Not all happy families are alike. And sometimes a rose is not just a rose.
One unusual extended family with deep Charleston roots gathered Friday, for the second time in three years, to celebrate its international heritage and recognize its several branches.
The Noisettes have been around the Charleston area since the first decade of the 1800s, when Philippe Stanislas Noisette, his mulatto wife, Celestine, and their two children, Philippe and Alexander, left their Caribbean home to avoid the St. Domingue Slave Revolt and its aftermath (which bode ill for any whites or others of privilege living in what would be renamed Haiti).
The clan, which today is widely dispersed and includes people living in the Lowcountry, Seattle, Denver and Paris, converged at the Carriage House of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens by the banks of the Ashley River to meet, greet, eat, play and talk. Organized by Margaret E.M. “Peggy” Noisette Clement, the event drew nearly 200 descendents.
Mary Noisette Merriweather of Seattle is the designated family genealogist. She inherited the role from her sister, Louise Noisette Merrell, who had worked tirelessly to gather family documents and lore, trace lineages and connect the dots, building on memories from childhood. When Louise died in 1997, Mary took over.
“I felt like her spirit was telling me this was my job,” Mary said. “It’s like putting together a big puzzle. Months go by when I don’t find anything, then all of a sudden something falls into place.”
The research she and her sister have done over the years reveals much about a distinguished family and its patriarch and matriarch.
Philippe Noisette was a botanist who inherited his profession from his French ancestors.
The trade ran in the family. Philippe’s brother, Louis Claude Noisette, was the superintendent of the botanical garden at Val-de-Grace in the late 1700s before establishing his own gardens. Their father, Joseph Noisette, was a respected gardener of M’Andrieux. Philippe’s grandfather, Christopher, was a skilled horticulturalist.
The Noisette jardinièrs helped shape some of France’s most famous gardens: Melum, Chatillon, Esterhazy.
Years later, in 1808, Philippe would be appointed director of the Botanical Society of Charleston. And he would develop what became known as the Noisette Rose. He planted the seeds from a new hybrid provided by John Champneys of Charleston, who had crossed a Pink China and a Musk rose. The result was a shrub that produced large, double-flower pink clusters.
Land he purchased north of the Charleston exposition grounds, on what’s known as the Neck, became the Noisette Farm and Rose Gardens.
But Philippe’s true flower was Celestine, his Haitian wife, with whom he had six children, four who were born in Charleston. When the family first arrived in South Carolina, Philippe was forced to declare his “wench Celestine and her two children” his slaves.
This meant they could not own property, so in the early 1820s, Philippe petitioned state lawmakers to free them. His request was denied.
In his will, he declared that his estate should be sold and the proceeds used to purchase his family’s freedom, and that they should escape to another state. But after his death in 1835, the family was permitted to remain in the community as free people of color. Twenty years later, a second petition with 26 signatures was submitted to state legislators, who, in 1859, two years before the start of the Civil War, granted the plea.
When Merriweather took over the family’s genealogy project, she immediately began to organize what her sister had collected, digitize the contents and expand the research effort by using online resources such as Ancestry.com, she said.
The research showed that one descendant, Louis Thomas Noisette, was a member of the 33rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry, in 1864. Another, Henry Benjamin Noisette, held the rank of 1st Class Boy in the Navy, from which he was discharged in 1963. Ellen Elizabeth Noisette, daughter of Philippe and Celestine, was born in 1849 and married Francis (Frank) Sparks Lee. They had seven children.
Letters, news clippings and historical documents, including a bill of sale for Philippe’s family, are now part of the family collection. Philippe’s obituary noted that he had been a humble and honest man, Merriweather said.
But there is still much to discover, Merriweather and Clement said. Three Charleston branches of the family — whose patriarchs are Henry, Louis and Benjamin — are connected to each other by blood, but their precise connection to Philippe and Celestine remains unclear.
It’s a complicated business, made more so by slavery’s legacy and class distinctions based on skin color, Clement said.
But complications sometimes can be a delight. Emmanuel Noisette, who came to the reunion from Paris with his wife, Jocelyn, and three children, said celebrating family ties “is the best way for us to discover America.”
The children, he noted, easily found playmates, and the extended Noisettes, who reside in the U.S., Haiti, Australia and France, are big-hearted.
“With 200 people, we are sure to find friends,” he said.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.