Six years ago, in early July of 2014, I received a comment on one of my Breaux Bridge blog pages, Breaux Bridge: a 19th cent. Cajun sugar cane farm, from someone in Texas who said she was researching a branch of her family in Breaux Bridge, and had a document in which the gr-gr-grandfather I had been writing about, Adeo Hebert, was mentioned, and that she could send me the link to it if I were interested. It turned out to be a court transcript from an 1894 lawsuit regarding the succession of a 70-yr-old white man, a sugar cane farmer named Onezime Elisée Thibodeaux on the Bayou Teche where my grandmother’s family was from. Just days before his death, one of his oldest sons, Thélèsphore, had ridden into town to get a marriage license and bring the local priest back home with him where, in a ceremony hurriedly performed at the old man’s deathbed, his father had married his mother, Elizabeth Locus, a black woman who had been a slave on his family’s farm.
Though her marriage document lists Elizabeth’s last name as Locus, the origin of which is unknown, she is listed before her marriage as both Locus and Azor, the name of her mother and several other family members. Name changes were common in the newly-freed black population after the Civil War, when they had to create a second name for themselves in 1870, then by 1880, having given deeper thought as to what their family name ought to be, changed it.
I would gradually find out, as research progressed, that Elizabeth was the descendant, possibly granddaughter, of a slave man named Azor born in Congo in 1793 and sold at the age of 17 to Onezime’s father and 2 uncles, jointly, for their family’s sugar cane farm. She had had her first child by Onezime before the Civil War and her second during. By the time their third child was born, Onezime’s cohesive family unit of unmarried adult siblings still living in the family home had been shattered by the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1867 which took most of the farming men in the family. A redivision of the Thibodeaux family lands had been done, and the same succession that gave my gr-gr-gr-grandmother Marie-Phelonise’s share of the land to her 22-yr-old son Adeo also slated the land just to the south of Adeo to her brother Onezime, both just across the bayou from the old family home. When he built his house on his new land, he brought Elizabeth (sometimes referred to as Isabelle, the French diminutive for Elizabeth) and their 3 children to live with him, as well as her elderly mother, 2 brothers and their families, and several others who, in their first years of emancipation, were still in the throes of deciding where to go and what family name to take, something that caused the 1870 census-taker some confusion as to just who lived in what house in the new Thibodeaux/Azor/Locus compound on the west bank of the Teche.
The census does not declare his children as living with him, rarely listing them at all, but Isabelle’s testimony at his succession states that the remaining 5 of their children were born and raised in that house by herself and Onezime as a family unit that, across the span of 25 years, eventually came to be regarded by the community as that of man and wife. For more on Thelesphore, go to The Thelesphore Thibodeaux House, St. Martin Parish, La.
The Marriage License:
“In the year 1893, the 23rd of December, in view of the license from the clerk of the 21st court of justice for the parish of St. Martin, I the undersigned curate of Breaux Bridge have received the free verbal consent for the marriage of Onesime E. Thibodeaux and Elizabeth Locus, and have given them the sacrament of marriage in the presence of the undersigned witnesses. The said spouses recognize and declare legitimacy for their children Onesiphore, Thelesphore, Felicia, Hypolite, Charles, Louisa, Clarisse, and Thelisia Thibodeaux, their rightful children. Signed: Onezime Thibodeaux, Elizabeth (X her mark) Locus. Witnesses; Jules Hebert & Rosemond Thibodeaux. A Borias, Curate”
In due time, Thelesphore, then 28 with a wife and new baby of his own, applied for executorship of the old man’s will, and it was then that the elderly sister of the old man, his last surviving sibling, filed suit claiming the marriage invalid, his children illegitimate, and herself the rightful heir to her brother’s estate.
Summons to plaintiff and witnesses:
Summons issued to Anne T. Hebert to appear before the court and present her opposing argument, and to two gentlemen, brothers, who were to testify on her behalf; Jules Hebert, a witness present at the marriage ceremony in question, and his brother, Adeo Hebert, my gr-gr grandfather, neighbor of the deceased.
Transcript of court case testimonies – October 23, 1894:
Rev. Antoine Borias – Curate, St Bernard church and officiator of marriage – witness for the defense
“I am the Curate A. Borias who officiated the marriage ceremony of Onezime E. Thibodeaux, deceased, and Elizabeth Locust … at the domicile of Onezime E. Thibodeaux. There were present there two witnesses as well as others. I took two witnesses to this act because the church requires only two – I did not know that the law required three. I asked Onezime E. Thibodeaux if he would take Elizabeth Locus as his wife and he answered yes. Then I asked Elizabeth Locust if she wished to take Onezime Thibodeaux for her husband and she answered yes. The contracting parties held their hands, he was sitting as she was standing. It was cold and I think that he was sitting on his bed. I do not remember at what time of the day this ceremony took place. I think it was in the morning – I am sure it was during the day time.”
“When I asked Onezime E Thibodeaux if he would take Elizabeth Locust for his wife and he answered yes, it was in the manner generally given. He spoke in a low tone, loud enough to hear him. I spoke to Onezime Thibodeaux years previously in relation to his marriage, wishing that he should approach the Church. To this request of mine, Thibodeaux would say yes, he would say yes, until he sent Thélèsphore with a license to me. Onezime Thibodeaux answered yes in the marriage ceremony of his own free will, he wanted to confess and receive the sacraments. I confessed him on that day before the marriage ceremony, he had promised me then to marry. I think he done so knowing that things ought to be done in order.”
Thélèsphore Thibodeaux – son of deceased, co-applicant for executorship and defendant
“I am the person who came for the marriage license of the deceased. He [his father] sent me for it. I gave the marriage license to the priest. I was present when the ceremony was performed. The priest asked my father if he wanted to marry my mother, he answered yes. Then he asked the same question to my mother and she answered yes. Father Borias had a list of the names of all the children which he read during the ceremony … to legitimate them. My father expressed several times in my presence his desire to marry my mother Elizabeth Locust. The deceased always treated me and my brothers and sisters as his children. My father and mother lived as man and wife.” “My father did not consider or treat my older sister Céphalide as his child [she was from a previous relationship]. I am the applicant for administration in this matter. Myself, my brothers and sisters, have actual possession of the property of the deceased. After the death of my father, my mother Elizabeth Locust has never left our house. I know Thélicia Thibodeaux, she is my sister, one of those who was treated by my father as his child. She has about 19 or 20 years.”
Anne Thibodeaux Hebert – sister of the deceased, opposing applicant for executorship, and plaintiff
“Into court comes Anne Thibodeaux Hebert, widow, sister of deceased . . .” in opposition to the demands of Thélisphore and Thélicia Thibodeaux to be appointed administrators of Onezime’s succession . . . stating:
. . . That the pretended marriage of Onezime E. Thibodeaux, the “de cujos” with one Elizabeth Locus on the 24th day of December AD 1893 is, in so far as may relate to or concern the said applicants, ineffective, and null and so far as may concern the parties thereto, absolutely null and void, for this: That Onezime E Thibodeaux the deceased did not fully consent to said alleged marriage and for years previous to his death invariably refused and publicly expressed his determination never to marry the said Elizabeth Locus, a negress, with whom he had lived for years and was still . . .
. . . . living in open concubinage. That a few hours before his death, when his mind was weak and filled with fears of approaching dissolution, a semblance of ceremony was had at his bedside, termed a marriage to which, when asked his consent, he refused, and gave no answer.
Adeo Hebert – Neighbor to Onezime E Thibodeaux, the deceased, witness for the prosecution
“I knew Onezime Elizee Thibodeaux since my childhood. He was my first neighbor – since 1868 up to his death. He died on the 24th of December, 1893. I was accustomed to see Onezime E Thibodeaux nearly every day.”
Jules Hebert – witness at marriage ceremony, witness initially for the defense, but less so in court (And it is here in the transcript that I sense that some coercion may have taken place, with the Hebert brothers trying to get Jules to describe Onezime as less cognizant and involved in the wedding ceremony than he originally had)
“I was present the day that Father Borias was at Onezime E. Thibodeaux, this was on the 24th of December as far as I can remember – I was called there as a witness. When I got to the house it took a little time to prepare the table, then they lit a small lamp, and then the priest asked if they were ready to get married. The priest asked Onezime if he wished to take Elizabeth for his lawful wife and he signified his assent by an inclination of the head in front. Elizabeth Locust was at the foot of his bed by the table. Onezime Thibodeaux was covered, his hands were covered, he was cold. He was too cold to sign on that day. The same question was propounded to Elizabeth Locust and she answered yes, father. When I reached the house, I asked Onezime Thibodeaux how he felt and he did not answer me. He could not speak at all that day. This morning I told you (Mr. Dan Voorhies) that Onezime Thibodeaux had then acknowledged Thélèsphore Thibodeaux and others as his legitimate children, but at the time I did not exactly recollect and since then I have refreshed my memory to this point.” “Since I told you so I spoke with several of my friends about this case. I spoke of this case with my two brothers Adeo and Henri Hebert. I did not speak since this morning with any one who was present at the marriage ceremony of Onezime E Thibodeaux. When I spoke about this case with Mr Voorhies the attorney this morning, I was not under oath. It was a conversation. Onezime Thibodeaux did not sign the contract at all. When the ceremony was performed, Onezime Thibodeaux was lying in his bed. He could neither stand nor set up. Onezime Thibodeaux did not take Elizabeth Locust by the hand during that ceremony that I saw. Elizabeth during the ceremony stood at about 5 1/2 feet from the head of the deceased. She had her hands hanging by her side. And Onezime had his hands under the blankets. This was at about 11:30 am. There were present besides us Thélèsphore, Oneziphore, Clarisse and Louisa. Elizabeth Locust always lived at deceased to my knowledge for about 15 years. In the community where I live close to the deceased’s last residence, Thélèsphore Thibodeaux and the others named above are looked upon as the children of Onezime Thibodeaux and Elizabeth. The deceased treated the children as his own and they were raised in his house where their parents lived as man and wife, and were seen by the community as man and wife. I had occasion to speak with the deceased and he spoke to me about the above named as being his children. I signed that marriage contract as a witness. From what I saw, Onezime E Thibodeaux was not forced to say or do anything in relation to this marriage ceremony.”
“Onezime Thibodeaux spoke to me several times about this marriage which they wanted him to make. Several times previous I heard deceased complaining as to the priest seeking to have him to marry legally. He would always say that the priest might to mind his business and let me be. I know what I have to do.”
“Whenever he made such remarks he appeared angry against the priest. Once I saw him leave his house and cross over the bayou when he saw the carriage of the priest coming toward his house, saying that the priest was coming to annoy him. This was about 5 or 6 months before this marriage perhaps a little less. I think that deceased was afraid of the priest both for the confession and marriage. Onezime Thibodeaux told me that he did not want to marry at all but he gave me no reason therefore. – He treated Thelesphore and the others as his children.”
Rosemonde Thibodeaux – cousin to Thélèsphore, witness at marriage, and witness for the defense
“I was present when the priest asked deceased whether he was willing to accept Elizabeth Locust as his wife and he answered yes. The same question was propounded to Elizabeth Locust and she answered yes. The deceased’s children were there. Present – Thélèsphore, Oneziphore, Félicia, Cornie . . . Cornie is Thélisia. I took the priest from Breaux Bridge to the deceased’ last residence. This marriage was performed in the regular manner. There was no mention of those children by the deceased that day but the priest named their names in presence of the witnesses. I can not say why he named them but I supposed it was to take down their names to legitimate them.”
“I have been raised by Onezime E. Thibodeaux. I know Elizabeth Locust and have known her since my childhood. From my childhood I have known Onezime Thibodeaux and Elizabeth Locust to have lived as man and wife. I know Thélèsphore, Oneziphore, Felicia, Thelicia, I was raised with them. They were raised in the house of Onezime Thibodeaux as their children. Onezime Thibodeaux always spoke of and mentioned these as his children. The oldest children called Onezime Thibodeaux Didi, and the youngest, Papa. They behaved towards one another as father and son, and Elizabeth Locust they called Maman. I am nearly 53 or 54 years of age. “Thélèsphore is about 38 or 39 years of age [error, 29]. He is the oldest of the family [error – Oneziphore is], the youngest of these is 12 or 13 years of age. It was after the marriage that Father Borias took down the names as I said. The parties had already signed the contract when he named these parties but it was done at the same time. After he had taken down these names I paid no attention to what Father Borias did. The moment I am done with a thing I pay no more attention to it. I do not know how to sign my name nor do I know how to read and write. I know Thélicia Thibodeaux for about 20 years. She is now 21 years old.”
Elizabeth Locust – wife of deceased, mother of applicants Thelesphore and Thelisia, and subject of marriage and succession opposition
“I knew Onezime E. Thibodeaux. When he died he was my husband. Father Borias married us at my husband’s residence. When we married Onezime E Thibodeaux was sick. He was conscious (en bonne connaissance). He lived about 5 or 6 days after the ceremony, I can not say exactly. He was buried on the day of his death. He was conscious up to the time of his death. When he died he had ça bonne connaissance. I nor anybody else to my knowledge did not use any violence or make threats to compel my husband to marry me. He sent for the marriage license. At the ceremony, the priest asked my husband if he would take me as his legitimate wife and he answered yes. Then he asked me the same question and I answered yes. During the ceremony my husband spoke about the children to legitimate them because he did not want his near neighbor to trouble them after his death and I consented. Adeo Hebert is that close neighbor.”
“Thélèsphore was raised in the house where Onezime died although he was not born there. Thélicia was also raised there. I can not say how old I am. I am about 30 years of age I suppose [error, 51]. When the marriage ceremony took place I signed a paper. Onezime also signed a paper. I cannot say how he signed it. I do not know anything. I think he wrote his name himself but I can not say. I do not know anything. This is when the priest married us. It was after we had signed that paper that the children were named. No I believe it was before, I am not sure. During the celebration of the marriage the deceased was sitting in his bed somewhat leaning. I do not know if the priest named all my children that day. Yes, he named them all. Deceased spoke loud that day, loud enough to be understood by everybody as a person who is sick. I do not know how to read or write, never knew. When I said I signed the paper, I mean to say I touched the pen. I was born before the Civil War. I was then 12 years old [error, 22], that is I was over that. I was then the mother of Oneziphore. I was then a woman.”
David Rees – sheriff
“I knew the deceased up to his death. He was a man who would stay at home nearly all the time. He was not much in the habit of paying visits or going around. I have seen him often at races and sometimes hunting. I met him twice hunting deer in the woods. He was an old man, a white man. I often saw Elizabeth Locust at the home of Onezime E. Thibodeaux. I suppose that she was living in that house because every time I saw her she was in that house. At that home I also saw Thélèsphore Thibodeaux the applicant. I don’t know any of the female children.”
James E. Mouton – attorney for Anne Thibodeaux Hebert
“I corroborate the evidence of Sheriff Rees in so far as the habits, age and race of the deceased. I have known him for 25 years and more. I know Elizabeth Locust, she is a person of color, a negress, uneducated and embarrassed whenever spoken to or whenever she speaks.”
Judgment, June 21, 1895 –
” . . . The law and the evidence being in favor of Thelesphore Thibodeaux and of Thelecia Thibodeaux, wife of Pierre Arceneaux, . . . . It is therefore ordered, adjudged and decreed that Thelesphore Thibodeaux and Thelecia Thibodeaux, wife of Pierre Arceneaux, be and are hereby appointed joint administators of the Estate of Onezime E. Thibodeaux.” . . The post-slavery world was awash with descendants of Africans stripped of their ancestral environment, culture and collective knowledge, given nothing to fill the void but slavery’s culture of subservience and non-identity, and then suddenly thrown adrift into a hostile world with no home or land, no education, occupation or skills other than farming sugar cane, none of the health care and legal protection they’d received from their former masters, and no English language skills with which they could escape the French enclave of St Martin Parish. But with Thelesphore’s presence of mind in getting on his horse to fetch the priest and a marriage license for his dying father, and the swipe of a fair and forward-thinking judge’s pen, he secured for his siblings a legacy of legitimacy in which they were granted their father’s name and became homeowners and landed farmers on the land they had worked all their lives. And as their father Onezime had been Marie-Phelonise’ brother, then they were not only Adeo’s neighbors but 1st cousins, and my 1st cousins 4x removed.
In an amazing gilding of the lily that this little drama was turning out to be, the researcher in Texas did me the honor of sending me a shot of a family portrait, a drawing of Elizabeth Locust Thibodeaux, wife of Onezime E Thibodeaux, mother of Thélèsphore et al. This Texas cousin was the 3x great-granddaughter of Elizabeth and Onezime, and the original was hanging in her house in Liberty, Texas, which had been the home of her great-grandparents back in the 1920s when Oneziphore, the oldest of Onezime and Elizabeth’s 8 children, left Breaux Bridge with his family for the newly-booming oil town of Liberty. – REPRODUCTION EXPRESSLY FORBIDDEN.
Finding out about this interesting court case from 1894 added an interesting addendum to a 30-yr-old story that I thought had long since been over, the story of my grandmother’s heritage and my 2 years back in the ’80s on her ancestors’ farm putting the pieces of the puzzle together, a story that had taken me 30 years to get around to writing up. I hadn’t been back in ages. A first marriage had become a second, a first round of graduate school with its occupation had led to another in a second field, then a third. Life with my grandmother had become life without her, pre-Katrina everything had become post-Katrina everything, somehow my 20s had become my 50s, and I figured my magical time in my grandmother’s Cajun country was past.
Turns out, it was far from over. What I thought was an unexpected flourish at the end of my grandmother’s long-finished story, an 1894 win for an unknown Black Creole branch of her family in Jim Crow south Louisiana, turned out to be a nudge that sent me on a roller-coaster ride of a whole ‘nuther story, that of Onezime, Elizabeth, their black Creole family, and their descendants who continue to breathe life into their legacy.