Exploring the past of the Donatos

Years ago, I requested the Jean-Baptiste Meullion papers from the Louisiana State Archives in Baton Rouge. Jean-Baptiste Meullion was a free man of color from New Orleans who relocated to St. Landry Parish and became a wealthy slaveholder. He is one of my many ancestors and I was curious to explore what else I could learn about him in his archival collection. To my surprise, I came across the last will and testament of an elderly free woman of color named Marie Louise Taillefer alias Pouponne created on July 29, 1807 at Opelousas. Who was this?! I was excited and had someone translate the document. It turned out that Marie Louise was the SISTER of my ancestor Marie Jeanne Taillefer and therefore, aunt of Martin, Catherine Victoire and Celeste Donato. She was leaving her property to Marie Jeanne and one of her Guillory nephews. This was the first time I found evidence of a maternal relative of the Donato children.

Last will and testament of Marie Louise alias Pouponne Taillefer, f.w.o.c.(July 29, 1807 at Opelousas, Louisiana) Source: Louisiana State Archives

Who was Marie Louise? Was it possible for me to learn about her prior to her history in Opelousas? Being that her sister, Marie Jeanne Taillefer, was in a brief relationship with Donato Bello(an Italian immigrant from Naples, Italy) in New Orleans, I decided to explore the historical archives in New Orleans for clues. The Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogical database created by Historian Gwendolyn Mildo Hall contains biographical information on over 100,000 slaves within the colony of Louisiana from 1719 to 1820. The database was abstracted from inventories, wills and deed records from all over Louisiana from the early French colonial era to American statehood. I wanted to find any transactions involving Donato Bello in New Orleans(he married Suzanne Moreau, daughter of Joseph Valentin Moreau and Marie Jeanne Lafleur, on the 15th of January 1765).

Donato Bello purchased a mulatto slave named(guess who?) Marie Louise alias Pouponne from the estate of Dominique Bunel on August 8, 1764 in New Orleans. I jumped up and down! I found her. This was also the first historical evidence of a member of the Donato being a slave. The purchase forced me to ask many questions. Why did Donato Bello purchase Pouponne? Was it a favor to Marie Jeanne? How did she become a free person of color? Donato Bello was still involved with Marie at the time.

source: Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy database 1719–1820

While pondering these questions in the back of my mind, I stumbled across a curious court case contained in the Louisiana Cabildo court records that occurred on May 29, 1773 in New Orleans. It involved a dispute over the legality of the emancipation of a female mulatto slave named Marie Louise Pouponne and her daughter, Maria Antonia! The slaveowner of Marie Louise left the colony for business and loaned her out to a man named Pierre Delery until he returned. While he was gone, Pierre Delery emancipated her. One of the witnesses who testified in the case was Donato Bello, who traveled to New Orleans from the Opelousas post. He verified his purchase of Marie Pouponne from the estate of Dominique Bunel back in 1764. The verdict of the court case is unknown. All I know is that Marie Louise eventually became a free woman and migrated to St Landry Parish, Louisiana.

Logically, if Marie Louise was a slave, then that likely meant Marie Jeanne Taillifer was more than likely a slave at some point in her life either before or after her relationship with Donato Bello. I let the questions linger for a few years until one day I happened to look through catholic abstracts of the Diocese of Baton Rouge and stumbled across the marriage of Marie Jeanne and Jacob Boulard, mulatre libres dated September of 1770 at a Catholic church in Pointe Coupee! Jacob is a diminutive of George and the couple did create a marriage contract nine years later in Opelousas.

Marriage of Marie Jeanne and Jacob(George) Boulard, mulatre libres on September 1770 at Pointe Coupee. Witnesses were Donato Bello and Jacques Allain Source: Diocese of Baton Rouge Archives

Donato Bello and Jacques Allain witnessed the wedding ceremony. If you look closely at the document, you will notice a phrase listed after Marie Jeanne’s name written in French. It states that Marie Jeanne was the former SLAVE of Donato Bello. The record also states that all three were living in the Opelousas post at the time of their marriage. This is the first evidence that Marie Jeanne Taillefer was once a slave and perhaps the Donato children may have been at birth or were born after her emancipation. As with genealogy, more answers lead to more questions. What I haven’t determined is when and how did Marie Jeanne and her sister both become free? How did Dominique Bunel acquire Pouponne? Was he also the former slaveowner of Marie Jeanne or did they originate from somewhere else? Where did the surname of Taillefer come from? The answers to all these are likely buried in some archive or record in New Orleans. Maybe, these questions will be answered one day.

Final resting place of Marie-Jeanne Taillefer Boulard at St. Landry Catholic Church in Opelousas, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. Marie Jeanne died on March 18, 1833 at Prairie Laurent, Louisiana.

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Rodney Sam

Writer and artist with musings on Art, history, genealogy, culture,the humanities with short stories and poems