In learning recently of a 2013 archaeological dig at the colloquially termed “Spanish Fort” site on Bayou St. John, my fascination with this spot was renewed. The dig, conducted by FEMA, revealed a Native American shell midden peppered with fragments of animal bones, pottery, clay pipes, and other artifacts dating from the late Marksville period, from around 1,600-1,700 years ago.

Instead of destroying it entirely, as early colonial accounts had suggested they’d done, the French simply sliced off the top of the midden and used it as a foundation for the wooden fort they built there in 1701. The Spanish then reinforced the fort in the latter half of the 18th century, and the Americans reinforced it still further in 1808.

Although the fort never saw much military action, the piece of land it sits on has seen an astounding amount of human activity over the past 2,000 years. Throughout much of the 19th century, the site was a popular spot for picnics and swimming, boasting a resort hotel catering to New Orleans elite looking to escape the city and spend an afternoon on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.

After a fire destroyed the hotel in 1906, the New Orleans Railway and Light Company built an amusement park that drew New Orleanians to the site by the thousands. By the 1920s, activity at that crook of land between Bayou St. John and the lake began to decline when the Orleans Levee Board began their extensive Lakefront Project, “reclaiming” land from the lake in Orleans Parish and fortifying it with a sea wall.

That’s a lot of activity for one small slip of bayou bank! The site has “worn many hats,” you might say—first a shell midden hat, then three different kinds of fort hats, then a hotel hat, then an amusement park hat…. What a stylish and versatile hunk of mud! Such elaborate head-pieces!

What follows are some quotations and photographic snippets of these many layers of Spanish Fort history.

From the Library of Congress, a 1934 photo taken as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey. Look at all those layers of fort!

A notice posted by Louis Lacuna & Co. in the July 4, 1841 Times-Picayune:

The fine Hotel at the Lake end of the Bayou St. John is now ready for the reception of visitors, having every variety for amusement—Billiards, pistol shooting, bathing, &c. The Restaurant is furnished with the best the markets afford.”[1]

From Wikimedia Commons, a circa 1883 drawing of the Spanish Fort by Mark Twain (!) from his book Life on the Mississippi.

From a book written by Eliza Ripley, called Social Life in Old New Orleans, published in 1912, we have a description of the “Lake End” resort and what its fine dinners can do for a person’s femininity:

“There was a large hotel (there may be still—it is sixty years since I saw it), mostly consisting of spacious verandas, up and down and all around, at the lake end of the shell road, where parties could have a fish dinner and enjoy the salt breezes….The old shell road was a long drive, Bayou St. John on one side, swamps on the other, green with rushes and palmetto, clothed with the gay flowers of the swamp flag. The road terminated at Lake Pontchartrain, and there the restful piazza and a well-served dinner refreshed the inner woman.”[2]

(In reading this, I can’t help but wonder if that shell road was paved with shells dredged from the midden at the Spanish Fort site….)

On December 30, 1913, the Times-Picayune ran a full-page ad for New Orleans Railway and Light Co., in which the new amusement park was mentioned:

“SPANISH FORT: A historical spot situated on the lake shore at the junction of Bayou St. John. A delightful resort, operated in summer with music, vaudeville and light opera. Full of romantic reminiscence,—a beautiful spot, shaded with an abundance of trees and other shelters. In the summer there are many attractions, various amusement devices, restaurants, casinos, and ice cream parlors. An excellent electric train service from Canal and South Rampart St.”[3]

Some Spanish Fort diners in a Library of Congress photo titled “Afternoon scene of Reno’s Restaurant,” dated May 27, 1912. I love being able to see the movement of passersby just off the patio to the right….

From Wikimedia Commons: “‘Fitchenberg’s Penny Arcade’ at Spanish Fort amusement park, New Orleans, circa 1910,” photo by John Norris Teunisson.

Lastly, a rollicking description of the Spanish Fort amusement park in its later years from the Times-Picayune, June 8, 1924:

“NEW RECORD MADE AT SPANISH FORT—Popular Lake Resort Reports Heaviest Attendance in Its History—The last week witnesses a new record for crowds at Spanish Fort amusement park. Despite the rain thousands of Orleanians attended the dances at Tokio Gardens and made a round of the various amusements and concessions, including the Giant Dipper, the Dodgem, the Whip, the Caterpillar, the Merry-Go-Round, the Penny-Arcade and other attractions. As usual Emile Tosso and his concert band drew a heavy patronage….Tokio Gardens continues to be the center of attraction of the younger dancing set of the city, and any night until midnight hundreds of dancers attend. Of all the thrilling attractions at the park, the Giant Dipper seems to have the most appeal. The thriller is a mile long and is negotiated at the rapid speed of 57 seconds. Second in popularity is the Dodgem, which has all the excitement of a railroad wreck with none of the dangers. The Whip, next in choice of the crowds, is the famous ride first established at Coney Island. The Caterpillar is especially popular with young couples. It consists of riding under cover in the dark at a rapid speed in an artificial cyclone.…With the increase in temperatures many persons are finding relaxation at Tranchina’s bathing pavilion where all facilities for an enjoyable swim are at hand, including dressing rooms, towels, lockers, bathing suits and other equipment, such as slides and chutes of the finest type.…”[4]

Shooting through the darkness with one’s sweetheart “at a rapid speed”—that Caterpillar sounds positively scandalous!

From Wikimedia Commons, before the Lakefront Project extended the lake shore: “Aerial photograph of Spanish Fort Amusement Park, New Orleans, 1922. Showing intersection of Bayou St. John and Lake Pontchartrain, “camp” houses on piers in the shallows of the lake, and undeveloped (pasture) land to the south.”

There are many mysteries associated with the Spanish Fort that I didn’t get into today—like the unmarked grave enclosed by an iron fence at the site, or the unidentified Civil War submarine that was hoisted from the bottom of the bayou next to the fort over a century ago, now housed in the Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge, or the strange rock sculptures that may be associated with the amusement park of yesteryear still visible to those driving by….

If this doesn’t inspire you to visit the quiet, unassuming Spanish Fort ruins of today—in order to imagine the waves of activity the site has witnessed over the years—then I don’t know what will!

1. Times-Picayune 4 Jul. 1841: 3. NewsBank. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.
2. Ripley, Eliza Moore Chinn McHatten,Social Life in Old New Orleans, Being Recollections of My Girlhood.(New York; London: D. Appleton and Company, 1912) 63.
3. Times-Picayune 30 Dec. 1913: 24. NewsBank. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.
4. Times-Picayune 8 Jun. 1924: 67. NewsBank. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.


Lake Pontchartrain, I’ve underestimated you. Or at least largely ignored you while I’ve lived in New Orleans—and you know what, it’s my loss. There’s something somewhat static or expected about the idea of a lake. Many of the lakes in Maine, where I’m from, could very well have more interesting hydrologic histories than I was ever aware of growing up (ancient freshwater trapped in glacial scars, no doubt), but for the most part, I tend to think of lakes as bodies of water with relatively low variability. Large puddles, essentially, that one can take a kayak or a rope swing to. Primarily unchanging, potentially polluted (not naming any names), and probably mucky on the bottom.

Lake Pontchartrain, none of these things describe you! You are technically a lake, if a lake is defined as a body of water surrounded by land, but that is definitely not the best term for you. No, you are an estuary, one of the most productive types of ecosystems on the planet, thank you very much. Until recently, I thought an estuary was simply any brackish body of water—and that still may be true—but a more accurate definition of an estuary is the place where a river meets the sea, where freshwater and saltwater swirl together. That liminal place where a river is in the process ofarriving. Maybe many of you readers already knew this about Lake Pontchartrain—but I didn’t, so bear with me!

As I’ve described in a previous post, Lake Pontchartrain was formed a few thousand years ago by the interplay between a swinging arm of the Mississippi River (before it landed in its modern channel) and a relict, now-buried barrier-island chain that swoops along its southern border like a pearl necklace. Although that former Mississippi wanted to swing north, toward the center of the present-day lake, the sandy island chain prevented it from doing so and it was forced to continue on its northeastern trajectory, forming an oval of earth-trapped seawater in the process. It would have sealed off the lake altogether, but it turns out the Mississippi wasn’t the only river in town. What about the TangipahoaTchefuncte, and Bogue Falaya rivers, coursing into the lake from the north (badass rivers in their own right, boasting rich Native American histories)? They continued to empty their insides into our friend LP, and the water had to go somewhere! A river, no matter how small, must always make its way to the sea. The freshwater forced its way through the eastern edge of the lake, eventually forming the Rigolets and allowing salt water to enter in and out when it pleased. So, to say this another way: Lake Pontchartrain serves as an estuary for three very respectable rivers. When’s the last time you could claim anything nearly as cool?

Lake Pontchartrain, you aren’t just connected to those Northshore rivers and the Gulf via the Rigolets, however. You connect to the Gulf via the Chef Menteur Pass, too, and Lake Maurepas via Pass Manchac. Now you even touch the modern Mississippi herself—via the Bonnet Carre Spillway and the Industrial Canal. And, since 2014, you connect to the Bayou St. John again! The metal door that had been shut tight between you for decades is now open, at least intermittently. You remind me of a broad, shallow heart, pumping water—salty and fresh—in and out of your various pathways and conduits, continuously.

You’re a bit under the weather though, I should mention. Your wetlands are sediment- and freshwater-starved. You’re suffering, as this whole region is, from a lack of Miss River nutrients. It wasn’t always this way.

Lake Pontchartrain fun-facts:

LP touches six Louisiana parishes! St. Tammany, Orleans, Jefferson, St. John the Baptist, St. Charles, and Tangipahoa.

Its average depth is only 12-14 feet!

Its bridge, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, is the longest (continuous) bridge over water in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. It’s also featured in this 1988 ode to New Orleans, by Lucinda Williams, which is what I will leave you with….


In continuing research on the Bayou St. John’s prehistory, I’m often overwhelmed by all that wedon’t know. 2,600 years of Native American existence in coastal Louisiana—settlements blooming and disappearing according to the river’s swing; tribes and families and physical structures, knowledge and folklore and ritual, all the tangible and intangible elements of daily life—and nearly all of it erased. This emotion I experience—a kind of grief in the face of the irretrievable (I am a poet, after all!)—often results in attempts toimaginethose we’ll never know about, to see the world through their eyes for even just a flicker of a moment. Reading accounts of European explorers, however inaccurate or biased they may be, nevertheless fuels my curiosity.

Iberville’s description of a rendezvous with members of the Bayogoula tribe, for example, sends me into a tailspin of daydreams: the thrill of imagining these unprecedented moments of intimacy between humans from vastly different parts of the globe. The strangeness, for all involved, of the smells and tastes and sounds. The way neither party seemed to have words, at first, for their sensory input, and would ultimately reach for a metaphor to bridge the rupture: “They [the Ouma] gave us two types of walnuts. One is similar to Canadian black walnuts, while the other, a diminutive variety, is similar in appearance to, and no larger than, an olive.” [1] or the way the approaching European ships were often described as “floating houses” by those who observed from shore.

But the responsible poet (and budding historian) in me has to wonder: what value does this kind of inquiry have? By this I mean, what, if anything, can be gained from imagining the life of the historical other, particularly when the person doing the imagining is a white woman of privilege, a direct product and recipient of the colonial processes that erased the other to begin with? Of course, there’s the famous quote by Edmund Burke: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” The idea that history (done well) will teach us about ourselves, will help us feed the forces of compassion and graciousness within us, and not those of greed, power, and apathy. And I would argue that knowledge of the “facts,” plain and simple, isn’t enough to teach us about ourselves. We have to exercise the imagination, and therefore empathy, in order for history to matter.

But, as Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda write in their essay “On Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary,” the imagination is “a place crossed up by culture and history, where the conditions into which we were born have had their effect.” As in, the imagination is not some ahistorical, pristine realm. Is imagining the life of the other, therefore, particularly another about which you factually know very little, just another form of entitlement? There’s a fine line between empathy for the sake of learning and growth, and empathy as just another form of colonization.

In asking myself these questions over the past couple weeks, I kept coming back to what, for me, provides that extra charge, that extra surge of curiosity and thrill, when imagining pre-colonial life. For me, it has to do first and foremost with place. That’s right: I’m confessing to the imaginative use of historical others to get to the land—to imagine the landscape in all its previous permutations. That’s right: I seek to erase myself, and all I represent, in order to experience this place as I’ll never truly get to experience it; I want to be in this place before it had me in it.

I love imagining the energy stored up in a place from all that’s come before—an accumulation of phenomena, layers upon layers of energetic residue. When I first moved here, catching site of a sago palm would result in a hologram of a giant longneck dinosaur rising up before me, those prehistoric-looking plants setting off a series of whimsical visions—until I learned, of course, that this alluvial land we stand on is far too young for dinosaurs. But then learning that got me even more fired up! I mean, come on: those of us below Baton Rouge live on land the river made. The earth below us was swept into the Mississippi thousands of years ago from all over the continent. It careened down the river, exploded into the Gulf and accumulated until it rose above the level of the sea. We live in a city built upon spewed river innards—because wealth and power require permanence, require clawing terra firma from the softness. The river, therefore, has been walled up and locked into its bed. Without river sediment and groundwater, the land sinks and condenses and the wetlands melt away. I think this might explain a fascination with “pristine” nature, at least for the tiny human writing this blog post: everything, the entire planet, is changing, and we’re the ones doing the changing. And yet, as individuals, we often feel powerless in the face of this fact. And so we grasp at imagined landscapes of lush, uninterrupted swampland, and great swaths of forest filled with mammoth trees, and birdsong so loud we have to cover our ears, and roaming wild beasts, and the people who lived here before we took their land away and altered it forever.

“Having arrived at my brother’s campsite, the chief or captain of the Bayogoula came to the seashore to pay me compliments and civilities in their customary manner, which is to pause near you and rub their hands on your face and chest. They then place their hands upon yours, after which they lift them skyward, rubbing them and kissing them again. I repeated the ceremony, having seen it done to the others….After our encounter and the exchange of civilities, we went to my brother’s tent….I made them smoke, and we all smoked my iron peacepipe, made in the form of a ship with a white flag marked with afleur de lis, and embellished with beads. I then gave them a present, consisting of hatchets, knives, blankets, shirts, beads and other things valued by them, and made them understand that with this calumet I had rendered them united with the French and that we were now one nation.” [2]

1. d’Iberville, Pierre Le Moyne,A Comparative View of French Louisiana, 1699 and 1762.Trans. Carl A Brasseaux (Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1979) 55.
2. d’Iberville,A Comparative View of French Louisiana, 1699 and 1762.34.


First of all, I want to thank ViaNolaVie​ for including my bayou blog posts on their site going forward! I am honored to be presented alongside the stories of exceptional quality NolaVie consistently offers on life and culture in our fair city. I will be writing, from here on out, bi-weekly posts on what I’ve been learning while researching the history of the Bayou St. John—“field notes,” if you will—much as I’ve been doing over the past few months.

This week, I will be talking about Native American shell middens again—because they’re so incredibly cool, and because, as I learn more about the prehistory of our area, I’ve come to realize shell middens are even cooler than I initially thought….

Because, here’s the thing: we know so few specifics about Native American life in this particular region before the end of the 17th century. Between when the first European “explorers” traveled up the Mississippi in the mid-16th century and the second wave of “explorers” came to the region more than one hundred year later, European-borne diseases had already ravaged the local Native American population. For reasons we aren’t entirely sure of—intertribal warfare, and/or other consequences of French arrival—tribes were moving around incredibly quickly, and generally changing their habitation and subsistence patterns in drastic ways by 1699. But accounts by these later European explorers are the only written descriptions we have to go on: questionable vocabulary, snippets of detail about post-contact native life, and virtually nothing reliable on pre-contact native life at all. We can learn a lot from archaeological evidence, of course, but most of that has been destroyed in the New Orleans area. So, we are left to imagine….

and talk about shell middens.…

and look at the patterns that emerge when we consider the landscape. Those of us in New Orleans happen to live upon a very unique and dynamic landscape. A landscape with very specific resources and challenges—an example of what happens when an alluvial river (the Mississippi) sweeps its arm out and encloses a little circle of the sea (Lake Pontchartrain). Obviously it’s a bit more complicated than that, but my point is we live in what they call a “deltaic coastal” natural system: Lake Pontchartrain is an estuarine ecosystem, thought to be one of the richest and most diverse kinds of ecosystems on the planet, and, until we “tamed” the Mississippi, the land along and below Lake Pontchartrain was constantly moving and changing according to the river’s proximity. By considering the natural system we live in, in combination with the archaeological evidence we find here, we can make certain broad (very un-nuanced) guesses about Native American movements and subsistence habits in the region.[1]

I’m still trying to get a grasp on the different fields that explore the intersection between human history and landscape (geoarchaeology and historical ecology, to name a couple): the vocabulary used by scholars in those fields, how the fields have grown and changed over time, etc. But my heart was pounding with excitement reading an essay called “Geoarchaeology of the Northern Gulf Shore,” by Sherwood M. Gagliano. In it, one finds terms like:

“man-land relationships”

“bone beds”

“Holocene still stand”

“subsided site situations”

“drowned river valleys”

“cascades of energy”

and “fringing backswamp”[2]

Among many other things, we learn from Gagliano what it means when archaeological deposits are found on top of (vs. “interbedded” into, or foundbehin​d) natural levee surfaces: the deposits must have “accumulated after the distributary had been abandoned as an active course of the parent stream.” [3]

Meaning, when we find a shell midden on top of a ridge that was formed by a former path of the Mississippi (as in, shell middens found on the Metairie-Gentilly Ridge, for example, near the bayou), we learn that people must have lived on this ridge once it had fully matured. Meaning, Native Americans probably utilized the high ground of the ridge after the Mississippi had already swung south, leaving a mere trickle of itself behind. This trickle would have been perfect though! It would have been a great means of transportation to the overland portage that led to the current trunk of the Mississippi River, as well as to the mollusk-strewn shores of Lake Pontchartrain. The ridge would have allowed access to both brackish and fresh water, but wouldn’t have presented much of a flood risk. Also, the archaeological site that was discovered (more details to come) near where the bayou meets Lake Pontchartrain would have been an ideal coastal location as well.

If most of the middens in the area around the bayou are gone now, however, how are we sure they were ever there? Well, for one thing, we have some folks from yesteryear who tell us about them, like this guy, John W. Foster, writing in 1874:

“These shell ridges and occasional mounds are very numerous near the city of New Orleans and along Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas, and on the small bayous that pass from one into the other….Shell-mounds and shell accumulations abound along the Metairie, the Gentilly, and the lake-shores, but none along the Mississippi…. Along the banks of [Bayou Barataria] are vast shell accumulations, which for years, like the others I have named, have been used for street grading and garden-walks in New Orleans….this trade is fast exhausting these supplies.”[4]

There ya go. For years, Metairie Road was called “The Shell Road,” or “The New Shell Road,” and was paved with white clam shells quickly turning to dust beneath mule hooves and wagon wheels. They were probably the remains of shell middens, shoveled and dispersed and made smooth. (In more recent times, we dredged shells from Lake Pontchartrain for construction purposes, so not all the shells you see scattered about New Orleans are from middens, alas).

Ok—last but not least—the highlight of the last couple weeks:Jean Lafitte National Park, located south of New Orleans in the Barataria Preserve. Although I’ve been there a few times before, here is what I discovered on my most wonderful last visit:

Baby sunglasses nestled between palmetto fronds.

Cypress swamp.

Awater-hyacinth-choked manmade canal (water hyacinth is an invasive species that also clogged Bayou St. John in the 20th century). Can you spot the white building looming at the end of it? This photo was taken my pressing my iPhone against the eye piece of high-quality binoculars.

A baby alligator (can you spot it??).

Another baby alligator.

A cypress tree somewhere around 200 years old, spared (for some unknown reason) by loggers when they came through and harvested almost every cypress tree in the swamp in the 19th century.

The remains of a giant shell midden! One of the ones our friend John W. Foster mentioned in the paragraph above (“along the banks of Bayou Barataria”)!

The plaque tells us more:

I’m still pondering the importance of that oak tree. I understand that it grew on top of the midden, and then when the midden was hauled away, the oak tree stayed in place. But the oak tree was virtually alone among cypresses and other swampy flora. I’ve since learned that the state park is near (or encompasses?) another former Mississippi River course (more details when I’ve learned more) and is therefore similar in elevation to our Metairie-Gentilly ridge—and therefore has the proper soil and drainage for hardwood trees, like live oaks, to grow. But I’ve also been reading more by Tristram R. Kidder, who I talked about in my last post, and he posits a theory about shell middens actually creating their own mini ecosystems, resulting in species of flora that wouldn’t otherwise be growing there. He even throws out a theory about Native Americans actually purposefully building middens as artificial environments (as opposed to their being merely garbage heaps)—built environments that would provide elevation, as well as nutrients to calciphiles (plants that like calcium-rich soil) or other useful plants that otherwise might not grow in the area….[5]

I have much still to learn on these subjects. Don’t worry—I’ll keep you in the loop!

1. Sherwood M. Gagliano, “Geoarchaeology of the Northern Gulf Coast,” Perspectives on Gulf Coast Prehistory, ed. Dave D. Davis (Gainesville: University of Florida Press/Florida State Museum, 1984) 9; 25.
2. Gagliano, “Geoarchaeology of the Northern Gulf Coast.”
3. Gagliano, “Geoarchaeology of the Northern Gulf Coast,” 28.
4. John W. Foster, Pre-Historic Races of the United States of America. (Chicago: S. C. Griggs, 1874) 157-158.
5. Tristram R. Kidder, “The Rat That Ate Louisiana: Aspects of Historical Ecology in the Mississippi River Delta,” Advances in Historical Ecology, ed. William M. Balee (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) 157-160.


In a fluid, rockless, ever-shifting landscape—formed by the warring forces of sediment accretion and subsidence—elevation is everything.

This week, I learned about two interesting ways in which Native American involvement in matters of elevation affected the landscape of New Orleans.

Tristram R. Kidder, in his essay “Making the City Inevitable: Native Americans and the Geography of New Orleans,” talks about the idea of the “Ecologically Noble Savage.” Western thought, until perhaps recently, has consistently underestimated the ways in which Native American habits and movements affected the landscape. America, before the arrival of European colonists, was widely seen as a vast, unconquerable wilderness with which indigenous peoples lived “in harmony,” tiptoeing through the forest shooting silent arrows, leaving barely a trace. Europeans, by contrast, tamed the beast—for better or for worse.[1] However, Kidder writes, “Ecological transformations [by Native Americans] may not be quantitatively the same as those in recent times, but qualitatively they are no less real or meaningful.” [2]

One of the most notable ways Native Americans altered the local landscape (primarily the marshy parts) is through shell middens—those semi-intentional garbage heaps filled with discarded animal bones and clam shells. These raised mounds “form an entirely new ecozone in the marsh” resulting in much higher ecological diversity, even in modern times.[3]Perhaps one of the best examples of these midden-ecozones in our area is in New Orleans East, where archaeological sites near Lake Pontchartrain have resulted in stands of live oak, cypress, hackberry, and willows trees in an otherwise entirely flat brackish expanse.Kidder also mentions shell middens once found along the Metairie-Gentilly ridge (site of our beloved bayou), the shells of which were later excavated for paving roads and making lime. Unfortunately, Indian sites in the vicinity of the bayou have been largely destroyed by these kinds of excavations in the 18th century, or else by the urban expansion that characterized the 20th. [4]

Perhaps the most important way in which Native Americans impacted the local landscape, however, was by showing French colonists the portage route, employing Bayou St. John, from Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River—a communication that resulted in the founding of New Orleans in its present location (although there were a few other factors that went into this decision). Archaeological remains near where the bayou meets the lake prove that native people were aware of this route (if Iberville’s diary entries aren’t further proof!). Although confusion abounds as to which specific tribes lived in the vicinity of the bayou, particularly since, by the time Iberville floated into the area, much of the native population had been killed off by disease or had relocated for other reasons (not to mention recording errors!), there is no doubt their communication with Iberville regarding the portage was absolutely critical. [5]

Kidder writes, “The extension of native knowledge to European contexts is what makes Bayou St. John both a tangible image and a metaphor of the historical transformation of New Orleans.” [6] Bam.

Now, as a foil to these facts, I wish to present you with a humorous (if only because it’s so confidently asinine) window into the Mind of the New Orleans White Man, circa 1845, courtesy of the Historic Times-Picayune. Of course, it’s funny but it’s also despicable and depressing as hell.

“Lo! THE POOR INDIAN. — A few—some dozen or two—of the once powerful tribe of the Choctaw Indians, still hang about the purlieus of this city, in the neighborhood of the Bayou St. John. Near Clark’s house, at the Bayou Road, where once blazed the council fire of their sachems, now burn their cooking fires, and the smoke of their miserable huts supplies the place of the smoke of the calumet—they wander about like ghosts of departed greatness. Periodically they serenade the citizens, when they turn out in all the remaining strength of the tribe—men, women and children. On these occasions a long, bare-legged fellow beats an apology for the Indian drum; another fellow goes about, levying contributions; and the remainder, in concert, sing a kind of guttural chorus, resembling a ventriloquist’s imitation of a wood-sawyer at work. These levies are always made under the pretense that there has been a wedding in the tribe, and that the funds solicited are raised for its due celebration. Now if this be the case, we can only say that celibacy is a state of existence unknown to the Choctaws—nay, that bigamy is recognized among the tribe to the fullest extent; for we will be sworn that seven times seven within the last seven years have we seen every squaw in this remnant of the tribe, who could at all assume the character, play on these occasions the part of the bride. The whole thing, we take it, is but a way they have ‘raising the wind,’ to have ablow-out, and perhaps this device is as harmless a one as they could adopt. These remarks were suggested by seeing them going the rounds yesterday—all paint and prattle as usual.” [7]

1. Tristram R. Kidder, “Making the City Inevitable: Native Americans and the Geography of New Orleans,”Transforming New Orleans and Its Environs: Centuries of Change, ed. Craig E. Colten (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000) 9.
2. Kidder, “Making the City Inevitable: Native Americans and the Geography of New Orleans,” 20.
3. Kidder, “Making the City Inevitable: Native Americans and the Geography of New Orleans,” 13.
4. Kidder, “Making the City Inevitable: Native Americans and the Geography of New Orleans,”14; 16; 19.
5. Kidder, “Making the City Inevitable: Native Americans and the Geography of New Orleans,” 17; 19.
6. Kidder, “Making the City Inevitable: Native Americans and the Geography of New Orleans,” 20.
7. “Lo! The Poor Indian.” Times-Picayune 26 Jan. 1845: 2. NewsBank. Web. 8 Oct. 2015.


After a long hiatus, bayou posts are back! I know you’ve been waiting on tenterhooks….

After four months of more general Bayou St. John research, I am about to start focused research for the first chapter of the book—on the bayou’s geomorphic/geographic and Native American history. If anyone has any advice for me—ideas for what to read, who to talk to, etc.—reach out! I get to talk about former Mississippi River pathways, sediment deposits, pirogues, trade routes, slight-but-significant ridges.… CAN’T WAIT.

The past couple weeks, I’ve been on a few bayou adventures.

I biked the almost-100%-completed Lafitte Greenway—a 2.6-mile bicycle and pedestrian trail extending from N. Alexander St., near the base of City Park, to the French Quarter.

New Orleans residents may or may not realize that the Lafitte Greenway follows the path of the former Carondelet Canal, a waterway hand-dug by slaves in the late 18th century, when New Orleans was still under Spanish control, and utilized throughout the 19th century as a commercial conduit between the bayou and the French Quarter. This meant ships laden with goods from settlements north of Lake Pontchartrain or along the Gulf could avoid navigating the Mississippi River altogether and travel through Lake Pontchartrain, down Bayou St. John and into the Carondelet Canal in order to off-load their goods at the rear of the French Quarter.

A vew of the Lafitte Greenway between the bayou and Broad St.

If you ever wondered where old New Orleans stoplights ended up….

The open canal that runs between Broad Street and the bayou, positively gushing as it exits the Broad St. pumping station. Doesn’t it look almost turquoise? Don’t let that fool you. It stinks.

The giant locks at the Broad St. pumping station that control whether water flows up the underground culvert beneath Broad St., or else out to the Orleans outfall canal, via the open canal along the greenway.

There is much more I could (and WILL, in the book) say about the Carondelet Canal. But for now: there is a fabulous (free!) exhibit at the Pitot House on the history of the Carondelet Canal, curated by the Louisiana Landmarks Society, in celebration of the opening of the Lafitte Greenway. So many beautiful old maps and photographs!!! It is both succinct and intensely interesting. I HIGHLY recommend it.

After biking the greenway, I checked out the historic Ossorno House in the Quarter, at 913 Governor Nicholls.

This house was built on the Bayou St. John sometime before 1781 and apparently dismantled and transported, most likely via mule and cart, along Bayou Road to its present location—as were all goods traveling from the bayou to the Quarter before the Carondelet Canal was dug. According to geographic historian Richard Campanella (one of my heroes), in his Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics Before the Storm, the house is a fine example of a French Creole-style plantation house (although the roof was remodeled sometime in the 1830s)—one of only two plantation-style houses to be found in the French Quarter (the other being Madame John’s Legacy)—which testifies to its rural birth on the bayou. Campanella tells us it’s “the oldest extant structure in the rear of the original city” (106).

I then decided to bike the approximate path of this all-important route along Bayou Road, one of the principal reasons why New Orleans was founded where it was (for access to the river without having to navigate its mouth, as was mentioned above).

In traveling along the (approximate) portage route, one follows Bayou Road, which ends at the crazy, navigationally-nightmarish, odd-angled intersection of Bayou Road, N. Dorgenois, Desoto, Bell, and Kerlerec streets (thank god there’s delicious food right there, at Pagoda Cafe, for the weary, confused traveler) and continues along Bell Street (approximately) to the bayou. The exact location of the original route’s intersection with the bayou was probably somewhere between Bell St. and Desoto (more on this once I continue more in-depth research on the subject).

This terrible panoramic photo (thanks iPhone!) taken from next to Pagoda Cafe, while inaccurate in perspective, I think does justice to the psychological experience of navigating this intersection….

While in this neighborhood, I found…

A historic cornstalk fence at the historic (1870) Dufour-Plassan House.

The approximate general region where Almonaster built a leper hospital in the late 18th century.

An awkward spot where Barracks Street and Bayou Road diverge at a bizarre angle, since Bayou Road does not adhere to the grid plan the rest of the streets in the area adhere to—following, as it does, a natural ridge, the one the Native Americans used to cross the uncrossable swamp between the bayou and what is now the French Quarter.

Finally, I arrived at the bayou itself. Here are a few spots of interest along its banks, a couple of which I was lucky enough to get to go inside of (!!), courtesy of the generous, unsuspecting homeowners I found busying themselves in their front yards.

The house, at 1222 Moss Street, that sits atop what was once a small bayou connecting Bayou St. John and Bayou Sauvage, long since filled in.

What is referred to as “the old Spanish custom house,” although it never officially served as a custom house (there are various theories as to why people refer to it as such). I was lucky enough to get an in-depth tour of the inside of this home (!!!), the owner of which has been painstakingly renovating it for six years. Beneath layers and layers of renovations that have been done over the past two and a half centuries, he has made some amazing discoveries—like anactual iron jail cell, apparently dating from the Spanish colonial period, that the current owner suspects was used to hold folks who were smuggling illegal goods up the bayou, or who perhaps couldn’t pay the toll. ARE YOU KIDDING THAT’S AMAZING.

Below is the plaque that explains a bit more about the house.


Roses that someone had flung into the bayou near the Magnolia Bridge.

And, last but certainly not least, what is perhaps my favorite historic house along the bayou, built in the last decade of the 18th century: “The Sanctuary.” Walter Parker, former mayor of New Orleans, who spearheaded the “beautification” of the bayou in the 1920s and 1930s and who is therefore responsible, in large part, for the bayou as we know it today, once lived in this house. I wasalsolucky enough to be able to see the back courtyard of this home—guarded by a three-hundred-year-old live oak tree that predates the house, and other amazing, old, beautiful things. More on this house, and its many previous owners, to come.