Bounded Lives, Bounded Places

Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769–1803

Bounded Lives, Bounded Places

Book Pages: 264 Illustrations: 4 photographs, 20 tables Published: March 1997

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Caribbean Studies, History > U.S. History

During Louisiana’s Spanish colonial period, economic, political, and military conditions combined with local cultural and legal traditions to favor the growth and development of a substantial group of free blacks. In Bounded Lives, Bounded Places, Kimberly S. Hanger explores the origin of antebellum New Orleans’ large, influential, and propertied free black—or libre—population, one that was unique in the South. Hanger examines the issues libres confronted as they individually and collectively contested their ambiguous status in a complexly stratified society.
Drawing on rare archives in Louisiana and Spain, Hanger reconstructs the world of late-eighteenth-century New Orleans from the perspective of its free black residents, and documents the common experiences and enterprises that helped solidify libres’ sense of group identity. Over the course of three and a half decades of Spanish rule, free people of African descent in New Orleans made their greatest advances in terms of legal rights and privileges, demographic expansion, vocational responsibilities, and social standing. Although not all blacks in Spanish New Orleans yearned for expanded opportunity, Hanger shows that those who did were more likely to succeed under Spain’s dominion than under the governance of France, Great Britain, or the United States.
The advent of U.S. rule brought restrictions to both manumission and free black activities in New Orleans. Nonetheless, the colonial libre population became the foundation for the city’s prosperous and much acclaimed Creoles of Color during the antebellum era.


Bounded Lives, Bounded Places beautifully recaptures the world of the libres of early New Orleans and marks the emergence of a major scholar of early America. . . . Hanger’s well-written monograph, both for its research and its contribution to the historiography of the lower Mississippi Valley, should serve as a resource for historians of early America. No ‘slaves without masters,’ the eighteenth-century libres represent a vibrant aspect of colonial American culture rarely glimpsed by historians. The author’s innovative research into the official government and church records of the period provides a model for future students of early America even as her depiction of free black culture enriches their understanding of this hitherto elusive community.” — , North Carolina Historical Review

Bounded Lives, Bounded Places confirms Hanger’s reputation as an authority on New Orleans’ libres. . . [She] fills an important lacuna in the history of free blacks in North America by documenting the establishment of this particular community and the 40-year course of its colonial development. She cogently describes the imperatives that directedthe actions of libres as they sought to transcend the vulerability of their interstitial social position by strengthening and securing their community through family ties, religious and cultural institutions, patriotism and military service, political involvement, and ownership of property, even including slaves. . . . Hanger’s work not only makes a major contribution to the region’s colonial history, but also offers directions for further study. . . .” — Roderick A. McDonald, Slavery & Abolition

“[A] masterful attempt to enlarge our understanding of how ex-slave communities emerged and developed in New World slave societies. . . . This book is a must for students in the comparative study of slave regimes, as for the researcher who is more interested in the free coloured and free black experience in the New World colonies.” — Pedro L. V. Welch , Journal of Caribbean History

“[A] well-written and researched work on the free blacks (libres) of colonial Spanish New Orleans. [A] convincing portrait of the complex and ambiguous world free blacks occupied in New Orleans. In addition, the author’s familiarity with the historical literature of Latin America allows her to place Louisiana libre society in context by offering insightful comparisons with other similar groups located throughout the Americas, something that historians of colonial British North America rarely do. . . . [A] necessary starting place for future scholarly studies.” — , Florida Historical Quarterly

“[An] impressive . . . [and] important study [that] substantially advances historical scholarship.” — , Georgia Historical Quarterly

“[An] impressive study. . . . Hanger’s book succeeds on two levels. It illuminates the experiences of a hitherto largely neglected class of people, and it is a compelling account of a remarkable city at a crucial point in its history.” — , American Historical Review

“[Handler] eschews the tendency to settle for the simplistic answer that group identity or cohesion had been achieved by some magic date, or that identity or choesion can be easliy defined. What appears at first to be a skulking through the thickets of historical causality actually reflects a sophisticated understanding of the complexity of the ‘intricate, ambiguous’ position of free blacks in a slave society. This aspect of her work is one of the strongest aruguments in favor of Bounded Lives, Bounded Places.” — Rob Cox , Journal of the Early Republic

“[T]he first comprehensive study to explore the origins of [New Orleans’s] libre population. . . . Hanger . . . is a careful scholar whose mastery of the literature allowed her to temper her arguments for group cohesiveness with an astute understanding of divisions among libres. Bounded Lives, Bounded Places makes an original contribution to the literature on free blacks in the late eighteenth century. — Carolyn E. De Latte , Journal of Southwest Georgia History

“Hanger’s book is well written and immaculately researched. . . . [Her] achievement is that she explores the evolution of a free black populace in the city directly from the primary sources rather than ‘upstreaming’ to the eighteenth century, conclusions reached for the early nineteenth century. By her willingness to immerse herself fully into French and Spanish source material, Hanger has placed our understanding of New Orleans’ free blacks on a much firmer footing.” — Journal of American Studies

“Hanger’s concise and detailed new study of the growth of the free black community in Spanish New Orleans is a welcome introduction to a crucial part of the Crescent City’s past. . . . Her volume, which combines statistical evidence and illuminating glimpses of personal stories, will prompt comparisons with other American cities and free black population in the late eighteenth century and also with the New Orleans of the late nineteenth century, where the famous case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) originated.” — Peter H. Wood , Journal of American History

“In these days, when public discussion centers around whether there should be a separate census category for persons of biracial ancestry, Hanger’s work seems particularly relevant. Perhaps the historical hindsight presented here has lessons for the future.” — Vernon J. Williams Jr. , The Historian

“In this welcome volume, Kimberly Hanger examines the world and culture of colonial Spanish Louisiana’s free blacks, or libres. . . . Hanger is to be particularly congratulated for her mining of extensive primary sources dealing with colonial New Orleans during the Spanish period. . . . In her hands, these records shed much light on the economic, social, and cultural world of New Orleans’s free blacks of the late-eighteenth century.” — Glenn Feldman , Journal of Social History

“Kimberly Hanger has launched a new generation of studies on this class, in her sensitive and well-written Bounded Lives, Bounded Places. The work is notable for its skillful blend of legal, political, economic, cultural, and social history. . . . This work sets a high standard for social histories of free black or other minority classes in the population. It will be the definitive work on free blacks in Spanish Louisiana for a long time.” — , Plantation Society

“Kimberly S. Hanger’s Bounded Lives, Bounded Places is a multidimensional study of libres (‘free blacks’) in New Orleans during three-and-a-half decades of Spanish rule. . . . Hanger’s study goes far beyond explaining the origins of New Orleans’ Creoles of Color. Bounded Lives, Bounded Places builds upon and amplifies studies of other marginalized groups, both in the past and in the present, strengthening our faith in human ingenuity and persistence and our hopes for a better future for all.” — , Colonial Latin American Historical Review

“Kimberly S. Hanger’s book is a useful contribution to our knowledge of early Louisiana and free blacks in North America, based on intensive study of a large number of documents.” — , Journal of Southern History

“The great strength of Hanger’s work is her presentation of an enormous amount of information from copious, underutilized colonial sources. She is the first scholar of colonial Louisiana to comb the New Orleans notarial archives, which old thousands of pages of contracts, wills, bills of sale, and affidavits. . . . Bounded Lives, Bounded Places is an important contribution to the scholarship on Louisiana. It reveals that, for all the qualities that set the colony apart, it and the later state were not immune to the forces inclining America toward a fractured identity that has yet to be knitted back together.” — , William & Mary Quarterly

“This is one of the more important books published on Spanish Louisiana during recent decades. . . . This book will quickly become a benchmark standard for both the historical literature of Spanish Louisiana and of the eighteenth-century history of blacks in the Americas. No student of the era will be able to justify leaving it unread.” — , Louisiana History

“Kimberly Hanger traces the origins of antebellum Louisiana’s large and influential free black society to the late eighteenth-century era of Spanish colonial rule, when the entire region, but particularly New Orleans, saw a steady growth in the number of people classified as neither slave nor white. An extraordinarily rich archival trove, especially of government, church and military records, has enabled Hanger to chronicle in remarkable detail the development of this community of libres and their negotiation of the precarious and ambiguous place they occupied in colonial Louisiana society. . . . Hanger fills an important lacuna in the history of free blacks in North America.” — Roderick A. McDonald, Slavery & Abolition

Bounded Lives, Bounded Places is an original contribution to the study of colonial Louisiana—an important, but neglected field of study. Hanger focuses upon both ethnic and women’s history, and makes a contribution to comparative history.” — Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Professor of History, Emerita, Rutgers University

“No one has done more to explain the origins of Lousiana’s free people of color than Kimberly Hanger. Hanger’s mastery of both the literature of free blacks in the New World and her deep understanding of the development of colonial Louisiana enables her to place Louisiana’s free people of color in hemisphere perspective, while exposing the fine-grained texture of their daily lives. Bounded Lives, Bounded Places is the best study of free people of color in Spanish Louisiana.” — Ira Berlin, University of Maryland


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At the time of her death, Kimberly S. Hanger was Assistant Professor of History at the University of Tulsa.

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Winner, Kemper and Leila Williams Prize for Excellence in Historical Scholarship (presented by Historic New Orleans Collection and the Louisiana Historical Association)

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1898-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1906-1
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