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Take the map of Louisiana. Draw a line from the southwestern to the northeastern corner of the State; let it turn thence down the Mississippi to the little river-side town of Baton Rouge, the State’s seat of government; there draw it eastward through lakes Maurepas, Pontchartrain, and Borgne, to the Gulf of Mexico; thence pass along the Gulf coast back to the starting-point at the month of the Sabine, and you will have compassed rudely, but accurately enough, the State’s eighteen thousand seven hundred and fifty square miles of delta lands.
About half the State lies outside these bounds and is more or less hilly. Its population is mainly an Anglo-American moneyed and landed class, and the blacks and mulattoes who were once its slaves. The same is true of the population in that part of the delta lands north of Red River. The Creoles are not there.
Across the southern end of the State, from Sabine Lake to Chandeleur Bay, with a north-and-south width of from ten to thirty miles and an average of about fifteen, stretch the Gulf marshes, the wild haunt of myriads of birds and water-fowl, serpents and saurians, hares, raccoons, wild-eats, deep-bellowing frogs, and clouds of insect, and by a few hunters and oystermen, whose solitary and rarely frequented huts speck the wide, green horizon at remote intervals. Neither is the home of the Creoles to be found here.
North of these marshes and within the bounds already set lie still two other sorts of delta country. In these dwell most of the French-speaking people of Louisiana, both white and colored. Here the names of bayous, lakes, villages, and plantations are, for the most part, French; the parishes (counties) are named after saints and church-feasts, and although for more than half a century there has been a strong inflow of Anglo-Americans and English-speaking blacks, the youth still receive their education principally from the priests and nuns of small colleges and convents, and two languages are current: in law and trade, English; in the sanctuary and at home, French.
These two sorts of delta country are divided by the Bayou Têche. West of this stream lies a beautiful expanse of faintly undulating prairie, some thirty-nine hundred square miles in extent, dotted with artificial homestead groves, with fields of sugar-cane, cotton, and corn, and with herds of ponies and keen-horned cattle feeding on its short, nutritious turf. Their herdsmen speak an ancient French patois, and have the blue eyes and light brown hair of Northern France.
But not yet have we found the Creoles. The Creoles smile, and sometimes even frown at these; these are the children of those famed Nova Scotian exiles whose banishment from their homes by British arms in 1735 has so often been celebrated in romance; they still bear the name of Acadians. They are found not only on this western side of the Têche, but in all this French-speaking region of Louisiana. But these vast prairies of Attakapas and Opelousas are peculiarly theirs, and here they largely outnumber that haughtier Louisianian who endeavors to withhold as well from him as from the ” American ” the proud appellation of Creole.
Thus we have drawn in the lines upon a region lying between the mouth of Red River on the north and the Gulf marshes on the south, east of the Têche and south of Lakes Borgne, Pontchartrain, and Maurepas, and the Bayou Manchac. However lie may be found elsewhere, this is the home, the realm, of the Louisiana Creole.
It is a region of incessant and curious paradoxes. The feature, elsewhere so nearly universal, of streams rising from elevated sources, growing by tributary inflow, and moving on to empty into larger water-courses, is entirely absent. The circuit of inland water supply, to which our observation is accustomed elsewhere commencing with evaporation from remote watery expanses, and ending with the junction of streams and their down-flow to the sea–is here in great part reversed; it begins, instead, with the influx of streams into and over the land, and though it includes the seaward movement in the channels of main streams, yet it yields up no small part of its volume by air enormous evaporation from millions of acres of overflowed swamp. It is not in the general rise of waters, but in their subsidence, that the smaller streams deliver their contents toward the sea. From Red River to the Gulf the early explorers of Louisiana found the Mississippi, on its western side, receiving no true tributary; but instead, all streams, though tending toward the sea, yet doing so by a course directed away from some larger channel. Being the offspring of the larger streams, and either still issuing from them or being cut off from them only by the growth of sedimentary deposits, these smaller bodies were seen taking their course obliquely away from the greater, along the natural aqueducts raised slightly above the general level by the deposit of their own alluvion. This deposit, therefore, formed the bed and banks of each stream, and spread outward and gently downward on each side of it, varying in width from a mile to a few yards, in proportion to the size of the stream arid the distance from its mouth.
Such streams called for a new generic term, and these explorers, generally military engineers, named them bayous, or boyaus: in fortification, a branch trench. The Lafourche (” the fork,”) the Beouf, and other bayous were manifestly mouths of the Red and the Mississippi, gradually grown longer and longer through thousands of years. From these the lesser bayous branched off confusedly hither and thither on their reversed watersheds, not tributaries, but, except in low water, tribute takers, bearing off the sediment-laden back waters of the swollen channels, broad-casting there in the intervening swamps, and., as the time of subsidence came on, returning them, greatly diminished by evaporation, in dark, wood-stained, and sluggish, but clear streams. The whole system was one primarily of irrigation, and only secondarily of drainage.
On the banks of this immense fretwork of natural dykes and sluices, through navigation is still slow, circuitous, and impeded with risks, now lie hundreds of miles of the richest plantations in America; and here it was that the French colonists, first on the Mississippi and later on the great bayous, laid the foundations of the State’s agricultural wealth.
The scenery of this land, where it is still in its wild state, is weird and funereal; but on the banks of the large bayous, broad fields of corn, of cotton, of cane, and of rice, open out at frequent intervals on either side of the bayou, pushing back the dark, pall-like curtain of moss-draped swamp, and presenting to the passing eye the neat and often imposing residence of the planter, the white double row of field-hands’ cabins, the tall red chimney and broad gray roof of the sugar-house, and beside it the hue, square, red brick bagasse-burner, into which, during tire grinding season, the residuum of crushed sugar-cane passes unceasingly day and night, and is consumed with the smoke and glare of a conflagration.
Even when the forests close in upon the banks of the stream there is a wild and solemn beauty in the shifting scene which appeals to the imagination with special strength when the cool morning lights or the warmer glows of evening impart the colors of the atmosphere to the surrounding wilderness, and to the glassy waters of the narrow and tortuous bayous that move among its shadows. In the last hour of day, those scenes are often illuminated with an extraordinary splendor. From tile boughs of the dark, broad-spreading live-oak, and the phantom-like arms of lofty cypresses, the long, motionless pendants of pale gray moss point down to their inverted images in the unruffled waters beneath them. Nothing breaks the wide-spread silence. The light of the declining sun at one moment brightens the tops of the cypresses, at another glows like a furnace behind their black branches, or, as the voyager reaches a western turn of the bayou, swings slowly round, and broadens down in dazzling crimsons and purples upon the mirror of the stream. Now and then, from out some hazy shadow, a heron, white or blue, takes silent flight, an alligator crossing the stream sends out long, tinted bars of widening ripple, or on some high, fire-blackened tree a flock of roosting vultures, silhouetted on the sky, linger with half-opened, unwilling wing, and flap away by ones and twos until the tree is bare. Should the traveller descry, first as a mote intensely black in the midst of the brilliancy that overspreads the water, and by-and-by revealing itself in true outline and proportion as a small canoe containing two men, whose weight seems about to engulf it, and by whose paddle strokes it is impelled with such evenness and speed that a long, glassy wave gleams continually at either side a full inch higher than the edge of the boat, lie will have before him a picture of nature and human life that might have been seen at any time since the French fathers of the Louisiana Creoles colonized the Delta.
Near the southeastern limit of this region is the spot where these ancestors first struck permanent root, and the growth of this peculiar and interesting civilization began.