Woodlawn Plantation, near Napoleonville, Louisiana, built 1840. Photo taken by the Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress. The house no longer exists.
When William Pugh died on January 3, 1906, at Woodlawn Plantation, outside Napoleonville, Louisiana, he was nearly 95 years old. He had been born on another family plantation in Bertie County, North Carolina, in 1811 and brought to Louisiana by his parents as a child. He completed his education in his native state and gained some work experience in Virginia, then settled for good in the Napoleonville area after marrying for the first time at age 20. With his first wife he had six children, and only one of them, a daughter, survived him, living on until 1919. He married for a second time by age 33 and produced another nine children, four of whom survived him, the longest lived of them, Thomas, dying at age 98 in 1952. He survived even his second wife by nearly 38 years. Five of his fifteen children died in childhood, one as an infant during the infamous hurricane of 1856, when she was swept from his arms by an enormous wave while the family was vacationing at the fashionable resort of Isle Derniere, all of which, including the island upon which it sat, was destroyed. Meanwhile, he acquired and managed several prosperous plantations, served in the Louisiana State Legislature as Speaker of the House and on various local boards, helped construct Napoleonville’s Episcopal Church by supplying the bricks, lumber and labor which made it possible, and brought what remained of his family, slaves and property through the catastrophe of the Civil War and the trials of the decades which followed into the 20th century.
Here is what is fascinating to me: when William Pugh died in the dead of winter, 1906, his residence at Woodlawn Plantation, already 66 years old and showing its age, was home not only to furniture, memories, and assorted destitute relatives and former slaves, but also to an enormous archive of detailed estate records, personal diaries, letters and even poems, stories and novels in manuscript form left behind by William and various members of his family, much of this material dating back to long before the Civil War. Fortunately for those of us who have come later, the different portions of this enormous archive, both in its original paper and also microfilmed forms, have been safely housed in University Libraries in Texas and Louisiana and are available for researchers to explore. This is a task waiting for anyone who is able and willing to undertake it. Meanwhile, if you can find a rare copy of it, there is R. Dana Russell’s 1985 ‘The Pughs of Bayou Lafourche’. And Pugh himself in the late 1880’s published a series of reminiscences of life among the planters of Bayou Lafourche in the weekly ‘Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer’, excerpts from which have been published more recently by ‘The Courier’ of Houma, Louisiana. But, relatively speaking, the William Pugh archive remains largely unexplored and unpublished.
The photo at the top of this page was taken in 1938, only a few years before Woodlawn vanished entirely. It shows a corner of an upstairs bedroom nearly 100 years old when the picture was taken. Migrant laborers were using the house then to sleep in. The little gates on either side of the open French doorway would have come in handy, because the railing of the long balcony beyond had by then rotted entirely away. Other photos show that parts of the house were being used also for hay storage, so perhaps that was the case upstairs as well. Though it might simply have made a comfortable bed. This was one of the original Woodlawn bedrooms dating from 1840. Two side wings built a decade later added a spacious master suite and additional quarters for William Pugh’s rapidly expanding family.