On 15 August 1835 in a tiny river town on the western banks of the Missississippi, right where it bends, was born Charles Jefferson Vavasseur, the first born son of 15 year old Aimée. The town was Convent, in St. James Parish.
Jeff and Aimée were slaves of Jeff’s father, Jean Vavasseur, a Brick Kiln maker, native of Capbreton, Landes, France.
Jean’s sheer place of birth landed him prestige and respect among Louisiana Creoles. He married Mary Linders, a young widow with 4 children, but an heiress to a history of privilege, respect and money, for her grandfather, Johan Linder, a Swiss-born Royalist to the British Crown rose to the ranks of Commandant of territories in the Carolinas and later near Mobile in the Tensaw Community. He died owning over 40 slaves, one, Marguerite, the great-grandmother of Jeff (Aimée’s maternal grandmother).
Jean and Mary seemed to live modestly, though.
Jean, who arrived the year he married Mary, 1810, firstly began acquiring property along the banks of the Mississippi, not far from the Convent of St. Michel and the parish church (St-Michel-de-Cantrel).
They lived in the wood structure built by James McAlpine, the first husband of Mary and added land to that hold which Mary brought to their marriage.
The entire slave holding numbered no more than 14, at that time, and 2/3 of them were the same family: Marguerite, her 8 or 9 children and grandchildren. They consisted of domestic servants, skilled laborers and field hands.
In 1831, Jean began selling tracks of his land, closest to the River, to the Directors of Jefferson College. Jeff’s namesake comes from here. The College was for the education of the sons of wealthy Louisiana planters and existed until after the Civil War. The entire structure remains today, however was purchased by the Jesuit brothers as is used as a private retreat, known as the Manresa Retreat.
Jeff’s half-siblings, the children of Jean and Mary, all married into well-to-do families, some local, some foreign. Célestine, the baby girl, married, after the death of her first husband (Adam Rhul), the brother of Louisiana governor Alexandre Mouton, Jean Baptiste Sosthène Mouton. A daughter of Célestine and Adam married Sosthène’s nephew and Célestine’s niece, Athénaïse Vavasseur, married another nephew of Sosthène’s.
Meanwhile, Aimée was busy. She had become the wife of a newcomer, Jean-Baptiste-Valentin DAVIS. She bore him 5 children (Marie in 1839, Justilien in 1841, Alexis in 1843, Justine Marie in 1845, and Marie Victorine in 1848). She then separated from Jean-Baptiste-Valentin and bore one child (Jean-Baptiste Pierre) for a French-born neighbor, Pierre Lescoteaux in 1852 and 3 daughters (Louisa, Geneviève and Marie Bertilde) for Alsatian newcomer, and her future husband, Joseph Exhart “Gérard” Hartmann in 1854, 1862 and 1864. Aimée and Gérard married civilly and parochially on 26 May 1874 in Convent.
In around 1851, Jean Vavasseur died intestate and inventoried among his community assets were all slaves, including 15 year old Jefferson.
Seven years later, on 15 Feb 1858, Charles Jefferson, homme de couleur libre (free man of color) married Anne, femme de couleur libre (free woman of color), a daughter of Élisabeth Tureaud, also a femme de couleur libre. Jefferson signs his name to the nuptial documents. Fresh out of bondage and completely literate?
On Christmas Day in 1859, Mary Linder died intestate. Inventoried was Jeff’s entire maternal family, including his siblings, aunts, cousins, grandmother, great-uncles and great-aunts. It was a fight, too. Mary’s assets included property acquired from her first marriage with James McAlpine and her 4 children with James (James, John, Eugénie and Elizabeth) were the first to petition the court to be named executors of their mother’s estate. The slaves were adjudicated to each of the heirs, Célestine Vavasseur Mouton acquiring Bertilde (Aimée’s first cousin) and her children (Léocadie, Joseph, Rose Marie and François), Aimée and her children to the heirs of Joseph Mathieu Vavasseur, who had died previously.
In 1860, 25 year old Jefferson appears as a Merchant Tailor in the decennial census and is living with his wife, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law, Eugène Tureaud.
The Civil War was right around the corner and before that took place, Anne Lanoux, Jeff’s wife, died, very young. Alexis, Jeff’s brother, joined the United States Army for the cause of the Union (service for which his wife, Louise Mathée Riley, received a pension after his death in 1917).
On 2 May 1864, just after the war officially ended, Jefferson remarried in St. Martinville, St. Martin Parish, Louisiana, 16 year old Joséphine Rochon, born free on 27 May 1847 to a long history of veterans and Gens de couleur libres (Free People of Color) from Mobile, New Orleans and The Attakapas. Her parents were Jean Stéril Narcisse Rochon and Élisabeth Charlotte Castillo.
From 1864 until 1896, Jeff and Joséphine didn’t miss a beat in the baby-making business, for they produced a fairly large family for city dwellers:
- Marie Idéa (21 Mar 1865) m. 5 Nov 1884 François Dasincourt Chrétien
- Marie Élisabeth Rosa (5 Nov 1866) m. 7 Jan 1894 Joseph Gustave Journée/Journet
- Marie Aimée Oscalie (May 1869) m. 20 Dec 1892 Thaddeus Ashford
- Joseph Abraham (27 Oct 1871) m. 27 Dec 1894 Octavie Mora
- Joseph Charles Léotore (15 Mar 1873) m. (1) 19 Feb 1894 Marie-Antoinette Dupré (2) 7 Dec 1907 Régina Lemelle
- Joseph Victor Walter (21 Feb 1877)
- Marie May (29 May 1879) m. 29 Oct 1906 Jean Télesmar Landry
- Joseph Victor (26 Sept 1881) m. 4 May 1908 Marie-Rose Pratt
- Joseph Edmond (Sept 1883) m. 13 Apr 1908 Rosalie Frilot
- Marie Mercedès (May 1886) m. 25 Apr 1906 Louis Ignace Wiltz
- Joseph Benjamin (9 Nov 1888) m. (1) 7 Feb 1925 Anne Thibodeaux (2) 28 May 1946 Beulah Reese Johnson
- Marie Hilda (4 Oct 1890) m. (1) David Barton, (2) Benjamin Décuir
- Marie Jeanne Gladys (27 Dec 1894). m. 16 Jul 1917 Joseph Ignace Journet
While Joséphine and the girls were caring for the kids at home, Jeff and his sons were busy making the community a better place.
Family lure has it that Jeff temporarily replaced his brother-in-law, Victor Narcisse Rochon, in the Louisiana Senate,in 1872, during a convalescent period for Rochon. For certain, Victor Narcisse Rochon was nominated twice to the Louisiana Senate, representing St. Martin Parish and was instrumental in having a bill passed for (tsk! tsk!) universal education for St. Martin Parish children. Valerie Jarrett, a Senior Adviser on Public Information and Intergovernmental Affairs to U.S. President Barack Obama, is a great-granddaughter of Victor Rochon.
On 22 Jul 1877, Jeff petitioned the Clerk of Court of Lafayette Parish for the tutorship of Louise Mouton, the daughter of Jeff’s first cousin, Léocadie (his aunt Bertilde’s daughter), who had just died. Louise lived with the Vavasseurs until 1888, when she married Jean Navarre in Lafayette at the Cathedral of St. John in the same year.
Jeff founded the Société de Francs Amis benevolent society, known as The True Friends Association in 1875. He was unanimously nominated as President and remained so for 35 years.
On the 14th day of May in the year 1887, Joseph Victor Vavasseur was among 17 others from St. Martinville who founded the St. Martinville Volunteer Fire Company Nº 2. Victor was then 7 years old, testament that Jeff and Joséphine reared them from birth for community activism.
All 13 surviving children were formally educated. Each of them played a classical musical instrument (my great-grandmother, Marie May, sang, played piano and taught music). The sons, daughters and in-laws of Jeff and Joséphine were Educators, Blacksmiths, Carpenters and Musicians.
By the turn of the 20th century, the Vavasseurs had grown into a large family, 13 children and already a dozen grandchildren and they continued to serve their community in benevolent ways.
Between 1900 and 1910, health claimed the lives of half of the original Vavasseurs. Walter, Oscalie, Victor, Edmond, Joséphine and Jefferson all perished.
The passing of Joséphine Rochon in 1909, and Jeff Vavasseur in 1910, struck the entire community. Both were offered front-page obituaries in the local newspaper, the St. Martinville Weekly Messenger, a gesture not even offered, at that time, for the most prominent members of the village and parish.