My Adventure Through Our Family Tree Branches

For over 50 years my Dad researched both his and my Mom's family tree branches - and loved every minute of it! Trying to fulfill the promise I made him the last month of his life, I have spent the past four years continuing where he left off - finding out about all the many family members who came before us, from the many branches of our family trees. The histories will still be published as my Dad always wanted. But what he wanted most was to share the stories of the people who came before us - the places they lived, the cultures of the times, the families they created, and the circumstances - good and bad - that would one day lead to us, their descendants. These are the stories of my Mom's families. . . .

Surnames in this Blog


Sunday, August 19, 2012

SATURDAY'S STRUCTURE - 'Le Petit Versailles', St. James Parish, Louisiana (Part I)

Francois Gabriel Valcour Aime
Francois Gabriel Aime (1797-1867) is my 2nd cousin, 5x-removed. His mother was Marie Felicite Julie Fortier (1778-1806), 1st cousin to my 4x-great-grandfather Jacques Omer Fortier (1792-1823). Born into wealth, orphaned by age of 9, Valcour, as he was called, married Josephine Roman (1797-1856) in 1819. They were both born into wealth from distinguished Louisiana families. Together they raised five children: daughters Edwige (1819-1867), Josephine (1821-1894), Felicite Emma (1823-1905), Felicie (1825-1859), and only son Gabriel (1828-1854). Valcour built the most magnificent home on his over 2,030 acre plantation. Le Petit Versailles, named for France's Versailles Palace, had its own zoo, man made lake and river, its own train and even its own cannon. Read Part I of this excerpt from Lost Plantations of the South, by Marc R. Matrana, 2009.

"Le Petit Versailles was the home of one of Louisiana's most famous planters, Valcour Aime, whose legendary success and excesses are still widely recounted to this day. His unusual mansion at Le Petit Versailles Plantation was the crown of his plantation empire, which included many properties. And the flagship estate's gardens were among the most elaborate ever conceived in the South. The plantation mansion burned in the twentieth century, leaving but a memory of a man and a plantation that truly defined Louisiana's "Golden Age.""

In St. James Parish "Aime owned the plantation that would come to be known as Oak Alley, perhaps the most recognizable and photographed plantation in the South today. He transferred this estate to his brother-in-law, Jacques Telesphore Roman, and took possession of the old Roman family estate. This Roman plantation measured thirty arpents along the Mississippi River and extended eighty arpents back. Aime filled its fields with sugarcane and began turning an annual profit between twelve thousand and twenty-three thousand dollars."

[NOTE: When Louisiana was under Spanish rule a ruling of 1770 allowed land grants 6-8 arpents wide and 40 arpents deep.  1 arpent = 192 feet. The Roman plantation (soon to be Aime's) was 30 arpents wide by 80 wide. This means his land measured 5,760 feet wide by 15,360 feet deep.]

"By the 1830s, Aime's family had grown, consisting of five children: four daughters and one son named Gabriel. By this time, the family needed more space. The Romans' old French Colonial house where the Aime family lived was integrated into the new mansion. The new house was built in the shape of a U with a large central courtyard facing the rear. Massive columns surrounded the plantation house and also lined the courtyard, creating a very remarkable rear facade. Twin staircases on either side of the courtyard framed the rows of columns within.

In its finished version, the mansion boasted sixteen rooms, including a grand banquet hall and private children's dining room on the first floor, as well as private parlors, bedrooms, and a library on the second floor. The large central hall contained a solid marble staircase and marble floors. Also, marble of various colors was found throughout the house in mantels, wainscotting, and in the rear courtyard floor.

Louisiana Historical Marker
Hwy 18 - St. James Parish
N 30° 00.400 W 090° 45.333
Outside the structure, Aime created what was arguably one of the finest flower gardens in the nation. The gardens were designed on a twenty-acre plot as an English park, although the landscapers were actually Parisians. It has been suggested that Aime was inspired by Josephine Bonaparte's English gardens at Malmaison, and it is said that over 120 slaves were employed in the creation of the botanical wonder at Petit Versailles. A large artificial lake filled with exotic fish was built and a stream known as La Riviere was supplied with pumped water from the nearby Mississippi River. Roman bridges spanned the rivulet at various intervals. A large hill was constructed with a grotto below, and on top a crowning Chinese pagoda contained stained-glass windows and chiming bells. A small fort, complete with a cannon, was constructed and came to be known as St. Helene, in honor the island where Napoleon was exiled. And artificial ruins, some detailed with oyster shells and marble statuary, added a decorative flair to the gardens. Large hothouses were filled with much tropical vegetation, while outside, the landscape artists planted fruit trees, shrubbery, and other plants from as far away as India, China, Korea, Madagascar, Siam, and other distinct locations. A small zoo was installed, complete with exotic animals, including many species of songbirds, peacocks, and even kangaroos. In addition, the plantation's internal railroad ran through the gardens to ferry guests around the estate.

by Eliza Ripley
pub. 1912

When the gardens were finished, one of the landscapers, Joseph Muller, who studied at the famed Jardin des Plantes, remained on the plantation to oversee the landscaping. It is said that he had a crew of thirty slaves who worked exclusively in the park. Eliza Ripley visited Petit Versailles and was escorted on a tour by one of Aime's daughters. Ripley wrote of this experience in her book, Social Life in Old New Orleans:

 ' Felicie and I, with a whole escort of followers, explored the spacious grounds, considered the finest in Louisiana. There was a miniature river, meandering in and out and around the beautifully kept parterres, the tiny banks of which were an unbroken mass of blooming violets. A long-legged man might have been able to step across this tiny stream, but it was spanned at intervals by bridges of various designs, some rustic, some stone, but all furnished with parpets, so one would not tumble in and drown, as a little Roman remarked . . . . There were summer houses draped with strange, foreign-looking vines; a pagoda on a mound, the entrance of which was reached by a flight of steps. It was an octagonal building, with stained-glass windows, and it struck my inexperienced eye as a very wonderful and surprising bit of architecture. Further on was --a mountain! covered from base to top with beds of blooming violets. A narrow, winding path led to the summit, from which a comprehensive view was obtained of the extensive grounds, bounded by a series of conservatories. It was enchanting. There I saw for the first time the magnolia frascati, at that date a real rarity.'" (pages 180-182)
END OF PART 1 - Le Petit Versailles 
[Read more about this unbelievable plantation next Saturday]


  1. I enjoyed this post very much!

  2. Thanks for the nice words! There's so much that could be said. I just wish some photographer had taken pictures to see it in all its glory!

  3. Ms. Thomas,
    There are a few of us who have the last portraits left. Check the Laura plantation.

    Also, some time in the future Id like to resurrect that fame. Find out how to get in touch with me. My names Mr. Secrest

  4. Le Petit Versailles sign is about to fall down. Not sure what to do about it....

  5. Valcour Aime is also a distant cousin to me. Our common direct ancestor is Michel Fortier 1 (1725-1785) (my 7th great grandfather). His son, Jacques (1759-1820) (my 6th great grand uncle) is the brother to Marguerite Fortier (1754-?) my 6th great grandmother.

  6. Valcour's daughter Josephine who married Alexis Ferry is my connection to the Aime and Fortier families. Your blog has been wonderful to read and save for reference. Thank you for the long hours of research and for sharing. Susan Ferry

  7. Valcour Aime was my 5th Great Grandfather, and Emma Felicite my 4th great grandmother. I was enchanted to read the passage about the garden, as my ancestor was mentioned as being the sister to lead the tour. Thank you so much!

    1. Does anyone know how I could gain access to the plantation? I know the house itself is gone, but my father is a plantation photographer, and his dream is to be able to access the property. Right now, it's closed off by a gate and no one is able to get to it. Who could I contact? I don't even know how to go about the process, but I would love to surprise him with some sort of pass for Father's Day...some document allowing him to pass the gate. Any help, any information at all would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

  8. Does anyone know how I could gain access to the plantation? I know the house itself is gone, but my father is a plantation photographer, and his dream is to be able to access the property. Right now, it's closed off by a gate and no one is able to get to it. Who could I contact? I don't even know how to go about the process, but I would love to surprise him with some sort of pass for Father's Day...some document allowing him to pass the gate. Any help, any information at all would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

    1. there is an opening along the left side of the fence facing it from the road. i went there several years ago and just slipped through the opening, found the canal bed and ruins to a bridge, the old ice storage cave, what a thrill. a good place to stay if you want to explore for a couple days is oak alley plantation where you can rent a cottage just down the road about a mile. there is a restaurant Scuddys in Vacherie with an old photo of Le Petit Versailles hanging on a wall, or was when i visited.