Historians are expected to interpret what they find. That’s part of the job description. It’s also one of the most misunderstood aspects of the job. Where do we draw the line between “interpretation” and “speculation”? What relation does either have to the popular buzzword “hypothesis”? At what eventual point does interpretation qualify as “proof”?
Regardless of the field of history in which we labor, reliable proof is built on common expectations. QuickLesson 8 (“What Constitutes Proof?”) examines the eleven basic building blocks of proof. Here in QuickLesson 16, we narrow that focus to five:
- thorough research
When we neglect any of these building blocks, we are likely to fall short of reliable proof. Whether our result then qualifies as a reasonable interpretation, an hypothesis, or mere speculation will depend upon how far short we fall.
Merriam-Webster offers two relevant definitions for “speculate”:
- to meditate on or ponder a subject
- to review something idly or casually and often inconclusively
Neither definition satisfies any standard for sound work in history. Simply meditating or pondering, without valid evidence, is meaningless. Reviewing a subject “idly or casually” before making an assertion does actual damage to the public’s understanding of our world, because of the false conclusions that are typically broadcast.
By contrast, Merriam-Webster defines “interpret” this way:
- to explain or tell the meaning of : present in understandable terms
- to perform … in a way that conveys one’s understanding of the creator’s ideas
The key concept in both definitions of “interpret” is understanding. This means a thorough knowledge of our subject and the context of the place and time. As students of history, we arrive at that kind of knowledge, that understanding, by working our way through all those building blocks of proof.
At variable points between speculation and understanding, historians typically arrive at one or more hypotheses. Merriam-Webster defines “hypothesis” in two ways:
- an assumption or concession made for the sake of argument [and] taken as the ground for action
- a tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test its logical or empirical consequences
Hypotheses allow us to evaluate our level of understanding. Whatever the issue we are researching, when we feel we have a likely interpretation of the “facts”—when the evidence seems to point toward a logical conclusion—it is time to play Devil’s Advocate. We reevaluate our evidence, trying to disprove our interpretation as intensely as we have tried to prove it.
In this process, we go back to the information we have gleaned. We often go back to our sources, as well. We put ourselves into the mental framework of our critics and pick apart our own reasoning. We argue with each piece of information we have found and each deduction we have made. We try to link details in different combinations, in an effort to see them in a different light. We study the work of others who write on similar subjects, applying their perspectives to our conundrum. Often this process suggests new research paths to pursue and new sources to consult. Not until we feel that our conclusion can withstand all critical analyses, should we propose our interpretation as likely proof.
As historical researchers, we might draw the following distinctions between speculation, hypothesis, interpretation, and proof:
- Speculation is typically presented as an end-point to a disappointing research process, at which point the researcher has run out of ideas. Often, its presentation is prefaced by an assertion such as, “No evidence exists to prove this, but … .” Typically, the assertion will carry no documentation or, as a smoke screen, will cite material that—when examined—does not support the assertion at all.
- Hypotheses represent an interim state—one in which we recognize that our research and analyses are still seriously incomplete. We accept our hypotheses only as possibilities to be further tested and soundly proved before we can validly assert an opinion.
- Interpretation is an impermanent conclusion we reach after we feel we have adequately applied all the building blocks of proof. The strength of our interpretation will depend heavily upon the investment we have made in our study of context. We consider our interpretation to be impermanent because we recognize that the discovery of new evidence or the application of new insights or other research methodology might require altering that interpretation.
- Proof is the body of evidence and reasoning that we offer to support our interpretation. The quality of the work that creates this body of evidence usually determines the sustainability of our conclusion.
The following case at point illustrates these stages, starting with a record and a need to identify the person discussed in that record. The case presents a published speculation, develops two hypotheses, and applies several targeted tests to each. After all available evidence is extracted from extant records, correlated, and analyzed, we demonstrate how to construct an interpretation that resolves the identity question and places the evidence into a meaningful historical context. The body of evidence and reasoning that goes into our interpretation then becomes our "proof" for the identity that we propose.
CASE AT POINT
Identifying “Coin Coin” of the 1820 U.S. Census
The colonial Louisiana outpost of Natchitoches produced an extraordinary African-American woman whose life has been studied by scholars from many fields: Marie Thérèse dite 1 Coincoin, born and baptized in August 1742.2 Dozens of original records chronicle her life as both a slave and a freed woman, from her infancy through her declining years. No record exists for her death or burial. The 1820 census of Natchitoches Parish includes a household headed by someone called, simply, “Coin Coin.”
The one-line entry recorded for this household gives us the following detail for the "Coin Coin" household:3
- 1 free colored male, aged 45 and over
- 2 free colored females, aged 45 and over
- 1 free colored female, aged 26 through 44
- 1 person engaged in agriculture
- 4 free colored persons, total
A widely published project by respected scholars has concluded that Marie Thérèse Coincoin was still alive in 1820 and cites this census entry as “proof.” The published studies explain no reasoning for their conclusion that the census householder called “Coin Coin” was Marie Thérèse. They offer no explanation why that interpretation violates a social norm for their era: Given that the household includes a male aged 45 or older, why would a female be treated as the head of household? Apparently the conclusion that Marie Thérèse was the householder “Coin Coin” was based on the premise The name’s the same. 4
Several facts known about Marie Thérèse might support this “interpretation” of the evidence.
- She was born in 1742, meaning she would have been almost 78 at the time the census credits the “Coin Coin” household with two females over the age of 45.
- She had 15 children and several dozen free grandchildren. Hence, the three other free people of color in her household could easily be her offspring.
- She was a landowner and slaveowner who had, in May 1816, divided her slaves among her children and sold two of her three tracts of land. Because she still owned one tract, she could have continued to maintain her own household. Because she had disposed of her slaves, there were no enslaved people enumerated in the “Coin Coin” household.
- Ergo, all details fit.
No, they don’t. The published “interpretation” of the census evidence was premature and proved invalid. 5 It qualifies for speculation because the record was “reviewed casually,” to use Merriam-Webster’s definition. It was not underpinned by thorough research, critical analysis, or correlation of a body of evidence. Instead, the source of the speculation is offered as "proof"―skipping totally over three critical steps:
- Formulation and testing of an hypothesis;
- Contextual interpretation of the evidence;
- Construction of a proof argument to explain how the evidence proves the researcher's conclusion.
Let’s examine the evidence, pose multiple hypotheses, test them, and see if we can reach a valid interpretation.
When this hypothesis is tested, it can be disputed by both direct and indirect evidence.
Test 1: Direct Evidence:
In researching the life of a woman, the first building block of proof—thorough research—means we must also thoroughly study each child that woman bore. We must reconstruct the life of each of those children, seeking out all records they created. Any one of those records might reveal critical information about the mother. That is exactly the case in the case at hand.
In December 1817 a middle-aged son of Marie Thérèse, Pierre Metoyer Jr., married for the second time. The church record of his marriage—easily accessible information, because it has been translated and published—names his prior wife. It does not name his parents.6 Being a man of considerable property at that time, he did what French Catholics of some means (including the Afro-French) customarily did: he went to a notary and executed a marriage contract.7
That civil record also exists. However:
- It is not included in the parish index to marriages, because it did not document a marriage. No marriage had yet occurred. Realistically, the creation of a marriage contract is no guarantee that a marriage eventually took place; breaches of contract did occur.8
- It is not indexed with the recorded property records (conveyances, donations, etc.) because the couple did not pay to have it recorded at the courthouse. They paid a notary to draft the document and, as was customary under civil law, the notaries maintained their own archives.
- It is not filed within the parish probate, civil, or criminal court records, because no court action was involved.
The records of the neighborhood notary, for that time frame, do survive and were later deposited with the clerk of the civil parish. However, they were not included with courthouse records filmed in the 1960s, because they were not part of predefined list of record types that the filming project would cover (registers of conveyances, marriages, probates, and civil and criminal court actions).
Perhaps for all the above reasons, these notarial records were also missed by the research team, who thereby fell short of the first standard of proof: thorough research. Because they missed this one marriage contract, they reached a totally erroneous interpretation of a quite different record: the census.
What direct evidence did they miss? In his marriage contract of 3 December 1817, Pierre Metoyer Jr. explicitly identified himself as “son of the deceased Marie Thérèse Coincoin.”9
VERDICT: Hypothesis 1 has failed its first test.
Test 2: Indirect Evidence
A reliable interpretation of any situation always requires evaluating the evidence in context. When using census information, the most obvious context we have to work with is the neighborhood of our person of interest. The 1820 census return did not identify Coin Coin’s neighborhood by any community term in use today. That 10-page census groups entries into five districts:10
- Unlabeled section, whose householders are known to have been residents of the “Neutral Strip”―an area west of the town of Natchitoches that paralleled the Sabine River.11
- “East of Rio Hondo,” a river that ran diagonally northwest of the town of Natchitoches.
- “Town of Natchitoches.”
- “Continuation of Natchitoches Proper”— i.e., the countryside first settled by the French, immediately east and south of the village.
- “The lower line of Emanuel Prudhomme’s plantation to the … Rigolet de Bon Dieu”—i.e., southward from the district above, running down Red River to the dividing line between Natchitoches and Rapides parishes.
Coin Coin was enumerated in District 2, north of the town of Natchitoches. Meanwhile, all three tracts of land owned by Marie Thérèse Coincoin lay ten or so miles south of the town. All the planter families who were her neighbors from 1780 to 1816 are enumerated in Districts 4 and 5 of this 1820 census.
VERDICT: Hypothesis 1 has failed its second test.
Test 3: A Process of Elimination
Given the evidence that the original Coincoin, Marie Thérèse, had died by December 1817, logic suggests a survey of potential candidates. Specifically, we need to (a) identify each of her offspring who would have been about 45 or older in the year 1820; and (b) determine which ones are positively identifiable elsewhere on the census. Marie Thérèse Coincoin at this time had nine surviving children in the parish, aged 36–59. Her oldest free grandchild in the parish was thirty. The nine possible candidates for Coin Coin of 1820 were these:12
Black children born of a slave father:
Multiracial children (born 1768–84), all of whom who used surnames:
- Nicolas Augustin Metoyer
- Marie Susanne Metoyer, a sole feme and planter like her Metoyer brothers
- Louis Metoyer
- Pierre Metoyer Jr.
- Dominique Metoyer
- Antoine Joseph Metoyer
- François Metoyer
- Pierre Toussaint Metoyer
In 1820, all of Marie Thérèse’s free children are enumerated in Districts 4 and 5, south of the town—except the eldest son Nicolas, who does not appear as a householder on that census.
VERDICT: Hypothesis 1, in its third test, suggests a new hypothesis.
Test 1: Is known data for Nicolas compatible with this hypothesis?
In 1772, when Nicolas was about seven, his heavily indebted mistress sold him illegally to Colonel Antonio Gil y Barbo at the nearby capital of Spanish Texas: Los Adaës near present Robeline, Louisiana.15 Shortly thereafter, Spain closed that post and ordered its inhabitants to pull back into the region that became modern Texas. For seven years, the Adaësanos would shuffle through several Texas settlements, led by Gil y Barbo, before eventually being allowed to settle at the site of the Nacogdoches tribe, about a hundred miles from Natchitoches. There, in 1793, Nicolas’s mother and his newly freed younger half-brother Augustin Metoyer (see gallery photo, above) made a down-payment on Nicolas’s manumission.16 Annual censuses in 1794 and 1795 show Nicolas living as free—at Nacogdoches, not Natchitoches.17
In 1796, Gil y Barbo fell into political disfavor. He was imprisoned, his property was seized, and Nicolas was remanded to slavery because his price had not been fully paid. Augustin made another trip to Nacogdoches as representative of his mother and paid the remaining debt. However, Gil y Barbo’s trustee refused to relinquish Nicolas, saying he had the authority to receive money due to the confiscated estate but no authority to manumit a slave.18 Nicolas continued to appear on the Nacogdoches censuses through December 1798, not as a free man but as Gil y Barbo’s property.19 In 1799, the Spaniard reconciled his political problems and was released from jail on the condition that he remove himself and his household, including his enslaved people, from the province of Texas. At their departure on 3 October 1799, they headed across the Sabine into the jurisdiction of Natchitoches. The aged Gil y Barbo would eventually be allowed to return to his Texas ranch;20 but there is no evidence that Nicolas went back with him. As a free man, he could choose his own place of residence.
When the U.S. government opened its first land office in Louisiana in 1806, Nicolas’s half-siblings, the Metoyers, filed a slew of claims for land grants and concessions they had acquired under the Spanish regime. Someone also filed, in the name of the illiterate 42-year-old Nicolas, an occupancy claim (“squatter’s claim,” in common parlance) on a tract of backwater land adjoining Augustin, the brother who had secured his freedom.21 Thus was created the only known set of records that connects Nicolas to the south-of-Natchitoches region. An 1813 affidavit made in the claim case by a white representative of the Metoyers identified Nicolas as “over fifty,” declared that he had “inhabited and cultivated the land for eighteen consecutive years preceding” (a demonstrably wrong assertion), and called him the “head of a family.”22 In December 1818, shortly after the U.S. Land Office confirmed Nicolas’s title to that south-of-Natchitoches land, he sold it to Augustin who had by then achieved wealth and prominence in that plantation region.[23
Nicolas would live—somewhere—for another thirty-two years. In that meanwhile, he bought no land and was never accused of a crime or debt. No tax records survive to track him through poll assessments. No known church records for those years identify him as either a father or a godparent. Only twice in those years did he appear again in any known record. In 1838, when a neighbor of Augustin Metoyer contested Augustin’s ownership of Nicolas’s land, Nicolas went before the parish judge to certify that he had, indeed, sold that land to Augustin.24 At his death in 1850, Nicolas’s burial record would identify him only as “brother of Augustin Metoyer.”25
One earlier record does point to associations for Nicolas―not amid his half-siblings below Natchitoches, but above the town. In June 1805, he served as a godparent to a daughter of the “free mulatress” Marguerite. That baptismal record does not cite either a location or surnames for the participants. However, the event was one of seven baptisms held that day for children born to families in the Campti–Grande Ecore region north of Natchitoches, and some twenty miles from the site of Nicolas’s land claim.26
The mother who chose Nicolas to sponsor her child that day was the tri-racial Marguerite Grappe, daughter of the legendary Indian trader and rancher, François Grappe dit Touline.27 Nicolas’s association with the Grappe family is not surprising. Six years earlier, his half-brother Louis Metoyer had fathered a child by Marguerite’s sister Madeleine. The two families would continue to associate and intermarry in every subsequent generation. The Grappe community, moreover, was heavily interlaced with French Creoles and Americans who traded at Nacogdoches, as well as Indio-Spanish Tejanos Nicolas had known from childhood.
VERDICT: This hypothesis passes its first test. It connects Nicolas to the area north of Natchitoches—albeit 15 years earlier than the census in question.
Test 2: Can the 1820 neighborhood be identified precisely?
Test 3: Can the residence of “Coin Coin” be placed in that neighborhood?
Test 4: Can the 1820 residence of “Coin Coin” be connected to Nicolas?
The “East of Rio Hondo” district in which Coin Coin was enumerated in 1820 sprawled across more than a thousand square miles. No federal land records or local land conveyances grant or sell any tract to anyone named “Coin Coin” or “Nicolas, free Negro.” However, the 1820 residence of Coin Coin can be identified by studying the landholdings of those enumerated around him on that census.
The table above lists sixty of those “neighbors” in household sequence: thirty before and thirty after. Because the census does not number households, this table assigns a number-letter combo that designates each household’s position above or below Nicolas. Within the cluster from 24a down to 14b, eighteen of the householders can be identified as 1820 landowners in the same residential sequence as the census visitations. Each resided in the six-miles-square survey township known as 10 North, Range 7 West, Northwestern District of Louisiana.
The above map of T10N R7W plats the locations of those households and depicts, as well, the path of the census taker. The original plat map was created in 1825 to show the bounds of all the landholders whose Spanish-era claims had been approved by the U.S. government. Local deed records—nearly a hundred of them—show that between 1806 (when the claims were lodged) and late 1820 (when the census was taken) many of the tracts had changed hands. Older landowners had died. Sons and sons-in-law had taken over. Most of the families were, by 1820, intermarried in intricate ways. Some had swapped lands to better consolidate their holdings. For all cases in which the census household name differs from the original land owner shown on the map, notes have been added at the bottom of the map to identify the key transactions.
This exercise yielded five points critical to the identification of “Coin Coin.”
- The township lies immediately above Natchitoches in the Campti-Grande Ecore region where Nicolas served as godparent in 1805. Two of the earliest settlers of that region—both still alive in 1820, with extensive lands on which they lived as patriarchs of a large family of multiracial offspring—were
- François Grappe, the grandfather of the 1805 child; and
- Athanase DeMézières Jr. whose father, as commandant, had helped his sister-in-law sell the young Nicolas away from his mother.
- As shown on the 1825 map, Nicolas’s brother Augustin Metoyer was also a land claimant in this township—an aberration, given that all his other landholdings lay south of town on Isle Brevelle. According to 1811 testimony provided in the claims case for Augustin's north-of-Natchitoches land, it was not personally occupied by him. Someone else in his employ had “inhabited and cultivated” the land for about “fifteen consecutive years immediately preceding.”28 The reason why Augustin chose to develop this land, some twenty-five miles from his plantation lands and residence, goes unexplained in the records. The fact that it lies scarcely a mile from the site where the 1820 census places Coin Coin is surely not a coincident.
- On the 1820 census, Coin Coin is flanked by two landowning “free Negroes”: Louis Lamatte, and the one-named Guillaume.29 Local deeds document the acquisition of each man’s land and allow spotty tracking of the titles back to the original claimant.30 Lamatte, in 1820, owned the lower part of Section 31.31 Guillaume owned Section 32.32
- As shown on the township map,
- Section 31 had been claimed, by right of occupancy under the Spanish by the former Grappe slave “Augustin, Free Negro.”33
- Section 32 on the township map had been granted in 1789 to "Jean Pierre, Free Negro," also a manumitted slave of the Grappe family.34
- These two men, on or near whose land Coin Coin lived in 1820, were father and son—former slaves of François Grappe’s mother.35
- The exact position of Nicolas “between” the 1820 landowners Guillaume and Louis Lamatte can be established by correlating several documents:
- Our annotated 1825 plat map of the township.
- Several subsequent plat maps of landholdings in the township: 1843, 1845, 1848 and 1859. These re-surveys correct problems in the original survey—including an issue critical to our analysis: The 1825 survey presents Section 72, which lay across the river from Sections 31 and 32, as an open neck of land shaped by Red River and Bayou Pierre. The corrected maps show that Section 72 was actually an isle completely surrounded by water on all sides.36
- An 1826 deed by which Joseph Irwin donated a tract of land to his godson, Edward Irwin Fleming. There, Irwin states that the land was located “at the place called Île à Nicolas” (Nicolas’s Isle).37
The attachment of Nicolas’s name to the site where Coin Coin was enumerated adds significantly to the evidence that the two men were one and the same. As the 1859 map shows, the island designated Section 72 was land claimed by Athanase DeMézières. Despite that man’s status as a slaveowner and despite his father’s complicity in selling Nicolas away from his mother, DeMézières and the other members of his family did, in many ways, help the Coincoin-Metoyer offspring establish themselves as freedmen.38 For Athanase Jr. to hire Nicolas, or otherwise allow him to live on the island, would have been entirely in character.
VERDICT: Hypothesis 2 has passed its Tests 2, 3, and 4, with conclusive results.
Test 5: Would a male freedman use his mother’s dite as a surname?
This test is a simple one. Records of both the civil and church parish are rife with such cases. As in most societies with surnames typically derived from the father, when a child was born out of wedlock and the father was not publicly identified, the child grew up using his mother’s surname. As two examples that span Nicolas’s lifetime: In his own family, his aunt Gertrude used as a dite the African name Dgimby (with variant spellings). Her one child, François, as an adult, was also known as François dit Dgimby (with variant spellings).39 Similarly, in 1829, the daughter of Pelagie Grappe married a freed quadroon named Noël Mézières. No record identifies his father; the surname used for him in this marriage record and throughout his life was that of his mother, “Marie Jeanne dite Mézières.”40 This pattern was the norm, not an aberration.
VERDICT: Hypothesis 2 has passed its fifth and final test.
“Coin Coin” of the 1820 census was Nicolas dit Coincoin, eldest son of the deceased Marie Thérèse Coincoin. His residence in the ranching region of Campti–Grande Ecore, north of Natchitoches, rather than the plantation region south of town, speaks to both his life as a slave and the many disparities between him and the half-siblings who became wealthy planters. Those differences prompted him to choose a residence outside their domain, although his younger brother Augustin—the Metoyer family patriarch—would retain a sense of responsibility for Nicolas until his end days.
Ethnically, culturally, and economically, Nicolas and the Metoyers had little in common. At the time Nicolas was taken from his mother, she had been hired out to the French immigrant Pierre Metoyer. Nicolas, having been weaned by the start of that relationship, would have stayed with his mistress to labor for her, in one of the capacities that enslaved children served.41 Nicolas, realistically, would have had little association or attachment to his mother’s new babies. Moreover, during twenty years in the company of Tejanos, his daily language would have been Spanish; and the French of his young childhood was likely forgotten. At Natchitoches, his siblings grew up speaking French, even during the Spanish regime. Those siblings also had a father who recognized them and allowed them to use his name. Nicolas lacked that social and economic advantage.42
The fact that the landowning Metoyers of color were half white would have created another cultural divide within their family. Unlike Spanish Texas with its sizable mestizo population and no laws against racial intermarriage, in French Louisiana color was a legal, economic, and social issue. “People of color” (i.e., multiracials) enjoyed privileges that nègres (full blacks) did not, as well as a greater degree of acceptance in everyday affairs. Nicolas’s phenotype was radically different from that of his siblings—so much so that a parish judge would later, gratuitously, describe Nicolas in a court case as a black man “appearing to be a real African.”43
Arriving at Natchitoches in 1799, Nicolas lived out his years there under the burden of yet another layer of discrimination. The new waves of Anglo-Americans who flooded the territory after the Louisiana Purchase were disturbed by the racial leniency that surrounded them. Many felt threatened by the privileges granted to free Creole blacks and multiracials. Once the newcomers secured positions in the legislature, they increasingly restricted the legal rights of not only slaves but also free blacks and free Creoles of color. Survival for the multiracial Creoles required them to assert themselves as a third caste, neither black nor white. Maintaining that caste difference, with its tenuous legal rights, also meant severing themselves from social intercourse with their black kin.44
For Nicolas, the north-of-Natchitoches region would have been a retreat to a more compatible society. Its native families—the interrelated Grappes, DeMézières, Trichels, and Perots enjoyed significantly less prosperity and limited opportunity for advancement, in no small part because they did mingle freely across all color lines. Relatively few Anglos settled amid them to challenge their culture and most who did buy into the region were speculators or engaged in trade with Spanish Texas. Many newcomers to the region were, in fact, Tejanos themselves, generally from Nacogdoches where Nicolas had spent nearly two decades. Economically, the north-of-Natchitoches region was also more suited to the skills for which Nicolas had been trained: ranching, rather than farming. The location of the tract that carried Nicolas name in the 1820s—Île à Nicolas—also speaks to the means by which he likely supported himself. Throughout not just Louisiana but the rural South, small tracts that were waterlocked were prime lands for raising cattle; they needed no corralling.
No credible evidence places Nicolas in residence amid his half-siblings in the plantation region below town. Although a hired witness in the land claim filed in his name asserted that he had lived on the claimed land for 18 years before 1813, that assertion is disproved by the documents created for Nicolas at Nacogdoches between 1793 and 1799. The 1830s-era legal suit over Nicolas’s land claim also documents the fact that even before Nicolas sold the claim to his brother Augustin Metoyer, Augustin had put another man on the land to begin clearing and cultivating.45
The only known record Nicolas personally created during the years spanned by his land claim was the 1805 baptismal record that placed him amid the Grappes of Campti–Grand Ecore.46 Other records suggest indirectly that he remained there. When, in December 1818, Nicolas sold his land claim to his half-brother Augustin, and again in November 1838, when Nicolas confirmed that sale, neither document was executed by the south-of-Natchitoches notaries who customarily went to “the home of Sieur Augustin Metoyer” to draft the documents he needed. Instead, both times, Augustin journeyed some 20 miles to Natchitoches where he and Nicolas transacted their business in the courthouse office of the parish judge47—an intermediary point between Augustin’s south-of-town residence and the north-of-town site where Coin Coin was enumerated in 1820.
Perhaps Nicolas's decision to live in the ranching community of Campti and Grande Ecore, rather than the south-of-town plantation country, stemmed from his choice of spouse. The type of record in which he appeared in 1805 does typically reflect kinship or marital choices. It is also possible that, having shucked servitude, he had no desire to live in a state of dependency upon largesse offered by his half-white half-brother.
One last document suggests that Nicolas did spend his final days amid his younger half-siblings on Isle Brevelle. On Nicolas’s deathbed in April 1850, Augustin Metoyer—himself an octogenarian at the time—called a priest to administer final rites to Nicolas. After the black brother’s death on 11 April, Augustin took him to the parish church the following day for burial. The identity of the priest silently tells us that Nicolas had left his north-of-Natchitoches home. Had he still been there, the nearest priest—just six miles away—would have been the Reverend August Martin of the town of Natchitoches; and the churchyard used for burial would have been that of the Chapel of the Nativity at Campti. However, the priest that was summoned was Father H. Figari of Cloutierville—a village some twenty-five miles below Natchitoches and more than thirty miles distant from Campti. Rev. Figari, as pastor of St. Jean Baptiste des Cloutierville, also tended the Metoyer chapel of St. Augustine on Isle Brevelle.48
Jack Webb, the famed Dragnet detective, consistently called for “Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.” That stance, a wise one for detectives, has its counterpart among historical researchers who recognize the difference between documented “facts,” speculation, and interpretation.
Facts, viewed in isolation, do not tell a reliable story. Webb did seek unembellished facts, but he then correlated and interpreted them. As historians, we need to seek those unembellished facts also, using unadulterated records to every extent possible—originals or those that have undergone the least amount of processing. Like Webb, we need to identify, correlate, and analyze all the evidence in order to reliably understand it. We need to pose hypotheses and test them in every conceivable way, attempting to disprove the theories we form. When our hypotheses withstand all plausible tests, with no contrary evidence left unrebutted, we assemble our proof. At that point, it is indeed our job to put our evidence into a meaningful context that we express as an interpretation of the event or situation. Nowhere in this process, however, is there room for mere speculation.
1. Both New World and Old World French of Coincoin’s era used dits (masculine) or dites (feminine) as a nickname that substituted for a surname. Among Africans in French colonies, a dit(e) was often the individual’s African name or an African name given to a child by African-born parents. When freed, one’s dit(e) often became the surname.
The dite Coincoin (aka Coin Coin) is a nineteenth-century phonetic standardization. Original documents of the colonial and early American regimes, created by and about this woman, wrote the name in a variety of ways: CoinCoin, Coin Coin, Coinquin, Coinquoin, Connequoin, Coucan, Cuencuen, KuenKouen, Qoinquin, Qucouan, and Quen quen.
2. For two somewhat variant perspectives on this freedwoman, see Elizabeth Shown Mills, “Marie Thérèse Coincoin (1742–1816): Cane River Slave, Slave Owner, and Paradox,” in Louisiana Women: Their Lives and Times, Janet Allured and Judith F. Gentry, eds. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009), 10–29; and H. Sophie Burton, “Marie Thérèze dit Coincoin: A Free Black Woman on the Louisiana-Texas Frontier,” in Nexus of Empire: Negotiating Loyalty and Identity in the Revolutionary Borderlands, 1760s–1820s, Gene Allen Smith and Sylvia L. Hilton, eds. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010), 104. The Mills essay provides the documentation for all statements made about Coincoin in this QuickLesson, unless otherwise noted. For proof of Coincoin's birth and ethnicity, see E. S. Mills, "Documenting a Slave's Birth, Parentage, and Origins (Marie Thérèse Coinoin, 1742–1816): A Test of Oral History," National Genealogical Society Quarterly 96 (December 2008): 245–66; archived online at E. S. Mills, Historic Pathways (http://www.HistoricPathways.com/download/coincoin.pdf).
3. 1820 U.S. Census, Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, p. 95 (stamped), line 65, “Coin Coin.”
4. For additional details about the published error and the evidence that corrects it, see Elizabeth Shown Mills, “Demythicizing History: Marie Thérèse Coincoin, Tourism, and the National Historical Landmarks Program,” Louisiana History 53 (Fall 2012): 402–37, particularly 413; archived at Historic Pathways (https://www.historicpathways.com/download/Demythicizing-LHfall12-ocr.pdf). For more information about Nicolas and the family at large, see Gary B. Mills and Elizabeth Shown Mills, The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color, rev. ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, Fall 2013).
5. The issue at hand is a valuable reminder to researchers of the need to reevaluate published conclusions, rather than merely accepting them. Premature conclusions of this type appear in many scholarly publications, where researchers have limited access to records and are under pressure to publish frequently. When we build on the work of others and “trust” that a prior researcher reached an accurate conclusion, we can undermine the validity of our own work.
6. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Natchitoches, 1800–1825: Translated Abstracts of Register Number Five of the Catholic Church Parish of St. François des Natchitoches in Louisiana (New Orleans: Polyanthos, 1980), entry 784.
7. Natchitoches Parish, “[Notarial] Books 2 & 3, Marriage & Misc. (1816–1819),” 122; Office of the Clerk of Court, Natchitoches,.
8. The purpose of a marriage contract, which occurred prior to nuptials, was to establish the financial terms of the marriage. It identified the property each spouse would bring into the marriage and it set the parameters for the distribution of their property whenever the marriage was dissolved by death. When a prior marriage had produced children, as Pierre’s had done, the marriage contract protected the inheritance rights of that first set of children from usurpation by a second spouse.
9. Natchitoches Parish, "[Notarial] Books 2 & 3, Marriage & Misc. (1816–1819),” 122.
10. Researchers who use Ancestry.com to access the 1820 census of Natchitoches should be aware that its database has inaccurately rearranged pages of this census to create two (not five) arbitrary and misleading divisions:
A. “Natchitoches, which consists of the first page of the unlabeled district (stamped p. 91) and the first page of “Town of Natchitoches” (stamped p. 96). It omits the last half-page for the town of Natchitoches (top of stamped p. 97).
B. “Not Stated,” which consists of the remainder of the unlabeled District 1 (stamped pp. 92–94); District 2, “East of Rio Hondo” (stamped pp. 94–95); Dist. 3, last half of “Town of Natchitoches” (stamped p. 97); District 4, “Continuation of Natchitoches Proper” (stamped pp. 97–98); and District 5, Prudhomme Plantation to Rapides (pp. 98–100).
By reconstructing the pages of the census, one can follow the census taker as he began canvassing the Neutral Strip between Natchitoches and the Sabine River, working his way northward. When he reached the last of the outlying settlements in that district, he turned east to cover the households north of the town―after which he returned to the town and enumerated its population before he headed downriver to the parish’s southern boundary
11. The region was called the “Neutral Strip” at this time because, after 1803, its ownership was claimed by both the U.S. and Spanish Texas. Until the execution of the Adams-Onis Treaty in 1821, both countries agreed not to send administrative officials into the region. Census takers ignored that agreement.
12. Coincoin’s children and grandchildren are documented in Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills, “Slaves and Masters: The Louisiana Metoyers,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 70 (September 1982): 163–89; archived online at Historic Pathways (http://www.historicpathways.com/download/slavnmast.pdf). E. S. Mills, Isle of Canes (Provo: Ancestry.com, 2004), provides extensive charts that update their personal data. Coincoin also had a freed daughter and grandchildren who were permanently established in St. Landry Parish, the daughter having been taken there by Coincoin’s former owners after Coincoin was bought and manumitted by the French immigrant Pierre Metoyer.
13. This daughter’s freedom has not been reported or documented in any previously published writings on the family. For her manumission see Natchitoches Parish, Conveyance Book 8:104, 23 July 1819, Alexis Cloutier to Françoise.
14. The team of scholars who misidentified Marie Thérèse Coincoin as “Coin Coin” of the 1820 census appears not to have been aware of this first-born son. Their publications cite published research from the 1970s that identify Coincoin as the mother of fourteen children. They apparently missed the 1982 genealogy of her family, which introduced the discovery of the fifteenth child. For this first published record of Nicolas, see Mills and Mills, “Slaves and Masters,” 171–72.
15. Under colonial Louisiana’s Code Noir, enslaved children under the age of fourteen were not to be sold away from their parents. Nicolas and his mother belonged to a daughter of the founder of Natchitoches. That lady’s brother-in-law, Athanase de Mézières Sr., was the post commandant who assisted the slaveowner in making the illegal sale. For that transaction, see Natchitoches Parish, Archive Conveyance Records, no. 757, November 1772; Office of the Clerk of Court, Natchitoches. Nicolas’s birth and baptism occurred in a period for which the baptismal records have been destroyed. His age is extrapolated from the annual censuses of Nacogdoches, Texas, cited below.
16. Carmen Leal, Translations of Statistical and Census Reports of Texas, 1782–1836, and Sources Documenting the Black in Texas, 1603–1803, 3 rolls (San Antonio: Institute of Texan Culture, 1979), roll 3, frames 826–29, for Gil y Barbo to Nicolas Augustin [Metoyer], “Proceedings Concerning Nicolas Augustin’s Petition to Redeem His Brother Nicolas Chiquito, a Negro Slave of Antonio Gil y Barvo [sic].”
The portrait of Augustin Metoyer, which introduces this QuickLesson, is a full-length oil painted in 1835 or 1836 by the New Orleans artist known only as Feuille. The image used above is a snippet of a photo made of the original by E. S. and G. B. Mills.
17. Ibid., roll 1, for censuses of 1794 and 1795.
18. Leal, Translations, for “Proceedings Concerning Nicolas Augustin’s Petition.” For the misfortunes of Gil y Barbo, see Donald E. Chipman and Harriett Denise Joseph, Notable Men and Women of Spanish Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), chapter 9, 178–201.
19. Leal, Translations, roll 1, for censuses of 1796 and 1797.
20. Chipman and Joseph, Notable Men and Women, 200.
21. Nicolas, Free Negro, Claim R&R 307, Old Board No. 820, Sections 68 and 114, T8N R6W; Private Land Claim Files, Louisiana Office of State Lands, Baton Rouge.
22. Affidavit of Pierre “Carey” [Quierry], in ibid.; abstract published in American State Papers: Documents Legislative and Executive of the Congress of the United States, Public Land Series, 8 vols. (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1832–62), vol. 3 (1834), 199.
23. Natchitoches Parish, Conveyance Book 7: 83, for Nicolas, free Negro, to Nicolas Augustin Metoyer, free man of color, 18 December 1818.
24. U.S. District Court, Natchitoches, Roubieu vs. Metoyer, bundle 59, case 1395, and Metoyer vs. Roubieu, bundle 74, case 1473 (consolidated 1836); Clerk of Court’s Office, Natchitoches. These consolidated cases also contain affidavits by three parish residents (Antoine Prudhomme, Neuville LeMoine, and Judge A. E. Greneaux) who reference Nicolas as someone they recalled in a peripheral capacity. No one who resided in the neighborhood of his land said that they knew him personally.
25. St. John the Baptist Catholic Church (Cloutierville, La.), “Ecctcl Burials A.D. 1847 to A.D. 1906,” unnumbered p. 17, for 12 April 1850 entry reporting the burial of “________ [no name, just a gap], brother of Augustin Metoyer, who died yesterday, aged 85 years, after having received the sacraments.” The deaths of all other adult brothers of Augustin Metoyer have been documented. Nicolas is the only candidate for the unnamed brother.
26. Mills, Natchitoches, 1800–1826, entry 150.
27. For an identification of the children of the French and Chitimacha François Grappe dit Touline by Henry Trichel’s black slave Marie Louise, see Natchitoches Parish, Archive Conveyance Records, doc. 2724, being Grappe’s 1796 manumission of his placée and their offspring; and doc. 1145, being the 1775 succession of Henry Trichel.
28. Testimony of Nicolas Gallien [white], 16 November 1811, in Augustin Metoyer Claim B-1955, Sec. 41 and others, T10N R7W, Private Land Claim case files, Louisiana Office of State Lands. The time frame stated for the occupancy of this land falls closer to the time frame that Nicolas was retrieved from Texas.
29. Some of the racial designations used in the time frame under study are terms no longer considered appropriate. However, in reporting details from historical documents, it is essential that we preserve the exact term used in each record. These terms are important descriptors that help us differentiate between same name individuals.
30. In this era, Louisiana deeds rarely cited land by American section numbers. Rather, they continued the old practice of identifying arpentage along the waterway, sometimes the total arpentage or acreage, the side of the river on which the land lay, the adjacent neighbors, and sometimes prior owners. Because many landowners held multiple tracts, researchers typically have to research chains of title to adjacent tracts in order to ascertain the exact location of any tract being conveyed. Some 100 or deeds were consulted in this case. To keep the discussion focused here, citations will cover only key documents for Lamatte, Guillaume, and the two other men to whom their lands were granted.
31. This Louis Lamatte (var. Lamathe, etc.) should not be confused with a white neighbor, Louis LaMalathy (various spellings), who lived slightly upriver. For Lamatte’s landowning, see Natchitoches Parish Conv. Book 5:312, 12 March 1818, John Sibley to Louis LaMatte, sale of 3 arpents on east side of Red River between Grande Ecore and Campti; bounded below by land of Athanase DeMézières and above by land of Augustin. A second deed establishes that Lamatte was still there in 1823 and that this land was his residence; see Conv. Book 13:97–98, 28 Jan. 1823 [according to index], Louis Lamathe to Rose Mathilde Dalamande, land at Campti on right side of Red River, bounded north and west by Lamathe, south by DeMézieres, and east by Guillaume, F.N., being part of “the habitation on which Lamathe now resides.”
32. For Guillaume’s land, in addition to the Lamathe-Dalamande document just cited, see Conv. Book 20:133–34, 3 Aug. 1815, Jean Pierre, F.N. (then of Baton Rouge), to Bmy. Fleming and Joseph Irwin [surveyor], 5 arpents frontage on both sides of Red River about 3 leagues (6 miles) above Natchitoches, bounded below on left [ascending] bank by lands of Mr. A. DeMézières and above by “land occupied by Augustin, free Negro.” The reference to “occupied” reflects the fact that Augustin had already sold his land to the Opelousas-based surveyor and speculator Joseph Irwin, but was allowed to remain on the land.
33. As a starting point for the Spanish concession to Augustin, Free Negro, see American State Papers, Public Lands Series, 3:200. On 11 Aug. 1813, when Irwin visited the land to perform the U.S. survey, he offered to buy it, as he frequently did for prime tracts, and the freedman agreed to sell. See Conv. Book 3:113, “Augustin, Free Negro” to Joseph Irwin, 640 acres on both sides of Red River, bounded above on both sides by Joseph Gagnier. [Gagnier was son of Pierre Gagnier, the original claimant for Section 30, as shown on the 1825 survey map.] The Augustin-to-Irwin sale is also referenced in Conv. Book 20:132, dated 21 Nov. 1826, wherein Irwin sells, to his partner Bartholemew Fleming, Irwin’s half of Augustin’s 640 acres.
34. As a starting point for the 1789 order of survey and settlement to Jean Pierre, Free Negro, see American State Papers, Public Lands Series, 3:177..
35. Mills, Natchitoches, 1800–1826, no. 1786. From his age, his ethnic identity, and his request for land amid the Grappes, we can identify him as the former Grappe slave of that double-name who was allowed to legally marry before the church door at the post on 15 June 1774. The priest also legitimated on that day seven children Jean Pierre had fathered by his new wife, the black Grappe slave Marie Thérèse. The youngest child at that time was Augustin who would, as an adult, claim land next door to his father. For Jean Pierre's marriage and the legitimation, see E. S. Mills, Natchitoches, 1729–1803: Abstracts of the Catholic Church Registers of the French and Spanish Post of St. Jean Baptiste des Natchitoches in Louisiana (New Orleans: Polyanthos, 1977), entry 1023.
36. For these and additional plat maps of Louisiana townships, digital images are available in the “Search Historic Documents” module, State of Louisiana, Division of Administration (https://wwwslodms.doa.la.gov).
37. Natchitoches, Conv. Book 20:138, dated 1826, Joseph Irwin of St. Landry Parish, donation, to Edward Irwin Fleming, “minor under the age of puberty, legitimate son of Bartholomew Fleming and his wife Constance.” The land was described at lying “at the place called Île à Nicolas, being the land Irwin bought of François Laurends in October 1823 before notary J. P. M. Dubois of Cloutierville.” The actual deed of sale from Laurends to Irwin and the deed by which Laurends acquired the land, apparently were not submitted for recording at the courthouse.
38. The forthcoming revised edition of Forgotten People develops this point in considerable detail.
39. The original records (not typescripts that could reflect misreadings) spell Gertrude’s dite variously as Dgimby, Dhimby, Jinby, and Chimba. Documents for her son François add the variants Gimbeau and Gombeau. For Gertrude, see the various lists in the 1756–58 succession files of her master and mistress, St. Denis and Wife, being Archive Conveyance Records no. 176, 178, 205, 212, 215. For the son, see Rex vs. François Gimbeau, 1781, originally created as Archive Conveyance Record 1533, now doc. 550, Melrose Collection, Cammie G. Henry Research Center, Northwestern State University, Natchitoches; also Slave Inventory of Joseph Dupré, 1782, doc. 2780, Archive Conveyance Records; and Marie (Derbanne) Varangue to son Athanase Dupré, Sale of François dit Gombeau, 1800, originally created as Archive Conveyance Records, doc. 2940, now available only in transcript as “Old Natchitoches Data,” 2:72, Melrose Collection.
40. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Natchitoches Church Marriages, 1818–1850: Translated Abstracts from the Registers of St. François des Natchitoches, Louisiana (1985; reprinted, Bowie, MD: Willow Bend Books, 2004), entry 149.
41. The evidence also suggests that the child Nicolas was being cared for, on the owner’s farm, by Coincoin’s sister Gertrude. In the document by which he was sold at age 7, he was called “son of Gertrude.” His manumission proceedings clarify the point that he was, instead, the son of Marie Thérèse Coincoin and brother of Coincoin’s son Augustin Metoyer.
42. No record identifies Nicolas’s father. When his brother Augustin sought to purchase him at Nacogdoches, the document identified Nicolas as “Nicolas Chiquito,” an identity that would literally translate as “Nicolas, the Little Guy.” No other known document provides a nickname or a surname for him. It's worth noting that one record created by his mother similarly refers to her as a notably small person. The actual document is now missing, but is included in the courthouse index to colonial records as "1790, Bernarde, fwc, of Le petit Qucouan, Sale of Land"; the index entry cites Archive Conveyance Record 2239.
43. Affidavit of Judge C. E. Greneaux, filed in the previously cited consolidated cases of Roubieu vs. Metoyer and Metoyer vs. Roubieu.
44. Those interested in the evolving status of blacks and multiracial Creoles in Louisiana, might begin with these three studies: Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992); Kimberly S. Hanger, Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769–1803 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997); and Shirley Elizabeth Thompson, Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009). The emphasis upon New Orleans is typical of the literature, but—in various ways—atypical to the experiences outside the urban environment. In addition to the previously cited Forgotten People, the only other study of rural Creoles of color is Carl A. Brasseaux, Keith P. Fontenot, and Claude F. Oubre, Creoles of Color in the Bayou Country (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), which helps to localize the urban interpretations made by Hanger and Thompson. Studying the actual statutes passed from 1806 forward provides a clearer understanding of the changes wrought in the lives of Louisiana’s Creoles of color after the Purchase.
45. Testimony of Manuel Llorens, consolidated cases of Roubieu vs. Metoyer and Metoyer vs. Roubieu.
46. Mills, Natchitoches, 1800–1825, entry 150. Marguerite Grappe, for whose child Nicolas served as godfather, was not a head of household on the 1820 census but is documented as a parishioner of the region as late as 13 March 1818 when she served as godmother to a sister’s child; see ibid., entry 2618. Given the 1813 testimony in the land claim that Nicolas was head of a family, one might hypothesize that Marguerite might have been his common-law wife and the 1805 infant his own child. Some fathers of “natural” children did fill godparental roles for their children. No evidence has been found to identify the father of Marguerite’s two known children (Jean Baptiste, born before 1796; and Marie Jeanne, born 1804). Marguerite was of age to be one of the females aged 45 or older in the 1820 Coin Coin household. That household does not allow for the daughter born in 1804. It is possible that the age cited on the census for the younger female (26–40) erred—or that the daughter, who was now of marriageable age, lived elsewhere. For basic vital records on Marguerite and her two known children, see the previously cited 1796 manumission; Mills, Natchitoches, 1729–1803, entry 2724 (Jean Baptiste); and Mills, Natchitoches, 1800–1826, 150 (Marie Jeanne). Much work remains to be done before this possibility might be proved or disproved.
47. Natchitoches Parish, Conveyance Book 7:83, Nicolas to Augustin Metoyer (1818); and Same to Same (1838) filed in the consolidated cases of Roubieu vs. Metoyer and Metoyer vs. Roubieu.
48. “Ecctcl Burials A.D. 1847 to A.D. 1906,” unnumbered p. 17, entry dated 12 April 1850.
How to Cite This Lesson
Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 16: Speculation, Hypothesis, Interpretation & Proof,” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage (https://www.evidenceexplained.com/content/quicklesson-16-speculation-hypothesis-interpretation-proof : [access date]).
Posted 21 March 2013
Historians are expected to interpret what they find. That’s part of the job description. It’s also one of the most misunderstood aspects of the job. Where do we draw the line between “interpretation” and “speculation”? What relation does either have to the popular buzzword “hypothesis”? At what eventual point does interpretation qualify as “proof”?