|About the Author
Elizabeth Shown Mills is a historical writer who has spent her life
studying Southern culture and the relationships between people—emotional
as well as genetic. A popular lecturer, author of numerous works
on generational history, and past president of the American Society
of Genealogists, Elizabeth recently retired as editor of the National
Genealogical Society Quarterly to devote her time to writing. Elizabeth
is the author, editor, and translator of a dozen books and over
500 journal and magazine articles in the field of genealogy, and
is best known for two books that are now considered essential reference
works in the field: Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian and Professional
Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers
& Librarians. Isle of Canes is her first novel.
From the Author
Cane River stole my heart in 1970. As a young wife and mother,
I went there to find my children’s roots, never suspecting
that a bout of curiosity would turn into a lifelong love affair.
I found its people to be a puzzle. Cloutiers, Derbannes, Duprés,
La Cours and Le Courts, Lecomtes, Prudhommes, and Rachals. They
came in many shades. They gave their children the same names.
They worshipped in the same churches but, curiously, in different
wings—one for whites, one for blacks, and one for those
considered to be neither. They shared not only the same river
but the same records, challenging modern researchers to sort them
out. Among them, like the glue that held them all together, lived
the Metoyers, a family that intrigued me although I could find
no place for them on our family charts.
Cane River fever spread within our household. My husband, a
young historian, was duly cautioned by his department head “not
to get involved with genealogy or his career would be ruined”—a
warning common to the era but one he proceeded to ignore. My mother-in-law
took me back to Cloutierville and taught me the way her people
thought—they and the neighbors who shared their lives and
some of the same ancestral lines. As I gathered their stories
and struggled to chart out their connections on mammoth rolls
of newsprint, my three-year-old joined me on the floor to “write
Rachals,” as she put it. Her affinity for that family name
was not surprising. It was the one we had, perhaps with premonition,
given her at birth.
In 1972, my hobby became a profession. The Association for the
Preservation of Historic Natchitoches had been gifted with the
estate grounds of a plantation steeped in lore and wracked with
controversy. If legend could be believed, it dated to the colonial
era, during which it had been founded by a freed slave woman variously
known as Marie Thérèse or Coincoin. My charge was
to document its history. The hope was to earn a slot on the National
Register of Historic Places. As often was the case, the legend
strayed here and there from the facts of history, like partners
in a waltz who touch and twirl together then swing away to tease
and flirt with others before coming back into each other’s
arms. Yet the story that emerged from thousands of records scattered
across six nations, was even more incredible. By the time the
project ended, the fabled plantation actually founded by Coincoin’s
son Louis—and known now as Melrose on the Cane—was
proclaimed a National Historic Landmark.
Even then, Cane River and its Isle still held the Millses in
their grip. Bridging the traditional divide between academic and
family history, my husband adopted the Isle for his doctoral dissertation.
The parish of Natchitoches continued to be our “other home,”
and the Metoyers who carved a civilization out of the canebrakes
became our “adopted family.” Inevitably, Gary’s
career would take him elsewhere, but mine would stay rooted along
that mystic river.
Gary’s dissertation, which Louisiana State University
Press published in 1977 as The Forgotten People: Cane River’s
Creoles of Color, reconstructs the socio-economic history
of the Isle from the naked bones of the documentary record. Beyond
those bones, however, there was a heart throbbing with family
stories left untold, a soul formed by the society that spawned
rich traditions, and the flesh of historical context that was
colored by all the families with whom the Metoyers lived, worked,
loved, and feuded. In Isle of Canes, the heart, soul,
flesh, and bones are made one.