The Pirates of Barataria
The following data is extracted from The Creoles of Louisiana.
It has already been said that the whole Gulf coast of Louisiana is sea-marsh. It is an immense, wet, level expanse, covered everywhere, shoulder high, with marsh-grasses, and indented by extensive bays that receive the rivers and larger bayous. For some sixty miles on either side of the Mississippi's month, it breaks into a grotesquely contorted shoreline and into bright archipelagoes of hundreds of small, reedy islands, with narrow and obscure channels writhing hither and thither between them. These mysterious passages, hidden from the eye that over-glances the seemingly unbroken sunny leagues of surrounding distance, are threaded only by the far-seen white or red lateen-sail of the oyster-gatherer, or by the pirogue of the hunter stealing upon the myriads of wild fowl that in winter haunt these vast green wastes.
To such are known the courses that enable them to avoid the frequent culs-de-sac of the devious shore, and that lead to the bayous, which open the way to the inhabited interior. They lead through miles of clear, brown, silent waters, between low banks fringed with dwarf oaks, across pale green distances of “quaking prairie,” in whose shallow, winding coolées the smooth, dark, shining needles of the round rush stand twelve feet high to overpeer the bulrushes, and at length, under the solemn shades of cypress swamps, to the near neighborhood of the Mississippi, from whose flood the process of delta-growth has cut the bayou off. Across the mouths of the frequent bays that indent this marshy coast-line stretch long, slender keys of dazzling, storm-heaped sand - sometimes of cultivable soil.
About sixty miles south from the bank of the Mississippi as that river flows eastward by drew Orleans, lies Grande Terre, a very small island of this class, scarce two miles long, and a fourth as wide, stretching across two-thirds of the entrance of Barataria Pay, but leaving a pass of about a mile width at its western end, with a navigable channel. Behind this island the waters of the bay give a safe, deep harbor. At the west of the bay lies a multitude of small, fenny islands, interwoven with lakes, bays, and passes, named and unnamed, affording cunning exit to the bayous La Fourche and Terre Bonne and the waters still beyond. They are populous beyond estimate with the prey of fowler and fisherman, and of the huge cormorant, the gull, the man-of-war bird, the brown pelican and the albatross. Here in his time the illustrious Creole naturalist, Audubon, sought and found in great multitude the white pelican, now so rare, that rose at the sound of his gun and sailed unwillingly away on wings that measured eight feet and a half from tip to tip. Northward the bay extends some sixteen miles, and then breaks in every direction across the illimitable wet prairies into lakes and bayous. Through one of these - the bayou Barataria, with various other local names - a way opens irregularly northward. Now and then it widens into a lake, and narrows again, each time more than the last, the leagues of giant reeds and rushes are left behind, a few sugar and rice plantations are passed, standing, lonely and silent, in the water and out of the water, the dark shadows of the moss-hung swamp close down, and the stream's windings become snore and more difficult, until near its head a short canal is entered on the right, and six miles farther on the forest opens, you pass between two plantations, and presently are stopped abruptly by the levee of the Mississippi. You mount its crown, and see, opposite, the low-lying city, with its spires peering up from the sunken plain, its few wreaths of manufactory smoke, and the silent stir of its winding harbor. Canal Street, its former upper boundary, is hidden two miles and a half away down the stream. There are other Baratarian routes, through lakes Salvador or Des Allemands, and many obscure avenues of return toward the Gulf of Mexico or the maze of wetlands intervening.
In the first decade of the century the wars of France had filled this gulf with her privateers. Spain's rich commerce was the prey around which they hovered, and Guadaloupe and Martinique their island haunts. From these the English, operating in the West Indies, drove them out, and when in February, 1810, Guadaloupe completed the list of their conquests, the French privateers were as homeless as Noah's raven.
They were exiled on the open Gulf, with the Spaniards lining its every shore, except one, where American neutrality motioned them austerely away. This was Louisiana. But this, of all shores, suited their best. Thousands of their brethren already filled the streets of New Orleans, and commanded the sympathies of the native Creoles. The tangled water-ways of Barataria, so well known to smugglers and slavers, and to so few beside, leading by countless windings and intersections to the markets of the thriving city, offered the rarest facilities for their purposes. Between this shelter and the distant harbors of France there could be no question of choice.
Source: The Creoles of Louisiana