- 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
Just a few decades more, or so we are told, and the process of the homogenization of America will have been completed. All regional personalities will have been sanitized out of existence, and the national culture will be a bland, predictable, and packaged product. Probably this is not a prospect we need immediately contemplate. This is a hell of a big country, as the poet Charles Olson said, and it will take considerably more time and enterprise before it can be so reduced. Here and there, you can still find places that have remained faithful to themselves, places where the past has been preserved so that it seems to well up around you. In such places, admittedly fewer by the year, there is a sense, strong as a voice and conveyed even to the visitor, that something has happened here.
The Barataria region that lies south of New Orleans and west of the Mississippi is one such place. Cut off from a wider world on all sides by wetlands, bayous, lakes, bays, and at last by the great Gulf of Mexico itself, the region still gives the visitor that sense of haunted isolation and perilous tenacity felt a hundred years ago by Lafcadio Hearn when he came down from New Orleans to visit the storied islands, Grand Isle and Grand Terre. Hearn wrote then of the “feeling of lonesomeness that is a fear, a feeling of isolation from the world of men—totally unlike that sense of solitude which haunts one in the silence of mountain-heights or amid the eternal tumult of lofty granitic coasts: a sense of helpless insecurity. The land seems but an undulation of the sea-bed: its highest ridges do not rise more than the height of a man above the salines on either side—the salines themselves lie almost level with the level of the flood tides; and the tides are variable, treacherous, mysterious.” In such a region people do not think too readily of mobility or of radically altering things, for the power of nature to dispose and dictate is too close, and there are constant reminders of it.
But there are few visual reminders of the past other than geography, for the Baratarians are subjects of both the Mississippi delta and the Gulf of Mexico. The one rots and buries beneath deposits and floods; the other tears up and sweeps away in winds and waves. So, much of what was lies beneath what is, and much more has been consumed by the gulf. Yet the Baratarians have remained what and where they are through two and a half centuries of time, nature, and history, surviving always the newest forces of change, adding to themselves through that survival. Their names are those of the earliest settlers, their customs accretions of all that has happened there. Atop the marshy midden of their past, they keep all of it much in mind.
The heart of Barataria lies in its islands, Grand Isle and Grand Terre. Farthest from New Orleans, exposed to the Gulf, and guarding entrance to the region, they have attracted fishermen, pirates, plantation owners, resort and oil entrepreneurs, as well as writers, artists, and naturalists. Until very recently there was but one way to get there: boat. No roads led down the Mississippi to their proximity, nor did any on the west side of Barataria Bay, where the land mass stretches almost within reach of Grand Isle. You had to take a lugger or a cut-down steamer downriver a bit from New Orleans and then swing off into one of the channels that fed into Lake Salvador. From there you sailed—or scraped if by steamer—down through a bewildering tatter of islands, swamps, bays, and passes, gradually leaving behind the rice fields and sugar plantations and entering the semiaquatic world of the Baratarians: cypress groves, quaking prairies of water plants and grasses, tiny uninhabitable chénières—shell mounds rising just above the water and foliaged by dwarfish oaks. On the larger ones there were fishing villages of palmetto and cypress huts, built after the fashion of the aborigines, and in these a wonderfully mixed population of Malays, Chinese, French, and Spanish. At last the whispers of wind in your face grew steadier, the bay brightened and yawned, and at its mouth lay Grand Isle and Grand Terre.
There is still no way to get there by road down the east side of the bay, but there is now a circuitous route that takes a wide westward arc from New Orleans and then follows Bayou Lafourche to Caminada Pass, where a bridge now connects Grand Isle with the mainland.
You exit New Orleans over the Huey Long Bridge. On the other side the special geography begins with the built-up road bed that runs between the swamplands. In the ditches families stand with nets and poles and buckets of bloody bait going after crawfish. At Raceland you turn southeast, and a few miles farther a roadside store sign tells you that this is not Howard Johnson country: JUMBO POBOYS BOUDIN HOME MADE HOG HEAD FILÉ CRACKLIN. Inside are these distinctly local items and also machetes, tackle, turtle meat, and talk in lilting Cajun about beer, parties, and fishing.
From here down you increasingly feel the presence of the delta and the unseen gulf, the land lying low and submissive under its cover of fresh marsh vegetation: maiden cane, alligator weed, bull tongue, pickerelweed, and water hyacinth. Across the bayou are scattered tough, craggy cypresses dripping moss. The little towns of Lockport, Larose, Cut Off, Galliano, and Golden Meadow are still primarily bayou fishing towns.
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.
Eighteen eleven brought a change to the Baratarian smugglers, for in that year Jean Lafitte moved down to Grand Terre to take command of operations that were threatening to degenerate into an unprofitable gang feud between privateers recently driven to the island from the West Indies and the resident smugglers who heretofore had enjoyed a monopoly. Tall, handsome, and decisive, Lafitte quickly proved equal to the crisis, and after coolly blowing out the brains of a mutinous privateer, made clear to natives and newcomers that their best interests lay in running a tight ship with Jean Lafitte at the helm.
At the easternmost tip of Grand Terre, Lafitte built a round brick fort stuccoed with oyster shells and beside it a substantial house lavishly furnished with plundered items. Behind, on the flat grasslands, the shacks of the crew members were slapped together, ill-made places of cypress and palmetto logs, miscellaneous plankings, and Spanish moss. In the midst of all this were warehouses and a stout barracoon, a temporary corral for the slaves Lafitte’s crews stole from Spanish ships tacking to Cuba. Their provisions came from Baratarian natives, especially those at Grand Isle, where they traded for fruits, vegetables, and beef.
This was, to be sure, an unruly and variegated group, swept together on a most advantageous spot by accidental winds. There were Frenchmen like the Lafittes and Dominique Youx, rumored to be the Lafittes’ brother; Italians like the vicious Gambi, murdered at last by his own men as he snored atop a pile of gold coin, and Nez Coupé (Cut Nose) Chighizola, whose signal disfigurement was the result of a saber duel; Orientals, Africans, and the Baratarian originals. But Lafitte seems to have run them well. His crews were politic in their plunderings, sailing under letters of marque from the Republic of Cartagena; Pierre Lafitte was an efficient middleman in New Orleans, and the lawless temper of the men was calmed by large gains regularly and equitably distributed. Grand Terre was an ideal location, Grand Isle a proximate storehouse, and the Barataria region a fathomless warren. In calmly proficient fashion the Lafittes advertised their sales of goods and slaves, some in New Orleans, some at Grand Terre, and some at the “Temple” in Barataria Bay, an ancient ceremonial site of the aborigines who had once held title to the region.
Empires do not last forever and still less so piratical ones dependent on public and tacit official favor. So it was here: a slave rebellion in a northerly parish was traced to slaves sold at Grand Terre, and many who had bought from the Lafittes now began to think differently of their bargains. Claiborne mounted several ineffectual expeditions against Grand Terre and in 1813 was able to name the Lafittes in a warrant, offering “a reward of five hundred Dollars which will be paid out of the Treasury, to any person delivering the said John Lafitte to the Sheriff of the Parish of New Orleans...so that he the said John Lafitte may be brought to Justice. ” But things were still running strong enough with Lafitte that he could excite great laughter when he posted an elaborately worded parody of the governor’s warrant with the names reversed. In his warrant for the governor’s arrest, Lafitte upped the ante a thousand dollars and specified that the prisoner be delivered to Grand Terre.
So matters stood on the morning of September 3, 1814, when a British brig appeared off Grand Terre and signaled for a parley. In the meeting that followed in Lafitte’s house, officers of the Royal Navy offered the pirate king a large bribe to assist their invasion of Louisiana. Lafitte asked for time to put his affairs in order, meanwhile sending this information to Governor Claiborne. Whatever else he may have been, Lafitte was a patriot, but in gubernatorial council it was decided to attack Grand Terre rather than risk an alliance with pirates. Ever since the beginning of hostilities with Britain in 1812 there had been great unease at having Lafitte and his men guarding the back door to New Orleans. Now was clearly the time to secure it.
On September 16 a federal force attacked Grand Terre, and Lafitte refused to fire on the American flag. His stronghold quickly disintegrated, the pirate fleet was captured or burned, the fort gutted, and a thousand men scrambled for hiding. Half a million dollars in goods, merchandise, and ships were seized by the invaders, and when the force stood for home, the days of the Baratarian smugglers were done. Lafitte himself escaped capture and with a still sizable force again offered his services to the government. This time Andrew Jackson accepted, and the Lafittes, Dominique Youx, Gambi, Nez Coupé, and the rest manned the batteries in the Battle of New Orleans. And there may be more than legend to the belief that Jean Lafitte’s donation of powder and shot was crucial to the American victory.
The pirates’ reward was a presidential pardon, and many of them accepted it and settled into approved routines. Of these a good number made their homes on Grand Isle across the pass from their former nest where now only the empty shell of the fort stood amidst the shattered refuse of invasion and the tough, unperturbed grasses. The pirates turned fishermen and farmers, raising cottages and families along the protected lanes of Grand Isle. Old Nez Coupé Ghighizola became the placid progenitor of a long line of Grand Islanders, farmed, fished, and told visitors that it had been a dog that had bitten off his nose. But the pirate/patriot Jean Lafitte could not settle and left Barataria behind for Galveston Island, where he founded another community after the earlier model. Routed at last out of that by another federal force, he sailed beyond further attack, beyond history, and into conjecture and legend, leaving behind the deathless rumor of Baratarian buried treasure. For a century and a half hopeful diggers have cruised among the islands and inlets of the region, much like the old Spaniards under Narváez, searching for the pot of gold they know is there. Occasionally some small, scattered find will excite a new horde of hunters as it did in the last century when a fisherman on Barataria Island dug under the flaggings of a deserted fireplace and discovered a box of Spanish coin, gold earrings, and a silver image of the Virgin. Then the ghosts rise up once more, the chink of spades is heard, and people remember the legend that says that wherever Lafitte buried treasure, there he murdered a crew member to keep spectral sentinel over it.
With the disappearance of Lafitte and the domestication of his crews, the islands settled once again into older rhythms. Baratarians fished and logged cypress and took their furs up the bay by routes so lately run by pirates. On Grand Terre for a time there was nothing, as if the fierce burning out of the pirates had consumed the land as well; or maybe it was the ghost of Lafitte that was said to haunt the windy spot. Grand Isle could live with its ghosts, and along the spine of oaks that afforded protection from the constant wind, under the bowers of oleander and chinaberry, there snuggled the brightly painted cottages of the fishermen and the farmers who tended the long, thin belts of cucumber, squash, guavas, figs, and orange groves that stretched from the bay to the gulf.
Beginning in the 1830’s both islands went into sugar cane cultivation, and for more than a decade this industry set the tone of the islands and to some extent of the region as a whole. But by 1844 the soil had been played out on Grand Isle, the outside speculators had gone, and all that remained of the scheme were several palatial and empty residences, rows of slave cottages, and a gap in the spine of oaks where the plantation owners had cut them down.
On Grand Terre a sugar plantation continued in production until after the Civil War, when the lack of slave labor shut it down. At the island’s gulfward tip, just in front of the remains of Lafitte’s fort, the government had erected a large brick fortress designed to secure the so-called back door. But Fort Livingston, so named in honor of Edward Livingston, who, among other distinctions was once attorney for Lafitte, was never of much use, and after the Civil War it was no longer garrisoned. That left the island again uninhabited, and so it remained until in the early 1880’s it became the solitary residence of a singular man seeking just such solitude. Pepe Llulla, one of New Orleans’ greatest fencing masters and duelists, purchased the land and buildings of the plantation and retired to this spot which had surely seen its own share of steel, blood, and death. After Llulla died in 1888, Grand Terre was home to none but scuttling sand crabs and the goats and horses set to graze there by Baratarians. Weeds climbed the bastions of Fort Livingston, and Crustacea mantled the discarded shot in its ditches. The pirate fort, dwarfed, puny-looking behind the federal fortress, continued its silent settling, disturbed now and again by the spades of treasure hunters.
In a country where land speculation is as much a part of our heritage as freedom of speech, few places once exploited are allowed to lie fallow after the original schemes have failed: there are always subsequent speculators with new money who will take up with new hopes the leavings of busted enterprise. So on Grand Isle, the disused sugar plantations were transmogrified in the 1880’s into elegant watering holes for wealthy Creoles fleeing the heat and disease of summertime New Orleans. Benjamin Margot and Joseph Hale Harvey bought the old Barataria Plantation, whose broad cane fields already had succumbed to sand. While the islanders watched or hired themselves out to it, this newest phase took shape in the Grand Isle Hotel. John F. Krantz bought another plantation that had stretched from bay to gulf, converted the old residences to dining rooms and reception halls, the slave quarters into summer cottages. To solve the problem of transporting his guests from the main buildings to the beaches across the island, Krantz purchased some outmoded tram cars and rails of the New Orleans public transit system and shipped them to the island. Three times daily the mule-drawn tram would leave the hotel for the beach, the mules plodding the tracks through fields of cucumber or brilliant camomile, past small groves of orange or lemon trees whose leaves glinted like metal plates.
Kate Chopin has left us a gorgeous, impressionistic record of this decorous interlude in her novel The Awakening (1899). She describes the tram trip to the beach, the dry Victorian ritual of “bathing” with its bathhouses, parasols, gauze veils, and gloves; the departure of the husbands on Monday mornings to return to the world of commerce, leaving the island to wives, nursemaids, and children until those same husbands would return the following Saturday. Sundays, these observant Catholics would take a lugger across the westward pass to Chénière Caminada, where, in a “quaint little Gothic church…gleaming all brown and yellow paint in the sun’s glare,” they would hear mass alongside the browned, salty natives. Chopin, like Hearn, writes here of a stillness that was not only of Sundays but something enforced by the insistent “voice of the sea whispering through the reeds that grew in the salt-water pools.... The long line of little gray, weather-beaten houses nestled peacefully among the orange trees” in what seemed an eternal “God’s day on that low, drowsy island....”
Besides the sea, church, and musical evenings in the big high-ceilinged halls, there were other diversions. You could engage an islander to take you across to Grand Terre where it was pleasant to play at treasure hunting, to stroll the grounds of the fortress crumbling into the gulf, or to climb it for a picnic on its grassy battlements and swing your feet out above the surf washing the cannons below. Or, for the hardier, there might be trips farther up the bay to visit the picturesque villages of the native shrimpers. Perhaps you might be lucky enough to witness the preparation of the shrimp for shipping. In “Dancing the Shrimp” dozens of fisherfolk, their feet swathed in burlap, would trample a platform heaped with boiled and sun-dried shrimp while they chanted old songs to accompany the shuffling, muffled feet that wore away hulls and heads.
The era of the grand resorts came to an end in the first days of October, 1893, when a gigantic tropical hurricane whirled out from behind Cuba and gave the most exposed parts of Barataria its first full force. All Sunday, October 1, the wind had risen, but high winds were nothing to Baratarians, and they went on with their Sabbath fêtes. By nightfall, however, the snug cottages had begun to creak and smacks and luggers to break their moorings. The waves bit higher on the beaches with each lunge, and then suddenly a wall of gulf water was forced into the small mouth of Barataria Bay. Within minutes the islands and Chénière Caminada were six to eight feet under, while a gale estimated at one hundred and forty miles per hour ripped off roofs, collapsed pilings, houses, wharves, and armed the air with daggers of splintered wood. Through the night of death the church bell at Chénière Caminada kept up a clangorous dirge until its tower fell.
A survivor who spent this night clinging to the branches of one of the heroic oaks recalled that the “crashing of adjacent buildings, ships, or piling was plainly heard, followed by a melee of screams and groans, then stillness, except for occasional cries that toward daybreak grew fainter. Helpless ones were being swept out into the gulf. When day dawned the ghastly spectacle of dead people disclosed itself. The water was subsiding, and I wandered for a while, like one lost in the land of death, through a wilderness of outstretched bodies, some still clinging or lashed to bits of driftwood.”
Estimates of the dead went as high as fifteen hundred on Grand Isle and Chénière Caminada alone, and every structure in the vicinity was heavily damaged or completely destroyed. All of Barataria was awash in wreckage, the settlements on the bayous inundated, and for days the now-smiling skies were filled with buzzards. Some of the survivors, terrified by the experience, or grief-stricken, left for safer places. For a time there were Baratarian communities in-exile at such places as Gretna and Westwego outside New Orleans and at Cut Off on Bayou Lafourche. Some exiles or their children eventually returned to begin again; the resort owners never did. The big hotels had been decapitated by the storm and their outbuildings strewn about like small crates. The Grand Isle, the Ocean Club, Krantz’s stood in desolate disrepair, millions of board feet of lumber warping and rotting while the tramway settled into the sandy soil. But the Baratarians, a people with root systems as tough and knotty as their oaks, rebuilt and resumed their ways.
All this is in the minds of the natives, though for the visitor there are few ways to divine its continuing presence. Here and there in the region there is an old-time shrimp-dancing platform, and there are several nineteenth-century churches in protected places. On the islands there is even less of the past.
On Grand Isle there is the bell that tolled disaster in 1893. Now it hangs in its sturdy housing at Our Lady of the Isle Church, and like almost everything else here it has a tradition that tells of survival. Cast in the nineteenth century out of pirate silver and the family plate of the pastor at Chénière Caminada, it was taken to Westwego by exiles from the hurricane. But when another parish obtained permission to use it, the bell was stolen and remained lost for years. When it surfaced again, it was at Grand Isle, and it is said it will never ring for others than Baratarians.
There have been other big blows since 1893—1946, 1956, 1965—so there is nothing left of the ruined resorts or even of the old cottages of the natives. A boy I talked with and who offered me a ride in his pirogue told me he once had found a wheel of a tram car, and others can point out where the tracks used to lie. But that is all.
If you want evidence of the pirates, you will be disappointed, too. The last structure connected with them, the cottage of Nez Coupé, was torn down years ago, and no one seems to lament this loss, not even Natali Chighizola, his great grandson. “Uncle Nat” has it all in his head, and if he has time out from fishing, he will tell some of it to you, perhaps even bring out two heirloom cutlasses to show. He might take you to the little cemetery where, among the quaint whitewashed tombs and the oaks that twist away from the gulf “like fleeing women with streaming garments and windblown hair,” as Hearn described them, he will point out the grave of his grandfather and tell you: “Old Nez Coupé’s in there with him. Hurricane Betsy exposed his carcass so they had to rebury him.” And Uncle Nat can arrange for you to be taken across the pass to Grand Terre, though he warns, “There’s nothing over there anymore.”
In a way he is right. There is little in the way of monuments except Fort Livingston, now even more ragged after all the buffetings. There is nothing left of Lafitte’s small fort behind it, not a scrap. On the other hand, if you are, like the Baratarians themselves, sensitive to other forms the past may take, you will find Grand Terre very much alive. Walking its length of oyster grass, salt grass, and black mangrove, surrounded by the cries of terns or unsettled blackbirds in the bushes, you pass brackish ponds and a few scattered implements from the days of the plantations. A herd of horses, spooked by your thrashing through the bush, bursts out of grazing and gallops down the beach. The sense of isolation and exposure is powerful, and you can feel Lafitte’s purpose here and that of Pepe Llulla who had fought so many duels that he wished to keep company only with his scars.
From the gulfward tip of Grand Terre you look back at Grand Isle and out onto the gulf and behold the steely fruits of legitimate enterprise: towers and cranes like oak groves, for at the moment this is oil country. Oil companies have been here in force since the 1930’s, and of the twenty-five thousand wells in Louisiana, a great many are in this region. And now, too, will soon come a “superport.” Located fifty miles into the gulf, its pipes will pass close to the islands and then travel up Bayou Lafourche to a point near Galliano where the crude oil off-loaded at sea will be stored in underground salt domes. The highly saline water displaced from the domes will be pumped back into the gulf. No one is certain yet what effect this will have on the fishing industry, but if it should cause a rise in the salinity of Barataria Bay, the effect on oyster seedbeds would be disastrous. Already the life cycle of the oyster has been adversely affected by dredging and drilling operations. One species of shrimp has declined drastically in recent years, and oil-related changes in salinity are suspected here, too.
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.”