and two pigeon houses were worth altogether only 3,000 livres. By comparison, fifteen slaves were valued at 20,850 livres. (N.B. Comparisons of assets other persons in other areas produce similar disproportionate valuations. One case in point, to be posted at a later date, involves the estate of Simon Favre. It is understandable that land values would be low, as much was available in the early days, but low value for structures, i.e., completed homes, storage houses, slave quarters, and the like, is puzzling.)
The will of Pierre-Francois was dated the 16th of April, 1776. The notary public and apparently also the “Escribano” was Andres Almonaster y Roxas, notary public. It was signed by the testator and witnessed by Almonaster, Pedro Deverge, Carlos Reggio and Garbriel Peyroux.
Olivier died on the 20th of April, in the year considered the first of our nation.
One more document needs inclusion, though not of any real age. It is a clipping from the Times-Picayune of more recent vintage. An editorial column by Lolis Eric Elie, it traces the investigations of one Linda Goesling into her ancestry. She is descended from one of the Olivier family named Charles and one of his two mistresses, who were ladies of color. Ms Goesling also lays claim to being Creole. An associate stated, “We like to stress that Creole does not mean race or skin color….It’s a culture.”