Smith Island: A Plantation in Rural Natchitoches Parish

By Melissa Hagen Dezendorf

Smith Island House and kitchen prior to 1930. Photograph courtesy of Lewis Conger.

Figure 1. Map of Smith Island area.

Smith Island Plantation is located approximately eight miles northwest of Natchitoches, Louisiana, off of Louisiana Highway 1 in an oxbow bend of the Red River (Figure 1). The Smith Island house, built in the style of a raised Creole cottage, has been abandoned since the late 1970s. Lack of occupation and upkeep facilitated a rapid decline in the house, especially after a large tree crushed the rear addition leaving the interior exposed to the elements. Local farmers lease the land surrounding the Smith Island Plantation house and continue to cultivate the land, but no future plans exist for the restoration of the house.

In August 2004, the Natchitoches Historic Foundation (NHF) received permission from property owner Lewis Conger to remove architectural elements from the house. Rather than losing all elements of the Smith Island plantation house, Mr. Conger agreed that they should be put to use. The NHF strives to retain the historic character of Natchitoches and frequently undertakes restoration projects of houses that would otherwise be demolished. Items removed from Smith Island were utilized in a restoration project at the Hankins House. The Hankins House (Figure 2, prior to restoration) is located in the National Historic Landmark District of Natchitoches, Louisiana. Components removed from the Smith Island house included several sets of windows, interior and exterior doors, and wrap-around mantles from the fireplace. The NHF completed the Hankins House renovation in 2005 (Figure 3).

Figure 2-Hankins House prior to restoration. Photo by Edd Lee.

Figure 3-Completed Hankins House renovation. Photo by Melissa Hagen Dezendorf.

Since the Smith Island house would soon succumb to decay, research into the origins of the property was initiated. Mr. Conger did not know the construction date of the Smith Island house or the history of previous ownership of the land. He was aware that his great-grandfather, J. Ben Smith, bought the property at a sheriff’s auction, ca. 1873, and the house and property were passed down in his family.1 Through the generations, the Smith family divided the property through inheritance. Mr. Conger’s mother, Winifred Greening Pirkle Conger, managed to repurchase the fragmented plots of property that had passed out of the family.

After speaking with Mr. Conger and obtaining some background information about the house, a survey of historic maps was conducted. The property comprises section 11, Township 10 North, Range 8 West.2 The earliest U.S. plat map showing the property was produced in 1829 from an 1825 survey (Figure 4). This map lists no property owner for Smith Island, but does have a reference to ownership of Section 11:

Note-The claimants’ names and no. of certificates for sections nos. 6 & 11 will be procured from the Principal Surveyors office at Opelousas and forwarded to you very shortly. –Jas P. Turner.

Figure 4-U.S. plat map produced in 1829. Map from the Louisiana Land Office online database.

A separate land claim confirmation dated November 28, 1831, named John Paillette and Company as the owner of Section 11, later known as Smith Island.

It is not clear why the name and certificate number for Section 11 were not available when the 1829 map was produced. The land was certified in 1811 under claim number 1680 as belonging to Paillette, identified as Jean Jacques Poillette. The claim for for 1200 arpents (1015.53 acres) on Red River was confirmed to Paillette by the U.S. Land Commissioners on December 18, 1811. The property included Paillette’s adjacent claim, Section 9. The original claimant for this property was Jean Baptiste Larenaudiere, but the patent was awarded to Paillette.3

The next plat map dates to 1831 (Figure 5), by which time the Section 11 was listed under the ownership of John J. Paillette. A narrow neck of land, Section 6, necessary for access to the island, was owned by Remy Perrot [Perot]. Paillette also owned an arpent lot of 337 acres, Section 9, across the river from Smith Island. In 1853, John J. Paillette and Company were still listed as the owners of Sections 9 and 11 (Figure 6).

Figure 5-1831 plat map. Map from the Louisiana Land Office online database.

Figure 6-1853 plat map. Map from the Louisiana Land Office online database.

With the information gleaned from Conger and the historic maps, the next step was to perform a reverse chain of title utilizing historic deed records at the Natchitoches Parish Clerk of Court’s office. Knowing that Mr. Conger’s family purchased the property ca. 1870, the search commenced with his relative, J. Ben Smith. The mortgage record in the Natchitoches Parish Clerk of Court’s records stated that, in the succession of Louis Marcy and Marie M. Fonteneau [Fontenot], the property was sold to the last and highest bidder, Mr. Smith, on January 13, 1873.

…A certain part of land or plantation situated in the Parish of Natchitoches, State of Louisiana, bounded entirely by Old River, being Sections five (5), six (6) and Eleven (11) in Township Ten (10) North, Eight (8) Range West, Northwestern Land District of Louisiana containing five hundred and ninety and 82/100 arpents according to a plat survey made by G.S. Walmsley…Surveyor on the 10th day of January 1840 said lands situated about two miles above Campte in said parish and lately known as Marcy’s Island…together with all the buildings and improvements thereon…;

According to the terms and conditions of sale, Smith made two payments on the property before he received full title. The first was on September 1, 1873, for a sum of $2000.00. The second payment was made on May 22, 1877, for $519.35.4 The language of the record makes it clear that the house existed on the Smith Island property prior to 1873.

The next record described the succession of Mme. Mannette Fonteneau [Fontenot], deceased wife of Louis Marcy. The property in question was offered for sale at a Sheriff’s Auction, January 30, 1872, as part of her succession. According to the succession, the sale was advertised in the Natchitoches Times from December 30, 1871, to January 30, 1872. Louis Marcy, husband of the deceased, leased the property for $50.00 for one year.5 The proceedings do not clarify why Marcy had to lease property that had been previously in his possession via marriage, but if there were issue from the marriage and the land originally belonged to Madame Marcy, her husband would not be the sole heir under laws of inheritance in place in Louisiana at that time.

The Cammie G. Henry Research Center at Watson Memorial Library, Northwestern State University, maintains archives of local historical documents. A search was performed for the newspaper advertising the Fontenot succession sale. The Natchitoches Times (the exact newspaper name given in the court record) did not begin printing until 1895. A smaller paper, the Natchitoches Weekly Times, was in existence from 1868-1872.6 Unfortunately, very few copies of this newspaper survived. The only microfilmed copy on record at the archives is for November 1872. The link that would explain how the Marcy/Fontenot family had come into possession of the property remained unknown. However, the Fontenots were listed on historic maps as owning property adjacent to Smith Island on the south side of Old River.

Since the Fontenot connection to the Smith Island property remained a mystery, it was necessary to start with Jean Jacques Paillette, the first owner of record for the property, and search forward. J.B Larenaudiere, original owner and grantee of the Smith Island property, was found in a record of transaction with Remy Perot and J.J. Paillette on August 1, 1807. It involved land fronting the Red River at a precinct called Faillard at Campti on the left bank, comprising 20 arpents front. This property, acquired by J.B Larenaudiere in a Spanish land grant dating January 1, 1787, was under the possession of Remy Perot and was sold to Paillette for 2000 piastres. Paillette paid in full on March 14, 1809.7 The description of the property was too vague to be certain of where it lies.

No further records could be found that date between the ownership of Paillette and that of the Fontenot /Marcy family. At this point, it was certain that J.J. Paillette received the land in patent in 1811. Remy Perot was involved with J. B Larenaudiere and sold adjacent property to J.J. Paillette. Perhaps Perot and Larenaudiere were the “company” in Paillette and Company. A 60 year gap in the recorded ownership exists between Paillette’s patent and the Manette Fontenot succession in 1871. To find out more about J. J. Paillette, consultation with Robert DeBlieux8 of the Natchitoches Historic Foundation and Ginny Tobin9 of the Natchitoches Genealogical Association was undertaken. Both have corresponded with a gentleman in France who is writing a book on J.J. Paillette. The gentleman was kind enough to share his records, but they are entirely in French.

According to DeBlieux and Tobin, Paillette was a native Louisianan, born in Natchitoches. At some point in his life, he lived in New Orleans. Paillette owned a sizeable amount of property along present day Cane River in addition to the property now known as Smith Island. He married Victoire Poissot with whom he fathered several children.

Paillette sought influence and power, leading him to join a revolutionary group under the direction of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Joseph. The group’s plan was to rescue Napoleon Bonaparte from his exile on St. Helena, invade Mexico, and crown Napoleon as the Emperor of Mexico. This plan included building a garrison on the coast of Texas for the recruitment of soldiers to Napoleon’s future army. The garrison was built on an island named Champs d’Asiles or Place of Refuge. DeBlieux learned about this through his research on an interesting artifact he discovered in his attic—one of two surviving medallions manufactured for members of the garrison to distribute to local Native Americans as gestures of friendship. These medallions were engraved with a bust of Napoleon on the front and an inscription on the back (Figure 7).10

Figure 7-Napoleon Bonaparte medallion courtesy of Robert Deblieux.

Paillette relocated to France at about the same time that the garrison at Champs d’Asiles was abandoned. A map belonging to Deblieux shows Paillette’s lands along what is now Cane River which he sold to the Prud’homme family. Apparently, there was a habitation on that property, originally granted to Joseph Lattier by the Spanish (Figure 8). No records were located which indicate what Paillette did with the lands comprising present day Smith Island when he moved to France. With the knowledge that he had children, the courthouse records were consulted for any papers relating to them. An index listed the successions of Antoine Paillette11 and William Paillette.12 The book in which the successions were actually located was missing from the Natchitoches Parish Courthouse.

Figure 8-Map showing Paillette's land along what is now Cane River. Map courtesy of Robert Deblieux.

Records regarding the lands surrounding Smith Island, outside the boundaries of Old River, were also reviewed to ascertain any clues about the Smith Island property and its neighbors. These records dealt mainly with the Fontenot family and Remy Perot, owner of the access neck of land to Smith Island. One record, dated March 30, 1841, was a land transfer from Louis Fontenot to his heirs.13 Fontenot’s land included Section 10, a parcel adjacent to Section 9 owned by Paillette, both parcels being across the river from Smith Island. A sketch map within the deed shows Section 9 as “vacant” which possibly means the Fontenot family was unaware of Paillette’s whereabouts as well.

Three separate lawsuits involving lands in the vicinity of Smith Island were filed between the Fontenot and Perot families. On September 21, 1814, Widow Fontenot sued Perot for his land.14 Another lawsuit between the same parties dated to May 11, 1820, but there was no description of the land or improvements within the document.15 The third action took place between Césare Fontenot and Mannette Perot regarding a mortgage of $400.00.16 These records are listed to illustrate the amount of recorded feuding and lawsuits involving the Fonteneaus that persisted in the area during Paillette’s vacancy.

The above referenced records and maps are the sum total of identified resources regarding the ownership of Smith Island. The following is a synthesis of the information available. In 1787, Jean Baptiste Larenaudiere received a Spanish land grant for a tract of land that included Smith Island. Remy Perot, also in the vicinity of Smith Island, purchased property from Larenaudiere. Perot was listed on related historic maps as the owner of the access neck to Smith Island, and the records showed that Perot sold nearby property to J.J. Paillette. Paillette received ownership of the remainder of the property, including Smith Island, through an 1811 United States land patent; however, he left the United States leaving no official records of how he disposed of the Smith Island property. This was apparent from the 1829 historic map that showed an asterisk denoting unknown ownership. The record involving the heirs of Louis Fontenot listed Section 9 of Paillette’s claim as “vacant” in 1841. Between 1841 and 1872, the Smith Island property was somehow acquired by the Fontenot family. In 1872, the property appeared in the lease record of Louis Marcy from his deceased wife, Madame Mannette Fontenot’s estate Louis Marcy sold the property at a Sheriff’s Auction to J. Ben Smith in 1873. Conger, current owner of the property, was a descendant of Smith.

As of 2006, present on the Smith Island property are the ruins of a house, a double pen barn, a smokehouse, the depression of a cistern, and a work shed, identifiable by a number of tools and debris surrounding it. The deteriorating work shed is constructed of sawn boards over a wood frame. A depression, approximately 20 feet to the east of the house, has been identified as the remains of a brick-lined cistern.

The double pen barn, mostly intact, was an object of interest for a potential relocation project. It is constructed of saddle notched logs with a tin roof on wood rafters. Most of the materials appear to be recycled from other structures (Figure 9). Sarah Jackson, an architectural specialist at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT), agreed to evaluate the structure. Ms. Jackson examined the building and construction materials and estimated that the building dated to post-1900.17 She reported that at least 60% of the barn structure had extensive termite damage, with the foundation sills having the worst infestation. Ms. Jackson estimated that reconstruction of the building would be expensive in both time and resources.

Figure 9-Double pen barn. Photo by Melissa Hagen Dezendorf.

The house stands as the most interesting and oldest structure in the Smith Island complex (Figure 10). It is surrounded by vast agricultural fields and a largely rural landscape, isolating it from modern intrusions. It faces north towards a ravine that may have been one of the many courses of the Red River. The Smith Island house is a one-and-a-half-story, standing example of a Creole-style cottage. It was constructed using a technique known as poteaux sur solle (posts on sill). This construction technique consists of heavy cypress wood sills placed on raised brick piers. The wood frame of the house is weatherboarded with sawn cypress planks. Beneath the planks the house is constructed of bousillage, a material composed of clay, animal hair, and/or moss used for insulation. The floor plan of the house is considered to be French Colonial. It consists of a front gallery, two large main rooms (chambre et salle), with two smaller rooms (cabinets) flanking a rear gallery (loggia). The roof is a full, single pitch, umbrella roof that was originally covered in cypress shake shingles. Modifications and modern additions have been made to the house since its construction. These included renovations, circa 1900, and modern conveniences such as indoor plumbing, electricity, and the addition of a modern kitchen in the rear, circa 1940.

Figure 10-Oldest structure in the Smith Island complex. Photo by Edd Lee.

The front of the house is comprised of a built-in gallery with plain square pillars. Two separate entrances are present, with one leading into the chambre and the other into the salle. A three-pane transom is present over each entrance. Characteristics of this weathered wood-frame structure are a lack of hallways and a central shared fireplace. Due to the warm, humid temperatures of Louisiana, the house was constructed with comfort in mind. The floor, raised on piers and sills, allows air to circulate under the house. Instead of hallways, there are several entrances to each room, all of which align with another opening. On each outer wall facing inward are large 6-over-6 glass paned windows. Several sets of these windows have been removed. The windows are covered with louvered wood shutters. This fenestration design captures breezes and channels them through the rooms.

The house floor is made of heart pine. Beadboard, present around the lower third of the interior rooms, is framed in a chair rail. The wall separating the chambre et salle contains the shared fireplace, constructed of brick and finished with a simple wood wrap-around mantle (Figure 11). The interior walls of the chambre et salle are presently covered in sawn cypress planks overlaying bousillage. The original walls would have been whitewashed bousillage without the overlaying planks. The now-exposed bousillage shows the remnants of whitewash. The ceiling is made of exposed beaded wood joists (Figure 12).

Figure 11-Fireplace. Photo by Melissa Hagen Dezendorf.

Figure 12-Interior of the house. Photo by Melissa Hagen Dezendorf.

Behind the chambre et salle is the rear loggia, flanked on either side by cabinets. The loggia is a long, narrow room that was originally open to the outside. It was enclosed when a modern kitchen was constructed behind it. On the west side of the loggia is a staircase leading to the upper half-story loft. The cabinets are smaller rooms, both of which were most likely bedrooms. The loggia walls are cypress planking painted a light blue. Over the doors leading into the loggia from the chambre et salle are simple Greek-style pediments (Figure 13).

Figure 13-Greek-style pediments. Photo by Melissa Hagen Dezendorf.

A half-story loft spans the ceiling of the chambre et salle. The shared brick chimney comes up through the center. There are four windows in the loft; two on each wall that face each other, once again allowing for airflow. A full-pitched umbrella roof caps the building. The roof is constructed of wood beams and trusses. The original roof of cedar-shake shingles covered these beams, now surfaced with modern tin.

As noted, the house underwent noticeable modifications twice, circa 1900 and 1940. The plain square pillars on the gallery do not date to the initial house construction. The transoms over the front doors go back to about 1900. The doors of the house are no longer originals; the current doors date to about 1940. Behind the loggia and cabinets is a modern addition of two screened porches, dating to about 1940, which flank the kitchen. A second fireplace added as part of the kitchen now lies in ruins. The house was modernized with indoor plumbing and electricity. The east cabinet was converted into a bathroom and contains a sink and a toilet, and a small closet was added to this cabinet as well. Light fixtures are visible on the ceilings throughout the house. Conger, the current owner, recalled that the house had been piped for natural gas lighting. Wells to extract the gas were dug on the property and provided the interior lights until the wells ran dry. The kitchen addition was crushed by a large fallen tree, as were portions of the west cabinet. This destroyed most of the rear wall entering into the historic core of the house. No barriers now exist to keep out the wind, rain, and animals. With constant entrance of the elements, the house will soon be nothing more than a ruin.

The Smith Island house, a Creole cottage, is significant for its French Colonial architecture. The vernacular architecture of this house is a prime example of a building style that has been slowly disappearing from the cultural landscape in northwestern Louisiana. This French Colonial style is one of three major architectural styles to have evolved exclusively in the New World. Characteristics of this style are raised floors, no hallways, a shared central fireplace, and bousillage wall infill.

This architectural style utilizes locally available native materials and is suited to the inhabitant’s environmental needs. Cypress trees, commonly found in the lowlands and bayous of Louisiana, provided an insect resistant and long-lasting lumber. The climate of Louisiana is not conducive to wood conservation. By raising the floors on piers, houses lasted longer since they could better resist rot caused by water saturation. The raised floors also allow air to circulate under the house, cooling the interior. All openings and doorways are aligned to channel breezes.

Bousillage was used to infill the walls for insulation. Bousillage walls can be more than a foot thick and help regulate the interior temperature, winter or summer. This building technique is unique in a larger perspective of United States architectural history and is rarely found outside of Louisiana. It evolved in response to the climatic needs of Louisiana’s original settlers, who learned of the technique from the Native Americans in the area.

High quality craftsmanship is evident in simple detailing throughout the house. The interior space retains detailing that is significant to Creole house construction. Around the base of the interior walls runs beadboard, framed with a continuous chair rail molding. Chair rails were utilized as safeguards to prevent the plastered bousillage from damage by moving furniture or other activities. The exposed ceiling joists have been beaded for added detailing. A wrap-around mantel, characteristic of the Creole architectural style, was at one time present around the fireplace. It was not extensively carved but offered a feeling of unadorned refinement.

The exact date of construction and the builder of the house are unknown. Several modifications were made during the early 1900s and again in 1940. The modifications reflected changing notions of style, technology, usage, and available materials. Transoms were added over the exterior doorways to increase airflow through the house. Greek-revival style pediments were added over the interior doorways. At some point, tin roofing was placed over the cypress shake shingles. While alterations have occurred, they are slight and do not drastically change the historic fabric of the structure. The property, while decaying from the elements, maintains its architectural integrity and is instantly recognizable in style.

The historic records search was unfruitful in dating the construction of the house. The Natchitoches Parish Tax Assessors office was contacted regarding the earliest date tax records were kept. The oldest tax files on record date to 1890, and it is certain the house was built prior to 1890. Had tax records existed prior to 1890, they may have documented the year that the house was constructed. The next step was to turn to the house itself for clues. The floor plan of Smith Island was referred to as a French Colonial layout (Edwards 1988). This layout originally appears in Louisiana around 1770. From the date of Larenaudiere’s Spanish land grant in 1787, it was unlikely that the house was built at that time. The slow diffusion of culture into rural areas could account for the same style of construction at a later date. With the confusion about the date of construction, it became apparent that a more experienced set of opinions were needed.

Dr. Dayna Bowker Lee, Regional Folklorist, and Dr. Pete Gregory, Professor of Anthropology, from Northwestern State University, made a visit to the house in Spring 2006.18 They noted the bousillage construction and the presence of cut nails. From the floorplan and present construction materials, they gave three different dates for the house. The original core of the house was most likely built circa 1840. This would include the chambre et salle, the gallery, the loggia, and cabinets. The loggia would originally have been open to the outside. Modifications to the doors, transoms, and the rear loggia occurred around 1900. The kitchen and bathroom were most likely added around 1940.

In early April 2006, photographs and supporting documents were sent to the Division of Historic Preservation in Baton Rouge. The Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation believes in dating a structure based on the latest possible date rather than the earliest, to be on the safe side. Donna Fricker, former National Register Coordinator for the state, gave a construction date of 1850-1870.19 She explained that the building style of Smith Island house is found in Louisiana up until that time. Mrs. Fricker said the molding around the baseboards and mantelpieces is a mixture of Greek revival and Italianate styles. She noted the style of the doors (since removed) and transoms as well. The defining factor for her was the width of the ceiling and floor boards. Older houses were built at a time when large trees were available. Sawmilled boards varied in width depending on the size of the tree. The regularity and narrow width of the ceiling boards leads her to believe that house was constructed at a later date

In conclusion, there are few definitives about Smith Island property. Many of the avenues pursued led to dead-ends. The chain of title is incomplete from a lack of records. The date of construction is nebulous from the range and style of materials used. One remaining avenue left to explore at this time is a name on a map. A lake in close proximity of the Smith Island property is named Poissot Lake. This was the maiden name of the wife of J.J. Paillette. Perhaps the property passed through the family unrecorded or under a different name. However, what became the goal of this research was to document a house that would otherwise be lost. This goal has been accomplished, regardless of definitive dates and owners. The house will live on through printed materials long after it is distinguishable only by its foundation in the ground.


  1. Louis Conger to Melissa Hagen. Telephone Interview. September 1, 2005.
  2. Most of the maps examined are available digitally on the Louisiana State Land Office.
  3. American State Papers, Public Lands, Volume 2, p. 713, 1834)
  4. Natchitoches Parish Courthouse, Mortgage Records, Book 69, pgs. 229-233, Record 6999.
  5. Natchitoches Parish Courthouse, Mortgage Records, Book 66, pgs. 673-674, Record 6541.
  6. The Louisiana Newspaper Project, pg, 187
  7. Natchitoches Parish Courthouse, French Records, Book 1, pg. 56, August 1, 1807. Translated from the French by Dr. Dayna Bowker Lee,
  8. Northwestern State University, Natchitoches.
  9. Robert DeBlieux to Melissa Hagen. Personal Interview. March 3, 2006.
  10. Ginny Tobin to Melissa Hagen. Personal Interview. April 5, 2006.
  11. For more information on the failed French colony in Texas, see the Handbook of Texas.
  12. Natchitoches Parish Courthouse, Succession Records, Record 23.
  13. Natchitoches Parish Courthouse, Succession Records, Record 79.
  14. Natchitoches Parish Courthouse, Notarial Records, Book 27, pgs. 389-391, Record 2845.
  15. Natchitoches Parish Courthouse, Notarial Records, Book 4, pg. 85, Record 67.
  16. Natchitoches Parish Courthouse, French Records, Book 8, pg. 249, Record 305. Natchitoches Parish Courthouse Records. Cesare Fonteneau to
  17. Mannette Perot. November 2, 1824.
  18. Sarah Jackson to Melissa Hagen. Personal Interview. March 4, 2006.
  19. Dr. Gregory, Dr. Lee to Melissa Hagen. Personal Interview. April 10, 2006.
  20. Donna Fricker to Melissa Hagen. Telephone Interview. April 18, 2006.

Works Referenced

Edwards, Jay D. Louisiana’s Remarkable French Vernacular Architecture: 1700-1900. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1988.

Fricker, Jonathan. Louisiana Architecture: A Handbook on Styles. Lafayette, Louisiana: University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1998.

Lowrie, Walter, ed. American State Papers [A.S.P.]. Documents Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, in relation to the Public Lands, Vol. 2. Washington, D.C., Duff Green, 1834.

McMullin, Phillip W. Editor. Grassroots of America; a computerized index to the American State papers: land grants and claims (1789-1837). Salt Lake City, Gendex Corp., 1972.

The Louisiana Newspaper Project printout, October 1999, 3rd ed. Baton Rouge : Louisiana Newspaper project, LSU Libraries, 2001

Louisiana State Land Office Website, Historic Document Viewer.