The movie 12 Years a Slave depicted a brutal time in the country’s history. It also depicted beautiful places – the Louisiana plantations where 12 Years a Slave was shot and neighboring ones used in other films that are well worth a visit.
The River Parishes part of southern Louisiana, not far from New Orleans and Baton Rouge, includes several restored antebellum plantations that are now National Historical Landmarks. Some, like St. Joseph Plantation and Oak Alley Plantation, are stars in their own right with extensive film credits, including the recent 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained as well as the HBO series True Detective.
St. Joseph Plantation, which includes a small sister plantation, Felicity, is a still-working sugar cane plantation that still includes many of the original building from the 1800s. There are renovated slave cabins, Creole cottages, a blacksmith’s shop, schoolhouse and carpenter’s shed on the plantation’s 2,500 acres along the Mississippi River. The Felicity section of the plantation was used in 12 Years a Slave.
The 12,000-square-foot raised Creole-style home (standing on brick columns to protect from flooding) on St. Joseph Plantation was built around 1830 using slave labor. One original family member was Henry Hobson Richardson, a renowned 19th century architect, who designed the original Marshall Field store in Chicago and Trinity Church in Boston.
St. Joseph Plantation was purchased by Joseph Waguespack in a post-Civil War sheriff’s sale and has remained in his family ever since. After Waguespack purchased the land, the plantation work force was mainly freed slaves who stayed on as laborers. In the 1970s, the plantation home stopped being used by family members, but was restored in recent years for tourists, weddings and movie location shoots, like 12 Years a Slave, and is worth a visit.
Neighboring Oak Alley Plantation is one of the most photographed because of its quarter mile canopied drive lined with a double row of 28 oak trees leading from the Mississippi River. The plantation’s trees and Greek Revival-style house were featured in several film shoots, ranging from Interview with a Vampire to Beyonce’s Déjà Vu music video.
Built in 1839, the plantation was originally called Bon Séjour (pleasant sojourn), but the iconic tree-lined entry lead to it being renamed Oak Alley. It too was a sugar cane plantation.
Oak Alley was also sold for auction after the war. However, successive owners could not maintain the site and it kept being sold and falling further into disrepair. The property was purchased in 1925 by Andrew and Josephine Stewart, who then set about restoring the site, the first ante-bellum restoration of a plantation done in the area. Shortly before her death in 1972, Josephine Stewart created the non-profit Oak Alley Foundation, to which she left the property so it could be opened to the public.
Oak Alley Plantation now houses a bed and breakfast with little modern cottages for guests to stay in and experience plantation life along the Mississippi. There is also a restaurant featuring traditional Creole and Cajun dishes.
Magnolia Plantation, further north in Derry, Louisiana, was also used in 12 Years a Slave. Much of the main house predates the Revolutionary War. Thomas Drayton, who came to settle in the area’s new English colony, established the plantation in 1679. The grounds were occupied by British and American troops at times during the revolution.
The house and farming acreage have descended through the same family for over 300 years. They opened the gardens to the public in 1870 to raise money are save the plantation from being sold at auction like many others. While the family still owns the house and farming acreage, the National Park Service now owns the rest of the land and many of the historical buildings, such as the slave quarters and Overseer’s House. They are part of the Cane River Creole National Historical Park.
The actual plantation where Solomon Northrup, the free black man depicted in 12 Years a Slave, was kept no longer exists. Magnolia is the nearest of them to the site Northrup wrote about.
There are several other movie sites in New Orleans prior. However, for area visitors who really want to grasp what Louisiana life was like during the 12 Years a Slave period, a visit to the plantations still in existence in the area is worth taking.
By Dyanne Weiss