A planter and the courts in antebellum Louisiana : the cases of John F. Miller
Keeling, John Robert
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This dissertation examines the legal culture of antebellum planters and businessmen in Louisiana through the litigation of one of its number, John F. Miller, and his business associates. Arriving in New Orleans in 1808, Miller earned much of his wealth through his ownership of a sawmill in the city. In the 1830s he became the owner of sugar and cotton plantations in the Attakapas region of southern Louisiana. This dissertation utilizes local court records and conveyances to examine Miller’s business and legal activities, sources seldom used in previous studies of antebellum planters. It also pays attention to how Louisiana’s unique legal system, based on civil, or Roman, law, shaped the course and outcome of Miller’s litigation. Though the volume of Miller’s litigation made him atypical, his legal disputes demonstrate the variety of legal areas that could affect a planter in the course of the operation of a plantation. This dissertation argues that the operation of the law and success before the courts were vital factors that determined the success or failure for antebellum planters. The dissertation considers five varieties of litigation involving Miller. In the first chapter, Miller’s purchase of a sugar plantation shows the effect of Louisiana inheritance law on the administration of estates. The second chapter explores the varieties of property and business litigation that sugar planters encountered in the course of operating their enterprises. The third chapter focuses on Miller’s sawmill in New Orleans and shows the tensions between municipal eminent domain power and private rights during the construction of a wharf in front of the mill. The fourth chapter reveals the strategies of Miller and his business partner to avoid financial failure and their manipulation of legal formalities to fend off creditors. The final chapter analyzes Miller’s most notable case, in which one of his former slaves secured her freedom by claiming that she was a white woman enslaved by Miller. This chapter examines the ambiguities of race in antebellum Louisiana as well as Miller’s fight to preserve his honor and reputation.