A new tour through the past at Oak Alley Plantation

August, 2021

A row of huge oak trees lines the walkway between the plantation home and the Mississippi River at Oak Alley plantation. Pam LeBlanc photo

When I visited Oak Alley Plantation a decade ago, tour guides in antebellum gowns led me through the Greek Revival style mansion, showing off fine furnishings but making only passing mention of the slaves who toiled there.  

Today, though, visitors get a more complete picture of life at the sugarcane plantation best known for a walkway lined with gracefully bending oak trees. They can still explore the column-lined home where wealthy planter Jacques Roman and his family once lived, but they can also learn about the more than 200 enslaved men, women and children who supported the family over the years. 

 An exhibit that opened in 2012 includes six re-constructed slave quarters buildings, set close to their original location near the mansion. Inside those structures visitors can read about the daily lives of field and house slaves like Pognon, a seamstress; Anna, who made lye soap; Emelia, who dug ditches, repaired roads and maintained the levee; and Antoine, who grafted the first papershell pecan tree, opening the door for commercial production in the area. 

 One cabin represents a rustic (and unsanitary) “hospital” for slaves who had been injured or were sick; another houses a collection of artifacts, including reproductions of shackles and neck irons used to restrain slaves that were being punished. The names of the slaves who lived at Oak Alley are etched across the wall of another. 

“It’s a place that is so beautiful but has such a dark history,” Hillary Loeber, director of marketing at Oak Alley Plantation, says of the plantation. 

The slave exhibit

This reproduction of the slave quarters at Oak Alley Plantation gives insight into how more than 200 enslaved men, women and children lived. Pam LeBlanc photo

The slave exhibit was years in the making. The plantation’s curator, collections manager and department of research and interpretation worked together, digging into archives and sifting through records from all over Louisiana and beyond. They used records of slave sales, baptisms and marriages, census data and, for cross referencing, genealogy sites like Ancestry, to piece together individual stories about the men, women and children enslaved on the property. Because many of the slaves were referred to by different names on different documents, the work was tedious.  

“It’s a major feat to go in and cross reference documents, especially since different cultures are involved,” Loeber says. “People had a different way of writing and speaking, and names changed over the years. To trace people back from now to then, especially in the slave community, it’s quite difficult.” 

A reproduction of a newspaper advertisement at Oak Alley Plantation. Pam LeBlanc photo

 Much of information the researchers uncovered is available to the public via the plantation website’s slave database.  

RELATED: Seminole Canyon’s world class rock art is a lens to history 

The slave exhibit at Oak Alley Plantation provides a good balance to a tour of the Big House, a 180-year-old mansion where Jacques and Celina Roman raised their family in relative luxury.  

“We went away from the previous tour, with guides in antebellum dresses and folklore passed down by word of mouth, to a tour focused on historical facts,” says Janell Napier, who led a small group of visitors through the Big House during my most recent visit in May. 

Touring the Big House

Visitors to Oak Alley plantation can tour the main home, the grounds, and replicas of cabins where slaves once lived. Pam LeBlanc photo

Walking through the home, you’ll see the dining room, where a slave pulled a rope to move the “shoo fly fan” that hangs over the table, the parlor, and the bedrooms where the family lived. 

Jacque Roman died at age 48 in 1848, and his wife Celina took over operations of the plantation, but it fell into financial hardship and was sold in 1866. 

Eventually, the Stewart family purchased it in 1925. Josephine Stewart lived there until 1972, and created the non-profit Oak Alley Foundation, which maintains 63 acres of the original 1,200-acre property today. The grounds include lush gardens, a gift shop, a café, and a bar where visitors can order a mint julep. There’s also an artifact room that reinforces the paradox that the plantation was a comfortable residence for the wealthy owners and a place of pain and abuse for the slaves. 

The famous oaks

The 28 oak trees that line the walkway leading from the Mississippi River to the front of the home remain a highlight, but research has changed the staff’s understanding of how they got there. The trees, between 200 and 250 years old, form a tunnel of green, and a walk beneath their canopy will whisk you back to a different era. 

RELATED: Discover history and simple pleasures in Baffin Bay 

“For the longest time, the story was the trees were planted 300 years ago by an unknown French settler,” Loeber says. “Since then, we learned by cross referencing documents and land grants that the trees could not have been here at that time. A carriage road went through alley then, so it’s more likely the trees were transplanted here later using slave labor to create an alley.” 

There’s no official documentation on who did it and when it happened, but the original carriage road that cut across what is now the row of trees was closed in 1807, and researchers believe the trees were planted about 80 feet apart sometime between 1820 and 1836. It’s just one example, Loeber says, of how what we know about the plantation’s history continues to evolve as researchers uncover new information. 

“The visitor experience is important to us and sharing correct information is important to us,” she says. “Our mission states for us to preserve, research and educate the public, and slavery was a part of Oak Alley’s history at the time it was built, so it’s our responsibility to research that and educate on it. But it’s important to us not to speculate or generalize. We’re not here to give the full history of slavery because it is so complex.” 

Besides the guided home tour, guests can do a self-paced tour on their own. Site interpreters mingle with visitors to answer questions and spur conversations. A new guidebook published in May and available at the property provides an overview of that history from the early 1800s to the creation of the foundation in 1969. 

“When visitors come, it’s not just a house tour, because a house is not a plantation,” Loeber says. “We want them to understand all aspects of the history, and slavery was a very integral part of that.” 

If You Go

Getting there:

Oak Alley Plantation is more than a seven-hour drive from Austin. Located at 3645 Highway 18 in Vacherie, it’s about an hour’s drive south of Baton Rouge. Admission to the grounds is $25 for adults or $10 for ages 13 to 18, with a $2 additional charge for a home tour starting in August. Beginning in August, visitors may book tickets for specific times in advance online. The plantation is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily (closed major holidays).  For more information go to www.oakalleyplantation.com. 

Stay:

Overnight lodging is available in one- and two-bedroom cottages on the plantation grounds. Rates range from $150-$325 per night, and breakfast is included. 

Do:

Other historic plantations, including Laura Plantation and Houmas House, are located nearby. Visitors can also take airboat tours, rent kayaks, or look for alligators with local tour providers, or sign up to take a Cajun cooking class in Vacherie with Spuddy’s 

 

Eat & Drink

The onsite restaurant at Oak Alley is open for breakfast and lunch, but not dinner. Pre-prepared meals (think gumbo, crawfish etouffee or red beans and rice) are available to reheat in your room. Better yet, head to New Orleans! 

Pro tip:

Be prepared for heat, humidity and rain. Temperatures might only reach the upper 80s, but it will feel hotter. Carry an umbrella. 

Follow Austin Travels


Austin Travels is a women-owned, Austin-based travel magazine committed to highlighting destinations in Texas and beyond through the lenses of diverse and talented writers.

Subscribe

Eat, Sleep, Dive: A live-aboard dive trip in the Turks and Caicos

Eat, Sleep, Dive: A live-aboard dive trip in the Turks and Caicos

Dreaming of a trip Down Under? Plan an Australia adventure in 2023

Dreaming of a trip Down Under? Plan an Australia adventure in 2023

To Los Angeles, with love

To Los Angeles, with love

Three days in Monterey: Capturing California’s coastal charms

Three days in Monterey: Capturing California’s coastal charms

New terrain, new lifts and more: What’s new at ski resorts this season

New terrain, new lifts and more: What’s new at ski resorts this season

Surf Ireland: Catching waves on the Emerald Isle

Surf Ireland: Catching waves on the Emerald Isle

Discover the draws of Door County, Wisconsin

Discover the draws of Door County, Wisconsin

St. John: A Perfect Week in Paradise

St. John: A Perfect Week in Paradise

A beginner’s guide to Universal Orlando with kids

A beginner’s guide to Universal Orlando with kids

From rockets to caverns, 5 fun adventures in Huntsville, Alabama

From rockets to caverns, 5 fun adventures in Huntsville, Alabama 

Destin delights: How to spend a long weekend on the Florida Panhandle

Destin delights: How to spend a long weekend on the Florida Panhandle

Learning all things Louisiana at Capitol Park Museum in Baton Rouge

Learning all things Louisiana at Capitol Park Museum in Baton Rouge

New draws to Denver

New draws to Denver

Dreaming of Disney World? 10 takeaways for a less daunting, more magical trip

Dreaming of Disney World? 10 takeaways for a less daunting, more magical trip

A rare retreat to mountainside luxury at Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch

A rare retreat to mountainside luxury at Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch

Discovering magical mermaids, memories at Weeki Wachee Springs

Discovering magical mermaids, memories at Weeki Wachee Springs

36 hours of family fun in New Orleans

36 hours of family fun in New Orleans

Recapturing Zen at Kripalu

Recapturing Zen at Kripalu

Soaking in family fun in Seattle

Soaking in family fun in Seattle

Scalloping, saltwater springs and seashell strolls on Florida’s Sports Coast

Scalloping, saltwater springs and seashell strolls on Florida’s Sports Coast

Slowing down by the sea in Ambergris Caye, Belize

Slowing down by the sea in Ambergris Caye, Belize

Frolicking in Finland: Contemporary design and Nordic adventures await

Frolicking in Finland: Contemporary design and Nordic adventures await

At Telluride Bluegrass Festival, a ‘Festivarian’ is born

At Telluride Bluegrass Festival, a ‘Festivarian’ is born

Summer in South Haven, Michigan

Summer in South Haven, Michigan

The Green O: Mother Nature’s Posh Playground

The Green O: Mother Nature’s Posh Playground

Walking in Memphis: History, soul music and good trouble in Tennessee

Walking in Memphis: History, soul music and good trouble in Tennessee

Fishing, golf and more in the Santee region of South Carolina

Fishing, golf and more in the Santee region of South Carolina

Family friendly fun during a quick trip to New York City

Family friendly fun during a quick trip to New York City

A Mother’s Day getaway to charming Charleston

A Mother’s Day getaway to charming Charleston

Playing in Portland, Austin’s Unofficial Sister City

Playing in Portland, Austin’s Unofficial Sister City

Spring and summer stops in Southern Colorado

Spring and summer stops in Southern Colorado

Skiing, snowshoeing and biking in breathtaking Banff

Skiing, snowshoeing and biking in breathtaking Banff

Sweet spots for family fun in Santa Barbara, California

Sweet spots for family fun in Santa Barbara, California

8 Tips for Skiing with Kids

8 Tips for Skiing with Kids

Chilling Out at Beaver Creek Resort

Chilling Out at Beaver Creek Resort

7 magical things to do in Door County, Wisconsin

7 magical things to do in Door County, Wisconsin

Family fun: 5 can’t-miss attractions when visiting St. Louis

Family fun: 5 can’t-miss attractions when visiting St. Louis

Family travel: Calm and cool in Los Angeles

Family travel: Calm and cool in Los Angeles

Mother-daughter getaway: Finding MGK, music and magic in Cleveland

Mother-daughter getaway: Finding MGK, music and magic in Cleveland

COVID Testing and Traveling Abroad: Know Before You Go

COVID Testing and Traveling Abroad: Know Before You Go

A rare glimpse at pearl farming in Tahiti

A rare glimpse at pearl farming in Tahiti

Family travel: Meandering through Montreal

Family travel: Meandering through Montreal

Five reasons Colorado’s Winter Park Resort should be on your family’s ski trip list

Five reasons Colorado’s Winter Park Resort should be on your family’s ski trip list

Squeezing in every snowy moment at Solitude Mountain Resort

Squeezing in every snowy moment at Solitude Mountain Resort

Here’s what’s new at resorts for the 2021-22 ski season

Here’s what’s new at resorts for the 2021-22 ski season

Big Easy delights: Food, fun and family in New Orleans

Big Easy delights: Food, fun and family in New Orleans

Uncovering the magic and mystery of Washington State

Uncovering the magic and mystery of Washington State

Red River is ripe with reasons to visit

Red River is ripe with reasons to visit

Must-Do’s in Denver

Must-Do’s in Denver

Falling for Cape Cod’s off-season charms

Falling for Cape Cod’s off-season charms

Heeding the call of Nashville’s siren song

Heeding the call of Nashville’s siren song

7 ideas for family fun in Panama City Beach, Florida

7 ideas for family fun in Panama City Beach, Florida

Reading Roxane Gay at the Mauna Lani in Hawaii

Reading Roxane Gay at the Mauna Lani in Hawaii

Keeping it cool in Grand Teton and Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Keeping it cool in Grand Teton and Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Summertime in Colorado: 4 spots ripe for family fun

Summertime in Colorado: 4 spots ripe for family fun

Conquering Austria’s Alpine Road

Conquering Austria’s Alpine Road

Fort Collins: Paddling, Hiking and Biking, Oh My

Fort Collins: Paddling, Hiking and Biking, Oh My

A new tour through the past at Oak Alley Plantation

A new tour through the past at Oak Alley Plantation

Explore the gravel roads around Fort Collins on the FoCo Fondo bike ride

Explore the gravel roads around Fort Collins on the FoCo Fondo bike ride

Fully vaccinated? Traveling to Puerto Rico just got breezier

Fully vaccinated? Traveling to Puerto Rico just got breezier

To date a matador: Seduced by Spain

To date a matador: Seduced by Spain

Cabin culture: Escape the crowds at these remote U.S. hideaways

Cabin culture: Escape the crowds at these remote U.S. hideaways

Essay: Can we really leave no trace when we travel?

Essay: Can we really leave no trace when we travel?

Mountain biking mecca Mesa Verde Country is a must-ride

Mountain biking mecca Mesa Verde Country is a must-ride

Bike to Bentonville for 150 miles of trails and much more

Bike to Bentonville for 150 miles of trails and much more

Colorado’s Calling –– Take a summer trip to this cool state now

Colorado’s Calling –– Take a summer trip to this cool state now

Set your sights on Steamboat Springs this summer

Set your sights on Steamboat Springs this summer

A foodie’s guide to eating (and foraging and making chocolate) in Costa Rica

A foodie’s guide to eating (and foraging and making chocolate) in Costa Rica

Discovering hints of home in Red River

Discovering hints of home in Red River

New Mexico road trip: 10 top experiences, from Albuquerque to White Sands

New Mexico road trip: 10 top experiences, from Albuquerque to White Sands

Diving into the history of falconry at The Broadmoor

Diving into the history of falconry at The Broadmoor

5 questions with influencer Jeff Jenkins, who helps ‘chubby people travel the world’

5 questions with influencer Jeff Jenkins, who helps ‘chubby people travel the world’

Finding a ranch to call home in Granby, Colorado

Finding a ranch to call home in Granby, Colorado

Oyster safaris and mystery solving along Sweden’s Bohuslan Coast

Oyster safaris and mystery solving along Sweden’s Bohuslan Coast

Escape to Los Angeles: 5 fun things to do in Southern California

Escape to Los Angeles: 5 fun things to do in Southern California

Adventures Await: Roaming the road in a campervan

Adventures Await: Roaming the road in a campervan

If you’re heading west, 5 reasons to visit the California gem of Terranea

If you’re heading west, 5 reasons to visit the California gem of Terranea

For every season: A house divided over Estes Park, Colorado

For every season: A house divided over Estes Park, Colorado

The soaking life: A baker’s dozen of the best historic spas across the world

The soaking life: A baker’s dozen of the best historic spas across the world

California escape: Peace, harmony and inspiration in Joshua Tree and Palm Springs

California escape: Peace, harmony and inspiration in Joshua Tree and Palm Springs

When the snow melts and winter crowds leave, these Colorado spots are the coolest

When the snow melts and winter crowds leave, these Colorado spots are the coolest

Dreaming of a Virgin Islands Vacation? Tips for traveling to St. John right now

Dreaming of a Virgin Islands Vacation? Tips for traveling to St. John right now

Dreaming of the RV life? Lessons learned from a 10-day national park road trip

Dreaming of the RV life? Lessons learned from a 10-day national park road trip

Colorado Ski Gems

Colorado Ski Gems

Escape crowds and capture memories in snowy Southwest Montana

Escape crowds and capture memories in snowy Southwest Montana

What to know before you book a ski trip during a pandemic

What to know before you book a ski trip during a pandemic