Image: Advertisement for Rachel Gradenigo Millinery Store in 1856.
Carola Lillie Hartley
Publisher and Contributing Writer
During colonial times women in Louisiana had more rights than women in other areas of the US. Other areas were governed by English Common Law. Louisiana was governed by French Civil Law (sometime called the Napoleonic Code). This Civil Law gave women some rights that were not afforded to women under the rule of Common Law.
Because of this, Creole women of Louisiana, even those of mixed race, could and did own property, possess assets as single women, or as married women separate from that of their husbands, file lawsuits, and act as successful and respected business owners. Even so, they did not have all the same rights as men – they could not vote, hold office, help to create laws, etc.
Because of that Louisiana law, women did own businesses in the state and in Opelousas during the early 1800s. One successful businesswoman in Opelousas was Rachael Fergerson Gradenigo (1806-1858), a free woman of color.
Rachel Fergerson was born about 1806. The 1850 census gives her birthplace as “la of CA.” (Not sure if that means she was born in Los Angeles in California or not.) She married Joseph Gradenigo, son of Joseph Gradenigo & Adelaide Lemelle (b. Sept. of 1803) on December 11, 1842. It is not certain if this couple had children, but some records indicate they helped to raise the children of others including a boy named John Simons, the son of John Simons and Elizabeth Tolbert. Simons later worked in one of Rachel’s businesses.
During her lifetime, Rachel owned many properties in downtown Opelousas and several businesses in the town and the area. One of those was a resort area about 30 miles north of the town. In May of 1849, the Opelousas Gazette newspaper reported Rachel Gradenigo purchased the elegant residence of Caleb Green, ten miles west of Chicot and about 30 miles northwest of Opelousas. The house was described as being “capacious and airy, situated on a hill, in a beautiful native grove, with an artificial lake, and an abundance of fish and game.”
Rachel turned the property into a fine resort and converted the home into a beautiful hotel. She called her resort Beaver Creek Springs. Many fine balls and other parties were held at the “Springs” during the late 1840s and early 1850s.
Among Rachel’s many businesses was a fine Millinery Store located on Bellevue Street, between Court and Main streets in downtown Opelousas. It was in the area where the old Bodemuller, the printer building is today. Her store was considered one of the finest of its kind in the area.
Rachel Gradenigo was also involved in a number of court cases in Opelousas during her lifetime. As a woman property owner, she had the right to go to court to protect her property when necessary. And she won many of those cases.
Rachael Gradenigo died in 1858. She was buried in the St. Landry Catholic Church cemetery. Her many properties were auctioned at a public sale soon after her death, and sold to area residents. Her Beaver Creek Springs were sold to H. Provent and remained open for a number of years.
As we celebrate National Women’s History Month, it is fitting that we learn about another early Opelousas businesswoman — Rachael Fergerson Gradenigo.