By Joe Darby
When I visited Clerk of Court David Stamey earlier this week, we got to wondering about that card game.
The card game in question happens to have been played 249 years ago. Somebody lost their shirt — and their land — and it’s all recorded on the back of two beautiful playing cards that are part of the Clerk of Court’s records.
There’s some information on the two cards, written in French, but there’s still a lot of unanswered questions. It’s dated 1769. The cards are signed by one Monsieur Bonnafons. I looked him up in some of my reference books and I found him in, of course, the last book that I searched. Kathleen M. Byrd, in her book “Colonial Natchitoches,” identifies Jean Louis Bonnafons as a native of Ambrun, France, who came to Natchitoches in 1742. He was a merchant and a surgeon. And, evidently, a gambler.
The sum of 25 livres (vingt cinq livres”) is also written on a card as well as the term “terre” or land, and “Beaufort.” I could not decipher other bits of the writing because 18th century French script is not the easiest in the world to read. So, as I said, lots of questions remain. One reference I have indicates that Beaufort Plantation was not named until the 1790s, so one of our questions pertains to exactly what land was involved.
Obviously land changed hands. That’s why the cards are filed as official records with the clerk of court. And who was the other player?. We could not make that out. But David marvels at the beauty of the two cards, one the jack of spades and the other the jack of diamonds, and both are hand drawn. Obviously, factory-made cards were hard to come by in Natchitoches in the 1760s.
With Natchitoches being the oldest settlement in the state, it’s only to be expected that the Clerk of Court’s office has a fabulous collection of historic colonial documents. And Stamey considers it an honor to care for them.
“I think there’s nothing more important in this office than keeping these original documents safe,” he said. Copies are available to researchers, but the originals are kept under lock and key in vaults.
Among the documents he has are many connected to the Natchitoches founder, Louis Juchereau de St. Denis. Among the papers in the possession of the office of the clerk of court are St. Denis’ last will and testament from March 26, 1744; lists of his slaves, and several documents on St. Denis property exchanges that occurred after his death. His widow, the former Emanuela Sanchez, was head of his estate until her own death in 1781. Her funeral records are here too.
Another fascinating document is a detailed outlay, signed by St. Denis, of the costs to build the second French fort here, which came to 30,200 livres, surely a somewhat hefty price for that time.
Stamey said that the Louisiana State Archives in Baton Rouge has asked several times that the Natchitoches documents be donated to that institution. But Stamey said he and his predecessors have always refused, because the papers were originated here and they should stay here.
The office is a treasure trove for genealogy researchers also. It has, for example, marriage records going back to 1855. It also has military discharge records from both World Wars and Korea. “Those are available only to children and grandchildren and to siblings, because they contain personal information,” he said.
David Stamey is clearly a man who loves his job. When he gets among his historic records, his face lights up and he obviously loves to tell a visitor about the significance of the office’s collection. It’s one of Natchitoches’ little known and hidden treasures, I say.