The Tio family is best known as a prominent contributor to early jazz of the 20th century, notably the addition of a “Mexican Tinge” to the genre. However, the Tios were, in fact, native New Orleanians who had lived in the city since the late 1780s when the family patriarch immigrated from Catalonia, Spain. They subsequently left New Orleans for Mexico in the late 1850s and lived there for about twenty years to escape the discrimination against free people of color that arose before the Civil War. It was resilience like this against social pressures that allowed the Tios, against all odds, to go from a small but close-knit family of immigrants and free people of color to a successful and relatively wealthy family of musicians whose influence in jazz is still apparent today.
From its start in New Orleans, The Tio family fought against social norms to create a large and close-knit family. Augustin Macarty (ca.1774-1844) was a white Francophone from an influential Creole family who would later become the mayor of New Orleans from 1815-1820. Known in New Orleans society for his frequent flings with free women of color, he entered into a relationship with free woman of color, Victoria Wiltz (ca.1777-1847), and had a daughter with her that they named Josephine Macarty (1792-1867). As with his other affairs, Augustin soon left Victoria for another woman. By 1794, despite having been scorned by Augustin, Victoria had fallen in love with another white man: Marcos Tio (ca.1755-1823), a Catalonian immigrant to New Orleans.
In 1794 they had their first child together, whom they named Joseph (1794-1837). By 1804, Marcos’s nephew Francisco Tio (ca.1788-ca.1869) had come to New Orleans as well, moved into his uncle’s household, and begun to fall in love with Josephine. By 1807 Francisco and Josephine were living together. Although interracial marriages were illegal, both Marcos and Francisco formed life partnerships with their companions, forming marriages in all respects except in name. Francisco and Josephine took it a step further and actually illegally married before a priest. Victoria had nine children with Marcos, and Josephine and Francisco had eleven children together. Both fathers proudly signed their names in large letters on the bottoms of their children’s baptismal records.
Although the odds were against them, the Tios created a successful life for themselves in New Orleans. Marcos Tio had started out in New Orleans as a tavern keeper on Levee St.; but by 1807 he was established as a commission merchant—someone who buys the cargoes of ships to sell wholesale. A few years later, Marcos built a two-story building at 623-625 St. Ann St., which served as the business’s headquarters, a storehouse for merchandise, and Marcos’s official residence. Although this building was his official residence, it is unlikely that Marcos lived in what was basically a warehouse; rather, in reality, he probably lived at one of his other properties with Victoria. The Tio family business was successful, and throughout the years they bought and sold numerous properties, commercial goods, and enslaved persons.
Marcos’s first son Joseph Marcos, a free man of color, also followed in the family business, trading in property and enslaved people. He became successful as well and helped expand the Tio business into overseas trade. In 1817, Joseph registered a schooner, a small and quick trading boat, and in 1836, Francisco bought a brig, a large trading boat. The Tios traded at least as far as Haiti and Mexico, evidenced by transaction records and an 1821 travel record. Despite their social disadvantages, the Tios were successful; and by 1850, about fifteen years before his death, Francisco had a personal estate of $30,000, approximately $862,000 today. With their financial success, the Tios fought to improve their social standing in various ways. During the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, Francisco fought with the white militia and Marcos’s son, Joseph, as a member of the free black militia.
The Tios continued to fight for success; but as the nineteenth century went on, laws and social conditions became harder for free people of color in New Orleans. One of the most significant events of this sort for the Tios was the trial over Augustin Macarty’s will, which reached the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1851. The State of Louisiana prohibited a natural father—a man who had children with a free woman of color—“from leaving to [his] acknowledged illegitimate children more than a third of his estate.” To work around this law, many biological fathers began to leave their estates to someone they trusted so that that person could give the entire inheritance to the father’s children—a tactic called interposition. Lawmakers soon caught on to this ploy and made interposition illegal as well. Augustin Macarty tried to do so anyway. The evidence that proved the interposition was Augustin’s relationship with Celeste Perrault. Because Augustin had lived with Celeste when their child, Patrice, was born, he claimed paternity; in addition, Augustin remained with Celeste for fifty years and deeply cared for her and Patrice. Because Augustin did not leave his estate to his beloved Celeste and Patrice but instead to Francisco, someone he had no relationship or common interests with, the court proved his interposition.
After a frustrating and emotionally-draining case for the Tio family, Francisco had to give the entire estate, what he had spent, and what could have been earned in the four years of the case to the estranged relatives, to people Augustin probably had not seen in decades, rather than to Augustin’s own children. On top of this cruel decision by the court, in the late 1850s, radical bills threatening the very rights and continued freedom of free people of color surfaced in the Louisiana legislature. These events, combined with the loss of the majority of the Tio family primarily to diseases convinced the young musician Thomas Tio (1828-ca.1881), the grandson of Marcos Tio, to move the rest of his family to Mexico for their continued freedom. They would not return until after the Civil War.