The Armant Brothers were like other antebellum plantation owners along the Mississippi River. They loved a good bet. Endowed with the recent inheritance of their father’s plantation in 1858, the Armant Brothers had money with which to gamble. Their profitable 1150-acre sugarcane plantation was located on the Mississippi River between present-day Oak Alley and Laura Plantations in Vacherie, Louisiana. Before the Civil War, it was the neighboring plantation to Valcour Aime’s plantation — La Petite Versailles.
All of the wealthy planters along the river had a variety of ways in which to compete and gain the monetary upper-hand of their peers.
A popular trick card game called “Boston” was often played in private clubs. (One of these clubs in New Orleans occasionally had visitors from the city of Boston, Massechusetts who would attempt entry assuming it was a private club for Bostonians.) In that club, one of the wealthiest planters on the River, Duncan Kenner, was said to have lost $20,000 ($485,000 today) on one game of Boston and was still not considered a plunger.
Horse racing was another exciting way to win money, or lose one’s money in the antebellum south. The gaming Mr. Kenner also loved racing his thoroughbreds — so much so that he built a track and stables at his home Ashland Belle Helene near Darrow, LA.
John Burnside, the Sugar King of Houmas House plantation, was also passionate about racing horses. Once he stabled a champion thoroughbred in his billiard room in order to keep it hidden until a race at Kenner’s track. Did Burnside win? Yes, he did.
I learned of the latter story while on tour of Houmas House plantation. On this same tour, I noticed a map of the Armant Plantation hanging on the wall in the billiard room. This map was of particular interest to me since it is the plantation of one of my ancestors, my 5th great-grandfather Jean Baptiste Armant who inherited it from his father. I thought it was strange to have a map of a neighboring plantation in the home so I inquired about why it was there. The tour guide told me that the Armant Brothers, who had inherited the plantation, wagered it in a bet and lost it to John Burnside in a horse race. A whole plantation lost in a horse race? I had to know more.
If this story is true, I am appalled that my ancestor cousins were so careless as to bet their inheritance on something as fleeting as a horse race. If false, I wanted to clear the name and reputation of my Armant kin. So I began my own investigation to determine the details of this story.
It is true that John Burnside began acquiring plantations soon after he bought Houmas House in 1857. In fact, he purchased 12 more plantations before, during, and after the Civil War — sometimes for pennies on the dollar. Could he have acquired some of them through bets? The evidence of the gambling habits of the local planters did give credence to this possibility.
I first inquired of Dr. Kevin Kelly, present owner of Houmas House, to find out how he discovered this story. He said the story was told by a descendant of the Miles family — former owners of Houmas House. The descendent, Dr. Henry Miles, who was born in Houmas House in 1901, died around 2005 and I was told that he was the lone historian of the Miles family. Therefore I was not able to verify this story directly.
I decided to go to the St. James Parish courthouse to see if I could find any property records that had to do with the transfer of the plantation from the Armant Brothers to John Burnside. The old documents I found were fascinating — some written in French,and others in English — with handwriting and signatures written with a flare seldom seen today.
I did find a document of the property transfer containing the signatures of one Armant brother, the signature of John Burnside, and others, but it was on a document of the purchase of Armant plantation, not a transfer of ownership without payment.
Most of the plantations that Burnside owned were acquired during or after the war, but this one was purchased before the war in January of 1860 — six years after the death of their father. Armant Plantation was ordered by the court in September of 1859 to be auctioned on January 12, 1860 to settle inheritance and succession issues. The land was divided into 31 sections and sold individually. John Burnside bought 29 of the sections including Armant’s French-style plantation home on the river. He purchased the homestead for $25,000 ($630,000 today) and the sections of land for $68,102.77 ($1,700,000 today).
Victor Armant, one of the brothers, bought two sections of land for $23,681.10 ($597,000 today) that held some of the plantation buildings possibly used for sugar manufacturing. The final section of land was purchased by another individual.
Stories, even those that can’t be proven true, often have a grain of truth to them. So I wondered if possibly Victor may have lost his portion later by gambling it away — maybe in hopes of winning back his beloved home. I went back to the St. James courthouse to see what I could find. And once again I found another document stating that John Burnside bought Victor’s portion in 1866, a year after the war ended for $3500 ($54,000 today) – a fraction of what Victor paid for it.
I don’t know all of the possible nuggets of truth that have caused this story to survive, but as John Adams once said,”facts are stubborn things.” The facts I have discovered so far show that Armant Plantation was purchased by John Burnside. Could he have won another of his plantations in a horse race? That could be an interesting investigation. But I am satisfied knowing that my ancestors were not the type of people who would needlessly squander their inheritance. Jean Baptiste Armant’s family reputation can be held in high regard once again.
Jean Baptiste Armant, Sr. and Rose Carmelite Cantrelle Armant are my 5th great-grandparents. They are also the grandparents of my 3rd great-grandmother whose story is told in “Of Plantations and Hurricanes.”