Cajun History

The Acadian Land – Part 3

 

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

In the third and final installment of “The Acadian Land”, the author continues his poetic travels through late 19th century Louisiana. The author travels up Bayou Tigre in Vermilion Parish making stops along the way to visit.

 

 

 

If the Acadians can anywhere be seen in the prosperity of their primitive simplicity, I fancy it is in the parish of Vermilion, in the vicinity of Abbeville and on the Bayou Tigre.  Here, among the intricate bayous that are their highways and supply them with the poorer sort of fish, and the fair meadows on which their cattle pasture, and where they grow nearly everything their simple habits require, they have for over a century enjoyed a quiet existence, practically undisturbed by the agitations of modern life, ignorant of its progress.  History makes their departure from the comparatively bleak meadows of Grand Pré a cruel hardship, if a political necessity.  But they made a very fortunate exchange.  Nowhere else on the continent could they so well have preserved their primitive habits, or found climate and soil so suited to their humor.  Others have exhaustively set forth the history and idiosyncrasies of this peculiar people; it is in my way only to tell what I saw on a spring day.

To reach the heart of this abode of contented and perhaps wise ignorance we took boats early one morning at Petite Anse Island, while the dew was still heavy and the birds were at matins, and rowed down the Petite Anse Bayou.  A stranger would surely be lost in these winding, branching, interlacing streams.  Evangeline and her lover might have passed each other unknown within hail across these marshes.  The party of a dozen people occupied two row-boats.  Among them were gentlemen who knew the route, but the reserve of wisdom as to what bayous and cut-offs were navigable was an ancient ex-slave, now a voter, who responded to the name of “Honorable”—a weather-beaten and weather-wise darky, a redoubtable fisherman, whose memory extended away beyond the war, and played familiarly about the person of Lafayette, with whom he had been on agreeable terms in Charleston, and who dated his narratives, to our relief, not from the war, but from the year of some great sickness on the coast.  From the Petite Anse we entered the Carlin Bayou, and wound through it is needless to say what others in our tortuous course.  In the fresh morning, with the salt air, it was a voyage of delight.  Mullet were jumping in the glassy stream, perhaps disturbed by the gar-fish, and alligators lazily slid from the reedy banks into the water at our approach.  All the marsh was gay with flowers, vast patches of the blue fleur-de-lis intermingled with the exquisite white spider-lily, nodding in clusters on long stalks; an amaryllis (pancratium), its pure half-disk fringed with delicate white filaments.  The air was vocal with the notes of birds, the nonpareil and the meadow-lark, and most conspicuous of all the handsome boat-tail grackle, a black bird, which alighted on the slender dead reeds that swayed with his weight as he poured forth his song.  Sometimes the bayou narrowed so that it was impossible to row with the oars, and poling was resorted to, and the current was swift and strong.  At such passes we saw only the banks with nodding flowers, and the reeds, with the blackbirds singing, against the sky.  Again we emerged into placid reaches overhung by gigantic live-oaks and fringed with cypress.  It was enchanting.  But the way was not quite solitary.  Numerous fishing parties were encountered, boats on their way to the bay, and now and then a party of stalwart men drawing a net in the bayou, their clothes being deposited on the banks.  Occasionally a large schooner was seen, tied to the bank or slowly working its way, and on one a whole family was domesticated.  There is a good deal of queer life hidden in these bayous.

After passing through a narrow artificial canal we came into the Bayou Tigre, and landed for breakfast on a green-sward, with meadow-land and signs of habitations in the distance, under spreading live-oaks.  Under one of the most attractive of these trees, close to the stream, we did not spread our table-cloth and shawls, because a large moccason snake was seen to glide under the roots, and we did not know but that his modesty was assumed, and he might join the breakfast party.  It is said that these snakes never attack any one who has kept all the ten commandments from his youth up.  Cardinal-birds made the wood gay for us while we breakfasted, and we might have added plenty of partridges to our menu if we had been armed.

Resuming our voyage, we presently entered the inhabited part of the bayou, among cultivated fields, and made our first call on the Thibodeaux.  They had been expecting us, and Andonia came down to the landing to welcome us, and with a formal, pretty courtesy led the way to the house.  Does the reader happen to remember, say in New England, say fifty years ago, the sweetest maiden lady in the village, prim, staid, full of kindness, the proportions of the figure never quite developed, with a row of small corkscrew curls about her serene forehead, and all the juices of life that might have overflowed into the life of others somehow withered into the sweetness of her wistful face?  Yes; a little timid and appealing, and yet trustful, and in a scant, quaint gown?  Well, Andonia was never married, and she had such curls, and a high-waisted gown, and a kerchief folded across her breast.  And when she spoke, it was in the language of France as it is rendered in Acadia.

The house, like all in this region, stands upon blocks of wood, is in appearance a frame house, but the walls between timbers are of concrete mixed with moss, and the same inside as out.  It had no glass in the windows, which were closed with solid shutters.  Upon the rough walls were hung sacred pictures and other crudely colored prints.  The furniture was rude and apparently home-made, and the whole interior was as painfully neat as a Dutch parlor.  Even the beams overhead and ceiling had been scrubbed.  Andonia showed us with a blush of pride her neat little sleeping room, with its souvenirs of affection, and perhaps some of the dried flowers of a possible romance, and the ladies admired the finely woven white counterpane on the bed.  Andonia’s married sister was a large, handsome woman, smiling and prosperous.  There were children and I think a baby about, besides Mr. Thibodeaux.  Nothing could exceed the kindly manner of these people.  Andonia showed us how they card, weave, and spin the cotton out of which their blankets and the jean for their clothing are made.  They use the old-fashioned hand-cards, spin on a little wheel with a foot treadle, have the most primitive warping bars, and weave most laboriously on a rude loom.  But the cloth they make will wear forever, and the colors they use are all fast.  It is a great pleasure, we might almost say shock, to encounter such honest work in these times.  The Acadians grow a yellow or nankeen sort of cotton, which without requiring any dye is woven into a handsome yellow stuff.  When we departed Andonia slipped into the dooryard, and returned with a rose for each of us.  I fancied she was loath to have us go, and that the visit was an event in the monotony of her single life.

Embarking again on the placid stream, we moved along through a land of peace.  The houses of the Acadians are scattered along the bayou at considerable distances apart.  The voyager seems to be in an unoccupied country, when suddenly the turn of the stream shows him a farm-house, with its little landing-wharf, boats, and perhaps a schooner moored at the bank, and behind it cultivated fields and a fringe of trees.  In the blossoming time of the year, when the birds are most active, these scenes are idyllic.  At a bend in the bayou, where a tree sent its horizontal trunk half across it, we made our next call, at the house of Mr. Vallet, a large frame house, and evidently the abode of a man of means.  The house was ceiled outside and inside with native woods.  As usual in this region, the premises were not as orderly as those about some Northern farm-houses, but the interior of the house was spotlessly clean, and in its polish and barrenness of ornament and of appliances of comfort suggested a Brittany home, while its openness and the broad veranda spoke of a genial climate.  Our call here was brief, for a sick man, very ill, they said, lay in the front room—a stranger who had been overtaken with fever, and was being cared for by these kind-hearted people.

Other calls were made—this visiting by boat recalls Venice—but the end of our voyage was the plantation of Simonette Le Blanc, a sturdy old man, a sort of patriarch in this region, the centre of a very large family of sons, daughters, and grandchildren.  The residence, a rambling story-and-a-half house, grown by accretions as more room was needed, calls for no comment.  It was all very plain, and contained no books, nor any adornments except some family photographs, the poor work of a travelling artist.  But in front, on the bayou, Mr. Le Blanc had erected a grand ball-room, which gave an air of distinction to the place.  This hall, which had benches along the wall, and at one end a high dais for the fiddlers, and a little counter where the gumbo file (the common refreshment) is served, had an air of gayety by reason of engravings cut from the illustrated papers, and was shown with some pride.  Here neighborhood dances take place once in two weeks, and a grand ball was to come off on Easter Sunday night, to which we were urgently invited to come.

Simonette Le Blanc with several of his sons had returned at midnight from an expedition to Vermilion Bay, where they had been camping for a couple of weeks, fishing and taking oysters.  Working the schooner through the bayou at night had been fatiguing, and then there was supper, and all the news of the fortnight to be talked over, so that it was four o’clock before the house was at rest, but neither the hale old man nor his stalwart sons seemed the worse for the adventure.  Such trips are not uncommon, for these people seem to have leisure for enjoyment, and vary the toil of the plantation with the pleasures of fishing and lazy navigation.   But to the women and the home-stayers this was evidently an event.  The men had been to the outer world, and brought back with them the gossip of the bayous and the simple incidents of the camping life on the coast.  “There was a great deal to talk over that had happened in a fortnight,” said Simonette—he and one of his sons spoke English.  I do not imagine that the talk was about politics, or any of the events that seem important in other portions of the United Sates, only the faintest echoes of which ever reach this secluded place.  This is a purely domestic and patriarchal community, where there are no books to bring in agitating doubts, and few newspapers to disquiet the nerves.  The only matter of politics broached was in regard to an appropriation by Congress to improve a cut-off between two bayous.  So far as I could learn, the most intelligent of these people had no other interest in or concern about the government.  There is a neighborhood school where English is taught, but no church nearer than Abbeville, six miles away.  I should not describe the population as fanatically religious, nor a church-going one except on special days.  But by all accounts it is moral, orderly, sociable, fond of dancing, thrifty, and conservative.

The Acadians are fond of their homes.  It is not the fashion for the young people to go away to better their condition.  Few young men have ever been as far from home as New Orleans; they marry young, and settle down near the homestead.  Mr. Le Blanc has a colony of his descendants about him, within hail from his door.  It must be large, and his race must be prolific, judging by the number of small children who gathered at the homestead to have a sly peep at the strangers.  They took small interest in the war, and it had few attractions for them.  The conscription carried away many of their young men, but I am told they did not make very good soldiers, not because they were not stalwart and brave, but because they were so intolerably homesick that they deserted whenever they had a chance.  The men whom we saw were most of them fine athletic fellows, with honest, dark, sun-browned faces; some of the children were very pretty, but the women usually showed the effects of isolation and toil, and had the common plainness of French peasants.  They are a self-supporting community, raise their own cotton, corn, and sugar, and for the most part manufacture their own clothes and articles of household use.  Some of the cotton jeans, striped with blue, indigo-dyed, made into garments for men and women, and the blankets, plain yellow (from the native nankeen cotton), curiously clouded, are very pretty and serviceable.  Further than that their habits of living are simple, and their ways primitive, I saw few eccentricities.  The peculiarity of this community is in its freedom from all the hurry and worry and information of our modern life.  I have read that the gallants train their little horses to prance and curvet and rear and fidget about, and that these are called “courtin’ horses,” and are used when a young man goes courting, to impress his mistress with manly horsemanship.  I have seen these horses perform under the saddle, but I was not so fortunate as to see any courting going on.

In their given as well as their family names these people are classical and peculiar.  I heard, of men, the names L’Odias, Peigneur, Niolas, Elias, Homère, Lemaire, and of women, Emilite, Ségoura, Antoinette, Clarise, Elia.

We were very hospitably entertained by the Le Blancs.  On our arrival tiny cups of black coffee were handed round, and later a drink of syrup and water, which some of the party sipped with a sickly smile of enjoyment.  Before dinner we walked up to the bridge over the bayou on the road leading to Abbeville, where there is a little cluster of houses, a small country store, and a closed drug shop—the owner of which had put up his shutters and gone to a more unhealthy region.  Here is a fine grove of oaks, and from the bridge we had in view a grand sweep of prairie, with trees, single and in masses, which made with the winding silvery stream a very pleasing picture.  We sat down to a dinner—the women waiting on the table—of gumbo file, fried oysters, eggs, sweet-potatoes (the delicious saccharine, sticky sort), with syrup out of a bottle served in little saucers, and afterward black coffee.  We were sincerely welcome to whatever the house contained, and when we departed the whole family, and indeed all the neighborhood, accompanied us to our boats, and we went away down the stream with a chorus of adieus and good wishes.

We were watching for a hail from the Thibodeaux.  The doors and shutters were closed, and the mansion seemed blank and forgetful.  But as we came opposite the landing, there stood Andonia, faithful, waving her handkerchief.  Ah me!

We went home gaily and more swiftly, current and tide with us, though a little pensive, perhaps, with too much pleasure and the sunset effects on the wide marshes through which we voyaged.  Cattle wander at will over these marshes, and are often stalled and lost.  We saw some pitiful sights.  The cattle venturing too near the boggy edge to drink become inextricably involved.  We passed an ox sunken to his back, and dead, a cow frantically struggling in the mire, almost exhausted, and a cow and calf, the mother dead, the calf moaning beside her.  On a cattle lookout near by sat three black buzzards surveying the prospect with hungry eyes.

When we landed and climbed the hill, and from the rose-embowered veranda looked back over the strange land we had sailed through, away to Bayou Tigre, where the red sun was setting, we felt that we had been in a country that is not of this world.