Cajun History

Here and There in the South – Part 3




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


The third and final 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.


A week later Mr. Ely set out to explore Vermilion Parish.  Twenty-five miles west of the mouth of the Atchafalaya, and running eastwardly, are five remarkable islands, Belle Isle, Côte Blanche, Week’s Island, Petite Anse, and Jefferson’s Island.

Petite Anse and Jefferson, the farthest inland of this cordon of beautiful islets, are in reality huge hills which rise above the green plain of Attakapas, with its glittering bayous and rolling sea-fogs, into a pure, sun-dried atmosphere.

Mr. Ely reached the first early in the morning of a clear April day, and found there two scientific men from the North, who had found their way up from the Exposition to visit this island, which contains the only mine of rock-salt on this continent.  The island takes its name from Bayou Petite Anse, in which it stands.  It forms part of the plantations of the Avery family.

One of the visitors to the mines explained to Mr. Ely that there was a belt of saliferous deposit in Louisiana extending from Bossier and Bienville parishes, above Red River, to the Gulf.  The largest of these deposits appears to be the beds of ancient exhausted lakes.  Salt springs were known to exist on Petite Anse Island from the earliest date, but the works were abandoned until the blockade during the war raised the price of salt so high in the Southern States that Major Avery reopened them for the use of the Confederacy.  It was at this time that he came unexpectedly upon the enormous stratum of pure rock-salt which underlies the soil.  Like the island of Ormuz, in the Persian Gulf, Petite Anse is apparently only a huge rock of salt.

The mines have now been in operation about twenty years.  The salt is excavated in large masses by blasting with dynamite.  It is so pure that it is prepared for the market, not by melting and refining, as in the English mines, but simply by grinding into the requisite grades of fineness.  The native crystals detached by blasting are as clear and translucent as glass.  Mr. Ely went down into the mine, and wandered through its far-retreating corridors, whose pillars and lofty arches shone with a soft silvery radiance.  When the lights of the torches struck into the darkness overhead, the domes flashed back such splendors of color that it seemed to Mr. Ely as if he had entered one of the caves underground where the Trolls have stored all the jewels of the world.

“This is all a surprise to me,” said one of the visitors—a stout professor from some college in Indiana—as he stepped from the elevator into the upper air; “I actually did not know there was a mine of salt in the United States.”

“And yet,” said their guide, quickly, “you have no doubt used our salt on your table for years.  We ship it to every large town in the North and West.”

This little island of Petite Anse furnishes pepper as well as salt to our tables.  Tobasco, or the distilled cayenne dear to the hearts of gourmands and chefs, is manufactured here out of a wild pepper peculiar to Louisiana.  Two or three fields produce enough of the cultivated pods to send their essence to all parts of this country and to Europe.  It is one of the numberless minor industries which have sprung into life throughout the South since the war, and which hint at the strength and vitality of that long sterile soil.

It was early in the afternoon when Mr. Ely, with Jabez and the mules, set out for the last of the line of islands.  Monsieur Ourblanc, an Acadian whose acquaintance he had made at the mines, rode with him, having suddenly discovered that he had urgent business up the bayou.  The mules and M. Ourblanc’s horse followed a winding course through the pathless prairie, diverging out of a straight line to ford every practicable lake and stream.

“Is there no road?” timidly ventured Mr. Ely.

“Done goin’ on de road, shuah ‘nuff,” responded Jabez.

“In the country where I came from a road seldom passes through a river, “ said Mr. Ely, in the unconscious conviction that he was in a foreign land.

Jabez snorted with contempt.  “Don’ know what muels do widout pon’s and b’yous!  How dey wash de mud off deir sides?”

M. Ourblanc undertook to explain the geography of the country to his new friend, who only could guess about half of his meaning through his negro-French-English; but his eager kindness and courtesy were plain enough.

Attakapas, according to the old man, would soon become the wealthiest part of Louisiana.  One or two companies of capitalists were formed who proposed to cultivate rice on the sea-marshes.  Extensive draining, the throwing up of levees, etc., would be requisite; but that done, the profits would be enormous.  Dredges worked by steam were to be employed by them to open the mouths of the bayous and to throw up embankments.  One had been brought up from the Gulf by Mr. Joseph Jefferson to his plantation, and used successfully in erecting levees for the protection of his cattle.  One dredge could do the work of forty men in a day—white men, I mean; and as for de negroes—M. Ourblanc threw up his hands with unutterable expression.  The expense of these dredges was, however, very great.  If they were within the reach of all planters, the condition of Louisiana, he declared, would be revolutionized.

As the day passed, Mr. Ely comprehended as he had not done before that he was in a semi-tropical climate.  Heretofore the spring had been late, a raw chill hung over the prairies.  But now, as they approached the high ground of Jefferson Island, the air quivered with pure blinding heat.  Heavy clouds, saffron and dull yellow, were blown drowsily up from the Gulf; the grass was knee-deep, and fragrant with flowers; here was a great slope of daffodil-color, and there another of royal purple; one persistent starry little blossom fairly dyed the marshes blue; out of the gloom of the deep thickets shone monstrous passion-flowers, blood-red swamp camellias, and blush-roses.  Rice-birds rose in swarms from the edge of the lakes; innumerable butterflies flashed up like live rubies and sapphires from every bush; out of the pecan-trees came the call of the mocking-bird; while every round little pond bubbled, a living thing in the sun.

He was again in the barbaric dream of life and color, yet under it was the same profound melancholy, an awful significance of loss.  Père Nedaud had understood him when he hinted at the singular effect of this scenery; but M. Ourblanc was not likely to comprehend such fantastic ideas.  The old man ambled alongside, gossiping of the Acadians, whose solitary, gray, low-eaved houses they occasionally passed, and of the history of the island to which they were going.

Jefferson, or Orange, Island, as Mr. Ely found from his chatter, was the highest ground in southern Louisiana.  It was bought by the great comedian sixteen years ago, as a winter home for his family, where malarious fogs, colds, pneumonia, asthmas, and other such chilly servants of death could be held at bay.  It embraces about eleven square miles of primitive forests, lakes, and prairies on which graze great herds of native creole cattle.  Here M. Ourblanc paused to celebrate the virtues of creole cattle (as far superior to the Alderney, or to the Holstein, with which Mr. Jefferson grades them), and of the creole eggs, horses, and women, belonging to the region of the Bayou Petite Anse.  When he grew tired of this patriotic outburst he came back to the island and to its history, in which there is much romance and mystery.  It was a portion of the wilderness given by patent under Philip II to Don Carline, a Spanish adventurer.  Nearly a century later it was discovered by the corsair Jean Lafitte and his comrades, whose rendezvous was then at Grande Terre, in Barataria Bay.  They at once recognized the advantages which its remoteness from civilization, its unbroken forests and deep bayou, gave to it as a secure retreat for them and a hiding-place for their booty.  It was purchased by Randolph, Lafitte’s boon companion, if not a pirate himself.  Here the great freebooter came for rest and amusement between his voyages.  Indeed, it is not improbable that he escaped to this solitude to die, as he was last seen by living men on the coast of Vermilion Bay.

Back of the great orange plantations which form a centre of fragrance and joyous color in the island there lies a deep lake, surrounded by a somber forest, in the midst of which are a few sunken graves.  They are those of Randolph’s family and of his slaves.  But they were all long ago opened and rifled by the negroes from the opposite coast, in the hope of finding Lafitte’s buried treasure.

The old French manor-house is still standing, with its quaint wood-carvings, low-ceiled rooms, and overhanging eaves, covered by vines old enough to have showered their blossoms on the pirate’s head.  Mr. Jefferson near it has built a typically Southern house of baronial proportions, full of treasures from every country in the world, on the very crest of the hill; the verandas, with a frontage of ninety feet, overlook the plain of Attakapas to the Gulf.  A hedge of roses nearly as thick as the Chinese wall runs for seven miles around the uplands, dividing it from the sea-marshes.

When the roses and magnolias and orange plantations which encircle the house are in bloom they send their soft greetings through the pure air for miles across the prairies.

The plantation is in the charge of an Acadian overseer, M. Joseph Landry, who is a good representative of his race, and a curious specimen, too, of the kind of man which intelligence, shrewdness, a brave simple nature, and tremendous physique will make, with no help whatever from society or schools.  The loyalty of these people to their employers belongs to the feudal days.  The night before Mr. Ely’s arrival, Landry had faced single-handed a herd of angry cattle, standing in the narrow lagoon in water to his waist from dark until morning, to keep them from rushing down to the flooded sea-marsh, where they would inevitably have drowned.  “Can fight le wat’ et le cat’,” he grumbled, “but le mosquit’—he beat me.”

Mr. Jefferson is known to his Acadian neighbors and the negroes only as a planter, wise in oranges and cattle, but they have an intense curiosity concerning some other mysterious avocation which he is vaguely reported to follow during the summer, and which they suspect has something to do with swallowing fire and swords.  One of his negroes, when they were alone together on the prairie one day, burst out with:  “M’s’. Jef’son, lemme see dat ar.  We hyah all by oursel’s.  Foh de Lohd’s sake, cut up a bit.”

Mr. Ely, from the summit of the hill on Orange Island, watched the rosy twilight gather over the vast plain.  Seaward a quivering line of red light flashed up along the dark horizon, where the marshes were on fire.  The air was soft as balm, and heavy with perfume from the neighboring orange groves.  He was alone in a forest of gigantic magnolias and live-oaks, which were hoar with age long before Columbus discovered this continent.  Every tree and bush for miles around him was draped with the funereal moss, which in the fading light became a black curtain in the distance, and near at hand veils, mists of pale green or silvery gray.  They waved, waved incessantly, with ghastly significance, to and fro in the wind:  the whole world seemed to him to be elusive, shifting, full of specters, beckoning to him to follow he knew not where.  The waters of the lake near him shone whitely in the darkness, and out of the jungle of wild growths about it came the cry of an owl, and the hoarse calls of the whooping-crane and the bittern.

He understood now that the meanings of this strange country which had perplexed him are those of age.  The primeval forests in the North impress the intruder as fresh and virgin; they have not history; they eagerly wait for human occupation.  But these great silent prairies, the giant trees decaying for centuries, the huge parasitic growths, the black scavenger-birds crossing with swift aim the low-hung sky—all these come out of a hoar antiquity.  It is a land with a past.  The imagination in these solitudes goes wavering back to the age of the cannibals, or, far beyond that, to the mysterious nations who have left hints here that they once lived.  The silence is full of meaning.  Nature seems to pause, holding some momentous secret.  Something has happened—who can say when?—in the dim recesses of these forests, or on the banks of the somber bayous, which she will not reveal.

Familiarity does not render this strange country commonplace, or diminish its peculiar effect upon those who intrude into it.  It grew more weird and unreal to the old clergyman with each day of his stay.

He tried faithfully to understand the accounts which M. Landry gave him of the profits of cattle raising, and the culture of the finest oranges on this plantation; to take an interest in the graded calves, and in the adaptability of the soil to sugar raising.  But in his secret soul he did not believe in any of these things.  He knew he was in a spellbound country, where some mystery of centuries ago slept, like Rip among the Kaatskills, waiting for the hour of waking.

And when at last he turned his face homeward, leaving behind him the sunny silent prairies, the melancholy lagoons, the low driving clouds, the forests with their vistas of beckoning spectral mists, all silent as the shores of death, he felt that he was going back to a real world, to shops, markets, passions, and life, out of some ancient enchanted land, whose ghosts still dwelt therein.