Cajun History

The Acadian Land – Part 1

 

The Acadian Land by Charles Dudley Warner
Originally published February 1887 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine

 

In this first installment of “The Acadian Land”, the author writes about his travels through late 19th century Louisiana.  He passes through Morgan City and the Atchafalaya on his way to Acadian villages along Bayou Teche–New Iberia and St. Martinsville.  You’ll find the writings of this time rather poetic as he describes our Acadian homeland.

 

 

If one crosses the river from New Orleans to Algiers, and takes Morgan’s Louisiana and Texas Railway (now a part of the Southern Pacific line), he will go west, with a dip at first southerly, and will pass through a region little attractive except to water-fowl, snakes, and alligators, by an occasional rice plantation, an abandoned indigo field, an interminable stretch of cypress swamps, thickets of Spanish–bayonets, black waters, rank and rampant vegetation, vines, and water plants.  By-and-by firmer arable land, and cane plantations, many of them forsaken and become thickets of undergrowth, owing to frequent inundations and the low price of sugar.

At a distance of eighty miles Morgan City is reached, and the broad Atchafalaya Bayou is crossed.  Hence is steam-boat communication with New Orleans and Vera Cruz.  The Atchafalaya Bayou has its origin near the mouth of the Red River, and diverting from the Mississippi most of that great stream, it makes its tortuous way to the Gulf, frequently expanding into the proportions of a lake, and giving this region a great deal more water than it needs.  The Bayou Teche, which is, in fact, a lazy river, wanders down from the rolling country of Washington and Opelousas, with a great deal of uncertainty of purpose, but mainly south-easterly, and parallel with the Atchafalaya, and joins the latter at Morgan City.  Streamers of good size navigate it as far as New Iberia, some forty to fifty miles, and the railway follows it to the latter place, within sight of its fringe of live-oaks and cotton-woods.  The region south and west of the Bayou Teche, a vast plain cut by innumerable small bayous and streams, which have mostly a connection with the bay of Côte Blanche and Vermilion Bay, is the home of the Nova Scotia Acadians.

The Acadians in 1755 made a good exchange, little as they thought so at the time, of bleak Nova Scotia for these sunny, genial, and fertile lands.  They came into a land and a  climate suited to their idiosynerasies, and which have enabled them to preserve their primitive traits.  In a comparative isolation from the disturbing currents of modern life, they have preserved the habits and customs of the eighteenth century.  The immigrants spread themselves abroad among these bayous, made their homes wide apart, and the traveler will nowhere find—at least I did not—large and compact communities of them, unalloyed with the American and other elements.  Indeed, I imagine that they are losing, in the general settlement of the country, their conspicuousness.  They still give the tone, however, to considerable districts, as in the village and neighborhood of Abbeville.  Some places, like the old town of St. Martinsville, on the Teche, once the social capital of the region, and entitled, for its wealth and gayety, the Petit Paris, had a large element of French who were not Acadians.

The Teche from Morgan City to New Iberia is a deep, slow, and winding stream, flowing through a flat region of sugar plantations.  It is very picturesque by reason of its tortuousness and the great spreading live-oak trees, moss-draped, that hang over it.  A voyage on it is one of the most romantic entertainments offered to the traveler.  The scenery is peaceful and exceedingly pretty.  There are few conspicuous plantations with mansions and sugar-stacks of any pretensions, but the panorama from the deck of the steamer is always pleasing.  There is an air of leisure and “afternoon” about the expedition, which is heightened by the idle ease of the inhabitants lounging at the rude wharves and landing-places, and the patience of the colored fishers, boys in scant raiment and women in sun-bonnets, seated on the banks.  Typical of the universal contentment is the ancient colored man stretched on a plank close to the steamer’s boiler, oblivious of the heat, apparently asleep, with his spacious mouth wide open, but softly singing.

“Are you asleep, uncle?”

“No, not adzackly asleep, boss.  I jes wake up, and thinkin’ how good de Lord is, I couldn’t help singin’.”

The panorama is always interesting.  There are wide silvery expanses of water, into which fall the shadows of great trees.  A tug is dragging along a tow of old rafts composed of cypress logs all water-soaked, green with weeds and grass, so that it looks like a floating garden.  What pictures!  Clusters of oaks on the prairie; a picturesque old cotton-press; a house thatched with palmettos; rice fields irrigated by pumps; darkies, field hands, men and women, hoeing in the cane fields, giving stalwart strokes that exhibit their robust figures; an old sugar-mill in ruin and vine-draped; an old begass chimney against the sky; an antique cotton-press with its mouldering roof supported on timbers; a darky on a mule emotionless on the bank, clad in Attakapas cloth, his slouch hat falling about his head like a roof from which the rafters have been withdrawn; palmettos, oaks, and funereal moss; lines of Spanish-bayonets; rickety wharves; primitive boats; spider-legged bridges. Neither on the Teche nor the Atchafalaya, nor on the great plain near the Mississippi fit for amphibious creatures, where one standing on the level wonders to see the wheels of the vast river steamers above him, apparently without cause revolving, is there any lack of the picturesque.

New Iberia, the thriving mart of the region, which has drawn away the life from St. Martinsville, ten miles further up the bayou, is a village mainly of small frame houses, with a smart court-house, a lively business street, a few pretty houses, and some old-time mansions on the bank of the bayou, half smothered in old rose gardens, the ground in the rear sloping to the water under the shade of gigantic oaks.  One of them, which with its outside staircases in the pillared gallery suggests Spanish taste on the outside, and in the interior the arrangement of connecting rooms a French château, has a self-keeping rose garden, where one might easily become sentimental; the vines disport themselves like holiday children, climbing the trees, the side of the house, and reveling in an abandon of color and perfume.

The population is mixed—Americans, French, Italians, now and then a Spaniard and even a Mexican, occasionally a basket-making Attakapas, and the all-pervading person of color.  The darky is a born fisherman, in places where fishing requires no exertion, and one may see him any hour seated on the banks of the Teche, especially the boy and the sun-bonneted woman, placidly holding their poles over the muddy stream, and can study, if he like, the black face in expectation of a bite.  There too are the washer-women, with their tubs and a plank thrust into the water, and a handkerchief of bright colors for a turban.  These people somehow never fail to be picturesque, whatever attitude they take, and they are not at all self-conscious.  The groups on Sunday give an interest to church-going—a lean white horse, with a man, his wife, and boy strung along its backbone, an aged darky and his wife seated in a cart, in stiff Sunday clothes and flaming colors, the wheels of the cart making all angles with the ground, and wabbling and creaking along, the whole party as proud of its appearance as Julius Caesar in a triumph.

I drove on Sunday morning early from New Iberia to church at St. Martinsville.  It was a lovely April morning.  The way lay over fertile prairies, past fine cane plantations, with some irrigation, and for a distance along the pretty Teche, shaded by great live-oaks, and here and there a fine magnolia-tree; a country with few houses, and those mostly shanties, but a sunny, smiling land, loved of the birds.  We passed on our left the Spanish Lake, a shallow, irregular body of water.  My driver was an ex-Confederate soldier, whose tramp with a musket through Virginia had not greatly enlightened him as to what it was all about.  As to the Acadians, however, he had a decided opinion, and it was a poor one.  They are no good.  “You ask them a question, and they shrug their shoulders like a tarrapin –don’t know no more’n a dead alligator; only language they ever have is ‘no’ and ‘what?’”

If St. Martinsville, once the seat of fashion, retains anything of its past elegance, its life has departed from it.  It has stopped growing anything but old, and yet it has not much of interest that is antique; it is a village of small white frame houses, with three or four big gaunt brick structures, two stories and a half high, with galleries, and here and there a creole cottage, the stairs running up inside the galleries, over which roses climb in profusion.

I went to breakfast at a French inn, kept by Madame Castillo, a large red-brick house on the banks of the Teche, where the live-oaks cast shadows upon the silvery stream.  It had, of course, a double gallery.  Below, the waiting-room, dining-room, and general assembly-room were paved with brick, and instead of a door, Turkey-red curtains hung in the entrance, and blowing aside, hospitality invited the stranger within.  The breakfast was neatly served, the house was scrupulously clean, and the guest felt the influence of that personal hospitality which is always so pleasing.  Madame offered me a seat in her pew in church, and meantime a chair on the upper gallery, which opened from large square sleeping chambers.  In that fresh morning I thought I never had seen a more sweet and peaceful place than this gallery.  Close to it grew graceful China-trees in full blossom and odor; up and down the Teche were charming views under the oaks; only the roofs of the town could be seen amid the foliage of China-trees; and there was an atmosphere of repose in all the scene.  It was Easter morning.  I felt that I should like to linger there a week in absolute forgetfulness of the world.  French is the ordinary language of the village, spoken more or less corruptly by all colors.

The Catholic church, a large and ugly structure, stands on the plaza, which is not at all like a Spanish plaza, but a veritable New England “green,” with stores and shops on all sides—New England, except that the shops are open on Sunday.  In the church apse is a noted and not bad painting of St. Martin, and at the bottom of one aisle a vast bank of black stucco clouds, with the Virgin standing on them, and the legend, “Je suis l’immaculée conception.”

 

Country people were pouring into town for the Easter service and festivities—more blacks than whites—on horseback and in rickety carriages, and the horses were hitched on either side of the church.  Before service the square was full of lively young colored lads cracking Easter-eggs.  Two meet and strike together the eggs in their hands, and the one loses whose egg breaks.  A tough shell is a valuable possession.  The custom provokes a good deal of larking and merriment.  While this is going on, the worshippers are making their way into the church through the throng, ladies in the neat glory of provincial dress, and high-stepping, saucy colored belles, yellow and black, the blackest in the most radiant apparel of violent pink and light blue, and now and then a society favorite in all the hues of the rainbow.  The centre pews of the church are reserved for the whites, the seats of the side aisles for the negroes.  When mass begins, the church is crowded.  The boys, with occasional excursions into the vestibule to dip the finger in the holy-water, or perhaps say a prayer, are still winning and losing eggs on the green.

On the gallery at the inn it is also Sunday.  The air is full of odor.  A strong south wind begins to blow.  I think the south wind is the wind of memory and of longing.  I wonder if the gay spirits of the last generation ever return to the scenes of their revelry?  Will they come back to the theatre this Sunday night, and to the Grand Ball afterward?  The admission to both is only twenty-five cents, including gumbo file.