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Oakley Plantation

View of front of main house at Oakley Plantation, St. Francisville, Louisiana, circa 1916.

Oakley Plantation in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana was in my mother's family for five generations. A large and prosperous plantation, it owed its wealth to slavery, reaching its peak in the 1840s when it had more than 200 enslaved African-Americans.    

Construction of the plantation house began in the early 1800s and was completed by a Scottish millwright named James Pirrie in about 1808. His daughter Eliza was my great great great grandmother.

When I visited Oakley as a teenager my mother proudly pointed out the place on the second-floor balcony off of which she vomited as a child while on a visit to her great aunts. 

Oakley plantation house circa 1916

Eliza Pirrie's claim to fame was that she was tutored by wildlife artist John James Audubon who lived at Oakley for several months in 1821. According to Audubon, Eliza had "no particular admirers of her beauties, but several quite anxious for her fortune."  

Married three times, Eliza’s first husband died six weeks after they eloped. She fared a little better with her second husband William R. Bowman who died in 1835, after five years of marriage. Her third was Henry A. Lyons, a Philadelphia lawyer who spent most of his married life in California and was called “a low trifling sponge" by one of Eliza's in-laws. Eliza Pirrie died in 1851 at age 45 after having giving birth to a child fathered by her third husband.

Eliza Pirrie and her second husband William Bowman

Isabelle Bowman and her husband Wilson Matthews

Eliza Pirrie's daughter Isabelle Lowry Bowman was born at nearby Home Plantation in 1830 but grew up at Oakley. In 1851 she married William Wilson Matthews, a New Orleans banker. They had six children who lived to adulthood, one of whom was my great grandmother, Cora Slocumb Matthews, who was born in New Orleans in 1854.

In 1856 Wilson Matthews purchased Oakley from the estate of his deceased mother-in-law Eliza Pirrie Lyons. They lived there until sometime during the Civil War when they moved to New Orleans. They returned to Oakley in the 1870s. Wilson died there in 1895, Isabelle in 1899.

After the deaths of Isabelle and Wilson Matthews Oakley passed to their two unmarried daughters Lucy and Ida, who lived there for the rest of their lives. 

Lucy Matthews was the one who managed the plantation, while Ida, who had an artistic temperament, wrote and painted. She was also interested in African-American culture and music and frequented a local black church where she listened to the music and interviewed the church goers. In the Oakley archives is a manuscript entitled “Negro Spirituals,” which she wrote in 1926. 

Lucy Matthews (left) and Ida Matthews (right) 

In another of her unpublished manuscripts entitled “Oakley Plantation: Its Origin and Occupants,” Ida recounts the following story about Oakley that happened during the Civil War:

During the war the proximity of the plantation to Port Hudson made it a convenient foraging place for the Federals stationed there. Many and thrilling were the experiences of Mrs. Matthews during the absence of the male members of the family with the Army. First among them was the warning given by an old Negro man, one of the few who remained after Port Hudson fell. Creeping up stairs one night he knocked softly on her door and whispered that “the Yankees are coming – thousands of them.” ... Come they did and many fears and dangers came with them ... It was against the door of the storage room that Mrs. Matthews stood one day during a raid and defied the threat of a soldier who with raised ax demanded the contents of the room (all the food she had for her family), until an officer riding up ordered him off.


Since Ida was born after the Civil War she was not a first-hand observer of the above scene. However, since it was her own mother brandishing the axe and recounting the story to her years later, one can assume that the story bears a large element of truth.


Ida Matthews died in 1930. One of her final wishes was the unusual request that her body be carried from the house by the plantation’s African-American tenant farmers.


According to UC Berkeley professor Laurie A. Wilkie in her book Creating Freedom: Material Culture and African American Identity at Oakley Plantation, Louisiana, 1840-1950 (LSU Press, 2000), Lucy and Ida Matthews were remembered by ex-tenants of the plantation as being kind and strong women.


Lucy Matthews lived alone at Oakley from 1930 to 1942 when she moved into a nursing home in New Orleans. Five years later she sold the plantation house and the surrounding 100 acres to the State of Louisiana who turned it into the Audubon State Historic Park.


Following Lucy’s death in 1951 the remaining 1,600 acres passed to her three heirs, namely my grandmother and her two first cousins Rosalie and Robert Matthews. My grandmother sold her share in 1956 to a farming company, thus ending our connection with Oakley.

Notes on sources:

  1. Laurie A. Wilkie's Creating Freedom: Material Culture and African American Identity at Oakley Plantation, Louisiana, 1840-1950 (LSU Press, 2000). Quoted material: "No particular" (p. 44); "a low trifling sponge" (p. 46).

  2. Photographs from my collection, with the exception of those of Lucy & Ida Matthews which are from the Oakley Archives, Audubon State Commemorative Area, West Feliciana, Parish.

  3. Family records. 

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