Saturday, February 28, 2015

Julie Burcard Thomas (1836-1922)

Julie Burcard is my direct maternal 3x great-grandmother. 
In other words, she is my mother's mother's mother's mother's mother. 
I wrote about Julie two years ago in a previous post. Since then, I have learned so much more. 

This family branch originated in Edgard, Saint John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana. The family has lived in this area since the beginning of the 19th century. 


Julie is super special to me, because she is the first female survivor of slavery I was able to identify. My family has held onto her legacy through oral history, however, her name and the details of her story had been lost. 

Through years of research and cousin connections through, I was blessed to fill in many gaps. Not only do I have names and stories, but I now have pictures!

Julie Burcard Thomas
Courtesy of C. Humphrey
Edited by Julia J. Dumas

Julie's Story:

Julie was born circa March 1836 in Edgard, Saint John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana. She is described as a mulatto woman--short and fair. After much research, I was able to identify her father was the wealthy sugar planter and sheriff, Jean Frederick Burcard (Burkhardt). Almost nothing is known of her mother. 

Being the colored child of a planter was not uncommon. Planters and overseers were men of power. They had unlimited access to women held in bondage, who could not deny their master anything, including her sexuality. The spreadsheets of slave schedules testify to the commonality of these unions through their offspring: mulatto slaves. 

The plight of the mulatto slave: 

The very idea of a mulatto slave is in and of itself an oxymoron. America's system of race-based chattel slavery was a bundle of contradictions. The natural social order of that time dictated that blacks were subhuman and were born slaves. Whites were free, born to conquer and rule. 

What then was the natural position of someone who was mixed race?

Society's racial hierarchy also influenced the rules within families. Being owned by relatives, who were either unwilling or unable to acknowledge their familial connection, was a precarious position to be in. 

Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, describes what life was often like for a mulatto slave in his autobiography. 

The whisper that my master was my father, may or may not be true; and, true or false, it is of but little consequence to my purpose whilst the fact remains, in all its glaring odiousness, that slaveholders have ordained, and by law established, that the children of slave women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mothers; and this is done too obviously to administer to their own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable; for by this cunning arrangement, the slaveholder, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father. I know of such cases; and it is worthy of remark that such slaves invariably suffer greater hardships, and have more to contend with, than others. They are, in the first place, a constant offence to their mistress. She is ever disposed to find fault with them; they can seldom do any thing to please her; she is never better pleased than when she sees them under the lash, especially when she suspects her husband of showing to his mulatto children favors which he withholds from his black slaves. The master is frequently compelled to sell this class of his slaves, out of deference to the feelings of his white wife; and, cruel as the deed may strike any one to be, for a man to sell his own children to human flesh-mongers, it is often the dictate of humanity for him to do so; for, unless he does this, he must not only whip them himself, but must stand by and see one white son tie up his brother, of but few shades darker complexion than himself, and ply the gory lash to his naked back; and if he lisp one word of disapproval, it is set down to his parental partiality, and only makes a bad matter worse, both for himself and the slave whom he would protect and defend.

Slave Status?

Some relatives debated whether Julie and her husband were indeed slaves. For some people, there is a shame or dishonor in being the descendant of people who were once enslaved. I do not feel this way. My ancestors who were enslaved are survivors in my eyes. To me, they are the strongest people to have walked this earth. There is no shame, only pride, because they did nothing wrong. 

Why I believe Julie was a slave: 

1. I am unable to find her in any record prior to 1870 (before the Civil War). Only enslaved persons were not enumerated by name in Census records. They were instead listed as property on slave schedules during 1850 and 1860.

2. In 1860, I found Julie and her first two children listed in a slave schedule as mulatto slaves in the house of her father's business partner Benjamin Bethancourt. Though there are no names, the gender and ages of Julie and her first two children match. Why would Julie not in the household of her father, even though he owned numerous slaves? As Frederick Douglass stated, keeping one's mulatto offspring in the household was an offense to white relatives. The social order had to be maintained.

3. Julie married a black man by the name of Pierre Thomas. Though having several children, they did not legally wed until 16 May 1868, after the Civil War. If they were free, I am sure they would have wed before the Civil War because Julie was a Catholic woman. It was also the tradition of newly freed persons to legally wed their long-time spouses to ensure legal and financial rights as free persons.

Julie and Pierre had several children: 

Elmira Leonie
Jean Baptiste
Henry Raoul
*debated, only listed once in records

Confirming Julie's father

In the 1900 Census, Julie listed her father's birthplace as Germany. This led me on a wild goose hunt to identify any foreign born people in and around her area. This immigrant claim helped tremendously, because most of the inhabitants of the parish were not immigrants nor the descendant of immigrants. 

Julie's boldness in proudly proclaiming her father's German heritage helped to confirm her father's identity. My research revealed he was actually a first-generation Swiss-American, on his father's side. JF's mother came from a long line of German-Americans who first settled Louisiana, 40 miles north of New Orleans on the German Coast. I assume Jean spoke German fluently (as many Swiss do), which may be why Julie thought he was solely German. Also, the borders of Germany changed so frequently, it is possible there may have been whispers of Germany in the household.

Our family had always known about this German heritage, because it was passed down through our oral history. 
Researching this branch of the family has unearthed a treasure of goodies.

Remember, I told you have pictures. 

Here is a side by side comparison of Julie Burcard and her father Jean Frederick Burcard.

Julie Burcard (L) with father JF Burcard (R)
Photos Courtesy of:
C. Humphrey and V. Trahan
Edited by Julia J. Dumas

Anyone see a resemblance? 

If I ever had any doubts between Julie and JF's connection, 
I simply look at their photographs. 
It is truly amazing! 
(DNA has since confirmed a connection between the white and colored offspring of JF Burcard.)

I often wonder about the relationship between these two people caught in the peculiar institution. I am sure Julie knew exactly who her father was. But, was he willing and able to acknowledge her and her children? What was Julie's relationship with her half-siblings, who were born free and white? That, I do not know. 

What I do know is that for many years, Julie and her descendants continued to live in close proximity to Jean Frederick Burcard and his legitimate children. Also, Julie had an affinity for her maiden surname. Though a married woman, she continued to use her maiden name, even on church burial records. 

This does seem a bit odd for a colored woman because none of JF Burcard's former slaves used his surname after they were freed. Only Julie. However, this was not uncommon for women who were born into prominent families.

After becoming widowed, Julie resided with her son Gustave Thomas and his family, in Montz, Saint Charles Parish, Louisiana until her death. At her death, Julie would have been approximately 86 years-old. He passed away on 10 March 1922. She is buried at Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church in Edgard, Louisiana, USA.

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