The Bon Séjour plantation, as Oak Alley was originally named, was established to grow sugarcane, by Valcour Aime when he purchased the land in 1830. Aime, known as the “King of Sugar,” was one of the wealthiest men in the South. In 1836, Valcour Aime exchanged this piece of property with his brother-in-law Jacques Télesphore Roman for a plantation owned by Roman. The following year Jacques Roman began building the present mansion under the oversight of George Swainy and entirely with enslaved labor. The mansion was completed in 1839. Roman’s father-in-law, Joseph Pilié, was an architect and probably designed the house.
The most noted slave who lived at Oak Alley Plantation was named Antoine. He was listed as “Antoine, 38, Creole Negro gardener/expert grafter of pecan trees,” with a value of $1,000 in the inventory of the estate conducted upon J.T. Roman’s death. Antoine was a master of the techniques of grafting, and after trial with several trees, succeeded in the winter of 1846 in producing a variety of pecan that could be cracked with one’s bare hands; the shell was so thin it was dubbed the “paper shell” pecan. It was later named the Centennial Variety when entered in competition at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where it won a prize.The trees may be found throughout southern Louisiana, where the pecan was once a considerable cash crop. Although Antoine’s original trees were cleared for more sugar cane fields after the Civil War, a commercial grove had been planted at nearby Anita Plantation. Unfortunately, the Anita Crevasse (river break) of 1990 washed away Anita Plantation and all remains of the original Centennial pecans.
Jacques Roman died in 1848 of tuberculosis and the estate began to be managed by his wife, Marie Therese Josephine Celina Pilié Roman (1816–1866). Celina did not have a skill for managing a sugar plantation and her heavy spending nearly bankrupted the estate. In 1859 her son, Henri, took control of the estate and tried to turn things around. The plantation was not physically damaged during the American Civil War, but the economic dislocations of the war and the end of slavery made it no longer economically viable; Henri became severely in debt, mainly to his family. In 1866, his uncle, Valcour Aime and his sisters, Octavie and Louise, put the plantation up for auction and it was sold for $32,800 to John Armstrong.