Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Skull Island on the Mermentau River

One of the strangest folklore mysteries of our state is possibly one of the most haunting.   Inside Cameron parish exists a rather large lake known as Big Lake.  If you travel north towards the mouth of the Mermentau River, you'll pass along an island on the right side, listed on the maps as "Negro Island", which we'll call "Skull Island".   It's a marshy uninhabited island, not much different than any of the other ones around the parish near the gulf coast. The name given to it maybe part of a larger story.

Before 1819, much of the area between the Sabine River and the Calcasieu River was no-mans land.  The Spanish government and the United States couldn't agree on who controlled and governed the area.   For quite some time, the low lying area, dense forest and meandering bayous provided good cover for pirates, vandals, and other unwanted criminal activity.   It wasn't until after 1819 did the area finally become part of Louisiana yet it took several decades before the surrounding region was sufficiently settled and managed.   It wasn't uncommon to have illegal activities flourish until after the Civil War.

The story of this island begins with author W.T. Block's uncle telling him a tragic story that dates back to the Civil War.   In 1964, he carried his mother and some of her Sweeney siblings back to Grand Chenier for a visit. According to Block:
While there, I asked my Cousin Jim Bonsall, who owned a small store, if he had ever heard of that island. He quickly answered “yes” - that he could rent a boat and take me there if I so chose. Guidry described Skull Island as being located at the “north end of Grand Lake, where the Mermentau enters the lake...”

Skull Island located on the north shore

Back in 1949, he had heard of a story from his uncle who was born and raised in the area.  A story of a slaver captain’s inhumanity so bestial, that it is difficult for the human mind to comprehend it.  According to the story, a slave ship captain had pondered going upriver to Lake Arthur, but fearing he might be arrested there, he chose to dump his “cargo” ashore and return to the gulf.   The cargo was 200 starving African slaves abandoned on a marsh ridge on Mermentau River, where they were left to die horrific deaths.

Negro (Skull) Island
It goes back to 1820, when the United States passed the Act to Protect the Commerce of the US and Punish the Crime of Piracy.  It stated that:

"That if any person or persons whatsoever shall, on the high seas, commit the crime of piracy, as defined by the law of nations, and such offender or offenders shall afterwards be brought into or found in the United States, every such offender or offenders shall, upon conviction thereof ... be punished by death."
This included the section 5 detail:

"attempting to confine, deliver, or sell a negro or mulatto (similarly qualified as "not held to service", etc.) is also declared piracy punishable by death"

In March of 1865, Block's great uncle grandfather had sailed a sloop up the river in search of a high marsh ridge, where they might put in a crop of cotton. When they anchored at Skull Island, they found scattered among the marsh grass countless skulls, skeletons, and leg bones, each of the latter still shackled by a rusting leg iron to the skeleton lying beside it. Sensing the aura of death which permeated the marsh ridge, they quickly hoisted their sail and returned to Grand Chenier.

According to Block's uncle, a slaver captain stopped at Grand Chenier in May, 1865, and sought to buy rice or cattle from Dr. Millidge McCall to feed to his African chattels. McCall told him that there were neither rice nor cattle to be purchased at Grand Chenier; the residents of the Chenier at that time, consisting of women, children and a few old men, were only a notch above starvation themselves as the Civil War had just ended. McCall told the slaver too that the North had just won the war, and the slaves had been freed. 

Both knew that if a slave ship were caught with Africans aboard, the slaver captain would be tried for violating the 1820 African Slave Trade Act, the penalty of which was a charge of piracy and death by hanging.

Is there a link between the bones found on the island and the "African chattel" the captain needed to feed?   What possible ship could this have been?

In 1968, Block learned learned that the last known American slave ship to leave the Congo River in Mar. 1865 was the Huntress, a topsail hermaphrodite schooner with a capacity of 200 slaves. Hence since the voyage from the Congo River of Africa to Louisiana would require over 2 months.   This would have put the ship in the Mermentau around the same time.  According to Block:
It intrigued me whether or not the slave ship in the Mermentau might have been the Huntress.
Other records show that a Huntress type vessel landed a cargo of enslaved men and women in Cuba in 1864.  If so, without a doubt the shackled and starving Africans on Skull Island died quickly, abetted by the countless mosquito bites, and perhaps they were eaten by the numerous black panthers, which frequented the sea cane marshes around Grand Chenier during Civil War days.  

For decades the site of Skull Island was avoided like the plague by the sailors who plied Mermentau River on the schooners and steamboats. And many superstitious people often repeated tales around the camp fires, that during a full moon  the slave ghosts  danced under the live oak trees on the marsh Chenier. And surely there is no greater tale of bestiality—of man’s inhumanity to man—than the story of those unfortunate Africans who died on that island.

NOTE: The material from this article came from W.T. Block's website.

  1. http://www.wtblock.com/wtblockjr/skull_island.htm

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Should Acadiana have been in Texas?

Vermilion River
Growing up in Lafayette, I can remember taking Louisiana history in school.  We learned about the 13 colonies, the Spanish, the French, and the Louisiana Purchase.    As maps were shown of the area, there was something awfully odd about the lines that mapped the borders of the Louisiana Purchase.  An immediate question that popped up was "Why is the Louisiana Purchase not including all of present-day Louisiana?" and "Why is the line so close to where I live in Lafayette?".    Even going as far as questioning "Was Acadiana even considered part of Louisiana before the purchase?"  

Later as an adult, eating at a restaurant in Carencro, I recall looking at an old map of the town hanging in a frame on the wall.  What immediately struck me as odd was off on the left side, printed in large text, "Spanish Territory" (or something similar) pointing slightly west of the town limits.  I was intrigued.

Tracking down the answers to these questions wasn't easy.  It all begins in 1682 with the French La Salle declaring all lands of the entire area of the Mississippi watershed, including the tributaries, to be named after king Louis XIV of France.  But what that exactly meant was uncertain since not even the French had explored everything that fed into the river.  Clearly, the Ohio River valley and the Missouri River valley, but the Red-White River area and the lower portion of the river was still uncertain where the exact borders lay.   In fact, no country knew the exact borders at all.

While in school, I would routinely run across maps like this one, showing a subset of south Louisiana.

Clearly, one would ponder why The Purchase's south-western border ran so far easterly into the state interior near the Gulf of Mexico.  Here's another:

As 1800 approached, the US found out that France secretly acquired the western portion of Louisiana back from Spain; essentially everything west of the Mississippi and the area around New Orleans.  When France offered it, the surprised US bought it.  However, neither side agreed on boundaries.   At the time, Spain claimed land east to the Red River.   Given so, Spain should have controlled everything west and south of the Red River... encompassing almost all of present-day Acadiana.  

The big question is: If enforced, would we have not become part of Spain and eventually Spanish Texas?   Spain could have enforced this "Mississippi watershed only" clause.  They could have fought for all of the land that technically wasn't part of the Mississippi watershed.  I never stopped to think that there were areas in present-day Louisiana that have nothing to do with the river.

The Case For the Calcasieu

No Man's Land
Between Sabine and Calcasieu
So I looked at some maps of waterways and their connections to the Mississippi. Clearly, the Sabine River was not included.  The US knew this, yet, argued for this border.  Next, we could make the case that the Calcasieu River had nothing to do with the Mississippi or the Red and even Spain argued that case, causing a strip of land to be called "No Man's Land" for quite some time.   Neither side, however, wanted to go to war over the dispute. In order to avert further armed clashes, U.S. General James Wilkinson and Spanish Lt. Col. Simón de Herrera, the two military commanders in the region, signed an agreement declaring the disputed territory Neutral Ground. Between 1806 and 1819, neither the US nor Spain governed the area between these two rivers.  

This seems to be the most eastern border Spain argued over.  Luckily, maps at the time were often inaccurate and many names were used for the same river. 

The Case For the Mermentau

If we stare carefully at the Mermentau river basin, we notice something surprising as well.   It also has no natural connection to the Mississippi River.  It is composed of 4 major bayous and a host of smaller coulees that form a watershed all on it's own.   This watershed is practically on the backdoor of the city of Lafayette.  And yet, the US would have had no claim to it at all while bargaining over the purchase of Louisiana.

Mermentau River Basin
Amazingly, Spain and France never looked upon the small area as vital enough to suggest it was Texas.

The Case For The Vermilion and Bayou Teche

As we look across east, the next two major waterways are the Vermilion River and the Bayou Teche.   While the Bayou Teche flows into the Atchafalya, which was originally a tributary of the Mississippi/Red River junction, the Vermilion is allegedly a small bayou which formed up from the Gulf of Mexico.   It has no connection to the either major rivers.  This river seems to match up most closely to the line drawn on the Louisiana Purchase maps leading down to Vermilion Bay. 

Vermilion River
Spain could have drawn the line at this river, leaving present day Lafayette and Youngsville in two different states!   If this is so, what would life have been like for people of south west Louisiana as Texans?   Would we have spoken more Spanish? Would French have faded out much earlier?  Would Cajun food and Mexican food have co-mingled into something else?    What about our political history and it's Texas influence?  Surely, more Lone Star state flags would be flying in our neighborhoods.  
Lafayette Parish and the Vermilion River
It fascinates me thinking about the "would have, could have" of history.   The Lafayette metro area could have straddled two states, similar to St. Louis or Kansas City.  It could have developed into two different cities all together. Texas would have had a much larger French speaking population, including areas such as Acadia parish, Evangeline parish, and a portion of St. Landry parish.  Everything from oil revenue, healthcare, education, property taxes to our legal framework would be different for those on the west side of town.  

I can only imagine what life would have been like looking across the Vermilion and seeing a different state all together. 

Both sides of the Vermilion

While the Vermilion gets it's water pumped from Bayou Courtableau, it wasn't always the case.  Most maps show it as a river all to it's own.  Even some suggest the Teche was too. Given the Vermilion technically falls within the description of Spanish Texas territory, even the Bayou Teche could have become the frontier border with the Louisiana Purchase.  We could be living in Lafayette County instead; celebrating Texas independence instead of Bienville's founding of the territory.
Waterway Drainage
According to author and historian, Shane Bernard:
There is a letter in which the Spanish, writing in the 1750s, complain about Frenchman Andre Masse being on their "turf".  (He was on Bayou Teche.)  But because the French were in nearby New Orleans, and because France and Spain both had Bourbon kings united against England in times of strife, the Viceroy of Mexico didn't want to push the issue.  So he let Masse stay, unable to reach him because Masse sat in a sort of no-man's land claimed by both sides. 

Luckily, the border arguments remained much further west.  According to Bernard:
As best I can tell, the Spanish just grumbled among themselves that they owned south-west Louisiana, and made maps to that effect, but never actually tried to seize it.  Of course, the capital of Texas was in present-day Louisiana (near Nachitoches) up until the 1770s, but they didn't push beyond that line.
By 1819, US Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and Spanish foreign minister Luis de Onís y González-Vara signed an agreement fixing the border between Louisiana and Spanish Texas to be at the Sabine River; known as the Adams-Onís Treaty. This left Lafayette firmly in the hands of the US and eventually part of the State of Louisiana. By 1840, Texas was independent and erected an "international border marker" between Louisiana and Texas north of the Sabine.   Even then, the exact location within the river didn't become completely settled until the 1970s when both states moved the boundary from the western landfall of the Sabine River to the center of the body of water which it remains to this day.

International Border Marker from 1840 between Texas and Louisiana

  1. http://la.water.usgs.gov/publications/pdfs/TR30.pdf
  2. http://etc.usf.edu/maps/pages/2300/2383/2383.htm
  3. http://www.loc.gov/collections/louisiana-european-explorations-and-the-louisiana-purchase/articles-and-essays/a-question-of-boundaries/
  4. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/29/UnitedStatesExpansion.png
  5. http://www.loc.gov/collections/static/louisiana-european-explorations-and-the-louisiana-purchase/images/lapurchase.pdf
  6. http://www.onlyinyourstate.com/louisiana/unique-sights-in-la/