Cajun History

The Acadian Land – Part 2

 

 

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

In the second installment of “The Acadian Land”, the author continues his poetic travels through late 19th century Louisiana.  From New Iberia, he travels to Avery Island and describes an island not very different from the modern-day Avery Island.  He also makes a stop at beautiful Jefferson Island.

 

 

From New Iberia southward toward Vermilion Bay stretches a vast prairie; if it is not absolutely flat, if it resembles the ocean, it is the ocean when its long swells have settled nearly to a calm.  This prairie would be monotonous were it not dotted with small round ponds, like hand-mirrors for the flitting birds and sailing clouds, were its expanse not spotted with herds of cattle, scattered or clustering like fishing-boats on a green sea, were it not for a cabin here and there, a field of cane or cotton, a garden plot, and were it not for the forests which break the horizon line, and send out dark capes into the verdant plains.  On a gray day, or when storms and fogs roll in from the Gulf, it might be a gloomy region, but under the sunlight and in the spring it is full of life and color; it has an air of refinement and repose that is very welcome.  Besides the uplift of the spirit that a wide horizon is apt to give, one is conscious here of the neighborhood of the sea, and of the possibilities of romantic adventure in a coast intersected by bayous, and the presence of novel forms of animal and vegetable life, and of a people with habits foreign and strange.  There is also a grateful sense of freedom and expansion.

Soon, over the plain, is seen on the horizon, ten miles from New Iberia, the dark foliage on the island of Petite Anse, or Avery’s Island.  This unexpected upheaval from the marsh, bounded by the narrow, circling Petite Anse Bayou, rises into the sky one hundred and eighty feet, and has the effect in this flat expanse of a veritable mountain, comparatively a surprise, like Pike’s Peak seen from the elevation of Denver.  Perhaps nowhere else would a hill of one hundred and eighty feet make such an impression on the mind.  Crossing the bayou, where alligators sun themselves, and eye with affection the colored people angling at the bridge, and passing a long causeway over the marsh, the firm land of the island is reached.  This island, which is a sort of geological puzzle, has a very uneven surface, and is some two and a half miles long by one mile broad.  It is a little kingdom in itself, capable of producing in its soil and adjacent waters nearly everything one desires of the necessaries of life.  A portion of the island is devoted to a cane plantation and sugar-works; a part of it is covered with forests; and on the lowlands and gentle slopes, besides thickets of palmetto, are gigantic live-oaks, moss-draped trees monstrous in girth, and towering into the sky with a vast spread of branches.  Scarcely anywhere else will one see a nobler growth of these stately trees.  In a depression is the famous salt-mine, unique in quality and situation in the world.  Here is grown and put up the Tobasco pepper; here, amid fields of clover and flowers, a large apiary flourishes.  Stones of some value for ornament are found.  Indeed, I should not be surprised at anything turning up there, for I am told that good kaoline has been discovered; and about the residences of the hospitable proprietors roses bloom in abundance, the China-tree blossoms sweetly, and the mocking-bird sings.

But better than all these things I think I like the view from the broad cottage piazzas, and I like it best when the salt breeze is strong enough to sweep away the coast mosquitoes—a most undesirable variety.  I do not know another view of its kind for extent and color comparable to that from this hill over the waters seaward.  The expanse of luxuriant grass, brown, golden, reddish, in patches, is intersected by a net-work of bayous, which gleam like silver in the sun, or trail like dark fabulous serpents under a cloudy sky.  The scene is limited only by the power of the eye to meet the sky line.  Vast and level, it is constantly changing, almost in motion with life; the long grass and weeds run like waves when the wind blows, great shadows of clouds pass on its surface, alternating dark masses with vivid ones of sunlight; fishing-boats and the masts of schooners creep along the threads of water; when the sun goes down, a red globe of fire in the Gulf mists, all the expanse is warm and ruddy, and the waters sparkle like jewels; and at night, under the great field of stars, marsh fires here and there give a sort of lurid splendor to the scene.  In the winter it is a temperate spot, and at all times of the year it is blessed by an invigorating sea-breeze.  Those who have enjoyed the charming social life and the unbounded hospitality of the family who inhabit this island may envy them their paradisiacal home, but they would be able to select none others so worthy to enjoy it.

It is said that the Attakapas Indians are shy of this island, having a legend that it was the scene of a great catastrophe to their race.  Whether this catastrophe has any connection with the upheaval of the salt mountain I do not know.  Many stories are current in this region in regard to the discovery of this deposit.  A little over a quarter of a century ago it was unsuspected.  The presence of salt in the water of a small spring led somebody to dig in that place, and at the depth of sixteen feet below the surface solid salt was struck.  In stripping away the soil several relics of human workmanship came to light, among them stone implements and a woven basket, exactly such as the Attakapas make now.  This basket, found at the depth of sixteen feet, lay upon the salt rock, and was in perfect preservation.  Half of it can now be seen in the Smithsonian Institution.  At the beginning of the war great quantities of salt were taken from this mine for the use of the Confederacy.  But this supply was cut off by the Unionists, who at first sent gun-boats up the bayou within shelling distance, and at length occupied it with troops.

The ascertained area of the mine is several acres; the depth of the deposit is unknown.  The first shaft was sunk a hundred feet; below this a shaft of seventy feet fails to find any limit to the salt.  The excavation is already large.  Descending, the visitor enters vast cathedral-like chambers; the sides are solid salt, sparkling with crystals; the floor is solid salt; the roof is solid salt, supported on pillars of salt, left by the excavators, forty or perhaps sixty feet square.  When the interior is lighted by dynamite the effect is superbly weird and grotesque.  The salt is blasted by dynamite, loaded into cars which run on rails to the elevator, hoisted, and distributed into the crushers, and from the crushers directly into the bags for shipment.  The crushers differ in crushing capacity, some producing fine and others coarse salt.  No bleaching or cleansing process is needed; the salt is almost absolutely pure.  Large blocks of it are sent to the Western plains for “cattle licks.”  The mine is connected by rail with the main line at New Iberia.

Across the marshes and bayous eight miles to the west from Petite Anse Island rises Orange Island, famous for its orange plantation, but called Jefferson Island since it became the property and home of Joseph Jefferson.  Not so high as Petite Anse, it is still conspicuous with its crown of dark forest.  From a high point on Petite Anse, through a lovely vista of trees, with flowering cacti in the foreground, Jefferson’s house is a white spot in the landscape.  We reached it by a circuitous drive of twelve miles over the prairie, sometimes in and sometimes out of the water, and continually diverted from our course by fences.  It is a good sign of the thrift of the race, and of its independence, that the colored people have taken up or bought little tracts of thirty or forty acres, put up cabins, and new fences round their domains regardless of the travelling public.  We zigzagged all about the country to get round these little enclosures.  At one place, where the main road was bad, a thrifty Acadian had set up a toll of twenty-five cents for the privilege of passing through his premises.  The scenery was pastoral and pleasing.  There were frequent round ponds, brilliant with lilies and fleurs-de-lis, and hundreds of cattle feeding on the prairie or standing in the water, and generally of a dun-color, made always an agreeable picture.  The monotony was broken by lines of trees, by cape-like woods stretching into the plain, and the horizon line was always fine.  Great variety of birds enlivened the landscape, game birds abounding.  There was the lively little nonpareil, which seems to change its color, and is red and green and blue.  I believe of the oriole family, the papabotte, a favorite on New Orleans tables in the autumn, snipe, killdee, the cherooke (snipe?), the meadow-lark, and quantities of teal ducks in the ponds.  These little ponds are called “bull-holes.”  The traveler is told that they are started in this watery soil by the pawing of bulls, and gradually enlarged as the cattle frequent them.  He remembers that he has seen similar circular ponds in the North not made by bulls.

Mr. Jefferson’s residence—a pretty rose-vine-covered cottage—is situated on the slope of the hill, overlooking a broad plain and a vast stretch of bayou country.   Along one side of his home enclosure for a mile runs a superb hedge of Chickasaw roses.  On the slope back of the house, and almost embracing it, is a magnificent grove of live-oaks, great gray stems, and the branches hung with heavy masses of moss, which swing in the wind like the pendent boughs of the willow, and with something of its sentimental and mournful suggestion.  The recesses of this forest are cool and dark, but upon ascending the hill, suddenly bursts upon the view under the trees a most lovely lake of clear blue water.  This lake, which may be a mile long and half a mile broad, is called Lake Peigneur, from its fanciful resemblance, I believe, to a wool-comber.  The shores are wooded.  On the island side the bank is precipitous; on the opposite shore amid the trees is a hunting-lodge, and I believe there are plantations on the north end, but it is in aspect altogether solitary and peaceful.  But the island did not want life.  The day was brilliant, with a deep blue sky and high-sailing fleecy clouds, and it seemed a sort of animal holiday:  squirrels chattered; cardinal-birds flashed through the green leaves; there flitted about the red-winged blackbird, blue jays, red-headed woodpeckers, thrushes, and occasionally a rain-crow crossed the scene; high overhead sailed the heavy buzzards, describing great aerial circles; and off in the still lake the ugly heads of alligators were toasting in the sun.

It was very pleasant to sit on the wooded point, enlivened by all this animal activity, looking off upon the lake and the great expanse of marsh, over which came a refreshing breeze.  There was great variety of forest trees.  Besides the live-oaks, in one small area I noticed the water-oak, red-oak, pin-oak, the elm, the cypress, the hackberry, and the pecan tree.

This point is a favorite rendezvous for the buzzards.  Before I reached it I heard a tremendous whirring in the air, and, lo! there upon the oaks were hundreds and hundreds of buzzards.  Upon one dead tree, vast, gaunt, and bleached, they had settled in black masses.  When I came near, they rose and flew about with clamor and surprise, momentarily obscuring the sunlight.  With these unpleasant birds consorted in unclean fellowship numerous long-necked water-turkeys.  Doré would have liked to introduce into one of his melodramatic pictures this helpless dead tree, extending its gray arms loaded with these black scavengers.  It needed the blue sky and blue lake to prevent the scene from being altogether uncanny.  I remember still the harsh, croaking noise of the buzzards and the water-turkeys when they were disturbed, and the flapping of their funereal wings, and perhaps the alligators lying off in the lake noted it, for they grunted and bellowed a response.  But the birds sang merrily, the wind blew softly; there was the repose as of a far country undisturbed by man, and a silvery tone on the water and all the landscape that refined the whole.