- 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
The Baratarians witness this latest development with that mixture of interest, detachment, and humor that has characterized them through the centuries. A circular decal found on bumpers and boats depicts a coon with his stern end presented to the viewer and his tail raised. The legend reads, “Registered Coon Ass. Don’t Worry ‘Bout Nuttin’.” I asked Albert and Hilda Besson about this localism as we sat on the upper deck of their Grand Isle home and watched darkness turn the gulf a metallic gray. They laughed shyly, and then Albert explained. “See, when these Texans came down here years ago, they found us sitting on top of all this oil. And they said, ‘Well, these dumb coon asses, they don’t know what they got. And we do.’ So they came in and did all the developing and drilling. But now, we call ourselves ‘Coon Asses’ sort of like a joke on them. And like we say, we don’t worry about too much. Things have changed here a whole lot, but in other ways we’re the same way we’ve always been.”
The first of his family not to follow the sea, Albert Besson estimates that maybe 90 per cent of the island’s labor force is now involved, as he is, in oil-related work. With the building of the superport this trend may be expected to continue, and there are current estimates of a twenty-thousand-person jump in the population of southeastern Louisiana, at least half of whom will come from out of state. Whether the Baratarians can maintain their distinctiveness in the face of this newest transforming force is a hard question.
I asked Albert and Hilda Besson if they would move elsewhere with the industry when the local fields were depleted. “Oh no,” he replied, “I couldn’t move anywhere else. When these fields run dry, we’ll just go back to doing what we ve always done.” And Hilda adds, “They say you don’t ever leave. Even if you go away, you always come back. I guess that must be so, ‘cause you don’t see too many that go and stay gone.”
It was full dark now, blotting out the signs of change, and their voices hummed out into it, telling of those changes, of the slow erosion of the island, of the old-time dances over at the Chénière, secure in a knowledge of their past that is constant as the gulf wind.
Spreading south from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, the Barataria region is, as the author describes it, a “bewildering tatter” of cypress swamps, marshes, saw-grass meadows, palmetto groves, bayous, creeks, bays, and islands, all of it cut through by the Mississippi River meandering down the last stretch of its journey from land to sea. And it boils with wildlife peculiar to southern coastal wetlands: muskrats, otters, alligators, and scores of varieties of fish; swamp rabbits, fox squirrels, feral hogs, raccoons, and swamp deer; bald eagles circle in search of prey, ducks and geese winter here, and white clouds of egrets burst into the air like feathers from a hundred ruptured pillows.
Almost twenty years ago, sentiment arose to create through federal legislation some kind of reserve in the area for wetlands preservation, but it was not until 1978 that Congress enacted Public Law 95-625 establishing Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve “in order to preserve for the education, inspiration, and benefit of present and future generations significant examples of natural and historical resources of the Mississippi Delta region....” It is a multiunit park that includes not only such natural preserves as Big Oak Island but also cultural and historic sites in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Barataria’s share in all this? It is hoped that ultimately it will take in as much as twenty thousand acres of marshland, together with such historic sites as Fort Livingston on Grand Terre, but for now it is represented by the green area on the map at left—some eighty-six hundred acres lying just north of the little town of Barataria. There is only the hope of the fort site for Grand Terre, and nothing at all for Grand Isle, that long tongue of an island where Lafcadio Hearn found existence “so facile, happy, primitively simple, that trifles give joy unspeakable;—in that bright air whose purity defies the test of even the terrible solar microscope, neither misery nor malady may live.”