Cajun History

Sugar and the Sugar Region of Louisiana – Part 1

 

 

Sugar and the Sugar Region of Louisiana by T. B. Thorpe
Originally published November 1853 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine

 

In this first installment of “Sugar and the Sugar Region of Louisiana”, the author writes about the different varieties of sugar cane planted in Louisiana during the 1850s.  He goes on to describe the sugar region of the Attakappas and Teche.

 

 

DIFFERENT VARIETIES OF CANE

Sugar cane is divided by nature into many varieties, all distinctly marked.  In Louisiana, the “Bourbon,” the “Ribbon,” the “Otaheite,” and “Creole” cane are common.  The Bourbon and the Ribbon are the most cultivated, as they yield the richest juice, and not only have the thickest covering or bark, but are additionally protected by a thick and perceptible coating of “silica” as a farther defense against the frost.  The names given to the different varieties of sugar cane are of course more or less fanciful.  The Bourbon cane is of a dark purplish color; the name of the Ribbon cane is suggestive of the appearance, for the purple is broken with golden stripes in every variety of penciling, and so delicate frequently are these horizontal combinations of purple and gold, that the manufacturers of ribbon might obtain patterns from them to add new beauties to their delicate fabrics.  The Creole cane, which has been longest known in the State, is of a light green color, that suggests a delicate organization; and is of all the varieties of cane most sensible to the effects of cold.

There can not be a doubt, that the differences presented are greatly dependent upon the accident of climate and soil.  Quite a different hue is presented by a field of cane growing upon lands cultivated, from that flourishing upon lands just cleared of the primitive forest.  It is the economy of nature to endeavor to remedy every possible evil.  Sugar cane brought from the tropics, and planted in a temperate zone, when springing into life, shudders at the unexpected blast, and perhaps droops and withers away to the root.  The plant, checked in its growth, gathers its strength for a new shoot, and increases the vigor of its roots so snugly protected from the inhospitable cold; again the delicate bud-leaf appears, the season has advanced, the sunshine is more genial, and the growth goes uninterruptedly on.  Still the pale green surface of this enervated plant of the tropics, finds that its glossy light bark repels the heat as it was wont to do in its native fields.  But now a new arrangement takes place; the plant, in its desire for acclimation, finds something in the soil that darkens its coating into a deep purple, and deadens its glossiness; and now the sun’s heat, beaming upon its surface, is not reflected but absorbed, and the ripening and rejoicing plant has remedied, in a degree at least, the evils of its emigration.

PLANTATIONS OF LOUISIANA

The largest and most important sugar plantations of Louisiana lie, with few exceptions, upon the low lands of the Mississippi and its outlets.   The consequence is, that they are beautifully level, and present a different appearance from any other agricultural portion of the Union.  The prairies of the West roll like the swells of the sea, but the fields of Louisiana spread out with an evenness of surface that finds no parallel, except in the undisturbed bosom of the inland lake.  The soil is rich—it may be said inexhaustible; and vegetation springs from it with a luxuriance that defies comparison.

“A gray deep earth abounds,
Fat, light; yet, when it feels the wounding hoe,
Rising in clods, which ripening sun and rain
Resolve to crumbles, yet not pulverize;
In this the soul of vegetation wakes,
Pleased at the planter’s call to burst on day.”

The stranger who for the first time courses the “Father of Waters,” at a season of the year when his swelling wave lifts the steamer above the levee-guarded banks, as he looks over and down upon the rich sugar plantations, is filled with amazement, and gets an idea of agricultural wealth and profuseness nowhere else to be witnessed in the world.  On every side, the deep green cane-fields spread out in perspective, enlarged to his eye by the ever-retreating lines of the useful plow, that follow their course to the distant forests, which tower up from the swamps, and wave their moss-covered limbs in sullen grandeur, as a contrast to the smiling field, the crowded garden, and the ever busy joy of the agriculturist’s home.

One of the most interesting and picturesque portions of Louisiana devoted to the cultivation of sugar, lying off the banks of the Mississippi River, is the country of “the Attakappas.”  This earthly paradise—for such a name it really deserves—lies west of the Mississippi River, and borders upon the Gulf of Mexico.  It would be almost impossible to describe its character, it is so composed of bayous, lakes, rivers, prairies, and impenetrable swamps.  To even a large portion of the oldest inhabitants of the State, Attakappas is an unknown region, and so it is destined to remain, except to its immediate inhabitants, if artificial means are not adopted to facilitate communication.  In the spring you can reach the Attakappas in a comfortable steamer; later in the season all direct communication is cut off by the “low water,” and you get there, and to all its fruitful adjacent regions, as best you can.

From the mouth of the Bayou Plaquemine, one hundred miles above New Orleans, to a place called Indian Village, a distance of nine miles; the waters of the Mississippi, when they are at their spring flood, pour down with tremendous velocity, and the ingenious navigator descends inland, with his gallant craft stern foremost, the powerful engines being necessary, not to propel, but to act as a drag, by working the wheels up stream, at the same time the boat is going in a contrary direction.  A few miles, however, are only passed when the counteracting floods from the sea meet the waters of the Mississippi, and they compromise, by spreading out over the low lands, giving an idea of desolation difficult to imagine by those who have not witnessed the scene.  Amidst this waste of waters the steamer pursues its way, sometimes passing through narrow avenues of cypress trees, and then suddenly emerging into vast turbid lakes, the surfaces of which are agitated by flocks of waterfowl, and the ever-vigilant but disgusting-looking alligator, that either floats as a log or, if too nearly approached, sinks like lead to the depths below.  In the course of your voyage, you run across the beautiful sheet of water known as Berwick’s Bay, which must have been a sacred place among the aboriginal inhabitants, judging from the mounds, and the remains of rude “Indian temples,” that rise from its shores.  You change your course, thread innumerable mazes, and in time find yourself upon the Teche—the beautiful and mysterious stream that flows through the Attakappas country, and upon the borders of which are the most enchanting scenery and the richest sugar farms of Louisiana.

Unlike the Mississippi, the Teche has no levees; its waters never overflow.  The stately residences of the planters are surrounded by gardens, the shrubbery of which reaches to the water’s edge, and hedges of rose and hawthorn, of lemon and orange, everywhere meet the ravished eye.  Along its shores the magnificent live-oak rears itself in all the pride of vigorous “ancient youth,” and gives to the gently undulating landscape, the expression so often witnessed in the lordly parks of England, for the shelving and ever green banks of the Teche seem created rather by art than by nature, and the magnificent lords of the forest are distributed where the taste of Shenstone would have dictated.

Leaving the Teche, you soon come to the broad prairies, over which roam innumerable herds of cattle, and which are also diversified by lakes, their surfaces shaded from the hot sun by the broad-leafed nelumbium, and their depths filled with the choicest fish.  Here again is to be seen the live-oak, perhaps in its most commanding form.  Rising from the dead level, it towers a seeming mountain of vegetation, and finds a world of room for the extension of its gnarled and shaggy arms.  Away off upon the horizon scud the mists of the sea, and the ever complaining surf, alone breaks solitudes even now as primitive as when the red man here held undisputed sway.

The pleasant town of Franklin lies upon the Teche, and is the shipping port of the richest sugar parish of the State.  Vessels of large size while in the Gulf of Mexico turn aside from the mud-choked mouths of the Mississippi, and floating and cordelling through innumerable bays and bayous, finally work their way into the “interior,” and mingle their rigging with the foliage of the forest.  Here these argosies, born in the cold regions of the Aroostook, fill their holds with sugar and molasses and, once freighted, wing their way to the north.

Tradition says that in “old times” (fifty years ago!) a shrewd down-easter found himself hunting for a harbor along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.  His brooms, his soap, candles, onions, and cod-fish were tossed about in uncertainty for days and nights, but, true Yankee-like, he turned his misfortunes to a good account, for, “guided by Providence,” he finally found himself after many days in the Teche, surrounded and warmly greeted by a rich agricultural country, teeming with a primitive and unsuspecting population.  Here, without a rival, he traded and bargained to his heart’s content, exchanging his cargo of “notions” for cotton, fruits, and money; and then bore himself back to the land of “steady habits” a far richer man that when he left it, and the possessor of a secret that gave him the trading monopoly of the land of the Attakappas.  For years, his vessel alone continued to visit the Teche, and he increased in wealth and importance beyond all who in this neighborhood “went down to sea in ships;” and it was not until he was about to be gathered to his fathers, that he left to his children and neighbors the knowledge of the secret passes that led from the sea to the happy land we have so vaguely described.

Running parallel with the Teche are magnificent lakes, that consequently lie upon the rear of the plantations.  It is the mists from these inland seas, with those of the rivers, that rise over the sugar cane in winter, and protect it from frosts which in less favored regions destroy the planter’s prospects.  To the accidental location of a plantation with regard to water, is it often indebted for a comparative exemption from freezing cold.  Plantations, sometimes contiguous, will differ essentially in the preservation of cane; on one, it will stand uninjured until the last stalk is cut for the mill; in the other, it will have been blasted by the frost, and rendered almost worthless for the purposes of life.

Upon the large estates of the Teche, having these lakes in their rear, the luxury of bathing is enjoyed in perfection.  As may be imagined, the lakes being as clear as crystal, and solid at their bottoms as minute shells can make them, and never dangerously deep near the shore, all become expert in this healthful exercise  We had a lady on a time pointed out to us, whose matronly beauty gave evidence of the once willingly acknowledged belle, who could as gracefully move in the waters of Grand Lake as she once did in the mazes of a dance at the Tuileries.  Among her suitors—and she had many—was one fixed up for the occasion, whose age and heartlessness were hidden under artificial appliances, yet whose self-esteem was insufferable.  The presumption of this beau piqued our Creole beauty, and while sailing upon the pellucid waters of Grand Lake, the gentleman expatiating upon his disinterested attachment, and his willingness to make ten thousand sacrifices to prove the ardor of his affection—the lady, with her tiny foot, struck the plug from the bottom of the skiff, and it slowly began to sink.  The astonished lover, with distended eyes, looked into the watery gulf, and thought not of saving his lady-love, but his dress.  Down—down went the frail bark, the cause of the mischief apparently an uninterested observer.  In another instant the skiff was gone; the beau dissolved into fragments as he touched the water, while the lady, graceful as a naiad, reached the shore; and as she departed in her calash, she made the air musical with her merry laugh.