Monday, August 7, 2023

Bayou Chicot History Part 7

Why look back?  What is important about spending time on the history of a little village that barely exists anymore?

Because if its story isn't told and passed down, then future generations never know.  History can be so quickly and easily lost and when that happens, what brought each of us to whatever point we find ourselves, becomes insignificant.

We must never allow that to happen.  Even in telling the story of family, a tiny village and a church in Evangeline Parish, we find significance and meaning.  It is all part of our story.

Before we can appreciate the history of Bayou Chicot, located in the south-central part of Louisiana, we need to first remind ourselves of how Louisiana came to be.  It is one of the most fascinating stories of any state in the union and why Louisiana is probably the most culturally diverse state in the union.

The Spanish were the first to venture into the Mississippi River region.  An overland expedition in 1542 by Hernando de Soto, was the first European confirmation discovery of the mighty river; however, hostile climate, wildlife, and geography convinced Spain to look elsewhere for the precious metals and fertile soils they were seeking.

This whole area was ignored for nearly one and a half centuries until France's King Louis XIV, the "Sun King," began encouraging exploration of the Mississippi River in order to enlarge his own empire and stop Britain's and Spain's expansion.  In 1682, Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, reached the river's mouth and proclaimed possession of the river and all the lands drained by it for France.  He named this vast expanse "Louisiane," or "Louis' land."

In 1718 the city of New Orleans was founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville on a narrow strip of land at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

France governed the territory until 1763 when it turned Louisiana over to Spain.  It was a Roman Catholic colony with a close relationship between church and state, priests, and politicians.  They were the prevailing order at the time and continued to be well into the 18th century.

Royal policy in France and Spain prohibited non-Catholics from living in the colonies, but especially in frontier regions like Louisiana.  This resulted in much persecution as Protestants began to arrive, and much opposition in being able to establish churches.

On December 20, 1803, in the Cabildo in New Orleans, Thomas Jefferson's designee, William Charles Cole Claiborne, highest-ranking civilian official in the vicinity and General James Wilkinson, signed the transfer document giving lower Louisiana officially to the United States.  Three months later the United States took possession of the full territory, in St. Louis when France handed over the rights to upper Louisiana.  That was the Louisiana Purchase.  On April 30, 1812, Louisiana was admitted as the 18th state.

History tells us that Native Americans populated much of the land; in fact, there were many different Indian tribes living in what became Louisiana.  We know that as early as 2000 BC, there were several groups living in both the north, central and southern sections of the state.  By 1700 there were at least seventeen Native American groups living in the Louisiana Territory.

Louisiana's Indian peoples are important to all of us because they represent the original human adaptation to the diversity of Louisiana cultures. As Houma tribal leader Helen Gindrat says, "We were people before we were called 'Indians." Despite years of neglect, exploitation, and expropriation of their lands, the Indians of Louisiana have persisted.  There are still four major Tribes plus eleven State recognized Tribes living in Louisiana.

In the 1700's most lived in small and large communities and were mainly farmers and hunters.  They were also very advanced in producing products needed to survive, such as their own clothing, jewelry, tanning, building, basket weaving, weapons, etc.

During this period, emigrating colonists, Indians and Africans were among the most numerous inhabitants.  They created a three-way exchange as no racial or ethnic group dominated, though Native Americans made up the largest segment of the population.  They shared food, medicines, material goods, and building and recreational practices among the groups, even though there were times the Indians waged war against these newcomers who were threatening their cultural existence and traditions.

Now, with that background, let's look more closely at Bayou Chicot. 


The interesting history about this area was captured in a book by Miss Mable Thompson, "Looking Back - A Narrative History of Bayou Chicot."  She was the acknowledged Chicot historian, and as the Chicot Social Editor for the Ville Platte Gazette, recorded and published every time I or my sisters "journeyed" to visit our parents in Chicot and anyone else who took a trip, or entertained guests.  She was my fifth grade teacher and one of the original teachers from the early 1900's.  It was because of her and my dad's influence that I learned to love history.

Her family are direct descendants from the earliest settlers, arriving in the early 1800's.   It is from her book, my own research, and our personal experiences, that I will share some fascinating facts and stories about Bayou Chicot, Louisiana, the oldest English settlement west of the Mississippi River.  To quote Miss Mable, "There was a Chicot before there was a United States."

Choctaw Indians

According to Miss Mable, earliest records show that there was a large tribe of Choctaw Indians living in the area later known as Bayou Chicot.  Her older brothers grew up with and knew many of them personally.  They even learned their language which did not consist of many words.  The Indians were friendly to these English speaking newcomers and there is no record anywhere of any discord between them.

Her oldest brother told her the story that he and a younger brother gave their Indian friends a dozen eggs one day to make them a blowgun. This was a gun made out of  a straight­ened, hollow piece of river cane used by the Indians for hunting small game such as squirrels and rabbits.  There was a dart made of some type of hard, pointed material which plugged up the end of the shaft.  When the hunter blew into the gun, the dart was forced through the shaft and out with a high velocity.  It is said these Indians could hit their prey with amazing accuracy.

This blowgun was still in Miss Mable's family home at the time she wrote the book.  What a treasure.  By the way, she lived in the original Thompson home until shortly before her death.

The Indians and settlers worked together, sharing knowledge and food as well as friendship.  After the war between the states most of the Indians became tenants of the white people but continued to live in the woods in camps or small villages.  Most of them were living in tents and wigwams, but as more settlers arrived, the Indians also began to build houses.  Unfortunately, many also became sick and died with the "white man's" diseases such as tuberculous and pneumonia. 

Miss Mable writes of having collected thousands of arrowheads of every size and shape.  This also explains why when our dad was plowing new garden rows, he would find arrowheads.  He would delight in showing them to us and telling us stories that he had heard as a child in North Louisiana.  The story had even been passed down that we had some Indian blood in our veins and that explained my olive complexion.  Although my DNA testing showed no trace, it still can not be ruled out.

Miss Mable tells an interesting account she learned from her brothers that you lady readers might enjoy.

"The squaws usually worked very well and were busy making baskets to sell out of switch cane. They would set up a camp in the woods and sit around a fire making baskets of all shapes and sizes. Whenever the squaws got tired of a man getting drunk they would grab him, and tie his big toes with buckskin strings and tie him as high as they could to a limb in a tree with only his shoulders touching the ground. He stayed in this position until he sobered up and begged to be taken down." 

She told about how the Indians who lived around them had a keen sense of humor.  Her uncle told her that before the Indians left for Oklahoma, they started getting a lot of mail from the government.  One day one of the men who was a frequent visitor to his front porch, was holding one of these letters and reading it.  The only problem was it was upside down.  When the uncle asked him about it, the old man said "You wouldn't understand it, it's all big Indian business."

Another of her stories that was told to her by her brothers and verified by others who personally knew the Indians, regards their method of justice.

"Old Charles was the last Tribal Chief the Indians had here, and when an Indian committed a crime, he was tried by Charles, and the tribal elders, and a sentence of death was pronounced. One Indian so condemned was away west of the Calcasieu River at the time so they sent word to him to appear so many moons from the date of sentence. When the appointed day came the Indian was stood against a tree. His squaw placed her hand over his heart, the bullet pierced her hand on its way to his heart." 

Early in 1900, the government declared that the Indians were to be rounded up and sent to Oklahoma where they could purchase land.  Of course, this is what is now known as "The Trail of Tears," one of the darkest days in American history.  Some of these Chicot Indians escaped and resettled in various parts of the state.  One group settled in an area west of Chicot, near the Texas border.  This land was known as "No Man's Land," and the people came to be called "Red Bones."  More on this in another post.

How Did The Early Settlers Come To Bayou Chicot?

It is believed that the early settlers who came in the early 1700's, were English speaking, but how did they know to come to this particular part of the south?

History tells us that George Washington somehow knew of the open prairies around what is now Opelousas, La.  It is located just north of Lafayette.  Records show that men from England and Scotland had been enticed by the promise of free land to come to this land to fight the French and the Indians.  These groups were causing a lot of trouble along the Ohio River.  At some point, a group of these men met with Washington, and he evidently told them that the promise could be kept if they were willing to go south to the prairies; hadvised them to go in groups for protection.  This is possibly how the open land around Opelousas came to be settled.  Is it possible Washington also knew of the beautiful forests, rivers, sandy rich soil, wild life and fowl just thirty miles north of these prairies?

It is possible some of the colonists foresaw the fight with England brewing and left to avoid it.  We know that some early settlers returned to fight in the revolution and no doubt told others about this lush available land.  I know that is how some of our ancestors learned of the available farm land in North Louisiana and left the Carolinas, moving their families across the wide Mississippi.

One of the most fascinating facts that I found is that there seems to be little doubt that the daughter of Louisiana's first Creole family and her husband were among the first, perhaps the very first non-English, to settle the Bayou Chicot area of the Old Opelousas Post.  For those of you not from Louisiana, Creoles were people of mixed colonial French, African American and Native American ancestry.  The Black Creoles were freed slaves who came from Haiti and settled mostly in New Orleans.

Marie des Neiges Juchereau de St. Denys/Sanchez-Navarro was the daughter of the founder of Natchitoches, Louisiana, Louis Juchereau de St. Denys.  This area is still known for their Creole heritage and in fact, I knew several personally when we lived in Shreveport.  They are a proud people and rightly so, though at one point looked down upon because of their mixed heritage.  It is well known that St. Denys single-handedly guarded French interests in Louisiana prior to the founding of Natchitoches, the oldest settlement in the state.

In 1714, having blazed the Old Spanish Trail across Texas, while in Mexico, de Denys met, fell in love with, and married Emmanuela Sanchez-Navarro, who is said to be a descendant of Cortez, conqueror of all Mexico.  Their daughter, Marie des Neiges (which, in French, means "Our Lady of the Snows") was born at Natchitoches in 1734.  At the age of twenty, she was married to Emanuel Antonio de Soto Bermudez, a native of Galicia in Spain, and an officer of the Spanish king on the Texas frontier.

The story continues that as early as 1785, the king of Spain granted a tract of land at Bayou Chicot to the couple.  According to National Archives, as late as 1816, the children of this marriage still claimed property there.

Other land records indicate that this family also pioneered the first settlement at Pine Prairie or "Prairie Piniere" as it was first called.  It was at Pine Prairie where de Soto died in 1799, his wife Marie, having died two years earlier, either at Bayou Chicot or in Pine Prairie.  Their descendants are numerous in these areas to this day, represented by all Ortego families in the area of Evangeline Parish and beyond, some branches of the Fontenot and Vidrine familys, and many others.  These are common names and some of our closest friends in Pine Prairie were in this group.

No one knows exactly how Bayou Chicot got its name.  Chicot is French for "Stump" but since it was the earliest English settlement, that interpretation is unlikely.  It could have been a Choctaw word, but we will never know for sure.  Regardless, "Stump" has been the name of the school's yearbook since the beginning, and is the accepted interpretation.

Next time I will share with you more fascinating history of this part of the state.

Elizabeth "Libby" Day
Elizabeth "Libby" Day

Hello, My name is Libby. I enjoy reading good books, painting, blogging, spending time with friends and whatever my "Heart" leads me to do. Welcome to Beauty Without Within.

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