If you take gender and race relations of early twentieth-century New Orleans and add a healthy dose of drama, you get the story of Virginia Reed and her embezzling sugar daddy, Charles E. Letten. Get ready for this one, folks. It’s definitely at least a two-parter!

First, a little backstory, as reported to us by the (white men) of the Times-Picayune. Virginia Reed appears a grand total of 75 times in the T-P between 1882 and 1909, and my goodness does the drama escalate. First, a little petty larceny, a little “lewdness” here and there:

“Virginia Reed, arrested for stealing 50 cents, was sentenced to 20 days….” [1]

“Virginia Reed…was fined $25 or 30 days for violating the ordinance relating to lewd and abandoned women.” [2]

“Virginia Reed and Mollie Robinson, notorious negro female hoodlums, were fined $5 each for fighting.” [3]

“Last Sunday night a Chinaman named Mar Shing…was inveigled into the notorious negro den, No. 114 Dauphine street, kept by the ebon nymph, Marie Davis, alias Black and Tan, and was robbed of $50 by two of the thieving inmates named Virginia Reed, alias “Long Luey,” and Carrie Knight. The former escaped and…the others were fined $5…for violating the ordinance relative to lewd and abandoned women.” [4]

Long Luey, this isn’t the last time you stick it to the man and get away with it! But that’s giving away too much of the story already.

Where were we? A smattering of mentions until 1899, and then from 1899-1907, silence. No mention of Virginia Reed anywhere.

And then this:

“Following two unsuccessful attempts by Virginia Reed, the 43-year-old negro mistress of Charles E. Letten, to drown herself in Bayou St. John yesterday morning…Letten, who is in the Parish Prison…on the charge of having stolen at least $116,000 from the funds of State Tax Collector John Fitzpatrick, made an astounding statement to the Picayune, in which he alleged that for eighteen years he had been under a mesmerism which forced him to steal the sums of money which he gave as semiweekly presents to the negress…; that under the influence of the spell he regarded the almost black, ungraceful African as not only good looking, but beautiful; that her charm for him was like ‘the pulling of an octopus;’ that despite the influence of the woman there was no effect on his home life, which continued to be ideal, not a cross word having passed between himself and his wife since their marriage thirty-one years ago; that he almost invariably went to the woman’s house at 323 Dauphine Street in broad daylight after leaving his office…; that he could feel the spell of her influence at his office, and would put the money in his pocket and take it to her, when she invariably smiled and said, ‘That is right.’” [5]

Yep! An unwitting white gentlemen, in the midst of marital bliss, was put under an evil African spell for eighteen years that had him believing—gasp!—that a black woman could be beautiful! That had him returning again and again to her doorstep with what adds up to over two million dollars by today’s standards!

Even the T-P guys sound skeptical.


1. Times-Picayune 5 Dec. 1882: 3. NewsBank. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
2. Times-Picayune 13 Dec. 1884: 2. NewsBank. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
3. Times-Picayune 2 May 1889:  NewsBank. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
4. “The Prey Secured and the Trap Set Again.” Times-Picayune 14 Sep. 1886: 8. NewsBank. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
5. The Daily Picayune 14 Sep. 1907: 12. NewsBank. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
Image info: Charles Bevalet – Fibuier, Louis (1868) Ocean World : Being a Descriptive History of the Sea and its Living Inhabitants, New York: D. Appleton & Co. from the Freshwater and Marine Image Bank at the University of Washington


Bayou St. John near Spanish Fort

As I mentioned in my last post, the number of newspaper articles on Bayou St. John drowning victims I’ve come across in my travels continues to astound me. Victims of all ages, classes, and colors; victims of foul play, suicide, accidents, and mysterious circumstances. Even a waterbody as current-less and shallow as Bayou St. John can claim lives: water is water to those who can’t swim. Or, as in the case below, even to those who can.

For me, these articles are interesting for the stories behind them. Depending on the victim, a reader might get a nearly complete story—say, if the victim were sympathetic to those doing the telling (i.e. white, male, and at least somewhat respectable). Otherwise, we might only get a glimpse: a “pink calico dress” on the unnamed woman found in the bayou in 1852, for example. Or else we might get virtually nothing. Nothing beyond a dead body and various descriptors, depending on the time period, of his or her decidedly brown skin.

Below is one of the more vivid stories I’ve come across recently. What happened to young Quincy Koy, “expert swimmer,” in his improvised bathing suit? What could account for his inexplicable disappearance beneath the bayou’s slack surface?

“Good Swimmer Drowns—Quincy Koy Attempts to Cross Bayou St. John—Feat He Had Often Accomplished, and Disappears to Death Without Previous Warning:

“Within a few feet of his home and in full view of half a dozen people, Quincy Frank Koy, an expert swimmer, was drowned while attempting to swim across Bayou St. John yesterday at 3p.m.

“Young Koy…suggested yesterday to Thomas Maher, a younger boy…that the two take a swim in the bayou. The day being almost of summer temperature, the proposition was quickly agreed to, and, putting on improvised bathing suits, the two youths walked out in front of the Porteous home [where they both lived], which is at 1054 Moss Street…and waded into the stream.…

“Then Koy announced his intention of swimming across the bayou, which is about 150 feet wide at that place. Koy had performed the feat many times, and Maher thought nothing of the announcement….

“A few feet from the place where the boys were, Theodore Grunewald’s yacht Josephine was tied up. As the boys began their sport one of the members of the crew remarked sportively:

“‘Get the boat read [sic]; there is a boy getting ready to drown.’

“The other members of the crew laughed at the joke, little thinking that in five minutes they would actually lower a boat and go to strive with their might and main to save a drowning boy.

“Koy, when he struck out across the bayou, swam rapidly and easily until he had reached the middle of the stream. Without a cry or other sign that he was in distress the boy turned over on his back, floated for a moment on the water, and sank out of sight.…” [1]

1. “Good Swimmer Drowns. Quincy Koy Attempts to Cross Bayou St. John. Feat He Had Often.” Times-Picayune 9 Mar. 1907: 7. NewsBank. Web. 20 Sep. 2016.
Image info: “VIEW OF FORT LOOKING WEST ACROSS BAYOU ST. JOHN”; Richard Koch, 1934, National Park Service employee; public domain


As many cities move toward more bike-friendly infrastructure, including our own, let’s take a trip back to the bicycle craze of the 1890s through this March 23, 1896 Times-Picayune article. Through the hilarious language of this piece, we get a glimpse into New Orleans’ troublesome roads (some things never change!) as well as the changes in women’s attire (and women’s rights) the bicycle helped facilitate:

“‘Fellow cyclers,’ said the young man of the Southern Wheelmen who makes his long-distance runs awheel regularly, ‘when you want to make a day of it it is an easy thing to do. Get out your wheel, dust it up, and then get on your togs. Oil the bearings, graphite the chain and tighten the machine all around. Now while you tighten the machine up you want to loosen yourself. Get on some old garments that are soft and hang loosely, shoes that are comfortable, and then get out and hunt up the fellow who is going with you….

‘About the roads, oh, yes, well, if you read in the papers some time ago that the commissioner of public works intended to furnish shells for the piece of road on bayou St. John [sic]…you were mistaken if you thought they were to be placed decently. I’m just telling you that great big oyster shells are scattered all over this piece of road; some of them in holes, some in the gutter and the most of them any place but where they would do good.…

‘You can’t imagine the number of young ladies that are riding now.…take yourself to a designated spot, like the parks and the lake ends, and there you find them in bundles, in all kinds of wrappers. Didn’t see a single bloomer girl. No use talking, the short skirt will hold its own here, and it’s all right as far as I’m concerned, but I don’t want to getup for a long distance ride with a girl who wears one of those skirts with plenty of material in it. It would just be a day of high wind, and it would be straight at her all the way home. You know what that means.'” [1]

Ladies “in bundles”?! In “all kinds of wrappers”?! Were they pieces of candy?? Without knowing much about the intersection between bicycles and women’s rights in the late nineteenth century, I did notice the charged language this guy used in his descriptions of women’s attire—which sent me down an internet rabbit hole to say the least. But just imagine it! Ladies in outfits like these whizzing along the bayou’s banks!

Georges Montorgueil, 1857-1933 (creator) Henry Somm, 1844-1907 (illustrator)

For more on the bicycle’s role in the women’s movement, check out this very detailed write-up. And then put on your bloomers, “loosen yourself,” and take a cruise along the shell roads!

1. “Cyclers Who Ride To Any Old Place May Find Many a Pleasant City Path to.” Times-Picayune 23 Mar. 1896: 8. NewsBank. Web. 9 Aug. 2016.


Don’t let those wind-induced ruffles on its surface fool you: our Bayou St. John doesn’t have a current of its own to speak of. Like all bayous, it slogs back and forth, and changes levels, largely according to the activity of its “parent waterbody.” Or at least the bayou used to relate to Lake Pontchartrain in this way: well-intentioned authorities blocked off the bayou’s connection with the lake nearly a century ago. That way, when storms raised the lake’s water levels, a floodgate would prevent the water from gushing up the bayou and overflowing.

But this meant the bayou’s health—and the health of its fish—suffered for decades from stagnation and a lack of saltwater. By 2014, however, the old floodgate (stuck partially-shut by rust) was removed, and a new, fully operational gate was installed. Thanks to monitored input from the lake, the bayou can boast some ecological diversity again  (maybe those saucy little ruffles are earned, after all!).

Just for fun, let’s look back and see how populated the bayou was with finned creatures, say, in 1878 or 1902.

This Times-Picayune article references one of the bayou’s many battles with polluted runoff in the nineteenth century. What resulted, in this case, was a morbid inventory of its underwater residents: “It is stated at the City Hall that the fish in Bayou St. John are dying by hundreds. The dead fish may be seen floating on the surface of the water for some distance along the bayou. This piscine epidemic is attributed to the influx of ‘gas water’ from the Orleans Canal through a break in the levee…. People who visited the bayou were surprised by the number, variety and size of the victims.”[1]

And then there’s this 1902 report of what we would nowadays call a paddlefish, caught in only 2 feet of water!

“A peculiar specimen in the way of fish was caught yesterday in bayou [sic] St. John, at a point half-way between the tollgate and Spanish Fort. It was a spoonbill catfish, the bill being fully a foot in length, and the fish measured fully 4 feet from tip to tip, and weighed about 40 pounds, yet it was caught on perch line in 2 feet of water.”[2]

So if you happen to take a swim in the bayou someday soon, don’t be alarmed if you feel something slippery slide against your leg! It’s only a sign of the bayou’s improving health, after all….

1. “City Matters. Argument Before the Supreme Court on the Anderson Case. A Decidedly Palatial Railroad.” Times-Picayune 13 Mar. 1878: [2]. NewsBank. Web. 26 Jul. 2016.
2. ”Hunting Grounds And Fishing Camps. Some Fish Around to Reward the Ardent Anglers, With Many.” Times-Picayune 21 Jan. 1902: 16. NewsBank. Web. 26 Jul. 2016.


From Wikimedia Commons: 1920 painting of Marie Laveau (1794–1881) by Frank Schneider, based on an 1835 painting by George Catlin. Source: Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans

According to historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, voodoo came to New Orleans not only as a result of the Haitian Revolution—when droves of refugees, both white and black, flocked to New Orleans in the early 1800s bringing the primary popular religion of Haiti with them—but far earlier in the city’s history with the arrival of enslaved Africans in the 1700s.

New Orleans elites in the early years of the 19th century were terrified a similar uprising might happen here. In 1817, City Council forbid blacks from congregating in large groups except in specified places at specified times. Therefore, voodoo rituals of the day had to hide from view, which meant—in the days before the city’s vast cypress forests were drained and developed—they moved into the swamps.

According to Bayou St. John historian Edna Freiberg, these policies explain why the famous voodoo queen Marie Laveau is said to have held her annual St. John’s Eve rituals along the banks of our swampy bayou. And yet, she seems to have invited everyone to come out and see it anyway!

I’m fascinated by Marie Laveau, along with, like, everyone ever, specifically because I want to know more about her success in bringing voodoo into the public (i.e. white) eye—one of the many things she is known for. What was the purpose of this? What was the benefit? I have much more reading to do on the subject, but as we near June 23rd, St. John’s Eve, I wanted to provide you with an interesting (and dated, and hugely offensive) Times-Picayune article of yesteryear describing this annual event. Part of the reason why we can read about the event now is precisely because it was open to white voyeurs, for reasons I still can’t figure out.

Was Laveau simply cashing in on whites’ need to witness what they termed a “barbaric spectacle,” to remind themselves, once again, of their ultimate superiority? Was it all a ploy, a “decoy,” while the “real” ritual unfolded place elsewhere?

In 1924, this Times-Picayune reporter wrote on the supposed history of this annual event: “This cabala of St. John’s Eve was for years a topic of discussion in New Orleans and even attracted national attention. In barbaric color and African hideousness, nothing has ever surpassed it. Thousands of curiosity-seekers, journalists, and freelance writers, who chanced to be in New Orleans at the time of this jubilee, would go out in the swamp lands after nightfall and walk through the rough paths, eager to glimpse the orgy. It is generally known that Marie LaVeau [sic] welcomed whites as this particular saturnalia and it is often remarked that it was the decoy, the real worship of the voodoo taking place at other times in remote regions of the swamp, near the shanty which has been styled the ‘summer home’ of Marie LaVeau.”[1]

For the modern-day St. John’s Eve head-washing ceremony (decidedly less fraught), head out to Magnolia Bridge on June 23rd!


1. Times-Picayune 16 Mar. 1924: 71. NewsBank. Web. 14 Jun. 2016.


If you plan to hit up Jazz Fest this weekend, you may be interested to learn about a few noteworthy events that have taken place at the Fair Grounds since its birth in 1852. Aside from horse races, the Fair Grounds has played host to a number of other…let’s say, lessexpectedoccasions over the years.

Take, for example, the circus that rolled onto the Fair Grounds infield in 1906. An ad in the Times-Picayune read: “Barnum and Bailey, Greatest Show on Earth! A Circus That Is a Circus! A University of Marvels! Glorious Peace Spectacle! Furore-Creating Auto Somersault! Sensational Bicycle Twirls!”  An article describing the circus mentions “hundreds of sleek, well-groomed horses,” “rare and curious animals,” elephants, and a “mammoth hippodrome pavilion.”[1]

Or take the mysterious “fairy garden” constructed to house the February 1911 automobile and motor-boat show in the Fair Grounds grand stand. What this magical, leafy world was intended to convey is any modern reader’s best guess, but it sounds pretty exciting—seeing as it was to boast “the most elaborate” floral decorations “ever attempted in New Orleans”:

“During the coming week the Fair Grounds grand stand building…will be transformed into a fairy garden…. U. J. Virgin has the contract to furnish the potted plants, boxwood trees and the various floral decorations which are to be the most elaborate ever attempted in New Orleans.…Hundreds of plants will be used, while thousands upon thousands of yards of wild smilax [a type of vine] will be placed to lend attractiveness.… More than 3,500 electric lights will be added.… These will be festooned in an artistic way, with the wires covered with wild smilax. Everything will be done to make the electrical display of the most brilliant order.”[2]

In May 1901, a public wedding was held at the Fair Grounds. The name of the bride and groom were withheld up until the day of the event because “a guessing match as to the first name of the bride and her age and nationality” was to go on beforehand. The wedding participants got dressed at the St. Charles Hotel, and as soon as everyone was ready, seven automobiles “whizzed up to the ladies’ entrance” and the procession made its way to the Fair Grounds, each car “decorated with flowers and colored electric lights.” There was no mention of the results of the guessing game, however….[3]

Lastly, we hear of an automobile race at the Fair Grounds in 1921. The feature event was a “50-mile match race between Bill Wade’s Studebaker, Ray Bardin’s Lexington and George Weiblen’s Stutz.” The program also included events like: “Three-mile Ford races,” “Truck tug of war,” and “High-gear slow-speed race for fully-equipped stock cars.” Twenty policemen were on hand to “keep the crowd under control.”[4]

When you’re standing in your own crowd, listening to the gospel, jazz, bluegrass, or rock music this weekend, perhaps you’ll think of some of the strange things that have taken place below your feet over the past century and a half. I know I will!

1. “Circus Comes To-Day, And For Two Days Fair Grounds Will Revel In the Sounds and.” Times-Picayune 6 Oct. 1906: 5. NewsBank. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. Times-Picayune 6 Oct. 1906: 9. NewsBank. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
2. “Fair Grounds Fairy Garden To House Automobile Show.” Times-Picayune 12 Feb. 1911: 8. NewsBank. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
3. “A Fair Wedding. An Automobile Parade to Precede the Ceremony, And the Presents to the.” Times-Picayune 17 May 1901: 9. NewsBank. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
4. “Studebaker, Lexington and Stutz Race Today in Fair Grounds Feature.” Times-Picayune 2 Oct. 1921: 71. NewsBank. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.


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.


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.


It’s not surprising that in researching historic New Orleans through the lens of its most prominent newspaper, one doesn’t hear about women very much. Or people of color, except when reporters describe their causing a “nuisance,” or their “savage” Voodoo ceremonies in the backswamp along Lake Pontchartrain.…

Really, though. One almost forgets that one hasn’t heard mention of a single female human for the past several hours of research until one pops up, usually in the form of a bayou drowning-victim, or a recent widow of a prominent man, or a woman of “ill refute.”

Sometimes, your eyes get tricked! A “she” or a “her” will pop out of the text, but it’s only in reference to a motorboat or a schooner….

Which got me thinking about the concept of gendering inanimate objects. Why are boats saddled with feminine pronouns, and often cities too? (This once struck me as kind of quaint.) Boats are built and tricked out and ridden to get from place to place—by men exclusively, or at least they used to be. They are used to make money, or are status symbols themselves. They’re often slender and sleek, but that’s probably just a coincidence. Cities were built and planned and operated by men too—and in many ways, they still are.

Here is a 1913 Times-Picayune article from my travels this past week that, aside from being comical, echoes in interesting ways the ideas above:


Charges of piracy and the wanton violation of the maritime laws of the United States are alleged in a libel and complaint personam filed in the United States District Court yesterday against Frederick W. Smith, 2906 St. Ann Street. The complainants in the case are Harry Oldstein, Morris Wise, Henry D. Friedenberg and Arthur Schmidt, owners of the gasoline motor-boat Beaver, who charge the defendant with having illegally taken possession of the vessel on June 24 last, while the boat was lying in the Bayou St. John, and sailed out to Lake Pontchartrain with a party of women on a joy ride. Libelants declare that their yacht was stocked with intoxicating liquors by the defendant, who, after breaking the headline to which she was made fast to the wharf, placed a party of women of ill-fame on board and steamed out to the lake, where all had been guilty of lewd conduct, to the great humiliation, ridicule and contempt of the owners. Damages are asked in the sum of $1,650.” [1]

She, the Beaver, was taken possession of—was freed from her tether, stocked with booze and floozies, and taken on a joy ride. The men who own her are pissed—their property and their reputations have been damaged by this interloper! They want, like, a quarter of the cost of the average 1913 house in return for this embarrassment! Such easy symbolism here, folks….

1. “Weinstein Wins Before Browne Accused of White Slavery, Prosecution Failed to Prove Bad Faith. Civil.” Times-Picayune 12 Jul. 1913: 4. NewsBank. Web. 23 Aug. 2016.


Fun fact: the historic blue-tinted bridge we all call the Cabrini bridge (above), built some time in the mid 19th century, was for many decades the bridge spanning the bayou at Esplanade. When they built a new bridge at Esplanade in 1909 (a much bigger, double-track bridge meant to accommodate streetcars, “autos,” and pedestrians, all on their way to the newly-improved City Park), they unhooked the old one from its foundations and floated it down to its present location on a barge. They originally wanted to re-erect it across from Grand Route St. John, but some engineers thought the curve in the bayou at that spot would cause problems. Perhaps some folks in the neighborhood already knew this fun fact (particularly those involved in the planned restorations of the Cabrini bridge) but I do know that, at least in the sources I’ve encountered in my research thus far, there has been considerable confusion on this point. Some even guessed that, based on old photographs, the old Esplanade bridge and the current Cabrini bridge were built to look like twins. Not so! Not so! They are one and the same.

And now, a couple of my favorite articles from the Historic Times-Picayune database from the past couple weeks of research:

September 17, 1904: “TWO MEN FOUND DROWNED. Went Bathing in Bayou St. John Near the Bridge. Locked in Each Others’ Arms. Neither Could Be Identified Up To Last Night.

Two men, whose identity remains a mystery at present, were found drowned in Bayou St. John, about a mile and a half from the Esplanade Bridge, yesterday forenoon, and every evidence points to accidental death.

The men must have gone in bathing a few days ago and one of them began drowning and his friend went to assist him. They soon had their arms locked about each others’ body, and both were drowned. Yesterday forenoon J. L. Debausque discovered the bodies and notified the police, who went out in a skiff and took charge of the remains of the men. Seeing that they were without clothing, the policemen felt the men had gone in bathing and were drowned, and after pulling the bodies away from one another, they made a hunt for the clothing. On one of the banks the clothing of the men had been piled up. There were dark and check trousers, a pink and white striped shirt, a black felt hat, a gray hat, a gray or slate-colored coat, black socks and low-quarter patent leather shoes, and a pair of button shoes. The bodies were conveyed to the Morgue, where they will be held for identification. The men had dark hair and rather dark complexions. One was about 19 years old, while the other was about 25 years old. They were big men.”

This story really gets to me. Reading hundreds of articles about street paving, garbage carts, “society events,” etc. and then coming across a story like this—

Such humanity in the detailed descriptions of their clothing.And they never let go of each other!The one who, apparently,couldswim, never let go of his friend. Or else, the one who could not swim clutched for dear life to the one who could, and brought them both down…. A story of the ultimate loyalty, or perhaps not….

And, lastly, a story of a naughty little boy who got what was coming to him:

February 18, 1909: “TAFT’S ALLIGATOR STEAK.

A boy named James Ware, residing at No. 933 North Hagan Ave., found a package on the bridge across Bayou St. John at Dumaine Street and took it home with him. On opening the bundle to his horror he found what appeared to him to be two human hands. A note included in the package only added to his horror, for it said, ‘Remaining part of this body will be found at L. and N. crossing, due south by east, near switch lock block signal.’ Inspector O’Connor turned the matter over to Sergeant Leroy, who at once reached the conclusion that the hands were really the claws of an alligator, and the mystery was solved.”

Questions: Do alligator claws really lookthat muchlike human hands? Even Inspector O’Connor wasn’t sure.

Why was there a package of alligator claws just lying on the Dumaine Street bridge, and why were they separated from “the rest of the body” stashed in some very specific, distant location?

James, James, James—I hope you learned your lesson! It sounds like you did.