A Weaver’s Tale

This post is the second in an occasional series about my father’s family. 

Two hundred and ninety-six years ago, Johann Matern, my ancestor, came to Louisiana from Germany. A great number of Germans had come by ship under the direction of John Law, a Scottish speculator and banker. Many died aboard the ship. The survivors realized quickly that John Law’s promises were nearly worthless: no funds, no slaves nor easy living awaiting the pioneers.

The group proposed to farm an area a bit southwest of New Orleans. They provided food for the soldiers and government officials in the city. The pioneers formed small villages in what became known to the French-speaking population of New Orleans as Des Allemands. These sturdy Germans flourished despite the many difficulties of pioneering in a subtropical climate. 

Let’s get back to my 6th great-grandfather, Johann. He was from the upper region of Alsace-Lorraine, a place that over centuries changed from French to German hands over and again. Maybe Johann left to escape the strain of competing powers fighting over his homeland. I don’t know. I do know he was probably bilingual, speaking German and French. map alsace lorraine

Johann was 26 years old when he came to the New World. He had a wife, Regina, an infant son, and Regina’s two sisters listed as members of his household. Johann listed his occupation as a weaver. The little band of Germans had no use for someone to spin thread into cloth. They needed to build houses, grow food and establish a community.

Johann cleared his land to grow rice and corn and raise pigs. If he entertained any images of wealth in the New World, his hopes would were dashed. The man was awarded 8 arpents (6-7 acres) of land. Maybe he entertained his growing family which would reach six children with stories of Rumpelstiltskin, the folktale about an imp who spun gold out of straw. At any rate, Louisiana had no gold. Or silver. Or even pleasant weather.

German Coast
The Matern farm was located within the village of Hoffen. The area is near the present day town of Destrehan on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River.

At the age of forty-one, Johann died. What killed him? We don’t know. I do know his house didn’t die with him. He had six children at his death. His name, Matern, later becoming Matherne, has become a well-known surname in South Louisiana. In the parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Charles, St. James, Lafourche and Terrebonne, the name Matherne is part of the landscape.

There are over 3,000 people in the area who share the name, Matherne. In my neck of the woods where I grew up, the Matherne name loomed large. A school and a graveyard bore the name. They were farmers, hunters, and ranchers. Some were angels, starting a new Protestant church, founding members of banks and such. Others were devils, with stories that some would rather not be told.

I will tell some of the stories of the people called Matherne.