This article was contributed by Mr. Alex Lee. Currently living in Beaumont, Texas Alex had been researching his Saint Landry parish Louisiana family for many years (https://www.facebook.com/Alexgenealogy?fref=ts) and, as he discovered the interconnectedness of the St. Landry families, branched out to research many other families of the parish. He is uncovering difficult to discern slave ancestors as well as European and Native American ancestory among the St. Landry creole families. As a researcher who is considerably younger than the average genealogist Alex has embraced uncovering his own ancestry as well as teaching others to do their own.
On September 2, 1847, approximately 168 years ago, Martin Donato, a free man of color and prominent planter in the town of Opelousas, Louisiana, wrote a last will and testament which left behind a puzzling mystery as to why he wanted to grant freedom only to 12 of his numerous enslaved people upon his death. It was stated that immediately after his death, he wanted to give freedom to these following slaves to-wit;
Julie, age about 32 years, and her seven children to-wit, Eugenie age about 14 years, Emile age about 12 years, Uranie age about 11 years, Felicianne and Felicie twin sisters age about 8 years, Philomene age about 4 years and Didier age about 1 year three months, and to Meurice & Olympie twin sisters age about twenty years and to Marie Jeanne, daughter of Olympie, age about 2 years more or less. In consideration of the recommendation that was made to Martin by his deceased son Edmond Donato, Martin also gave freedom to his mulatto slave named Leon age about 19 years (son of Rosine).
Martin Donato also mentioned the free status that was given to Sabin Donato (son of his negresse Celeste) who was given his freedom at birth by Martin and his deceased wife. Martin Donato also firmly declared that if any of his heirs would contest his wishes, they would be disinherited from his will.
[Historical notes on Martin Donato’s ancestry: “Governor Alejandro O’Reilly’s ordinance of 1770 provided renewed impetus for settlement along the western Louisiana frontier by establishing liberal guidelines for land grants. This ordinance resulted in the migration of modestly wealthy but ambitious settlers from the more densely populated areas to the east and southeast—the German coast, the Pointe Coupee district, and New Orleans. Donato Bello of New Orleans w[as] among those who moved to the Opelousas post with [his] dual (white and mulatto) famil[y], including [his] Creole of Color children.
Donato Bello, an infantry officer and a native of Corand, Naples, married in New Orleans on January 15, 1765, Suzanne Moreau of Alabama, the daughter of Joseph Valentin Moreau and Marie Jean Lafleur. The first records of Donato Bello in the Opelousas and Attakapas post appear in 1787.
Donato Bello obviously maintained a simultaneous relationship with Marie Jeanne Talliaferro, a New Orleans-born mulatto. Talliaferro bore Bello at least three children—Martin, Marie Celeste, and Catherine Victoire. These children first appear in the documentary record of the Opelousas post on November 3, 1789, with the signing of a marriage contract between Catherine Victoire and Jean-Baptiste Guillory, a native of the Opelousas post and the natural son of Gregoire Guillory and Marquerite, a free Negress. Martin Donato signed the document as a witness for his sister.
By 1803 Martin Donato owned a large vacherie (cattle ranch), a separate plantation where he and his wife resided on which was installed a new cotton mill and also 3 adult male slaves who worked alongside Martin’s 3 adult sons. He owned hundreds of cattle and more than a score of horses. He also had cash assets of $5,000 piastres (a former coin of Turkey, 1/100th of a lira), some of which were loaned out. Throughout his entire life he served as a private banker to his neighbors, both whites and Creoles of Color.”]
By Martin Donato being one of the most successful plantation owners in the country during this time period, it raises the question as to why he made sure that these certain mulatto slaves were to be given their freedom and taken care of after his death. Martin never specified the paternity of any of these slaves. Was Martin Donato the father, grandfather or uncle of the mulatto slaves he wanted to free? Not only did Martin want those certain enslaved mulattos freed out of all the 100+ slaves he owned, he also ensured that Julie’s seven children were to be given the security of a great future by making sure that the executor of his estate, Auguste Donato, funded their education.
Over the years, with the help of relatives’ research and Catholic Church records [Father Hebert’s Southwest Louisiana Records series and other Catholic Church Sacramental records series], I was able to find out why Martin Donato freed those 12 slaves. All the slaves mentioned in his last will and testament were related to him by blood. The mulatto slave Julie was Martin’s concubine who bore him those 7 children. Support for this is found in the Catholic entries: Ex. DONATO, Marie Philomene (Martin & Julie RAPHAEL) m. 8 Feb. 1872 Alexandre OLIVIER (Honore & Francoise FRILOT), CUNY; Louis B. (Cesar & Celeste THIERRY) m. 25 July 1861 Felice DONATO (Martin & Julie DONATO) (Opel. Ch.: v. 2, p. 322). The twins’ (Olympe and Meurice) relation to Martin Donato was confirmed in the succession of Sabin Donato, when Martin’s former doctor, Frederick Acher of France petitioned against Sabin’s wife to give his daughters, Anaise, Valentine and Marie Acher–daughters of Meurice and nieces to Sabin–their fair share of their deceased uncle’s estate. The family meeting consisting of the nearest relatives for Meurice’s children were, Martin Donato’s son, Francois Auguste Donato and Martin’s grandchildren, Francois Auguste Donato fils (son), Martin Lemelle, Joseph Delmont Donato, Cornelius Donato and Gustave Donato. These names show there was a family connection between Olympe and Meurice, two former slaves mentioned in Martin’s will. Had it not been for Dr. Acher acting against Sabin’s wife for his children’s inheritance it still would have been a mystery as to why Martin freed my ancestor. I am the great, great, great, great grandson of Olympe Donato.
[L. Gobert Note: Martin, Marie Celeste and Catherine Victoire are the ancestors of many, many Creole of Color families in St. Landry parish whose surnames are too numerous to mention here.]
Source for some historical information: Creoles of Color in the Bayou Country, Carl Brasseaux, Keith Fontenot, Claude Oubre.
Lenora A. Gobert