Our family calls it “La-La Day” – Louisiana Purchase/Louisiana Statehood Day, April 30 – and this year’s was a good one. My Louisiana belle was off on a sister-sister getaway but our (ahem) doc and juris-doc sons Paul and Matthew showed up for the La-La feast on a Bourbon Street balcony graced by sweet sounds from the Maison Bourbon jazz club. After a ceremonial flag-raising (a tiny Louisiana flag on a stick stuck into the tabletop), conversation turned to naming events that have truly shaped the course of Louisiana and even national history. After some hard cuts, such as Billy Cannon’s Halloween Night Touchdown Run, we wound up with 11 and when my wife Peggy checked in by phone, she added solid 12th.
Here’s the list, chronologically, from our house to yours – and remember that the site of each event deserves a visit.
Capt. Henry Miller Shreve Clearing the Great Raft from Red River, by Lloyd Hawthorne, is on exhibit at the R.W. Norton Art Gallery in Shreveport.
The history-shaping accomplishment at this famed landmark on the Bayou Maçon border of East and West Carroll parishes is not its staggering dimensions, not the millions of baskets of soil carried across the massive complex to build it, but the ability of people to make this place of incomprehensible isolation – in 1500 B.C. – into the center of a trade network that spanned today’s Lower 48 and parts of Canada and Mexico. Whatever names they used for Louisiana and its great theme park of magical bird-shaped mounds and mystical rings of ridges became household words from coast to coast. More significantly, they did what only economics and men of vision can do, uniting far-flung “relatives” and unallied political and linguistic groups into an economic and social system never to be duplicated in the remaining millennia.
The Evangeline Oak on the banks of Bayou Teche.
BAYOU MARDI GRAS
Finding the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico is tough from a 16-foot-tall deck in rough seas. Missing it had sent LaSalle to an early death in 1687, and by ‘99, Canadian brothers Iberville and Bienville were showing the same symptoms. They finally set up a base camp in Alabama, planted a flag that said “Tiger Bait” and immediately set out to find the real Louisiana.
Iberville found the “passes” on Lundi Gras and on Shrove Tuesday – March 3, 1699 – camped on the river’s east bank at a site he dubbed Pointe du Mardi Gras, at the mouth of a tributary that he named Bayou Mardi Gras. We know this first observance of Fat Tuesday included a Mass said by Pere Anastase Douay. There’s no doubt the boys cracked a keg of rum that evening and you can be sure that if there were any native girls around who weren’t already topless, Iberville’s “krewe” offered them beads!
Ft. St. Philippe (later “Philip”) rose on that spot in 1761, replaced by Spain’s Ft. San Felipe de Placaminas. The U.S. strengthened Ft. St. Philip in 1816, rebuilt it in 1841 and, with Ft. Jackson across the river, it faced Farragut’s Union armada for five days in April 1862, before his gunboats ran by to take New Orleans.
Ft. St. Philip is privately owned and not accessible by land but intrepid boaters can visit Bayou Mardi Gras by launching at the Ft. Jackson ramp. The bayou barely exists today but it remains the site of the first night ever spent on Louisiana soil by men who had come to stay and the site of a battle that changed the course of the Civil War.
From the Baton Rouge campus of Southern University, a 90-foot bluff overlooks a dramatic bend of the Mississippi River. In his journal on March 17, 1699, on his first upriver reconnoiter, Iberville mentions seeing the bluff, a 30-foot pole adorned with hides and carcasses of small game and fish at the top. The pole was red with sacrificial blood, or dye or drippings from the game, serving perhaps as a boundary marker between native hunting clans or serving as a sacrificial pole for religious purposes – or heck, maybe just as a means of drying skins. It was the distinctive rouge of that baton that inspired Iberville to name the place then and there, although settlement of our future capital city was still two decades away.
An interpretation of the Red Stick by sculptor Frank Hayden now stands on the bluff, the metal pole sheathed by metal panels like native tent wrappings, bearing words of local history.
Our first cities began as forts, such as Poste des Opelousas, and Monroe’s Fort Miro. The oldest surviving settlement in the Louisiana Purchase territory is Fort St. Jean Baptiste de Natchitoches, established in 1714 at the meeting place of the Red River (at a point that is now Cane River Lake) and el Camino Real (an ancient Spanish trail to Mexico).
The founder was Iberville’s uncle-in-law, Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, whose bronze bust can be seen on Front Street. A replica of the first substantial fort (built in 1732) was crafted in the 1970s with tools and techniques of the 18th century. It’s a dandy, with defensive corner-bastions and 10 log structures within the walls. Entrance to that State Historic Site is through a new museum and reception building on Jefferson Street.
ARRIVAL OF THE ACADIANS
La Grande Derangement of Acadians began in 1755, but their exodus would involve more than a decade of hardship before they began arriving in Louisiana in serious numbers. Here they scattered to the “Acadian Coast” of the Mississippi River and other locations, but St. Martinville, the old Poste des Attakapas, is regarded as their spiritual home thanks to its idyllic setting, its role in Longfellow’s 1847 poem Evangeline and recent establishment of the Acadian Memorial (a multi-media archive with a roster of exiles and a dramatic mural) on the bank of Bayou Teche near the Evangeline Oak and Evangeline statue.
Thomas Jefferson’s famed Louisiana Purchase bargain was struck in Paris on April 30, 1803. The final signings and transfer done at the Cabilido in New Orleans on Dec. 20, 1803. The deal doubled the size of the U.S. and marked the moment when our destiny to possess the continent became, as they say, manifest. More importantly it gave us, well, us – the Louisiana Territory (complete with Huck Finn’s river), the choicest cut – which became the 18th state on April 30, 1812.
The Purchase transfer leaves the Cabilido, on Jackson Square in New Orleans, unchallenged as the most important landmark in the vast Louisiana Territory. It was erected 1795-’99 on the site of a less impressive Cabilido built in 1770 (and destroyed in the great New Orleans fire of 1788). The Cabilido served as city council chambers, territorial capitol and Supreme Court of Louisiana until 1911, when it became he flagship facility of the Louisiana State Museum, which it remains to this day.
BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS
The brand new State of Louisiana’s role in the War of 1812 was no less significant because the Battle of New Orleans occurred after the war was over, news of the treaty-signing having not yet reached either army. Treaty or no treaty, few doubt the Mississippi Valley would have remained a British possession indefinitely, had Andrew Jackson and his army of regulars, militia and local volunteers not crushed the redcoats on the field of Chalmette that foggy morning of Jan. 8, 1815.
A replica of Fort St. Jean Baptiste de Natchitoches, built in the 1970s with tools and techniques from the 18th century.
After two centuries of speculation about the role of our pirate-hero Jean Laffite at the battle, we now have William C. Davis’s definitive The Pirates Laffite (Harcourt, 2005), (with a “definitive” spelling of the pirate’s name) which has “buccaneer” Pierre Laffite on the line at Chalmette with Dominique Youx and other Baratarians, while brother Jean was on the west bank, dispatched by Jackson to help mount defensives on the river road and at waterways around the famous Temple Mound.
The Rene Beauregard House, though not built until 1830, is one landmark at the battlepark, the other being the 100-foot-tall memorial obelisk begun in 1855 and completed after many delays, most notably the Civil War, in 1908.
THE GREAT RAFT
The prehistoric “Great Raft” of Red River, a logjam near Natchitoches that built its way 180 miles upstream, blocked every colonization attempt and scouting mission ever launched in northwest Louisiana, northeast Texas and Oklahoma. Not the least of those was the second of a two-pronged exploration of the Purchase Territory planned by President Jefferson. Lewis and Clark departed St. Louis in 1804 and did well but when Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis left the Grand Encore Bluff area in 1806 to follow the Red and map our new boundary with Spanish Texas, things were doomed from the start. Bad enough they had to detour the logjam through the overflow swamplands it had created but they were met and turned back by Spanish dragoons (already jumpy because of Aaron Burr’s attempts to sweep Texas into his own plans of empire).
Today, at the Shreveport riverfront, stands a bronze statue of Capt. Henry Miller Shreve, who aided Jackson at New Orleans, created the Steamboat Era by designing the steamboat as we know it and finally created a snagboat – a virtual floating sawmill and dredge – with which he cleared the Great Raft in 1837-’39, enabling not only the establishment of his namesake city but also settlement of the entire northwest region of the state.
A touring map, circa 1940, features the Chalmette National Battlefield.
An incredible new lock-and-dam system has now raised the river for barge traffic and a new Corps of Engineers visitor center atop the 80-foot-tall Grand Ecore Bluff, east of Natchitoches, offers a great river view and first-rate visuals that describe the locks, Capt. Shreve’s accomplishment and much more.
CRADLE OF THE MEXICAN WAR
Young Lt. Col. Zachary Taylor was ordered to Louisiana soon after the Florida Purchase Treaty of 1819. He set the Sabine River as the U.S. border with Spanish Texas and here on el Camino Real, our “Royal Road” to Mexico, “Old Rough and Ready” built Ft. Jesup in 1822. In 1845, at the outbreak of war with Mexico, the fort served as departure point for Gen. Taylor and fully half of the U.S. Army’s expeditionary force.
The “Cradle of the Mexican War” was abandoned in 1846, but its old rough-hewn kitchen (with fireplace, old butcher block and other original items) survives, a setting for demonstrations of 1840s army cooking. A museum, replica of the officers’ quarters, displays lithos of future president Taylor and his troops in Mexico and two original muskets, one percussion and one flintlock, of the sort carried on the long march to war.
Our Secession Convention began Jan. 26, 1861, at the Capitol in Baton Rouge, chaired by former Gov. Alexandre Mouton whose son, Gen. Alfred Mouton, would die near the war’s end leading an open-field charge at Mansfield.
Today the palatial Old Capitol, built in 1850 and gutted by fire during Union occupation, is preserved by the Office of the Secretary of State. It’s open free of charge and you’re welcome to sit awhile in the old Senate Chamber where the four years of our greatest hardships, and an eternity of change, began. The gravesite monument of Confederate Gov. Henry Watkins Allen on the grounds is of modest size but high enough to spot with binoculars from his plantation community of Port Allen across the river.
Speaking of governors, filmed speeches (songs, too) of several of our most colorful await you at a push-button “podium” inside. Remember, it was this building where Huey Long served as governor and faced his impeachment trial in 1929. He was a U.S. Senator when he was shot in the New Capitol and the infamous pistol of Dr. Carl Weiss, which, according to some theories, may not to have fired fatal bullet, is part of the Old Capitol’s Huey Long display.
The great film Patton opens with the general speaking to his green troops, favorably comparing their future glories to their recent experience of “shoveling [excrement] in Louisiana.” He was speaking of the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941, when we hosted Ike, Patton, Omar Bradley and a half-million soldiers, for desperately serious games designed to teach the skills of survival and, ultimately, victory.
The “landmark” in this case is the land itself. Those “war games” swept over four entire parishes but here’s a campaign strategy for getting to know the land and seeing two of the historic “camps” in a single day. Sart at Camp Polk in Leesville, now Fort Polk, where the Military Museum at Building No. 917 is filled with uniforms and weapons dating to Maneuver days and surrounded by 2.5 acres of heavy equipment, vintage and modern. POWs were confined hereabouts and original artwork by the Germans is displayed at a 1911 KCS Depot that now houses the Museum of West Louisiana in downtown Leesville.
Drive east on Highway 28 to the Kisatchie National Forest station (two miles past Gardner) for hiking maps through hills and swamplands that World War II veterans remember too well.
Follow Highway 28 east, pausing in Alexandria to read the Eisenhower/Patton marker at their “bivouac,” Hotel Bentley, then cross the Red River to the Louisiana Maneuvers Museum, 409 F St., at Camp Beauregard – training ground for soldiers since WWI and the birthsite of Louisiana State University.
The Storm of 2005
They speak of battles as the “storm of war.” This time, storms were the war and the invaders won. Once again, reconstruction has been long and bitter. The only joy has been watching neighbor help neighbor, stranger help stranger, and homes in every parish thrown open to shelter an impossible numbers of guests.
Humanity … and the virtue of defiance: days and even nights of sawing heard around our neighborhoods is a sweet and heartening Anvil Chorus of hammers from every house. One defiant bastard after another refuses to wait for anything or anyone.
Cameron and Calcasieu parishes were planning a Hurricane Audrey Memorial when Rita hit. Audrey brought near total loss of life; Rita brought near total devastation. Will the memorial now broaden its scope when planning resumes?
The Orleans Parish Coronor’s Office plans a Katrina memorial at Charity Hospital Cemetery, the burial site of 100 unidentified or unclaimed victims – a graceful counterclockwise swirl of sidewalks and hedges, the more dramatic for its simplicity – a landmark for what has become our second Grande Derangement.