Last fall during a return visit to Louisiana, our Times editor was fortunate to visit the grounds of Ashland Plantation, located 60 miles west of New Orleans in Ascension Parish.
We hope you will first read the piece about the estate that is currently posted on the Deep South Magazine website. As our research was extensive, we have more stories to share here about these two leaders of the antebellum turf who called Ashland home—Duncan Farrar Kenner and Abe Hawkins.
Kenner, a Louisiana politician, sugarcane heir, and New Orleans turfman who dominated the sport with his champion thoroughbreds, was the owner of Ashland. As a young man, Duncan and his brother George had inherited the lower half of their late father’s Linwood sugar plantation. Duncan eventually acquired all of its shares, and called the tract “Ashland” in honor of the 600-acre Kentucky estate of fellow horseman and stock breeder, Senator Henry Clay; this naming of Ashland may have been influenced by a link between the two families through marriage, for Kenner’s brother-in-law was distantly related to Clay’s sister-in-law.
The plantation’s stately mansion was completed in 1841 for Kenner’s new bride Nanine, daughter of the prosperous Bringier family of the L’Hermitage plantation downriver. Standing less than a quarter mile from the Mississippi, Ashland’s manor house, with its spacious outdoor galleries, 14-foot ceilings, and breathtaking spiral staircase of cypress and hand-carved mahogany balustrades, had a magnificent view of the Mississippi across an open meadow. Kenner’s daughter, Frances Rosella Kenner Brent, described her home as an idyllic paradise to turf historian Harry Worcester Smith:
Ashland, with its wonderful velvet lawn, starred with flowers, was alive with singing birds. Its orchard in season was afoam with blossoms…[the garden’s] refreshing odors sweetened the air and imparted to that delightful spot inexpressible and unforgettable charm. Over, within, and all about in the beautiful home was the spirit of the old South, and those who were drawn there from time to time fell under its bewitching spell.
At the rear of the manor, live oak alleys guided the pathway to Kenner’s plantation operations: offices and blacksmithies, the sugarhouse, where the harvested cane was ground and prepared for shipping from the Ashland wharf, and slave quarters that accommodated the farm’s workforce. As his sugarcane operations grew, so did Kenner’s ownership of slaves, which ranged from 117 in 1840, to nearly 500 by 1860, counting him then as the 11th largest owner in the state and one of the largest slaveholders in the nation.
Aside from his success as both a planter and a political representative—Kenner served in both houses of the state legislature—another lucrative venture on the backside of the Ashland estate was his racing stable of winning thoroughbreds, or “crack nags.” Longtime friend and resident of the property George Washington Graves managed the stable, training its horses over the one-mile track that was situated a half-mile southeast of the main house.
By the 1850’s, Kenner was one of a select group of stockholders in the Metairie Association that governed New Orleans’ Metairie Course, the track that would reign supreme until the war not only on a local basis, but also nationally—staging “the Best Races in America” that drew horsemen and fans from the North in addition to the South.
In early 1854, Kenner enhanced his own racing arsenal by purchasing the slave jockey Abe Hawkins, who had been riding the Louisiana track circuit for the previous few years. During the 1854 Spring Meeting at Metairie, Abe piloted back-to-back record-breaking victories over the second weekend of April. Aboard Kenner’s four-year-old colt Arrow, he conquered the competition in the $1,000 Jockey Club Purse, achieving the best time ever at the three-mile distance, with finishing heat times of 5:36 ½ and 5:34.
But Abe’s most thrilling contest of the weekend was his ride for Northern Louisiana horseman T. J. Wells in a race that continued a rivalry between two sons of the Virginia sire Boston—Wells’ colt Lecomte, versus the invincible Kentucky-bred, Lexington. Having lost to Lexington a week prior in Metairie’s Great State Post Stake, the valiant Lecomte was returning to face his undefeated half-brother in the $2,000 Club Purse. The colt’s trainer, Hark, insisted that Wells use Kenner’s jockey, stating, “If you can get Abe to ride to Lecomte he will beat Lexington certain.”
With Abe aboard as the new rider—three pounds overweight at 89 pounds—for this demanding test of speed and stamina, Lecomte vanquished his foe while also achieving the fastest time at four miles, winning two heats in a time of 7:26 and 7:38 ¾. His record stood for nearly a year, until Lexington eclipsed his time by running a four-mile heat in the Great Match vs. Time in 7:19 ¾.
With one race triumph each at the hand of the other, Lecomte, again with Abe riding, met Lexington in one last battle over the track in April 1855 to determine the ruler of the turf. Thousands of Americans were captivated by the outcome of this race between the two half-brothers who “commanded the earth to stand still, who hushed the winds and rebuked the waves” in this final duel of speed. Though he showed his usual mettle and vigorously fought to win the four-mile heat, Lecomte was no match for his opponent, and this final victory by Lexington was likened to that of a change in the reign of a dynasty.
Kenner’s winning team continued its success over the track through the rest of the decade; the turfman was renowned as “the Red Fox of the South,” with his infallible jockey Hawkins wearing the colors of red jacket and cap. The stable, “acknowledged to be the strongest in the South” by Porter’s Spirit of the Times in 1859, included champion thoroughbreds such as Whale, who remained undefeated at all distances until he was sent to stud in 1859; and the filly Minnehaha, “the pet of Louisiana and as it is believed the fastest nag in the world,” who excelled at distances of one-to-three miles.
During the 1858 Winter Meeting when Whale and Minnehaha each won two races, the New Orleans Daily Picayune asserted, “We cannot omit mentioning the admirable manner in which Mr. Kenner’s horses are brought out. With Graves to train, Abe to ride and Ant’ny to start his horses, Duncan F. Kenner is truly hard to beat.”
Later that spring, not only did Minnehaha win two races and match the one-mile record of 1:45, but Kenner won three more races during the meeting with his filly La Variété and colt Rupee. “It is a singular fact in this connection and worthy of note, and we may say of emulation, that Mr. Kenner’s stable, under the charge of Mr. G.W. Graves, has carried off every prize for which they have started during the week,” reported The Daily Picayune.
While the country was at war in 1861, Kenner’s aptly named colt Panic proved to be the best of his stable, winning three races at distances of three and four miles that year, including victories in the opening and closing contests of the December Winter Meeting.
The Daily Picayune remarked about the absence of fans at Metairie in December, the numbers of which could “not be compared with those we witnessed in ‘the piping times of peace;’” meanwhile, only Louisiana and Mississippi had provided entries, as other Southern states were notably unrepresented. The Jockey Club, however, went forward in the most sportsmanlike manner to hold its meeting, with the intention to earmark all race proceeds toward volunteers for the war effort and their families.
Despite plans to hold the 1862 Spring Meeting in April, the Jockey Club determined in mid-March “in view of the situation of our political affairs,” to cancel sport; only six weeks later on April 25, the port city of New Orleans fell, surrendering after its capture by the Federal navy fleet. Three months later on July 27, 1862, 300 Federal soldiers of the 21st Indiana regiment raided Ashland on orders to apprehend Duncan Kenner, who as a staunch supporter for states’ rights and Louisiana’s secession, was serving as a member of the Confederate Congress’ House of Representatives. Tipped off by a slave about the approaching steamboat of Union forces, Kenner himself narrowly avoided arrest and fled to safety.
Under Federal orders to confiscate any property used to aid the rebellion, the soldiers pillaged the property over the course of four days and took everything of value: from the plantation’s cattle, food provisions and 300 hogshead of sugar, to Kenner’s stable of riding and carriage horses, the children’s ponies and his prize-winning thoroughbreds—even four of the commissioned paintings of his champions by equine artist Edward Troye, of which only the 1845 portrait of his broodmare Gray Fanny still exists today.
An estimated 60 horses were led away, recalled Kenner’s daughter, Frances, “in what seemed to us a funeral procession, as we saw it go down the road to the river.” Many of these horses were sold at auction the next year, including Panic, who was purchased for $5,500 and sent north. The indomitable Whale, however, would not budge for the Federals. The 16 hands-high blood bay, unmanageable except by Abe or his grooms, could not be controlled by the soldiers; the grooms refused to assist, enabling the stallion to remain at Ashland.
The Kenner family left Ashland following the raid in order to escape the continued advance of Federal troops into Louisiana, and settled in Northern Louisiana in Natchitoches; meanwhile, Duncan returned to his political duties in Richmond, Virginia, the seat of the Confederate Congress. Despite his own reliance as a planter on his slave workforce, it was Kenner who advocated the radical proposition in 1863 of sending a commission to England and France, requesting the powers to acknowledge the Confederate States of America and provide assistance in return for the abolition of slavery.
His plan was opposed until January 1865, when Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed Kenner for a secret diplomatic mission to Europe, granting him authority to secure aid from Britain and France. Traveling in disguise and under the name of “A.B. Kinglake,” Kenner embarked on this dangerous assignment that required him to journey through enemy territory in order to sail from the port of New York to meet with Confederate diplomats in Paris. Yet the diplomatic meetings that transpired in March 1865 with the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and Emperor Napoleon III proved unsuccessful, and within weeks, the Confederate capital of Richmond had fallen to the Union in early April; days later, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Northern Virginia forces, initiating the conclusion of the war and end of the Confederacy.
Following the South’s defeat, the once majestic estate of Ashland saw the return of not only Kenner and his family, but also Abe Hawkins. After receiving a presidential pardon for his role in the rebellion and pledging an oath of allegiance to the U.S., Kenner returned to Louisiana to rebuild: first, regaining control of his land holdings, which despite the Federal seizure, Graves had kept operating throughout the war under the government leasing program; second, returning to public service in the state senate to help rebuild Louisiana; and third, reuniting the Metairie Jockey Club.
Meanwhile, Abe’s career during the war years had flourished as he had continued riding in the North, culminating in 1866 with two prestigious wins in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga and the Jersey Derby at the Paterson track. While at Saratoga, Abe met an acquaintance of Kenner’s from New Orleans, and asked him to extend an offer of his savings from riding to assist in the rebuilding of Ashland: “It is all in the bank and it is his if he wants it, because I am just as much his servant as I ever was.”
Although Kenner declined Abe’s overture for the financial support, he graciously extended his own offer to Hawkins, stating: “Ashland is as much his home now as it ever was, and when he wishes to return there he will be welcome.”
The jockey was back in New Orleans riding for Metairie’s Inaugural races in December 1866. Yet only months later in May 1867, Turf, Field and Farm reported Abe’s death:
As a rider and a jockey he had no equal in this country. He sat a horse with ease and rode with remarkable judgment. All who have attended the meetings on the turf in various parts of the U.S., for the past fifteen years, will remember his swarthy face, his thoughtful air, and his light figure. He was a master in his profession, and not less faithful than he was competent. Good riders and strictly honest ones are rare; therefore, the death of Old Abe is an irreparable loss to the American turf.
But Abe had not passed away. Reported by the St. Louis Republican two weeks later in the article, “A Race Rider Reads his Obituary and is Delighted,” Hawkins was very much alive, “owing his recovery from his severe illness to Duncan Kenner, his former master, who, in the hour of sore affliction, attended with paternal care to the wants of the supposed dying freeman, and saved him from the eager clutches of unwelcome death.”
The jockey’s good health, however, did not endure. Within just weeks, Abe suffered a relapse while in Ohio for the Buckeye race meeting and died from consumption. “It would appear that in the first heat of his contest with Death, Old Abe successfully jockeyed his formidable opponent, but in the second heat was distanced by the grim phantom. Peace to his weary old bones,” reported Turf, Field and Farm, for the last time.
Hawkins was laid to rest at Ashland, in a brick tomb under a live oak tree near what must have been his favorite part of the plantation—the one-mile training track. Kenner lived a full 20 years more, realizing even greater prosperity than before the war through his increased land holdings, investments in railroads, manufacturing and banks, and diversification of crops including cotton and rice. Although he saw the death of the Metairie Course, the thirty-year institution responsible for placing New Orleans as a contender in racing at a national level, he saw the opportunity for using Metairie’s land as a much-needed cemetery, and served on the first board of the Metairie Cemetery Association that established the historic burial ground.
When Kenner passed away on July 3, 1887, he was serving as the president of the New Louisiana Jockey Club that raced over the Fair Grounds Course; in his obituary of July 4, The Daily Picayune declared, “His place as a patron of the turf cannot easily be filled.” Kenner continues to be honored by the Fair Grounds Race Course through its Duncan F. Kenner Stakes, a $100,000, 6-furlong race for 3-year-olds and upward that will be run for the 61st time on Saturday, March 8, 2014.