- Historic Sites
With astonishing tenacity, the people of the rich river-mouth region of the Mississippi have remained what and where they are through two and a half centuries
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
At the end of the road you come to Chénière Caminada, where the bridge takes the road across a choppy pass to Grand Isle’s main street that runs eastward the eight-mile length: on your right the gulf; on your left umbrageous lanes leading back to cottages and the bay behind. At the eastern tip there is another pass, and on its far side, still accessible only by boat, the all but empty stretch of Grand Terre—bottom of the bay, entrance to an enclosed world, for here the special spirit of Barataria can most be felt in the curling gulls and terns, the smells of sedge, salt, and decay, in the wide, tropical sky and the gulf—all of it speaking of a rich and various past that equals and encompasses the present.
The first whites to see the region were the forlorn and frightened members of Pánfilo de Narváez’s expedition to Florida in 1528. By the time they reached the Mississippi, they had to admit the expedition in search of all the golden cities of legend was a failure and the only hope that of escaping a “dismal country” where “death seemed all the more terrible.” The survivor who wrote those words, Cabeza de Vaca, was among those who experienced the bewildering clutter of the gulf coast west of the river’s mouth, drifting for days without knowing whether they were at sea or in a pass or large bay. Then a rising wind drove them seaward, and they saw only the smoke of native fires on the islands they helplessly left behind.
Despite this priority, it was not the Spanish but the French who claimed the region, in 1681, and when they did so they knew there was no golden city here. Instead, they were after the magnificent timber stands, the oak and cypress they now needed in ever greater quantity for the ships of colonial enterprise. Monstrous cypresses in the swamps and bayous were felled and hollowed out, Indian fashion, then shaped into vessels capable of carrying fifty tons of freight. And while this first assault on the region’s fecundity was going forward, another and more permanent one ran parallel to it: nameless and uncounted individuals fanning out through the bayous into the swamps and woods, onto the larger islands to become hunters, trappers, and fishermen, moving through this warm, watery world in flat-bottomed cypress canoes they called pirogues and which drew so little water it was said they could float on a dew. They went after woods bison, an incredible abundance of fowl, deer, alligator, and diamond-backed terrapin. And they trapped for the furs of mink, otter, and muskrat, which they took up the bay in lateen-rigged luggers to New Orleans where they traded for supplies. When the season changed, these men changed too, becoming fishermen of the bay’s rich store of oyster, shrimp, crab, and fish.
Even so early as this the name “Barataria” appears on French maps. Some have traced it to Sancho Panza’s “island kingdom” in Don Quixote; if so, time has rendered the reference obscure. Much more significant are the clues in the French words barateur (”cheap”) and barraterie, referring to acts of maritime dishonesty. Together, these suggest another regional occupation: smuggling. As the Louisiana historian Grace King has described it, the practice of smuggling began in the early days of French colonial rule when the regular arrival of supplies from the home country to New Orleans was uncertain. Thus, for New Orleans merchants, smuggled goods early became staples of their businesses, and the red sails of the Baratarian luggers at the French Market landings meant that a new shipment of marchandises barateurs was in town and available. By the time Louisiana became American territory in 1803, Baratarian smuggling was so deeply entrenched in Louisiana life that it moved our first territorial governor, William C. C. Claiborne, to fits of impotent choler. He complained often that no remedy would be found for the practice as long as the citizens of New Orleans supported it, and he found that support openly expressed among the city’s gentry.
After 1805 the Baratarians’ enterprise was even more essential to Louisiana economic life, for in that year a law took effect interdicting the slave trade. So now the Baratarians ran slaves, and three years later, when the United States placed an embargo on their importation, there was an even greater demand for the smugglers’ services. Add to this the Embargo Act of 1807, which prohibited U.S. ships from sailing to foreign ports, and conditions were perfect for suppliers of stolen goods and slaves. Now they had their own agents in New Orleans who received their goods, stored them, and dealt on a regular basis with the merchants.
Two who did so were brothers who operated a blacksmith shop at the corner of St. Philip and Bourbon streets. Behind this palpable blind Pierre and Jean Lafitte dispensed Baratarian wares and traveled back and forth between the city and the Barataria region quite openly. Indeed, their public familiarity with the district attorney and with one of Claiborne’s most trusted confidants illustrated the truth of the governor’s complaints.