1698 Prelude Part V

Dear readers,

Below is the penultimate entry in this seemingly endless coverage of that area, called by the Native Americans, Brubancha – the land of many tongues. We call this area home, or to be less trite – the Greater New Orleans area, La Ile d’Orleans, including SE Louisiana and the Gulf Coast to Pensacola. There is only one more entry, to be posted in the next fortnight or so. Thanks for your patience.

And now Part V – Another well-established concept, generally accepted among scholars and the general public, holds that Native Americans are one with the lands they inhabit. Unlike the Euro-Americans who hold political power on the American continents today, there is an almost mystical bond between American geographical land-forms and the original Americans. The original Louisiana natives wandered the Gulf Coast between Mobile and the Mississippi Delta. One focus of these wanderings was shown to the LeMoyne brothers only two days after they had entered the great river from its mouth. A Bayougoula guide showed Iberville and Bienville a portage from the river to a bayou. That bayou, later called St. John, was a native shortcut from the Mississippi to the Gulf Coast. It was to become a crucial element in the establishment of New Orleans. In the seventeenth century, the local Natives made great use of Bayou St. John (called Tchoupic by the Indians) and its associated streams, namely the Tchoupitoulas and Sauvage bayous, to travel through the swamps between river and lake, and to fish and hunt along their banks. The bayous brought river and lake together, and the final tie that bound the region into one was the portage. What would those long- gone Indians – who showed Iberville and Bienville the portage from the river to the bayou, who helped the French survive, who understood the land and it properties – think of today’s magic city that arose along that fateful passage?

Bayous, Lakes and Swamps

The lands and waters of the Ile d’Orleans defined the existence the first French settlers as well as that of the Native Americans. New Orleans is where it is for one main reason, the Bayou St. John. Today, the bayou is a picturesque waterway gracing Mid-City and gently winding north along City Park’s eastern border to the Lake. In the late 1600’s, however, it was a major thoroughfare for natives and settlers alike. Now a recreational spot, where one can find, on any given day, a few fishermen along its banks, or some rowing shells manned by teams of vigorous youths, and occasionally, a small boat or pirogue being used to pass a sunny afternoon. The Bayou starts (or ends) at the base of Jefferson Davis Parkway and Lafitte St., three blocks north of Canal Street, If one follows St. Louis and Lafitte Streets towards the French Quarter, one trails along a cement canal and the railroad tracks that mark the path of the Old Basin or (originally) the Carondelet Canal. A few blocks north of Lafitte St. is the present day corridor of Esplanade Ave. Hard by the avenue is a street with the wonderful name of the Grand Route St. John. The Grand Route crosses Esplanade twice; west to east (uptown to downtown) about four blocks from the bayou, and then back again (downtown to uptown) several blocks further south. After the second crossing, it becomes Bayou Road down to Claiborne Ave., where it merges and becomes Gov. Nicholls through the Tremé fauberg and into the Quarter. These winding streets roughly mark the path of the Indian portage discovered by the Le Moyne brothers in 1699. There are many stories about this episode in the histories of New Orleans. Most of them relate that the brothers Le Moyne were shown the portage by a Choctaw a few days after their arrival at Pointe du Mardi Gras. In 1699, but as has been shown, the Choctaw country was far to the north of the river’s mouth, and it seemed strange to this writer that such a far-away native would be around to use the portage. The mystery was settled by Ms. Edna Frieberg in her 1980 work on colonial Bayou St. John (Freiberg, Edna B. Bayou St. John in Colonial Louisiana. 1980). Herein she makes it clear that Iberville’s party had encountered a hunting party of Bayougoula Indians a few miles upstream from their first campsite at Bayou Mardi Gras. It was a guide from this party that “ led him (Iberville) six leagues above the campsite where the Native pointed out the river-end of a portage path which he said led back to where the French had anchored their ships (Ship Island)” (Ibid. p.13). The portage, about 2 miles long, became the raison d’etre (the main reason) for the City of New Orleans. It was a quick connection from the river to Lake Pontchartrain and then out to the Gulf. From Bienville’s point of view (he had taken over administration of the colony upon his brother’s early demise in 1706), the establishment of the city on the river was for the purpose of controlling the river and securing it against the British and Spanish colonial powers. However, the first high ground above the mouth of the river, and the logical place to put a city would be about 200 miles upriver, where Baton Rouge is today. In the viewpoint of French colonial policy. seeking control of the mouth of the river, this was much too far from the river’s mouth to exert any reasonable control. Bienville’s problem in establishing a post downriver from Baton Rouge was the land south of Bayou Manchac. Here was a natural levee along the river backed by swamps stretching as far as one can see, a spongy no-man’s land that was not fit to hold a post. Further complicating the placement of a suitable stronghold were the endless twists and turns of the river. At the present day town of White Castle, the Mississippi makes one of its incessant loops and essentially turns eastward for the rest of its route to the Gulf. Now, instead of an east bank and a west bank, the river in real terms has north and south banks (although, for simplicity’s sake, the banks retain the titles East and West). From here to the Gulf, the north side becomes a marsh between river and lake(s), especially as it comes closer to New Orleans. Behind the natural levee on the West Bank (the south side), the land is virtually all marsh down to the Gulf of Mexico. Through these natural levees, the river occasionally cut a channel to help distribute the flow from the huge river system into the delta lands and the Gulf. These “dis-tributaries” carried the sand, clay, and silt, the trees and other flotsam that built up the delta into what is today south Louisiana. These distributaries also give Louisiana another of it’s nicknames, “The Bayou State”. Below Baton Rouge, the Mississippi punched the crevasses which became the Bayous Manchac, LaFourche, Trepagnier, Tchoupitoulas, Seignette, Bienvenue, and Sauvage (as well as many others). Bayou Manchac connected the Mississippi to the Amite River and then on to Lake Maurepas. Bayou Lafourche, of course, created Louisiana between the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya Swamp. Trepagnier, west of New Orleans, and Bienvenue to the east drained the delta into Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne. Seignette gave us Jefferson Parish. But it was the Tchoupitoulas/Sauvage Bayou that created the land that would become New Orleans.

To be continued and finished within 2 weeks. Meanwhile, if you care to learn more about the Natives of SE Louisiana, check out the podcasts, or Tripods, offered by WWNO radio, 89.9 FM commemorating the New Orleans Tricentennial. The final episode in the series is specifically about and by Louisiana Natives and the descendants of the people of Brubancha. It makes for great listening. The Tripod podcasts can be accessed at wwno.org.

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