Who owned my mixed-race ancestor in Louisiana?

BY: 

Dear Professor Gates:
I am trying to trace my great-grandfather Emile Perrilliat, who was born circa 1848-1850. He died in May of 1913. He lived in St. John the Baptist Parish, La. He was married to Claire (Clara) Thomas, also from St. John the Baptist Parish.
My problem is I cannot find him or his family before 1880. I have found that there were two individuals by the name of Emile Perrilliat: One was white and the other was “mulatto.” I am looking for the “mulatto” Emile.
I have looked for plantations in St. Charles Parish, Jefferson Parish and St. John the Baptist Parish that might have a slave owner by the name of Perrilliat. If you could please tell me another way to trace this person, I would appreciate it very much. —Claire Humphrey

You have already done quite a bit of sleuthing on your own, which made it easier for us to locate someone who could be your ancestor Emile Perrilliat’s slave owner—assuming that you are, in fact, related to the “mulatto” individual of whom you wrote.

Starting With Census Records and Slave Schedules

U.S. census records are a valuable resource for tracing your ancestors, available online through websites such as Ancestry.com. For the years 1850 and 1860, separate slave schedules were also compiled. The names of the slaves were not typically listed in these documents, but they include the names of the slaveholders, along with the age and gender of their slaves.

In the 1860 census slave schedule for St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana, we located an individual by the name of “A. Perilliat” (spelled with one “r”), listed as the owner of four slaves: a female, age 40, and three male children, ages 12, 8 and 4. Cross-checking that record with the 1860 census shows that A. Perilliat resided in an area known as Bonnet Carré in St. John the Baptist Parish. In the mid-1860s, the area of Bonnet Carré was also called St. Peter, and today it is called Reserve.

The 1860 census listing for A. Perilliat states that he was born in France circa 1799 and his occupation was carpenter. No one else is listed in his household (remember, slaves were considered to be property, which is why they were listed in a separate schedule). In the columns provided in this census for the amount of real estate and personal estate owned by an individual, the real estate column is left blank for A. Perilliat, but the value of his personal estate was listed as $2,000.

Establishing a Connection Between an Owner and the Enslaved

Regarding the slaves owned by A. Perilliat, the 12-year-old male listed in the slave schedule corresponds with the age and gender of your ancestor, Emile Perrilliat. Although the information in these census records does not prove that Emile was one of A. Perilliat’s slaves, it warrants further research to determine whether a connection exists between A. Perilliat and your great-grandfather.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that the 1900 census entry for Emile lists his father’s birthplace as France. You state that Emile was mulatto, as reflected in his 1880 and 1910 census entries. (Although he is listed as “Black” in the 1900 census, the enumerators for this census were given only the choices of “Black,” “White,” “Chinese,” “Japanese” and “American Indian” for the Color/Race column, so “mulatto” was not a choice in this record.) Could A. Perilliat have been not only his owner but also his father?

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