A BRIEF HISTORY OF CALCASIEU PARISH
By Allie Ellender
Transcribed by Leora White
1. Something of the History of the Beginning of Old Imperial Calcasieu Parish
2. Reasons for Discontent
3. The Actual Split of the Parish
4. Something of the Parishes after the Division
Historical Background of Calcasieu
In an act of legislation of March 24, 1840, the parish of Calcasieu was formed; heretofore, it was a part of St. Landry. The boundaries of this newly created parish were: on the west, the Sabine River and Texas; on the east, St. Landry Parish; on the north, Vernon and Rapids Parishes; and on the south, Cameron Parish. This parish of Calcasieu had an area of 3,629 square miles, the largest parish in Louisiana; it is larger than the state of Delaware or Rhode Island, and for this reason the parish has been called Old Imperial Calcasieu. (1)
The history of this section of Louisiana dates back to the 18th century when the tract between Rio Hondo and the Sabine River, which was called "Neutral Strip," was under Spanish jurisdiction. (2) Then in 1797 a large grant of land was made to Jose M. Mora in this vicinity, and the country was soon filled with desperadoes from the eastern states until it became a notorious refuge for outlaws. Filibusters from Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi filled the Rio Hondo grant; quite a time elapsed before any permanent settlers ventured to take up claims in this district. One of the earlier pioneers was Charles Sallier, an Italian, who settled in Calcasieu at the beginning of the 19th century. His name is perpetuated by the city of Lake Charles. The Ryans, Perkins, LeBlues, and a number of other English speaking families settled on the Rio Hondo lands as Calcasieu was called, from 1811 - 1824. Nearly all these pioneers remained on the east side of the river. Those who settled on the west side of the river were Joseph Carnow, Hiram Ours, Dempsey Ile, Elias Blount, David Choate, Philip Deviers, Joshua Johnson, John Gilchrist, George Ower, Isaac Foster, Joseph Clark, Mitchell Neil, and John Henderson. (3)
At a latter date some Acadians emigrated from the eastern parish; so today the population is mixed, consisting of Creoles, Acadians, Italians, Americans, and Indians, or their half-breed descendants.
There is an interesting bit of history connected with the Rio Hondo that most people seldom mention. At the time that Texas was fighting for her independence, this section of the country was mostly marsh land filled with outlaws. When Texas obtained her independence, Mexico tried to insert this territory into the treaty, but Texas refused it. Mexico then tried to give this territory to the United States but she also, refused it. Mexico, therefore, was left with the Rio Hondo, her marsh lands and outlaws. It wasn’t until many years later that all three put in their claims for this territory. Why? Because it became one of the richest sections of Louisiana.
After the organization of the parish, the first court house was set up six miles from Lake Charles at a small town called Marion, but known to all of us as Old Town. About 1851 the parish seat was moved to Lake Charles, where a courthouse was erected in 1872 and a jail in 1873. (4)
The surface of the parish is nearly level and is partly covered with savannas or open plains, which makes excellent pasture for cattle, as they are covered nearly the entire year with luxuriant grasses. Originally, about sixty percent of the parish was covered with long leaf yellow pine, as the northwestern half is pine flats and pine hills. The eastern half is upland and prairie. A little marsh land and cypress swamp exist along the southern boundary and the center of the parish. All the alluvial land lies along the Sabine River and other water courses. The soil of the upland, not so fertile as the eastern parishes, produces all kinds of crop in paying quantities. The rich alluvial land produces as much cotton to the acre as the northern and eastern parishes. The chief industry up to recent years was lumbering. The heavy forest provided an almost inexhaustible supply of yellow pine. Million of dollars have been invested in the lumber industry. As the pine woods were cleared away, cattle raising became an important industry. Better breeds of stock were introduced, as well as improved methods of handling and feeding. Today the crops produced are principally rice and sugar; although, cotton, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes and some small grains are raised. Until recently fruit was not considered profitable except in the northern part of the parish. Both soil and climate are adaptable to the growth of fruit trees and horticulture is a growing industry. Some fruit crops are oranges, peaches, pears, plums, guavas, pomegranates, prunes and figs. (5)
Inexhaustible deposits of sulphur have been found in the parish; the sulphur mine of Sulphur City was one of the richest mines in the world. During the period from 1898 - 1924 there was mined 9,400,000 long tons of sulphur. Large gypsum beds exist, oil of a high grade has been found, and though none of the wells so far have been gushers, the pumping wells are paying. Gas wells have been struck south of Sulphur, but as yet, it has not been put to commercial use. (6)
The principal streams in the parish are the Sabine, Houston, Calcasieu, and Bayou Nezpique with its tributaries, which all flow south to the Gulf of Mexico.
Transportation facilities are excellent. The Southern Pacific R.R. crosses the southern part of the parish from Mermentau on the east to Orange on the Sabine River; branches of the same system run from Lake Charles to Lake Arthur, in the southeastern part of the parish; the St. Louis, Watkins, and Gulf R.R. enters the northern corner and runs southwest to Lake Charles; the Colorado Southern R. R. traverses the center of the parish east and west; the Kansas City Southern R.R. runs from Lake Charnels to Ludington on the northern boundary, a branch of the same R.R. runs southwest from DeQuincy into Texas; there are some roads of minor importance, such as: the Jasper and Eastern, the Louisiana and Pacific, and some logging roads. (7)
Lake Charles, the parish seat, is the largest and most important city of the parish. Other important towns and villages are Bell City, Canton, Carson, DeQuincy, DeRidder, Edgerly, Fenton, Fields, Jacksonville, Kinder, Lake Arthur, Ludington, Merryville, Oakdale, Oberlin, Jennings, Sugartown, Sulphur, Welsh, and Westlake.
The following are statistics from the United States Census of 1900: Number of farms, 2,594; acreage, 511,254; acres improved, 134,480; value of farms and improvements, exclusive of buildings, $2,730,400; value of farm buildings, $620,450; value of live stock, $1,204,682; total value of all products not fed to live stock, $1,517,122; number of small factories, 135; capital invested $2,613,836; wages paid, $430,880; cost of materials used, $2,097,944; total value of all products, $3,164,872. The population of the parish for 1900 consisted of 24,267 whites and 5,966 negroes, a total of 30,233 and an increase of 10,352 during the preceding decade.
Beginning of Discontent in the Parish
In the year 1900 when Perkins and Reid ran for sheriff, Reid won the election. The supporters of Perkins protested the election and carried their protest to the people; however, Reid won the election and protest and became sheriff. This, however, did not satisfy the opposition for a year later they had Mr. Reid’s books examined and found then in a very bad condition. This caused the people to raise their voices against the sheriff and even threaten to break away from the parish. (9) In 1904 came a storm which caused much property damage and the loss of many lives. People outside of Lake Charles tried to get help from the parish but had little success. Again the idea of division flamed up. To add to what had already happened we had a late winter which ruined the rice crops; when summer came the eastern part of the parish suffered a terrible drought causing the loss of all crops. The year 1905 brought on more trouble. The parish was doing quite a bit of road building, which was going on very progressively, when a mosquito plague stopped all out door work for the summer. No sooner had this plague ended than the spread of yellow fever began; this chased many of the people out of the parish and caused a shortage of workers. (10) The whole year of 1905 was nothing but set backs and depression for the parish. However, in the new year, 1906, there seemed to be a ray of hope new industries came in; business picked up; crops were good; new school buildings were built; population increased; all the political disagreement seemed to have died down; and even the parish as a whole seemed to be closer united. Someone has fittingly said, "The year 1906 was the calm before the storm," for just as the new year, 1907, began a law was passed forbidding any foreigners from entering the parish. This was a very grave mistake. Why? Because they came in regardless. Therefore, the police force had to be enlarged and such action cost the parish a great deal of money. It was, also, in this year that the taxes were almost doubled. After the taxes were raised the idea of division bobbed up again. It may be said that this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. For not only the news papers entered the fight more vigorously but also the people, as a whole, raised their voices more frequently about the matter. It was said in one paper that the sheriff not only controlled the parish but also the press. The fire of division flamed higher when Mr. Reid was arrested and tried for illegal manipulation of the parish funds but was freed because he bought off the jury by giving them cigars. (11) The fight really was underway; it seemed that it was impossible to save the parish from division. During the years 1908 - 1910 the fight grew more and more hostile. Also in these years there was a great panic; crops failed; the tariff act was abolished; which protected the farmer; the more radical blamed the panic on the men of Lake Charles, who were responsible for removing of the tariff.
As the fight for division went on, from time to time, the papers would give reasons why the parish should or should not be divided. The following are reasons why the parish should be divided. The following are reasons why the parish should be divided.
"First the history of Louisiana shows conclusively that every instance where a large parish has been divided, not only what was left of the original parish but the subdivision of the original invariably takes on new life and prosperity. While division has without exception always resulted in a healthy increase in population, material prosperity, facilities for reaching the parish seat and a general betterment of educational and social conditions. Secondly, when Calcasieu was created or carved out of St. Landry it was virtually a wilderness, sparsely settled and lacking in almost everything which makes for the betterment of conditions of the people. Today, Orleans, alone excepted, is the wealthiest, as it is the largest parish in the entire state. (sic) Thirdly, St. Landry was again subdivided and the parish of Acadia cut out of its southwestern end and what was then a stretch of countless acres of cheap grazing lands. Today it is the banner rice growing parish in the state, and one of the richest of the subdivided areas of St. Landry. Where formerly citizens had a long overland trip to reach the parish seat at Opelousas, today the parish is gridironed with rail roads and every citizen of Acadia is within a days easy travel of his parish seat, even if he travels on horse back.
Note the difference in Calcasieu. A farmer living in Sugarland for instance, wishes to attend court or examine his assessments. He must first drive overland twenty miles to DeRidder. Here he must stable his team and take the train for forty miles to the parish seat. Under no conditions or circumstance can he make the trip to Lake Charles and return within two days and it more frequently takes three days, entailing a forty mile over land trip, the expense of boarding himself and team for at least two days. Then what is of greater importance is during planting and harvesting seasons, the loss of two or three days’ time when time is of great value to him. For this reason many farmers living in the outlying districts never are able to avail themselves of the opportunity to examine their assessments and the results are often times detrimental (sic) to the farmers’ material interests. Fourthly, the parish is quite large, and a single police force would make it difficult to insure justice for the entire parish, whereas, if the parish were divided, it would have four separate police forces. It would decrease crimes in the parish; it also would aid the little man who brings charges against criminals, by relieving the congested court calendar, by lessening cost, and insuring a speedy trial. Fifthly, civil litigation is like wise rendered much more costly than it has reason to be, much to the detriment of the litigants themselves, and to a great and costly inconvenience of the parties at interest. The vast area of the parish, with its teeming population, its oil, lumber, and rice industries, naturally makes for much civil litigation and the result is the court dockets are congested and cases are continued from day to day, from term to term, until litigants living at a great distance from the parish seat are put to tremendous expense and lose much valuable time. Such cases are frequently made to most parties at interest more than the amount originally sued for. Sixthly, the isolated condition of much of the population of the parish is also responsible for a lamentable condition which can only be remedied by a subdivision of the present unwieldy parish and consequent placing of the bulk of her citizens in much closer communication with their local seat of government; thus getting the people in closer touch with current events, to the end that they become, instead of apathetic bearers of the burdens of taxation, alive, energetic, intelligent young citizens with an interest in their parish and a lively appreciation. Especially of what is best for its……and consequently their ……material, social, religious, and educational welfare.
This same isolated condition of much of the parish is also unquestionably responsible for much crime by reason of the practical impossibility of properly policing so large a territory by one set of officers. With the parish divided into four sets of police, where there is now one; sheriff’s headquarters would be consequently much nearer the sites of future crimes and therefore more quickly apprehended, which would be one of the first apparent benefits of division. Assuring to the tax-payer that full measures of protection which is granted him under the constitution by which, alas, he too frequently fails to receive, not through any disinclination on the part of the officials, but through sheer inability on their part to police so large a territory." (12)
On the other side of the fence, Anti-divisionalists were saying such things as these: unity creates strength; stay united and stand or divide and fall. They also tried to impress upon the minds of the people that a division meant higher taxes, new buildings which cost money, new officers, new clerks, and many other things.
The day of Nov. 8, 1910 was set as election day for or against the division of the Parish. When the day came, the divisionalists won.
Then by a proclamation by Gov. Sanders in 1911 the parish of Old Imperial Calcasieu was subdivided into Allen, Beauregard, Cameron, Calcasieu, and Jefferson Davis Parishes. [Actually, Cameron Parish was established in 1870; it was not part of this division in 1911. See: Historical Atlas of Louisiana by Charles Robert Goins and John Michael Caldwell, 1994]
Today, 30 years later, we see all four parishes are still in existence and are all very prosperous; it, therefore, seems that those men who fought such a hard and bitter fight did not fight in vain. Their efforts were not wasted nor their idea a mere experiment; rather, everything they said and proposed was for the welfare of the community and not for the interest of a few men who wanted to get before the public, nor for their personal welfare.
These last 30 years, that is, from 1911 t 1941, have been years where all four parishes have been working in cooperation one with the other, rather than years where each has pulled against the other. Someone has said it is due to this fact more than any other one thing that has caused all four of these parishes to exist and prosper as they have. [Note: Author cites "four" parishes here; Cameron was not included.]
Now it seems that was the wisest move that could have been made, not only from the standpoint of making the parish smaller, but for religious and economical reasons, for today these parishes have the highest ranking educational system in the state. They have the largest quantities and most prosperous resources of any part of the State. The parishes have grown, have accomplished much, have continued to prosper, and the State will know the advantage of her marked progress in each division, and praise her.
1. Fontier [Fortier?], A., Louisiana, Atlanta n. d., Southern Association of History, pp. 146 – 148.
2. Perrin, W. H. Southwest Louisiana, Atlanta 1909, Southern Historical Association, pp.121 – 169.
1. Historical Records Survey, Inventory of parish Archives No. 10 Calcasieu Parish, 1938.
2. Jennings Daily Time Record, issues,
August 7, 1901.
January 19, 1910.
February 8, 1910.
March 6, 1910.
November 4, 1910.
November 5, 1910.
November 22. 1910.
3. Lake Charles American Press, July 12, 1938.
4. Lake Charles-American Daily, March 12, 1904.
5. Lake Charles-Press Daily, August 10, 1904.
1. A. Fontier [Fortier?], Louisiana, Atlanta n.d., Southern Historical Association, pp. 146.
2. Ibid., p.146.
3. Ibid., p. 146.
4. W.H. Perrin, Southwest Louisiana, Atlanta 1909, Southern Historical Association, p. 122.
5. Ibid., p.124.
6. Lake Charles American Press, July 12, 1938.
7. A. Fontier [Fortier?], op. cit., p. 147.
8. Ibid., p. 147.
9. American Daily, May 12, 1902.
10. Daily Press, Aug. 12, 1904.
11. Jennings Daily Times Record, March, 8, 1908.
12. Jennings Daily Times Record, Nov. 22, 1910.
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