The Mistress of Chretien Point

Chretien Point Plantation is surrounded by green lawns shaded by ancient oaks. Fields of sugar cane extend from the road bordering this white-pillared home, making it easy for visitors to picture the rows of crops, and miles of prairie that surrounded the newly constructed mansion in 1835.

Hippolyte Chretien built the two-story manor on land he inherited from his father. Slave artisans embellished it with arched doors and windows crowned with elegant fanlights and decorated the interior with finely carved woodwork, marble mantels, and ornamental molding.

Four years passed before the majestic home was complete and Hippolyte, and his young wife, Felicité, moved in. Madame Chretien was a renowned beauty whose dark eyes and husky laugh had attracted several admirers. Though it was widely known that she was an unusually independent lady who traveled unchaperoned to New Orleans, rode her horse astride like a man, and worked side by side with her father in the management of his plantation, this did not seem to discourage young men from seeking her hand in marriage. To strengthen his suit, Hippolyte reversed the tradition of a matrimonial dowry and gave his bride-to-be a large sum of money.

Felicité’s father had shared his authority with her, but her husband refused to make her his equal in business matters and stubbornly refused to stop burying his fortune about the plantation – confiding its whereabouts to just one faithful slave.

Hippolyte did allow his wife to enjoy after dinner poker games with their guests and she soon adopted the habit of joining the gentlemen for a smoke, a practice that added new luster to her sensational reputation.

Smugglers were often among visitors welcomed into the parlors of Louisiana planters because they provided a means of avoiding heavy taxes on imported goods purchased in New Orleans. Hippolyte also befriended these shady merchants, offered them food and drink, and allowed them to use his land for the distribution of their contraband. Sadly, the marauders who brought bolts of silk and casks of wine to Chretien Point may also have brought the dreaded yellow fever up the bayou and into the plantation’s hospitable drawing room. In October 1838, the Chretien’s infant son died of yellow fever. The following September, Hippolyte followed his babe into the grave.

Many 19th-century women would have returned to their father’s home at such a juncture in life. But not the strong-willed Felicité. She forced Hippolyte’s confidant to tell her where her husband’s fortune was buried, dug it up, and stashed it in the nearest bank. She hired overseers to help run the plantation, but threw out those who didn’t follow her instructions to the letter.

Felicité was a hands-on supervisor. Her days were spent checking the progress of her crops, caring for her four children, and seeing to the needs of her slaves. In the evenings she continued to enjoy lively card games at her table.

During the 1830′s, plantations such as Chretien Point were islands of civility in ungoverned southwest Louisiana. News that Felicité’s managerial and poker-playing skills had made her an extremely wealthy woman spread far and wide and soon attracted the attention of desperados who roamed the lawless prairie.

Late one evening, when her children were asleep and the house slaves had retired to their quarters behind the mansion, Felicité heard a noise she couldn’t account for. Looking out of her bedroom window she saw several men creeping along in shadows cast by the giant oaks. She ran to the stairs to call for help, but instantly realized that it was too late. One of the bandits was inside the door and heading for the stairwell.

Felicité shouted to him to stop but extended a pouch of jewels to tempt him nearer. When he was at close range, she lifted her other hand, aimed a gun at his head and pulled the trigger.

After he fell, she stepped over him, ran down the stairs, and called for her servants. Ordering two men to conceal the body in a closet beneath the stairs, out of sight of her children, she armed the others and told them to stand by the windows.

When some of the outlaws mounted their horses and approached the house Felicité called out to them: “What do you want?” “We’re looking for our friend,” they replied. “Nobody could have come here,” she told them. “All my men are with me and we have guns.” The horsemen saw the glint of the revolvers pointed out of the widows and galloped away. Felicité and her men stood guard all night, but the scoundrels did not return.

In the morning, the daring mistress of Chretien Point rewarded her men with a swig of whiskey, and sent word to the sheriff to come and collect the blackguard she had killed. His death is recorded in the St. Landry Parish register of the 1840′s. Maids vigorously scrubbed the stairs where the intruder died, but could not remove the bloodstains. There they remain to this day.

In 1845, Felicité left Chretien Point’s 10,000 acres in the care of her son and moved to New Orleans. She lived in an elegant home near the city’s luxurious opera house until her death sometime after the Civil War.

Madame Chretien’s portrait adorns Chretien Point’s dining room and some locals believe her spirit still wanders through the house. They say her presence and that of the brigand she gunned down is responsible for unexplained happenings experienced on the estate. You may scoff at these tales of ghostly mischief, but if you join the thousands of overnight visitors who enjoy Chretien Point’s sumptuous bed and breakfast amenities, don’t be surprised if you are awakened by a husky voiced poker player whispering, “I’ll see your hundred and raise you twenty.”
by Mary Fonseca