Ambroise Heidel (1702-ca.1770), the founder of this plantation, emigrated from Germany to Louisiana with his mother and siblings in 1721. He became a modest farmer on the east bank of the Mississippi River. In the early years after his arrival, he had a single pig for his livestock. His financial condition changed dramatically over the course of his life as he was able to use the labor of enslaved Africans and European indentured servants.
After 30 years in Louisiana, in 1752, Ambroise had enough wealth to purchase the tract of land that would become Whitney Plantation, on which he enslaved approximately 20 Africans. This land on the west bank of the river would be home to the Haydel family for generations, and generate tremendous wealth for them. As the Haydels became acculturated to Louisiana, the spelling of the family name changed from the more German Heidel to the more French Haydel.
The plantation that Ambroise established in 1752 was planted in indigo, which was the major cash crop of Louisiana in the 18th century. Ambroise’s son, Jean Jacques Haydel Sr., took over the plantation after his father’s death. At the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Jean Jacques made a land claim before the American authorities of 17 arpents fronting the river with a depth of 40 arpents. This land claim included his father’s original tract (a smaller 11 arpent tract), as well as expansions made after Ambroise’s death. Jean Jacques did more than expand the size of the plantation. He also transitioned the plantation from indigo to sugarcane in the early 19th century. The plantation would remain predominately a sugarcane plantation, with some rice, throughout the remainder of its existence. In 1820, Jean Jacques Haydel Sr. passed the property to his sons, Marcellin (1788-1839) and Jean Jacques Jr. (1780-1863). These two men operated the plantation in a partnership for twenty years, until Marcellin’s death.
After the death of Marcellin Haydel, his widow, Marie Azélie Haydel (1790-1860), bought the plantation and turned it into a huge agro-industrial unit. By the time of her ownership between 1840-1860, the plantation had increased in size dramatically to 23 arpents fronting the river with a depth of 70 arpents. The enslaved workers, who numbered just over 100, produced as much as 407,000 pounds of sugar in a single season.
Azelie Haydel died just before the start of the Civil War, and during this period the plantation could not be sold. Over the course of the war, the plantation lost enslaved workers who ran to join the Union army. Sales notices placed in the local newspaper throughout the war show that the plantation steadily lost property as mules and other livestock were stolen. In 1867, the plantation was finally sold to Bradish Johnson, a major businessman and plantation owner with roots in Louisiana and New York. He purchased two plantations on the west bank of the river after the war, and named them Carol and Whitney in honor of his daughters who married men with those last names. When Whitney Plantation began its operations in January of 1868, it did so with a work force comprised of approximately 30% men who had been previously enslaved at the plantation.