Cajun History

Here and There in the South – Part 1

 

Excerpt from Here and There in the South by Rebecca Harding Davis
Originally published October 1887 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine

 

The first installment of a story about Mr. Ely, a clergyman who recently moved from the North to New Orleans with his wife.  When his wife takes a trip to Atlanta, Mr. Ely takes his chance to explore the bayous and prairies of Louisiana.

 

Mrs. Ely accepted the invitation of her friend Miss Pogue to make her a visit in Atlanta, while Mr. Ely carried out a scheme which he had formed of exploring the bayoux and prairies of western Louisiana.

From Alabama to Canada this country wears very much the same features—the same golden wheat or green corn fields color all the slopes, and the same pines, maples, oaks, and nut trees give them shadow.  The same familiar ferns feather the streams from Maine to Oregon, and the busy five-fingered ivy (which, by-the-way, ought to be our national symbol) trails its soft drapery over the rocks and ugly places of the whole continent.

But here Mr. Ely lost all these life-long familiar companions.  The track ran through interminable swamps of giant cypresses, magnolias, and fig-trees.  Their myriads of gray trunks stood knee-high in water, opening in silent vistas on either side as the train passed through.  Overhead huge vicious coils of vines knotted these bare columns together.  It was March, but there was no coy, tender approach of spring here.  Nature was a savage—fierce, prolific.  The very leaves which in the North would have put forth a timid green burst open here like clots of blood or an angry glare of white; even the thickets of saplings were hoary as with age.  Strange red and orange birds flashed through the somber recesses; now and then a huge alligator rose out of the plane of slimy water, stared at the train with dead eyes, and plunged into it again.

They were on the border of that coast country of Louisiana which fronts the Mexican Gulf between Barataria and Calcasieu bays, a remarkable region, unlike any other in North America in its peculiar features, and in the somber splendor of its scenery.  The cause of its peculiarity is easily explained.

The Mississippi in Louisiana makes a huge bend westward in the shape of a bow or a crescent, the upper point being at Vicksburg, the lower at New Orleans, the middle of the arc running nearly parallel with the distant coast.  To the northwest of this are a stretch of pine-barrens, intersected by ranges of low rolling hills, and broken by numberless lakes and ponds, extends into Texas.  Through these the heavy blood-colored flood of the Red River urges its way, carrying with it all lesser watercourses, and emptying itself into the Mississippi near the highest point of this bow or detour.  Its red stain tinges the water and the banks of all the outlets of the great river thereafter to the Gulf.

With this last great influx (holding all the streams in the Texan llanos and the mountains of Mexico), the Mississippi now receives the whole drainage of the continent between the Rocky and Appalachian ranges.  Every spring and rainfall in that vast territory helps to swell its tremendous tide below Bayou Sara.  Hence the flood of water there pushes its way directly to the sea with resistless power, not only on its acknowledged highway, the Mississippi, but through the whole southern half of Louisiana.  It literally enters in and occupies the land, forcing itself seaward, not only by more than three hundred bayous, many of which are mighty rivers, but by sluggish, scarce-moving streams, by a perpetual soaking, creeping, oozing, through all the earth, showing itself on the surface in countless lakes, ponds, and enormous dismal swamps, and above it in incessant heavy rolling fogs and mists.  You cannot dig three feet down in all this district without reaching water.

We must remember, too, that this spongy soil has been soaking in for ages the fat washings of all the rich alluvial river-bottoms on half of the continent.  No such conditions enter into the formation of any other soil in the world.  If Louisiana can ever be drained and rescued form the sea and the river, her fecundity under the hot tropical suns would be unparalleled.

As it is, the parishes in this region include the richest cotton, sugar, and orange-bearing ground in the States.  The forests grow to the size of the woods before the flood; even the ghastly impenetrable swamps choke with rank life.

Mr. Ely during the next month wandered aimlessly through this territory.  Leaving the railway, he explored one bayou after another, in a bateau, or in the little steamers which make leisurely voyages up the larger ones, stopping wherever the captain thinks it safe.

Bayou LaFourche was the first of these bright slow-moving rivers which he entered.  As early as 1810, Breckinridge and Schultz, making journeys from Canada to the Gulf, noticed and wrote of the beauty of this bayou and its shores, although, as the land was then owned by French and Spanish paysans, it was not guarded by proper levees, and inundations occurred almost yearly.  Opulent creole planters, however, soon bought up the grounds of the petits habitants, and the result is the immense estates which now line the shores of the upper LaFourche like a beautiful panorama.  Not even a small New England farm can surpass in order and method a great sugar plantation.  The levees run along either side of the bayou—green ramparts covered with fern, smilax, wild roses, and purple flags.  Back of them, and lower than the stream at high tide, lies the ground, absolutely flat, hundreds of acres often enclosed in a single field, the whole seamed by the plough with mathematical precision, and covered in the spring with delicate lines of feathery green.  At one end of the plantation stands the engine-house and works, of substantial brick; at the other, the dwelling of the planter, usually an airy verandaed structure, more or less in need of paint, but covered with such splendor of crimson and golden roses, and so hedged in by orange groves and sloping lawns, and gigantic oaks hung with curtains of moss and wealth of brilliant flowers, that each gay wooden house might put forth its claims to be the fabled dwelling of Selim in the valley of Cashmere.

The old clergyman found his lazy voyages up these bayoux full of picturesque surprises.  When the boat stopped at the landing of a plantation, whether early in the morning, or at noon, or in the clear yellow sunset, there was a horde of half-naked black boys half in and half out of the water, or a gray-haired old negro waiting for packages for “de house,” or the planter, high–featured and swarthy, surrounded by children and dogs, watching, as eager as they, for the good fortune of an unexpected guest; or perhaps he would catch a glimpse in the grove near the levees of a group of olive-skinned vivacious creole women, or of American girls, shyer of glance and slower of tongue than their Northern sisters.

Thibodeaux, the capital of LaFourche Parish, is a typical Louisianian town, with the usual excess of beauty in the gardens, mud and pitfalls in the streets, and abounding hospitality of soul in the people.  There is much solid wealth in this parish, which is the centre of the large sugar plantations of the State.

The shores of Bayou Plaquemine resemble those of LaFourche.  The soil is exceptionally rich.  The estates have been for the most part in the same families for generations.  When the Mississippi is gorged, its waters rush through this outlet with a force equal to that of the St. Lawrence below Niagara.  It overflows into the Atchafalaya, or the Old River, as it is sometimes called, because of an Indian tradition that it was ages ago the Mississippi itself.

The Teche is a gentle, good-humored stream, which rises in the uplands of St. Landry’s Parish, and follows a zigzag course through some of the highest and pleasantest farm-lands of Louisiana, until it too is lost in the Atchafalaya.  It has a better character than any other bayou, never having been known to overflow its banks.  The live-oaks grow, in the region through which this river lazily flows, to such enormous size that a Louisiana Senator, fifty years ago, offered in Congress to “float enough ship timber down the Teche into the Gulf to build navies for the whole world.”  Fifty years is a mere moment in the lives of these ancient patriarchs; they have only wrapped themselves in a heavier cloak of moss since then, and are as ready now as they were when De Soto first saw them to help some ship-builder to fortune.

The rich cotton districts lie in the valley of the Red River and its affluents, but Mr. Ely did not travel so far northward.  An accident turned him in another direction.

Coming back from a drowsy voyage up one of the bayoux, he struck the railway again one evening near Morgan City.  He found that metropolis of the future, as it calls itself, lost for the nonce in fog and rain.  A gray drizzle filled the sky, clammy drops trickled down the faces of the discouraged-looking houses, the backs of the tired mules plodding through the mud gave off steam, while white deathly mists crept in from the Atchafalaya, which swept past in the darkness like an angry sea.

The few glimmering lights of the town stared bewildered through the night.

“’Into the hell of waters,’ as Byron would have called it,” our good clergyman thought, as he too stared out of the window of the hotel into the limitless dark and wet.  The damp crept into this marrow, his teeth chattered, though the night was warm.  He turned for comfort to the glowing stove, and to a fellow-traveller who was puffing his cigar with his legs stretched out and his hands clasped behind his head.

“This is a wonderful region,” ventured Mr. Ely.  “Marvellous scenery.  But the universal wetness is appalling.  I feel tonight,” he added, with a nervous laugh,  “as the Egyptians must have done when the walls of water rushed in on them from every side.”

“Not a Southerner, I infer?” said the other, dryly.

“No.  But I appreciate the splendor of your scenery to the full,” eagerly.  “And yet, do you know, I really have great respect for the Germans,” lowering his voice confidentially.

“As how?”

“For their choice of a home in this country.  The Puritans were satisfied with the bare New England rocks, and the French with this low-lying delta; but the Germans chose the rich high grounds and temperate air of Pennsylvania, the garden spot of the States, sir.”

I am a Louisianian,” was the curt reply.  It drove Puritans, Germans, the inhabitants of all other quarters of the world, into the background.

Mr. Ely, rebuffed, glanced at him deprecatingly; then came nearer, startled, curious.  “Why—is it possible?  A Louisianian?  Weren’t you—surely, you are Nettley Pym, of Connecticut?  Don’t you remember the Senior Class and little Jem Ely?”

His old classmate suddenly sloughed off his swelling importance, and shook hands heartily again and again.

“Jem Ely?  I should think I did remember!  Always tail of the class, and writing verses to some pretty girl.  Minister, eh?  Of course you’d choose some starving business!  You never were one to lay dollar to dollar,” giving a swift glance over the old clergyman’s well-kept clothes and cheap shoes.

“You, I suppose, have been more fortunate?” said Mr. Ely, drawing back a little.

“Oh, so so!  I came down to this country thirty years ago—tutor—married a rich girl, and have been running a cotton plantation ever since.  Naturally I have identified myself with my adopted State.  There are not many men who understand what Louisiana can do, and is likely to do, as clearly as Nett Pym.”

“You think there is a great future before her, then?” said Mr. Ely, settling himself into a warm corner by the stove.

“That depends,” said Nett Pym, who, by-the-way, had gained the title of Judge in his adopted State, besides nearly three hundred pounds of flesh, and an accent half French and half negro—“that depends wholly on the action of our leaders in this crisis of our history.  The majority of our public men are eager to throw open our ports to immigrants, Irish, Dutch, Scandinavians, to compel them to make New Orleans their port of entry, even if they only remain a month or two on their way to the West.  I, sir, am opposed to this policy.”  The Judge fell into an oracular singsong, pulling through his fingers the black beard which fringed his broad pasty face.  “We of the South, sir, should control our own interests.  We are urging Northern capitalists to come and develop our resources, and foreign workmen to fill our mines and mills.  What will be the result?  In ten years Northerners and foreigners will run the South.  They will edit our papers, own the mines, manufactories, and railroads; take the lead in our business, our politics, and our society, while we Southerners will be pushed to the wall.  I—it is true I am not a Louisianian by birth,” he stammered, recollecting himself, “but I sympathize with them wholly.”

“What would you have them do?”

“Train the mulatto into a skilled laborer, keep out the foreign workmen, put their own capital and energy into other pursuits than agriculture, develop their own resources, and reap the profit themselves.”

Mr. Ely drew a long breath of resignation.  He could not, it seemed, escape the man of ideas.  The Judge had now diverged into facts.  “You must study the resources of this State, sir; you must carry home an accurate account of them—the enormous lumber interests, for example.  Look at our cypress forests—absolutely illimitable!  There is no more durable or beautiful wood.  It is as rich a mine of wealth to us as its pine woods are to Maine.  Are we to wait until some sharp-eyed Northerner comes here to gather in that crop?  As for iron, come with me north of Red River and I will show you iron ore in Ouachita, or south of it, in Natchitoches, Sabine, or Rapides.  Four of our parishes have large deposits of coal.  Talk of Pennsylvania, indeed!  We have petroleum and natural gas as well as Pennsylvania; sulphur and gypsum too; and rock-salt, which your Quaker State has not.  You must go to Calcasieu to examine these resources.  I’ll go with you; I’ve business in that direction.”

“You are most kind,” stammered Mr. Ely.  “I will consider the matter.

“You must come to Opelousas.  There is a country for you!  It contains eight thousand square miles.  Fine prairie-land, cotton and sugar plantations, sheep and cattle ranches, and the soil black, oily, sir!  Stick in your cane, and it roots and leaves!  You must assuredly visit Opelousas.  I will myself take you to the principal points of interest.”

“Does Opelousas extend to the Gulf?”

“No.  Below it is Attakapas.  Five thousand square miles.  Running from the Atchafalaya to the Gulf.  Vast prairies, and on the coast marshes—endless marshes.   Peopled by the Acadians, who came here when they were banished from Nova Scotia.”

Mr. Ely kindled into eager interest.  “They have altered greatly, no doubt?  Become modern—American?”

“Not a whit.  They are as ignorant and guileless as their own sheep.  No progress among them.   You need not waste your time in that direction.”

They parted for the night soon after this.  Mr. Ely could not sleep.  If he waited until morning he knew he would be swept away to investigate iron, hematites, indigo, or sulphur.

He packed his valise and fairly ran away, leaving a note of courteous regret, stating that he had a deep interest in the Acadians, and had gone on an exploring journey into Attakapas.

The Judge stared at the words in dumb amazement.  “The same useless, feather-headed Jem Ely!” he muttered; and lighting his cigar with Ely’s note, went on his way.