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Venus de la Houssaye

Venus de la Houssaye (c. 1754—c. 1821), a former enslaved mulâtresse, slave-owner and emancipator in New Orleans, was the natural daughter of Sieur Renson le Cadet and the enslaved woman Françoise.

Venus and her family belonged to the prominentde la Houssaye family of the Attakapas region in southern Louisiana. Based on the 1777 Colonial Slave Census of the Attakapas & Opélousas Post, Venus lived and worked as a domestic on Louis de la Houssaye’s plantation. In 1789, Louis emancipated Venus in New Orleans. By 1810, Venus had purchased property in Faubourg Marigny as well as two enslaved women, Geneviève, 35, and Rosette, 44. While Geneviève’s fate is unknown, Venus emancipated Rosette in 1817, perhaps suggesting a familial bond. An 11-year-old girl named Rosette, listed as part of Louis de la Houssaye’s household in the 1777 Colonial Slave Census of the Attakapas & Opélousas Post, is likely the same person Venus emancipated, which suggests that Venus and Rosette were indeed family.

It appears Venus was also able to acquire her niece, Eloise (c. 1799—c. 1837), as evidenced by an undated vente par sous-seing privé registered in the notary’s office in 1818. Ventes par sous-seing privé were acts or contracts concluded and signed between two private parties which did not involve a public officer. Such contracts were often officially registered in a notary’s office at a later date. The sale stipulated that Eloise was exchanged for a seventeen-year-old Congo enslaved woman named Louise. In addition to standard purchases, ventes à réméré (sales with an option of repurchase), and purchases at auction, exchanges of enslaved persons among slaveowners were routine business transactions recorded at the time. Thus, while Venus endeavored to purchase loved ones out of slavery, she kept others in bondage to secure her family’s freedom.

Venus kept up a correspondence with the de la Houssaye family, as evidenced by two letters dated January 5 and February 27, 1816. These letters resulted from Venus’s efforts to purchase her sister Esther (c. 1766—c. 1832), Eloise’s mother, out from slavery and shed some light on the relationship between Venus and the de la Houssaye family. In the first letter, we learn that Esther was the property of Madame de la Houssaye, certainly Louise Charlotte Pellerin, widow to the late Louis de la Houssaye. Widow de la Houssaye confirmed that she had received a letter from Venus, in which she agreed to the sale price for Esther. She confided that she had no control over the terms of the sale, likely due to debts incurred from her late husband’s estate. She also expressed feelings of gratitude and love towards Venus, for whom she seemed to care deeply. Soon after, in May 1816, Venus sealed a business agreement with her former master and acquired Esther, then 50, for 1,200 dollars. She emancipated her in November 1817.

According to Venus’s first will registered in June 5, 1818, her executor was obligated to free her niece Eloise when she reached the legal age of emancipation. The legal age of emancipation was 30 and Eloise was 22 at the time. Until then, Eloise were to hire herself out for wages. Furthermore, Venus bequeathed her enslaved property Rosalie, 30, to Eloise. Her executor was obligated to hire Rosalie out until Eloise secured her freedom, and to give Eloise the income derived from Rosalie’s labor. The practice of hiring out enslaved persons was common in antebellum New Orleans and in surrounding rural communities. The enslaved performed various skilled and unskilled jobs, which brought additional income for slaveowners (and could allow hirees to keep a small portion of their earnings, sometimes enough to purchase their freedom). Thus, again, Venus secured her family’s future through the ownership of human property.

However, in 1820, Venus failed to keep Eloise out of slavery and sold her away for 1,000 dollars. It is not known why Venus made this choice, but we can infer that her decision was motivated by economic necessity. In her second and last will dated August 2, 1820, she bequeathed her property, including her property in Faubourg Marigny and Rosalie, to her sister Esther. No other information was provided.

Venus died in 1821. Succession records revealed that Rosalie was estimated at only 100 dollars due to ill health, which may partly explain why Venus sold Eloise away a year earlier. Probate records for Esther and Eloise reveal that Eloise became a free woman sometime between 1820 and 1832. Therefore, Venus’s endeavors were eventually fulfilled. The ownership of enslaved people not only allowed her a degree of economic freedom, but also the ability to purchase and emancipate family members. Her enslaved property served primarily as security, which overrode any benevolent sentiments. The slave owner’s household with its dependent relationships and the impersonal capitalist marketplace met, and created, if not tension, negotiation and compromise.

Online Resources

Landry, Christophe. 1777 Colonial Slave Census of the Attakapas & Opélousas Post. Louisiana Historic & Cultural Vistas. 2017. https://www.mylhcv.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/1777-Census-Slave-Schedules-June-2017-1.pdf


Goldin, Claudia, Urban Slavery in the Slave South, 1820-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.


Gould, Virginia Meacham. “In Enjoyment of Their Liberty: The Free Women of Color of the Gulf Ports of New Orleans, Mobile, and Pensacola, 1769-1860.” PhD dissertation, Emory University, 1991.


Schafer, Judith Kelleher. Slavery, the Civil Law, and the Supreme Court of Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.


Ulentin, Anne. “Shades of Grey: Slaveholding Free Women of Color in Antebellum New Orleans.” PhD dissertation, Louisiana State University, 2012.


Anne Ulentin

Color reproduction of a watercolor painting, “Creole Woman with Maid,” by Edouard Marquis (1867). Courtesy of Louisiana State Museum https://64parishes.org/entry-image/creole-woman-of-color-with-maid-2

Key Events

c. 1754

Birth of Venus.

16 February 1789

Emancipation of Venus. Pierre Pedesclaux, 5-6:187, New Orleans Notarial Archives.

13 July 1810

Venus purchases property in Faubourg Marigny. Pierre Pedesclaux, 61:349, New Orleans Notarial Archives.


Venus purchases two enslaved women, Geneviève and Rosette. Pierre Pedesclaux, 61:513, October 22, 1810, New Orleans Notarial Archives. Slave Sale, 26:231, November 23, 1811, in Glenn R. Conrad, Land Records of the Attakapas, Volume II, Part I, Conveyance Records of Attakapas County, 1804-1818 (Lafayette: The Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1992), 126.


Venus acquires her enslaved niece, Eloise (Esther’s daughter), par sous-seing privé. Christobal de Armas, 1:351, June 9, 1818, New Orleans Notarial Archives.

5 January 1816

First letter from Madame de la Houssaye. Christobal de Armas, 1:351, June 9, 1818, New Orleans Notarial Archives.

27 February 1816

Second letter from Madame de la Houssaye. Christobal de Armas, 1:351, June 9, 1818, New Orleans Notarial Archives.

26 March 1816

Venus purchases her sister, Esther, out from slavery. Pierre Pedesclaux, 72:161, New Orleans Notarial Archives.

30 August 1817

Venus emancipates Rosette. Christobal de Armas, 1:192, New Orleans Notarial Archives.

19 November 1817

Venus emancipates her sister, Esther. Christobal de Armas, 1:218, New Orleans Notarial Archives.

5 June 1818

Venus registers her first will. Christobal de Armas, 1:345, New Orleans Notarial Archives.

August 2, 1820

Venus sells her niece Eloise away. Venus registers her second will. Philippe Pedesclaux, 16:1380 and 16:1381, New Orleans Notarial Archives.

c. 1821

death of Venus. Inventory of the Estate of Venus de la Houssaye, November 23, 1821, Court of Probates, Orleans Parish, Louisiana, New Orleans Public Library.