THE GEOGRAPHY OF CAMERON PARISH
(transcribed by Leora White, 2008)
Archie S. Hollister
Buch Printing Company
Geography is mostly concerned with area and space on the surface of the earth. However, in order to get a proper understanding of the nature of the surface and its origin, it will be necessary to devote some time to a study of what lies beneath the surface. We use maps a great deal to illustrate our concepts of the earth; these are very old devices, dating back to the times of the Babylonians and the Egyptians. They show various features of the surface of the earth such as land areas, seas, river, lakes, roads, towns, and other similar items.
Our primary aim in the study of geography is the relationship between man and where he lives. We want to see how natural conditions of climate and land resources will contribute to affect the lives of the people living in any given region. We are likely to meet the word “region” often in our study of geography. Think of it as referring to a more or less uniform area, whether of land types and formation, human culture, farming, mining, or other related features.
For this study Cameron Parish may conveniently be divided into two main parts which are usually referred to as Upper Cameron and Lower Cameron. A line drawn through the middle of the parish from east to west will fairly separate them. A number of minor divisions should be noted also. Their location and approximate boundaries, more or less vaguely defined, can be determined from maps.
In beginning the study of our home parish it is well that we become familiar with its size, general location, and relation to the State of Louisiana, so that we may better fit a detailed picture of a part into the general picture of the whole.
Cameron Parish lies in the extreme southwestern corner of the State of Louisiana. The Legislative Act of 1870, creating the parish, defines its boundaries as “Commencing at a point on the Sabine River on the township line dividing townships eleven and twelve south, thence east on said township line to the range line between ranges two and three west, thence south on the said range line to the Gulf of Mexico, thence along the coast to the mouth of the Sabine River, thence up the Sabine River to the point of starting.”
If you will look at the northern boundary of the parish, however, you will see that it doesn’t follow the line originally stated in the legislative act, for a few miles east of the Calcasieu River the boundary dips southward at right angles for a mile or so before resuming its easterly course. This is due to an error of earlier surveyors who laid out the township line across the state, and is repeated northward almost to Vernon Parish, along the line dividing ranges seven and eight east and west.
Cameron is bounded on the north by the parishes of Calcasieu, Jefferson Davis, and Vermilion; on the east by Vermilion; on the south by the Gulf of Mexico; and on the west by Sabine River and Sabine Lake.
In size Cameron ranks among the largest parishes; in population, among the lowest. Latest figures give the area of the parish as 1,678 square miles, or 1,073,920 acres. This is exceeded in size only by Terrebonne Parish, which has an area of 1,893 square miles. These figures include both land and water area in the two parishes. If the land area only is considered, Cameron ranks first with 1,407 square miles to Terrebonne's 1,336 square miles. Vernon, with 1,399 square miles, ranks above Terrebonne and next to Cameron. It might be remarked that the average parish in Louisiana contains 758 square miles, approximately half the area of Cameron. Going even farther, it will be noted that Cameron is larger than the State of Rhode Island. At this point, however, it may be well to stop our comparisons for certain counties in several western states are so immense that our own seems small by contrast.
Cameron is a region of mild winters, warm summers and an abundance of rainfall. Being of youthful geological formation it lacks coal and iron, but on the other hand possesses an abundance of petroleum, natural gas, salt and sulphur.
The climate is affected by the southern and easterly location, together with the absence on the north of any large body of water or chain of mountains. The low hills of North Louisiana and the Ozark mountains of Arkansas do not possess the height necessary to greatly modify the cold air masses that sweep down from the polar region.
Cameron lies at the juncture of land and sea, and since the water is reluctant to change its temperature, this tends to stabilize the air temperature. Such a climate that results is known as a marine climate; this is opposed to a continental climate which is subject to marked changes. However our climate cannot be classified strictly as marine - that would be possible only on an isolated island in the tropics - as it is greatly influenced and modified by the existence of a continental climate lying adjacent. The presence of a major body of water, such as the Gulf of Mexico, tends to produce seasonable direction of winds. (This is termed the monsoon effect.) During the spring and summer months the prevailing direction of the wind is from the southeast to the northwest, a condition that is likely to begin early in March and last well into May or June. These winds attain considerable force and may reach a height of thirty to thirty-five miles an hour. This will cause little or no damage to buildings and property, but may adversely affect growing crops, particularly corn; an unusually strong southeast wind will on occasion almost level a field of corn which is nearing the stage of maturity, causing losses ranging up to fifty percent of the expected harvest. Then the marshes are likely to be flooded with salt water, creating ideal conditions for the spawning of clouds of mosquitoes which make life miserable for livestock. On days when the southeaster blows, the fishing fleets are unable to put out and pursue their usual trade; shrimp, fish, and menhaden catches drop to zero at such times.
During the winter months the general direction of the winds is reversed, in that it blows from northwest to southeast, entirely changing the nature of the climate.
The very position of the parish, lying across the thirtieth parallel of latitude, must be considered in any discussion of the weather. Summer days are long, and the sun is almost, but not quite, overhead. The amount of solar energy received then is much greater than that received during the winter, with a consequent modification of the weather.
We must keep in mind the fact that climate is not a local affair. The climate of Cameron originates without the boundaries of the parish, and largely without the boundaries of the state. It is dependent upon the interplay of the movements of the two great wind currents previously mentioned, the cold, dry polar air mass moving down upon us from the north, and the warm, moist tropical air mass moving up from the Gulf. The frequency and strength of the former is much greater during the winter months, that of the latter during the summer months. Cameron thus is a land of warm summers and an abundance of rainfall, more or less evenly distributed throughout the year. There is an absence of any distinct rainy season as such, or any period of extended drought. Other parts of the globe enjoying a similar climate are Southeast China, portions of Australia, and various parts of South America, notably Paraguay.
The average annual temperature is near 68°. January is the coldest month with an average of 53°; July and August are the hottest with averages of 82°. These figures given are simply averages, and there is wide variation. The thermometer may 95° on a hot day in July; a couple of days later it may be in the low 70s. Again it may stand at 24° on a certain day in January; several may days later it may soar to 75° or 80°. The average date of the first killing frost occurs on December 15th, and the last on February 1st. These are averages, established over a period of years, but again there is considerable variation in these dates. The first killing frost has been known to come as early as October, and the last as late as April. Some winters are so mild that there is little or no frost; such a winter was that of 1933 when there was no frost until March.
Again we may have a long series of mild winters when low temperatures are unknown. Older people can remember back to the time with lower Cameron was practically a solid orange grove and individual trees attained considerable size and age. Since 1915, however, temperatures sufficiently low to kill such trees - 16° or less - have been more or less frequent, and at present any citrus tree is a rarity.
Average rainfall reaches 55 inches a year with the eastern half of the parish enjoying slightly more precipitation than the western. Hailstorms, occurring mostly in spring, are frequent, sleet is common, and snow is a rarity. The distribution of rainfall throughout the year is fairly even and reliable. Occasional droughts occur, but are seldom severe or long-lived.
Winds are responsible for many of the manifestations of climate. As a usual thing wind velocities in Cameron are relatively low; however, three types of high-intensity winds are known.
The most common is the dust-devil, a small disturbance of mild intensity in general, although at times it may generate considerable velocity. It is tiny in diameter, may rotate either clockwise or counterclockwise, is of short duration, and is an object of either curiosity or annoyance, depending upon the observer. In essential features it differs little from a tornado or hurricane.
The tornado is similar to the dust-devil in formation and behavior. It is infinitely stronger and more destructive. The winds in a tornado may reach a velocity of 120 to 200 miles an hour, or even more. The diameter of a tornado is on the order of a hundred yards. Within the center is an area of very low pressure, a partial vacuum, known as the “eye.” If the eye should pass directly over a building the walls may explode outward due to the difference in air pressure within and without the building. The forward rate of a tornado may be as much as 50 miles per hour. They are less frequent here than in the northern part of the state, but one will visit us, perhaps every ten years or so. Late fall, winter, and spring are the worst months for tornadoes. Winds moving up from the Gulf are high in humidity and temperature. When they collide with a cold, dry, polar air mass, the danger of tornadoes is much greater. The water spout is a related phenomenon, more closely allied to the dust-devil than the tornado. The upward movement of the whirling winds sucks up water from the sea and lakes, giving the spout its fearsome appearance. In spite of this, a spout is likely to cause little damage.
The hurricane is another matter entirely. This is a cyclonic disturbance of great range and intensity. They breed along and below the equator in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, although a few may originate in the Gulf itself. From May to October, such disturbances, beginning far out at sea, gradually assume their peculiar characteristics and move to the northwest; nearing the thirtieth parallel they begin to curve to the right, and if headed in the right direction, strike the land with terrific force. Many do not come ashore, but begin curving so far out that they go up the Atlantic, still curving, and if of sufficient force may cross the ocean entirely, reaching the western coast of Europe, greatly spent. All do not follow this pattern however. Some curve slightly, some not at all, and a few may even reverse their trend and curve to the left. One such made a complete circle in the Gulf before striking land some years ago.
The most destructive hurricane on record for this part of the coast was the one which washed Johnson’s Bayou away in 1886. This, in fact, was a double hurricane. One entered the Gulf from the Atlantic by way of the Florida Straits; the other came up from the Caribbean by way of the Yucatan Channel. Colliding off shore, they rushed inland, burying all the coast under a tremendous tidal wave, causing the loss of 76 lives. Property damage ran high; buildings, fences, crops livestock were destroyed over night, many of the survivors sold what little was left to them, and moved out to start life elsewhere, so that for a time Johnson’s Bayou could have rivaled the Deserted Village in appearance.
One of the best descriptions of a hurricane is given in Louisiana, A Guide to the State:
At long intervals strong cyclonic winds, accompanied by high tides and torrential rains, occur in connection with the tropical storms that visit the Gulf Coast from July through September or early October. These storms, which generally approach from the southeast, usually strike some part of the Louisiana coast about every 4 or 5 years; but dangerous storms, with winds reaching velocities of 100 miles an hour, occur in the State only about once in 10 years.
Certain characteristics of these tropical cyclones should be known to visitors of the coastal area. Covering an area some 200 to 300 miles in diameter, the storms rotate in a counter-clockwise direction. The wind to the right of the storm center moves in the same general direction as the storm center itself, and as the forward speed of the storm as a whole is about 12 to 15 miles an hour, it may blow some 25 to 30 miles an hour stronger on the right side of the storm than on the left. As these high winds move over the Gulf they develop swells of great size and length. The largest waves, ranging from 20 to 50 feet in height, depending on the velocity of the wind, form to the right of the storm center, and approach the coast as great swells far in advance of the storm and even against adverse winds.
A continued increase in the size of the swells, accompanied by a persistent rise in the tide for two or more days, with little or no fall at the normal hour, are the first signs of an approaching hurricane. Since the highest storm tide is produced to the right of the storm center, and since to the left of the storm there is no further rise for as much as 36 hours before the cyclone moves inland, it is possible to predict, with a fair degree of accuracy, the point at which the tropical disturbance will strike the coast. The storm centers tend to pass to the east of the mouth of the Mississippi River, and New Orleans and the Louisiana coast are thus more frequently within the less violent left-hand half of tropical storms.
A characteristic of hurricane winds is their irregular gusty nature. An observer on the right hand front of the storm center notes that the wind shifts from a southerly direction by way of the east; on the left side the shifts is by way of the west. Easterly winds of great velocity, accompanied by heavy rains, immediately precede the most dangerous period of the storm.
Immediately upon reaching land, these storms begin to lose their force, so that the southern part of the State, and particularly the coastal regions, suffer much greater destruction then elsewhere. Few manmade structures can withstand winds of 100 to 120 miles an hour and survive. The damage done by the hurricane of 1918 is typical of what one can expect from a full-grown tropical disturbance. Without exception, every school building in Cameron Parish suffered extensive damage and all but a few had to be rebuilt completely; less than 40% of all dwellings, according to rough estimates of the times, were left standing; barns, out-houses and fences, less solidly constructed, were almost totally obliterated. Giant oaks, four feet and more in diameter, had their roots on the windward side broken short off; the tree fell before the force of the wind and lay on the ground. In many cases enough of the roots were left intact to support life, and one may see numerous fallen trees which are green and growing to this day. Almost as destructive as the winds themselves are the immense tides which accompany them. Rushing over the low-lying grounds, and inundating them to a depth of 10 to 12 feet, they work tremendous havoc with growing crops, livestock, and fur-bearing animals. The hurricane usually subsides in 48 hours; brilliant sunshine follows, lighting a world that has a strange new appearance; old familiar landmarks have been destroyed, and numerous changes show elsewhere.
Not to be confused with cyclonic disturbances are certain local storms, properly called squall-line storms that accompany the approaching front of a cold air mass, and are infrequent in summer. They reach velocities of 50 to 75 miles and hour.
For a study of land formation Cameron can be divided conveniently into three parts. Along the northern edge of the parish we find a type of land called the prairies. In the south are the chenieres; between the prairies and the chenieres, surrounding the chenieres, and extending out to the Gulf we find the marshes. Each of these three types is distinct and each has had a different history.
What is now Cameron has been at various times in past ages the bed of the Gulf of Mexico; at other times the coast line was much farther south than it is today and Cameron was far inland. The sea has advanced and retreated many times over this area. Several factors have been at work in building the country as we know it today. During the periods when great glaciers covered the polar parts of the world the sea level dropped hundreds of feet exposing large areas of land. With the melting of the glaciers the sea level rose, covering the land again. When a period of glaciation drew to its close, the melting of the glaciers sent great quantities of water rushing down the river. The force of this water cut away land and rock, and the rivers brought down immense amounts of solid materials depositing them on the ocean floor, gradually raising it. However if the weight of this material became too great the bed of the sea sank beneath its weight since the crust of the earth was no longer able to support it. A sinking of the crust in one part is followed by an uplift of the crust in an adjacent part. Thus through long ages the land rose and fell and rose again, until what we call Louisiana emerged from the sea and assumed its present form. Should the present glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica melt completely the amount of water released would be sufficient to raise the level of the ocean many feet, and considerable portions of Louisiana including all of Cameron, would again sink beneath the waves.
While it is not possible to trace in detail all the changes that have occurred in Cameron throughout geologic history we can fairly well outline the forces that went into building the country as we know it today. Let us go back a few thousand years to a time when the Gulf of Mexico flowed over all the land that lies in Cameron today. The melting of the last great glacier, releasing the immense quantities of water stored up as ice, set powerful forces in motion. The rivers ran full and fiercely, and were filled with silt which they dumped at their mouths. This spread along the coast, growing thicker and thicker year by year and slowly rising to the surface. A consequent lowering of the level of the seas, or an uplift in the land, pushed the silt above the waters, and solid land appeared. We see the results of this in the northern part of the parish where the prairie region extends into Cameron for several miles.
The formation of the marshes was quite similar to the formation of the prairies. Rivers brought down their silt and floods and tides carried it into shallow lakes and bays along the coast. These gradually filled until they reached the surface and rose above it; yet so slight has the rise been that they are often submerged, and so close to sea-level do they lie that drainage is extremely slow. Another glacial period, or another uplift in the earth’s crust could well see those marshes transformed into prairie land in turn. However, the trend at present is just the opposite. The tremendous weight of the delta of the Mississippi is pushing so hard on the earth’s crust that all the land along the coast is slowly sinking, and unless that trend is arrested the marshes will again sink below the gulf.
The chenieres are certain natural formations along the coast. The word derives from the French chene, meaning “oak,” and in that language cheniere is literally “oak grove.” It is applied loosely to any grove of trees, predominantly oak in character. By the same construction cypriere is a grove of cypress trees and pecaniere a grove of pecan trees. Scientifically the word cheniere is applied only to certain land formations, whose origin and character are quite distinctive and unlike most land formations in general.
The chenieres begin at the Sabine River and may be found as far east as Lafourche Parish, though they are at their best in Cameron and Vermilion Parishes. Grand Chenier and Pecan Island are classic examples of the chenieres. In brief, it may be said that they are former beaches that through the activities of nature have become isolated from the sea by a strip of marsh.
Positive evidence of all the details of their origin cannot be produced, but a reasonable hypothesis can be built up to explain their presence. Perhaps this can be understood by considering the present beach line. Here the action of the waves tends to build up a sand and shell beach at the edge of the water. This beach is composed mostly of fine sand, but a great proportion of it made up of the cast-off shells of marine creatures that have been washed ashore. Organic matter enters into it to some extent also; pumice stones are abundant; a soft gray rock with a soapy feeling is found frequently; lumps of clay are present; there is a varied assortment of other materials thrown up by the waves. All go to make up the beach. The sand predominates however, and as all the components are loose and lack cohesion, the beach is at the mercy of the waves which year by year roll the sand further back up the slope. It is estimated that the shore line is retreating at the rate of six feet a year in normal times. 24 hours of a full-grown gulf hurricane can increase this retreat by as much as several hundred feet. As the beach moves northward it gradually increases in size, due to the quantities of material thrown upon it by the waves. It may reach a height of twelve to fifteen feet in the course of centuries. If the present action of the sea continues unhindered we may reasonably expect the beach to be driven back until it reaches the outmost line of chenieres; perhaps even until it reaches the prairies. In the latter case one great cheniere would lie between the prairies to the north and the gulf to the south, with no marsh present. Perhaps though there is a height beyond which the waves could no longer carry sand and silt; in that event the northward progress of the beach would be halted. The sea then would have no choice but to deposit its materials on the southward slope, increasing the width of the beach, or else carrying its deposits to the west. The former of these is the more likely.
We have spoken of the formation of the present beach and its slow movement northward. Let’s consider in connection with this the actions of the Mississippi River. At present it discharges into the Gulf of Mexico some two hundred miles to the east of us. Through some shift in the surface of the earth the flow could be directed to the west again as in the past ages. Then its deposits of silt and sand would be very near to us, and would be carried by the prevailing westward-setting current to our coast. If this discharge were great enough to counterbalance the erosion of the waves a marsh would begin to form between the beach and the sea, and a new cheniere would be born, which in time would assume all the characteristics we associate with those already formed. That this has happened many times is attested by the fact that the chenieres lie in parallel ridges each separated from the other by a strip of marsh. If these marshes are narrow, we many confidently assume that the period of westerly discharge was a short one, comparatively speaking, before the river swung to the east again. If the marsh is wide we may assume a very long period when the discharge was to the west.
An excellent example of the manner in which a marsh is built up by sediment brought down by the rivers may be observed at Mulberry in Vermilion Parish. Here we can see a marsh actually being created at the present time, and a former beach rapidly retreating to become a cheniere. With the opening of the Wax Lake Outlet from the Atchafalaya River into Atchafalaya Bay, that river now discharges its burden of silt much farther to the west than formerly. In addition to the nearness of the discharge, the recent diversion of a much greater flow of Mississippi River water into the Atchafalaya has increased enormously the amount of sediment which the latter stream is now carrying. The westward current of the gulf is bringing this material to the nearby beaches of Vermilion Parish, and creating the new marsh.
The older chenieres are those that lie to the northward. They are the smallest, and the materials composing them show much greater age than those to the south. The beach sands lie on the marsh superficially. At Grand Chenier the bottom level of the sand is about two feet beneath the level of the marsh. As we move northward we find that the bottom levels of the chenieres have sunk deeper and deeper below marsh level; we know that the entire surface of Cameron is slowly sinking, and has been since the first chenieres appeared. Marsh accumulations have been steadily encroaching upon the ridges, and have in many cases buried the lower parts completely. In fact, some of the oldest chenieres have disappeared entirely, and their presence can now be determined only by digging through the overlying layer of marsh soils. A canal cut across the marsh from the north to south clearly illustrates this, when the dipper of the drag-line brings up the shell of the lost chenieres.
Another unusual formation, occurring on some of the larger chenieres, particularly Grand Chenier, may be noted. If one were to walk across the cheniere from south to north, he would notice two, or three, or in some places, four well-defined ridges, each separated from the other by a shallow depression or “bottom.” Each ridge represents a separate and distinct coast line or beach. Evidently when the chenieres was in the process of formation, the Mississippi shifted its channel quite frequently, and at much shorter intervals than usual; there was not time for a marsh of any considerable extent to build up and thus effectively separate the various ridges.
While the above explanation will account for the origin of the chenieres, one peculiar feature remains to be explained. This is the tendency of the ridges to branch off from each other. We see examples of this throughout the entire region of the chenieres. The junction of Grand Chenier with Cow Island, and farther east with Tiger Island, the branching of Coon and Smith ridges on Johnson’s Bayou, the numerous points of Front Ridge where it meets the Calcasieu River, the many little ridges which branch off from North Island, from Little Pecan, and particularly those of Pecan Island, are excellent illustrations.
Let us consider for a moment, the manner in which this branching occurred. Perhaps the clearest illustration is to be found at the eastern end of Grand Chenier, where Cow Island, Tiger Island, and Lataignier, all branch off from the main ridge of Grand Chenier. At one time, several thousand years ago, there were three ridges, all distinct, and separated from each other by marsh; another marsh, perhaps of considerable extent, lay between Cow Island and the gulf, and Grand Chenier ridge did not exist at all. The Mississippi must have been discharging nearby, and the front marsh gradually growing wider. There came then, the inevitable shift and the Mississippi found a new channel to the gulf, far east of the old one. Deprived of the marsh-building material of the river, the marsh, attacked by the gulf, began to recede, and a new beach began to form and move inland. Closer and closer it came, building ever higher and wider. This new beach was Grand Chenier ridge in the making. Through some slight tilt of the earth’s crust, the new coast line and its consequent beach, did not parallel the older chenieres, but lay at a slight angle to them. This is highly significant, for had it been parallel there would be four separate ridges today. But the very fact of the slight angle which the new cheniere made with the older ones is responsible for them being joined together. In due course of time the new ridge reached the eastern ends of the older chenieres, and formed a connecting link, or bridge, between them.
The front of the cheniere, the side nearest the sea, is always the highest, and drops back gradually to the marsh on the northward side. It will be noted that the soil on the southern edge is composed of coarse sand and shell, and as one goes northward, this changes to a finer soil known as “medium land.” Farther back, the soil becomes still finer and darker, until it merges with the marsh. The transformation of this soil is the result of two separate agencies. The front or southern edges of the chenieres, being the newest in point of geological formation has not had time to experience the transformations that the presence of vegetable and animal life, and the chemical reaction of water and air with earth, have had upon the older parts. Again, much of the fine black soil on the northern slopes has been carried there during seasons when the marshes were inundated by the winter rains, and the prevailing northerly winds washed the muddy waters up onto the ridges.
So far we have mentioned only the action of the Mississippi in the creation of the land. Doubtless it was by far the most important factor, but other rivers have contributed as well. The Sabine, the Calcasieu, the Mermentau and the Vermilion have played a part, even though the combined deposits of all of them was only a fraction of that of the Mississippi. Perhaps in earlier days their force was greater. Let us consider the Mermentau for a moment. Above Lake Arthur, and particularly at the town of Mermentau, it is a small river, hardly more than a bayou. On its banks, extending back for several hundred yards on each side there is a willow and cypress swamp, barely above the level of the river; in fact in times of high water the river spreads entirely through the swamp. At the outermost edges of the swamps are bluffs, rising abruptly to a height of fifteen to twenty feet. These bluffs are the old natural levees, or banks of a great river that once cut this channel, a river half a mile wide and rivaling the present day Red River in size. Indeed it is not at all improbable that in an earlier age the Red reached the sea through the channel of the Mermentau; some uplift in land shifted its course to the eastward, leaving a streambed that the Mermentau can only partly fill. In a similar manner the Sabine may once have discharged much farther east then it does at present; the lower Calcasieu may be occupying an abandoned bed of the Sabine.
While the theories advanced above seem to furnish a reasonable account of the origin and formation of the chenieres, further study in this field is desirable. New ideas may fill certain gaps in our thinking or greatly modify the concepts now held. Much remains to be done before a complete and accurate picture can be drawn.
The foregoing descriptions will account for the formation of the chenieres, but it does not apply to certain other natural formations within the parish. West of Calcasieu Lake and lying between Hackberry and Johnson’s Bayou, there is to be found another stretch of high land which is known as Back Ridge. Clearly this is not a cheniere in the true sense. It does not have the general east-west axis, and is composed of quite different materials to those thrown up by the gulf. Very likely it was formed by wave action within Calcasieu Lake itself at a time when that body of water was much larger than it is at present. We can see similar ridges being built today on the west bank of Grand Lake, where Cypress Ridge is found, and in the northwestern part of White Lake in Vermilion Parish.
North of Grand Lake, in the Mallard Bay* area, there are numerous small islands of higher land, rising above the surrounding marsh. They are certainly not chenieres, and have no relation to them in the point of origin. It is thought that they are the remnants of old natural levees built up at a time when the Mississippi, or one of its large distributaries, flowed through this region. Another explanation is also advanced. We know that the huge salt dome underlying Hackberry lifted that region above the marsh. Perhaps the presence of a nearby salt dome may account for these islands in a similar fashion. (* This was originally known as Mallet’s Bay, taking its name from that of a certain Mr. Mallet who lived in the vicinity.)
Another group of islands in both Cameron and Vermilion must now be considered. Lying between the higher land to the north, and the chenieres to the south, some are of considerable proportions. In Vermilion, Gum Island, Grophe’s Island, Little Prairie, Outside Island, and in Cameron, Jim's Ridge, Marceaux Island, Pine’s Ridge, and the Gum Cove section are in this group. Just north of the ferry on the road from Creole to Sweet Lake several others of the same type may be observed. Others are found in the northeastern part of Cameron Parish, a few miles below the Klondike School. These islands are remnants of the prairie terrace, which will be more fully considered later. The gradual sinking of the land, and the formation of the marsh, is responsible for their presence, cut off from the main body of the terrace. They are generally low, flat, with few trees on them, and are inconspicuous features on the landscape.
Unquestionably the chenieres are the most important topographical features of Lower Cameron; certainly they are the most interesting. But their area, when compared with that of the encompassing marshes is small indeed. The formation of the marshes was concurrent with that of the chenieres. Marsh consists mostly of the sediment brought down by the rivers and again the Mississippi is the most important of these in this respect. We have seen how the westward-flowing current of the gulf, which set along these shores, has brought materials and deposited them between the beach and the gulf during those times in which the Mississippi discharged to the west. This material first appeared as mud flats, and in course of time became covered with thick vegetation. An analysis of marsh soil shows that it contains much dead and decaying matter, both animal and vegetable. While the earth’s surface is slowly sinking, the marsh is steadily building itself higher at the same rate, so that the elevation remains practically the same. The innermost marshes, which are the oldest, have had more time to develop, and have consequently become much firmer and more solid: the fine silts and clays have had time to combine with decayed remnants of life, and in some cases have developed into true peat underlying the surface.
Another interesting feature in connection with this study of land formation in Cameron should be mentioned; this is the salt dome, which, with the increased production of petroleum is more and more significant. These domes evidently had their origin in the bed of an ancient sea which subsequently disappeared through evaporation leaving a thick layer of salt upon the seafloor. The same process maybe observed in the drying up of Great Salt Lake in Utah today. In time this salt bed became covered with deposits washed down by the rivers through long periods of time. The gradual accumulation of this deposit finally reached a thickness of many thousand feet, and its tremendous weight exerted great pressure upon the salt. Under sufficient pressure salt will react in a manner similar to that of plastic modeling clay and push outward; finding a weakened place in the crust of the overlying deposits, the salt pushes upward towards the surface of the ground, in some places actually reaching above the surface as may be seen at Jefferson Island and Avery Island to the east of us.
Petroleum, natural gas, sulphur, gypsum, limestone, and traces of some metals are associated with the presence of the domes. As the salt pushes upward it thrusts up the strata of rocks lying above, tilting them at an angle, forming traps for the accumulation of petroleum. Oil companies, drilling for this petroleum, are careful to spot their wells on the outer edge of the dome where the petroleum lies.
These domes are not restricted to Cameron or Louisiana, but are found in Texas, Mexico, Iran, Poland, Russia, and many other parts of the world. For thousands of years the Chinese have obtained their supplies of salt from such domes, and in the process have sunk their wells many hundreds of feet with crude machinery in order to bring up the salt from lower depths.
When the salt domes are mentioned someone is likely to bring up the question of the so-called gas mounds found so abundantly in the northern part of the parish, although there is no connection between the two. It has been stated before that the high land of the northern section of Cameron is a part of the Prairie Terrace; a common feature of this terrace is the existence of numerous small mounds of earth variously called molehills, knolls, gas mounds, or some other local term. Scientifically they are called pimple mounds. In size they vary from ten to a hundred feet in diameter, and from one to five feet in height. They are usually circular in shape, but occasionally one may find several so closely grouped together that at first glance they present the appearance of a continuous ridge; upon close examination however the individual mounds are distinguishable. In places they may be few and widely scattered; elsewhere they may be so large and so numerous as to cover fully one-third of the surface area. They are as abundant in forest areas as on the open prairie and even underlie many of our shallow lakes as well. The soil of the mounds is of a more sandy nature than that of the surrounding land, a condition which is most likely due to the results of erosion and leaching. These mounds likewise are found scattered widely throughout the world.
Many theories have been advanced to account for the origin of these mounds, but the story told by the Indians explains their presence about as well as any other and it has the additional merit of being humorous and entertaining. According to Indian legend a race of giants was employed to build the earth, each giant carrying the dirt in his leather apron. Some unusual occurrence frightened then, each dropped his apron where he stood, and the whole tribe ran away. Thus were the pimple mounds formed. The early French borrowed this tale from the Indians, changing the details, but keeping the main idea of the story intact. They substituted Dutchmen for the giants and shirt-tails for the aprons. When the Lord decided the earth was finished, he blew a horn as a signal for quitting, and each Dutchman dropped his shirt-tail and the dirt it contained.
It has been suggested that the mounds are Indian structures, that they were built by some animal after the fashion of anthills, that the escaping gas forced the earth’s surface upward, that wind action is responsible, or that any of a half dozen other agencies might have been the cause. But each of these theories can be shot full of holes; we do not have the answer yet and the question must await further study. In the meantime the rice farmer, more concerned with their presence than their origin, and considering this presence undesirable, is busily and efficiently removing them with land-levelers and bulldozers.
Through the generosity of nature, Cameron finds itself possessed of an abundance of lakes, rivers, bayous and waterways. Man has taken up where Nature left off and criss-crossed the marshes with canals and ditches, ranging in size from the Intracoastal Canal, as large as a river, down to pirogue trails that a long-legged man can step across. Hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of such artificial water-ways have been constructed.
The two largest bodies of water in the parish are Calcasieu Lake on the river of the same name, and Grand Lake on the Mermentau River. In earlier days this was commonly called Mermentau Lake; the present name has come into usage largely within the last 75 years. We also have a partial claim to Sabine Lake which forms our western boundary for many miles. These are the three largest, and are approximately equal in size. Technically, they are known as lagoonal lakes, a term applied to bodies of water cut off from the sea on one side by a land barrier. Included in this classification are several smaller bodies such as the two Mud Lakes on the Mermentau. In each case, as will be seen by reference to a relief map, the southern shore of these lakes is formed by a cheniere, or natural dike. White Lake in Vermilion Parish is also a lake of this type.
Since practically all bodies of water in Cameron are only slightly elevated above the Gulf, they are subject to invasion by salt water at certain periods, and are consequently often referred to as tidal waterways.
At present each of these lakes is growing steadily in size. Strong winds churn the lake surface into waves which beat against the shores, eating them away. As the lakes increase in size, wave action becomes stronger and erosion is more rapid. Thus the growth process becomes faster year by year. The eroded soil is carried on down the Gulf by the currents of the rivers, and while some may be deposited on the marshes during periods of overflow, by far the greater portion is carried on out to sea. Old men today will point out the present shore line in contrast to the shore line of their boyhood days; the difference may be as much as 100 feet; sometimes it is considerably more.
As the lakes continue to increase in size their shore lines approach nearer to each other. If the present tendency is uninterrupted it will not be long, as geologists reckon time, until all such lakes will become one. Let us consider the situation in the eastern portion of the parish. Grand Lake and White Lake are less than ten miles apart; between them is a string of smaller lakes some a mile or more in diameter. As each of these lakes is increasing in size and rapidity of growth, the time is not far distant, possibly a few hundred years at most, when one great lake, approaching Pontchartrain in size, will cover all the area from the western end of Lake Misere to the eastern shore of White Lake. Project this growth down through the centuries and one can foresee the time when all the land lying between the prairie to the north and the chenieres to the south will be one unbroken body of water including Sabine Lake to the west and White Lake to the east. The entire process will undoubtedly be hastened by the sinking of the coastal region, as stated earlier.
On the Mermentau River near Lowery one can see a lake in the making today. Conditions of wind, wave action, and soil formation are favorable to erosion and the river has steadily grown in width until it is more than double the normal size elsewhere. Other lakes along the courses of the rivers may have had a similar origin.
The coastal marsh is dotted with numerous small lakes most of them less than a mile in diameter; from their shape which approaches that of a circle they are called round lakes. They are transient in nature, appearing and disappearing within the course of years. A marsh fire, burning out the natural vegetation and even the grass roots to a depth of eighteen inches or two feet, may be sufficient to start one; muskrats, even geese, are able to do so. When the vegetation is destroyed, rains will fill the natural depression; wave action begins the process of erosion; this, continued through the years will cause a round lake to form.
As the forces of nature, under certain conditions, work to create these lakes, just so under certain other conditions do they operate in a manner to fill and destroy them. To better understand this filling process let us take a clear round lake and throw onto its surface a few armloads of purple water hyacinth, better known as “that old water-lily” by those who do not like it and they are a numerous tribe. It first appeared in this country as a foreign introduction in 1878. It grows profusely in fresh water, floating on the surface of rivers and lakes. Should it come into contact with salt water though, its demise is speedy. However there is some indication that it is making a successful attempt to adapt itself to water that is fairly high in salt content. Introduced into a lake it will grow abundantly, covering a large area of the lake. Winds blow the individual plants together, matting them; they drift with the winds and water currents until they become so large and so closely packed that they may attach themselves to the shore in shallow water, gradually fringing the lake bank, and extending outward to the center until in time the entire surface of the lake is covered with them as with a blanket. Through a natural process of growth, maturity and decay, a great amount of this vegetation sinks to the bottom of the lake. An oozy mud is formed which in time turns into a substance of peaty nature. As more vegetation decays and sinks, the lake which was not deep to begin with gradually fills. Cattails, iris, and other water-loving plants gradually work their way out from the shore. As the supply of water is diminished by the hyacinth itself in its process of filling the lake, it will begin to disappear; other forms of marsh vegetation will displace it entirely, and the lake, now almost solid with soft peat and ooze will support a firm crust and luxuriant vegetation. In this stage it is known as a flotant, or a floating turf. Such a formation is solid on the surface but soft underneath; let a man break through and he will sink to his armpits. Continuing the process of filling and hardening, the floating turf becomes hard enough to support a luxuriant growth of wild marsh cane; in this stage it is known as a roseau prairie, taking its name from the French word for canes or reeds, which is roseau.
Such is the story of the birth and the death of a round lake. Before the introduction of the hyacinth, native plants could and did fill the lakes, and while the process was substantially the same, it was much slower, since these plants did not possess the size or the rapidity of growth of the hyacinth.
Our largest and most important river systems are the Sabine, the Calcasieu, and the Mermentau. The Sabine is a border stream, but is tributaries reach deep into Cameron. Several minor bayous which should be included in a study of the waterways are; Lacassine, Colligan, King’s, Black - two of them - Kelso, Hog and Johnson’s. There are any number of smaller bayous and streams - so many in fact that no one has ever counted them all or even troubled to give them names.
The importance of our river systems lies in their varied usefulness and the contributions they make to our way of life. Primarily and originally they are sources of drainage. The Indian depended upon them for transportation and found in their waters an abundant supply of fish, oysters and clams. It is significant that the red man built his villages near streams and lakes. When our ancestors moved into the country they not only stole the Indian's land, but along with it the adopted may of his customs and ways of doing things. Before the days of roads and automobiles the rivers, lakes, and bayous, were the main arteries of travel and commerce. Boats of varying size were on all the waterways and furnished the only connection with the outside world; indeed they were often the only highways connecting different communities within the parish itself. The coming of the automobile and the highway has diminished their significance, but not their importance. The amount of tonnage which moves through them today is greater than ever and steadily growing in size and value.
A number of artificial waterways have been built within the past 30 years to supplement those provided by nature. The Calcasieu Ship Channel and the Intracoastal Canal are the two of greatest importance. The former follows, where convenient, the bed of the Calcasieu River, and its size - 400 feet wide and 34 feet deep - enables large ships to move up to Lake Charles forty miles inland. The Intracoastal Canal itself will rival a river in size and length.
A large section of the greatest artificial waterway in the world lies in Cameron. This is the Intracoastal Canal running from Corpus Christi, Texas to Carrabelle, Florida. This dream of a great inland waterway was realized by Act of Congress, Rivers and Harbors Act, of August 11, 1888. While the importance of this canal was fully realized at the time, no one could foresee the tremendous role it would play in the late conflict when enemy submarines were sinking American shipping in the Gulf. The military value of the canal can hardly be exaggerated. The original canal was 40 feet wide and five feet deep. Under Act of March 3, 1925, and January 21, 1927, active construction was begun on a project to increase the width to 100 feet and the depth to nine. Hardly had this work been completed when navigation interests demanded a further increase in capacity. As a war measure Congress authorized enlargement to a width of 125 feet and a depth of twelve feet. The work on the section of the canal in Cameron was completed by May 15, 1944. (Cameron Parish Resources and Facilities, p. 43.)
The value of our waterways to our agricultural interests can hardly be overestimated, since much of the water used for irrigation comes from this source. Practically all of our rice crop depends on an adequate supply of fresh water, and deep wells furnish only a minor part of the water required for successful operation. During a dry summer so much water maybe withdrawn that the amount coming down from upstream is insufficient to maintain the rivers at their normal level, only slightly above that of sea-level itself; salt water from the Gulf flows upward and becomes mixed with the fresh. Rice can grow in such water if the salt content is small but if the solution becomes too strong it spells ruination for the crop and a considerable monetary loss for the farmer. To prevent this a number of dams and locks have been built, and while this solves the problem of irrigation it raises a problem of navigation. The rivers, lakes, and canals, lowered by continuous pumping, and deprived of water from the Gulf, are no longer able to maintain the depth necessary for water-borne commerce; tugs and barges run aground, or else have to proceed with lightened loads and find themselves losing money in the process. Opening the floodgates results in the loss of a vast rice acreage; keeping them closed means a suspension, or at best a curtailment, of a vital mode of transportation. There is just not enough fresh water in Louisiana to provide for the requirements of these two interests as matters now stand. Some solution will have to be found before both can fully realize their respective possibilities.
While the chenieres supported a heavy growth of forest, no stands of pine and cypress were present, and it has always been necessary to import lumber for building purposes from other parts of the state. One exception to this may be found on Little Pecan, where a small cypress grove flourishes. At one time this swamp supported a small sawmill, but within a few years the available supply of timber was exhausted. This lovely little grove is now in a state of vigorous re-growth. Some cypress grows along the bayous in the northern part of the parish, but not in sufficient quantity for it to be considered among the parish resources. Successful attempts have been made in the past 20 years to establish growths of pine along the northern border of Cameron, but the acreage devoted to this is so small that there is no likelihood of developing a lumber industry from this source.
The forests of the chenieres were not without value however, since they furnished an abundant supply of fuel, fence posts, an occasional rough article of furniture, and various farming implements such as ox-yokes, handles for tools, and other similar items.
The native trees consisted mostly of oak, willow, hackberry, toothache, water-elm, wild china, cottonwood, wild pecan, and several minor species. Many of our most common trees and shrubs today are not native but imported; among these are the china, oleander, bois d’arc (Osage orange), catalpa, mimosa, practically all fruit trees and a variety of others.
Trees and shrubs are useful today only in their role as providers of shade and ornamentation.
Of much more importance than the native forest growth are the native grasses which are present in a variety of species and sub-species. The prairies and higher marshes provide the bulk of the grazing for the profitable cattle industry; the plants of the marshes support the extremely valuable muskrat, and furnish the feed required by the hordes of wild fowl that make hunting an important industry in Cameron. For those who appreciate the beauty of flowers there are numerous brilliantly colored flowering plants - the iris, the hyacinth, the hibiscus, the water-lilies, and dozens of others.
Cameron abounded in big game in the days of the Indians, but the white man set out deliberately, it would seem, to destroy every wild animal that came within the range of his rifle or shotgun. The bear and the panther are only a hazy memory; few men now living can remember seeing a wildcat in the parish, but a remnant of the once abundant deer now remain, and that only in a closely guarded game reserve west of the Calcasieu. There is an occasional report of wolves in the same area, but most likely they are visitors from the swamps to the north and east. Small game, such as the raccoon, rabbit, skunk, and opossum have managed to survive, mostly due to their prolific rate of reproduction and the reduction or extermination of their natural enemies. They are more or less harmless creatures, not usually considered as desirable articles of diet and unless they raid gardens and hen coops are mostly left in peace. When coons decide to assist the farmer in harvesting his corn and melons, though, the farmer will arise in his wrath, and with dog, gun, headlight, and neighbors wage war against the furry predator. So far his success has been extremely limited, and the little fellow has contrived to thrive and multiply to such proportions that he has become a serious menace to agricultural pursuits. An increase in fur prices might again make him an object of interest to the trapper; a sufficient bounty would accomplish the same purpose, but until either is forthcoming he will probably continue his happy and philosophical existence, not greatly disturbed by man’s indignation and thoroughly enjoying his corn and melons meanwhile.
Adjacent to the Gulf, and possessing an abundance of inland lakes and streams, Cameron finds herself in an extremely favorable position to develop and maintain a considerable industry based upon marine animal life. The taking of shrimp, menhaden, crabs, and game fish, has proved to be a profitable and expanding enterprise.
Shrimping mushroomed into prominence in the early 1930s; a number of processing and packing plants are now in operation, and this industry alone provides employment for several hundred people.
A few of the boats employed in shrimp fishing are fairly large and elaborately equipped; the majority however are small affairs less then 50 feet in length. Powered by diesel engines and operated by a crew of two men, a captain and a deckhand, they are easily and cheaply operated. The shrimp are usually found within five miles of shore, and at present the waters off Grand Chenier offer the best shrimping grounds.
Two different sizes of nets may be used in the actual shrimping process. One is a small net, some ten feet in length, called the “try net,” which is used to determine the whereabouts of the shrimp. Thrown overboard it is dragged behind the boat at normal speed; if a sufficiently large school is present, the net will bring up several dozen after a short run. From an examination of these the fishermen can determine whether shrimp are present in sufficient size and number to justify further operations. If the results of the try net are favorable, an anchored buoy is put out to mark the location and a second and much larger net is put overboard. This is the trawl net, ranging in size from 35 to 125 feet. The trawl net is drawn through the water at reduced speed so that it may open and “fish right.” After several hours of cruising at this speed in the vicinity of the marking buoy, the trawl is drawn up and the contents dumped on the rear deck of the boat.
The process of sorting the catch is the next step, for the trawl brings up many things besides shrimp. Probably one third of the haul will consist of crabs; another third is made up of ocean bottom creatures and “sea bobs” - small shrimp that have no commercial value; what is left are shrimp that are large enough to be marketable. This alone is saved; the rest is dumped back into the Gulf. Each boat carries in its hold cold-storage equipment to preserve the catch until it is able to return to docks and discharge its cargo. If fishing conditions are poor the shrimper may stay at sea for several days before taking enough shrimp to justify the expense of the trip.
Shrimping is more or less seasonal occupation, with the periods of greatest activity generally coming in the late spring and fall. Fair weather is essential; high winds and swells put a stop to all work. The boats are usually small to begin with and seek shelter until the seas are calm again, and even the larger boats stop work since few shrimp can be taken in rough water.
Upon arrival at the packing houses, locally known as “shrimp houses,” the catch is unloaded onto conveyors which carry the haul up to the long metal trays. After being thoroughly washed in running water, the shrimp are hulled by hand, the work being mostly done by women and children. The hulling process is quite simple and consists merely of breaking off the tail and discarding the body. The tails are then iced, packed into crates and shipped to market.
An oil and fertilizer industry of considerable importance, based upon the commercial possibilities of the menhaden, has grown rapidly within recent years. Two large processing plants, well-equipped, modern, and efficient, are presently operating in Cameron. They represent an investment of several million dollars and have contributed materially to the growth and prosperity of the parish.
Menhaden are small inedible fish of extremely high oil content; they travel in enormous closely packed schools. Their oil renders them valuable; their presence in such quantity makes is easy and profitable to take them in nets. Fishing for menhaden follows the same general pattern as shrimp-fishing, with some important differences. For one thing, the boats, 120 feet in length, are considerably larger, and a crew of 50 men is generally employed. Like shrimping, menhaden fishing is strictly a seasonable affair; operations are limited to the summer months, and calm weather is likewise essential.
The menhaden boat carries two smaller power driven boats to assist in the operations. These are known as “perch boats.” A lookout in the crow’s nest is constantly on the alert for schools of menhaden which are easily spotted; they appear as a dark splotch on the surface of the water. Upon reaching the area where the fish have been sighted, the two perch boats are put over and the immense trawl is lowered into the water. The ends of the net are attached to the two little boats which maneuver so as to encircle the school. Power-driven apparatus on the menhaden boat lifts the net, with its contents, from the water and dumps its catch into the hold. Since these fish are intended for another use than food no refrigeration is required.
The unloading was formerly done entirely by hand; men went down into the hold and threw the fish up on to the deck with pitchforks. The hot hold, stifling air, and decaying fish, made this an extremely unpleasant and difficult task. Huge suction pipes are now used to transfer the menhaden directly from the hold to the processing plant. Here the fish go through a rather elaborate series of operations designed to extract the oil from their bodies and convert the residue into fertilizer. The oil is shipped out by barge through the Lake Charles Ship Channel, and the fertilizer is moved overland by truck.
A small beginning has been made in establishing a crab-packing industry in Cameron. One canning plant, located at Grand Chenier, is now in operation. Further development may be expected since crabs are abundant and well-distributed throughout the parish and may be taken at almost any time of the year.
There is some commercial fishing on inland water-ways; catfish, buffalo, and gar comprise the catch. Various species of game fish are attracting an increasing amount of interest and game-fishing is proving to be one of Cameron’s more attractive features.
For the sportsman who wants added thrills, however, deep-sea fishing is almost irresistible. A number of boats are engaged in the lucrative business of taking fishing parties out into the Gulf where the big fighters are to be found. The best fishing grounds lie from fifteen to thirty miles offshore, around navigation buoys and oil-well platforms. Tarpon, king and Spanish mackerel, dolphin, ling or lemon fish, speckled trout, tarpon and various others can be taken with rod and reel. These fish usually appear in schools, although a lone individual may be found occasionally. Most frequently caught is the ling, which is quite capable of putting up a stiff fight and giving the fisherman ample opportunity to demonstrate his skill and knowledge. Big ones will weigh up to sixty-five pounds.
A deep-sea fishing trip is an all-day outing; boats leave at dawn and return shortly before dark. Heavy tackle must be used, and the bait - usually a feather jig or a spoon - is trolled astern at a distance of fifty to one-hundred yards while the boat runs at decreased speed. When the fish is firmly hooked the boat stops and it is up to the fisherman to bring his prize to the gunwale so that the deckhand may gaff and lift it aboard. All boats carry ice for preserving the catch.
Cameron produces an oyster of excellent size and quality, but the lack of extensive reefs has prevented the establishment of an oyster industry. Small beds are found near the mouths of several streams entering the Gulf, notably Big Constance and Little Constance bayous. Local inhabitants fish the beds frequently, but only for home consumption. There is little or no commercial exploitation.
The marshes of Cameron have proved to be an especially attractive home for numerous fur-bearing animals. The muskrat, mink, otter, raccoon, opossum, nutria, and skunk are found in greater or lesser number throughout the parish.
The muskrat is the backbone of the fur industry in Cameron. The monetary value of this one species is greater by far then the combined value of all others. This little animal abounds wherever the conditions are favorable for its growth. He is largely a vegetarian, although not averse on occasion to supplementing his diet with small birds and other bits of animal life. What is known locally as “three-cornered grass” is his favorite, and where this is abundant the muskrat is likewise numerous. In such a situation rats may thrive and increase in numbers to such an extent that within a few months or years they have eaten all the available three cornered grass and must then migrate to another section of the marsh where a new supply can be found. This new supply will eventually be exhausted likewise, and as the abandoned marsh restocks itself in time, the rats return to their former location. They are thus constantly migrating, and the individual trapper’s luck will fluctuate with the migrations, a succession of good seasons alternating with a succession of poor ones. To insure a fairly steady supply of fur, the careful trapper endeavors to harvest enough each year to prevent over-population; on the other hand, he must be not trap so closely as to endanger the future supply of breeding stock.
Several species of muskrat occur throughout the world, but the Louisiana muskrat is a distinct species, Fiber rivalicius. He is a small, alert animal, with wide head and compact body. His fur, under favorable conditions of food supply and climate, is a rich, dark-brown color, in great demand in the fur trade. His home is usually a mound of dried grass; although where a bank or levee exists he may resort to tunneling. For some reason not understood yet, muskrat is a relative new comer to the marshes. When old Indian middens, or rubbish heaps, are opened and examined it is not unusual to discover the bones of practically all other forms of wild life found in Louisiana, but the bones of the muskrat are strangely absent. From this we assume that the muskrat was unknown to the Indian. It is possible that the natives did not make use of this source of food, but such an assumption is highly unlikely; the Indian was seldom in a position where he could afford to ignore an animal, abundant, easily caught, and quite edible, for the flesh of the muskrat is wholesome and delicious, as many white men who have overcome the silly prejudice against eating them will testify.
The muskrat finds himself surrounded with many enemies, not including the man who traps him for his hide. He is in a constant struggle for existence against too much water, too little water, hot sun, alligators, alligator gars, turtles, storms and fires, not to mention his tendency of eating out and destroying the very grass upon which his life depends. It is not surprising then to find that his numbers fluctuate from year to year, as reflected in the number of muskrat pelts that appear on the market.
At one time the raccoon (American Indian arakun,) was highly important to the trapper, hides sold at prices ranging from five to eight dollars apiece, and, as the animal was fairly numerous, raccoons represented a considerable portion of the trapper’s income. Today, with hides bringing only twenty-five to fifty cents each, few trappers will even take the trouble to skins the coons that may be caught in the traps that they have set for other animals.
Skunks and opossums are likewise abundant, but owing to the very low prices for furs from this source, few of the pelts are prepared for the market.
A fur-bearing animal that is attracting considerable attention at present is the coypu or nutria. The word coypu is the South American Indian native name; nutria is the Spanish word for otter, and this is the term usually applied to the fur after it is prepared for market. Local residents may refer occasionally to the creature as a “Texas rat.” South America is the native home to this large rodent, which may weigh up to thirty pounds or more. It is widely distributed throughout the continent on both sides of the Andes, and at one time was trapped so closely that the species neared extinction. Wise game laws were passed and strictly enforced, and the animal made a quick recovery. The coypu has a rather peculiar appearance, resulting from his adaptation for life in a watery situation. His fur is dull brown, his muzzle is gray, and the four large incisor teeth may approach an orange-red color. The nostrils are located high on the nose so that when the animal is swimming he can submerge almost completely. The mother may produce eight or nine young ones every five or six months, so that the rate of reproduction is very high indeed. The young will swim alongside the mother, or even ride on her back while she is in the water; as the milk-secreting glands or teats, are placed high on the flank near the back-bone, the young are able to suckle even while in the water. Where possible the coypu like to burrow into a bank or levee to make its home; lacking this it will build a platform nest of grass similar to that of the muskrat. They have a peculiar cry, somewhat like the moan of a human being in pain. The animal in habit is largely fresh water, and aquatics the hind feet are partially webbed for swimming; the front feet more closely resemble those of a monkey. They are vegetarians by preference, but have been known to eat practically anything. They can be raised successfully in pens and in captivity will eat grain, garden truck, vegetables, sweet potatoes, turnips, cabbage, and even alfalfa hay. White potatoes however, must be excluded from their diet; the effects are sometimes disastrous. In addition to their fur, which may bring three to four dollars per pelt, the coypu is an excellent source of meat. Few people in Cameron have eaten them, but that is their loss. The young are easily tamed, and make faithful and attractive pets.
The value of the coypu has been recognized for some time. They have been bred in captivity in Europe for many years, and it was reasonable to suppose that they would likewise thrive in Louisiana. One of the first attempts was made in St. Tammany Parish, near Covington, in 1933. A number of coypu were released in that area, but the experiment was a failure; evidently the animals succumbed quickly for none were found later. in 1937 several pairs were imported from Argentina and confined in pens at Avery Island. They bred freely in captivity and shortly after began to appear in the marshes. Soon trappers throughout the southwestern parishes began to report catches of the animal; each year saw a considerable increase in the number of pelts finding their way to market; in 1948 over 28,000 pelts were sold. The animal by now seems to be thoroughly established in his new home.
The general belief is that the muskrat and the nutria will supplement each other in the fur industry since their habits of life and their choice of food are so dissimilar that neither will interfere with the other. For one thing, the nutria particularly relishes alligator-grass which no other animal well eat. Some evidence has recently appeared that throws a doubt on the ability of the two animals to live in the same area in total harmony; it would seem that the newcomer is developing a fondness for the three-cornered grass also, and if this is true there may be trouble ahead for the muskrat. The skin of the nutria is difficult to prepare for curing, in contrast to that of the muskrat, and the trapper loses money on improperly prepared hides. Nevertheless, the quality of the fur remains superior to that of the South American product.
Another recent immigrant is the armadillo. This animal is native to Mexico and Texas. It seems to have made its appearance in Texas in 1870, gradually working its way northward. It reached the Sabine River in 1923, and crossed over into Louisiana. From then on, its spread has been rapid; it has been reported in Oklahoma, and as far north in Louisiana as Tallulah in Madison Parish. They are present in Alabama and Florida, and may be in Mississippi. Why the armadillo left his former home and set out to travel poses some interesting questions, and the answers are by no means complete. Stockmen, we know, cleared the ranges of panther and wolves, their natural enemies, and allowed them to increase rapidly and become numerous; a series of dry years followed reducing the available food supply, and this probably set them in motion. Tourists and travelers may have picked them up, later releasing them in distant parts of the country. The building of bridges and roads across rivers and swamps no doubt aided their travel to some extent, but even without these artificial helps there is little doubt that the armadillo, unaided, could have found his way into new homes. The creature is perfectly capable of swimming; he posses the ability to swallow air, almost doubling his size and this buoyancy enables him to swim quite long distances. Further, he may cross narrow streams simply by walking across on the bottom.
The armadillo is not a fur-bearer, and his shell has little value except for making novelties and ornaments; his flesh however is excellent, and is considered to be the equal of pork. In parts of Texas he is often referred to locally as “the poor man’s hog.”
While the armadillo is known to eat a variety of foods, and examination of the stomachs of several hundred of these animals shows that bugs are the major item of his diet, comprising 92% of the stomach contents; worms, scorpions, tarantulas, small snakes, crawfish, eggs, and ants, make up the remainder. This is conclusive proof that the armadillo is an asset, and the good that he does is of much more importance than the harm. He may dig tremendous holes under fences and houses, and root up a beautiful lawn while searching for worms, but these minor ravages do no permanent damage and are easily repaired.
Extremely abundant in earlier days, the alligator has been hunted to such a degree that his numbers are at present only a fraction of what they once were. Alligator hunting is a summer occupation since the creature hibernates through the winter. As the ‘gator is considered an enemy of the muskrat, he has been outlawed; this, together with the high prices paid for his hide, have cut his numbers sharply; at present there appears to be no danger of extinction, but the revenue arising from this source has dropped to a very low point. However, a few men still manage to make alligator hunting profitable.
Cameron has long been famous for the abundance and variety of its game birds. Many species of ducks and geese winter here and afford excellent hunting. Approximately 25% of the land in Cameron has been set aside as game refuges, thus providing sanctuaries for migrating waterfowl. These refuges are under government control and no hunting is permitted on them. Much hunting ground remains in private hands though, and a number of hunting clubs have been established. Numerous sportsmen from out of the parish come down each winter for the hunting, and the sale of licenses, hunting fees, club accommodations, and the employment of guides, have combined to make hunting one of the major industries of the parish. Considerable revenue is derived from this source alone each year.
Agriculture, at one time, was the predominant industry in the parish, but it no longer is important except in the rice growing areas of Upper Cameron. Freezing winters and the San Jose scale have combined to destroy the once flourishing orange groves; the cane borer has reduced the output of sugar cane to a pitiful remnant; all cotton production is periodically halted under government order in an effort to eradicate the pink bollworm. Corn production has also suffered from insects and drought, and vegetable and trucking products have never been considered of importance. The future of agriculture in Lower Cameron is very dark at present, and it will continue to be so until an effective program is worked out for the control of insects.
While agriculture has been declining for thirty years cattle-raising has been growing steadily in importance. Current high prices being paid for livestock have more than offset the agricultural losses; present interest lies in building up pastures, reclaiming low-lying ground, and improving the quality of the beef being shipped to market. Brahma and Angus are enjoying considerable favor as beef-producing strains, but he ideal animal has not yet been produced. The Brahma, a native of hot, tropical India, finds the Louisiana winters too severe; the Angus, developed in cool Scotland where marshes are unknown is under a double handicap; his short legs are certainly not designed to help him in wading about a country that is nearly all marsh, and the hot summers are as detrimental to him as the cold winters are to the Brahma. The native stock, developed to unwonted hardihood and versatility through fifty generations of natural selection, lacks the size and conformation desired by the market. A new breed, combining the best qualities of all, will have to be developed before this industry can fully realize its potentialities.
Cameron has proved to be rich in minerals. Petroleum and natural gas are by far the most important at present, and production is expanding rapidly. An intense search for new sources has been conducted, and new fields are being tested. A recently completed pipeline is already in use carrying huge quantities of natural gas to outside markets; further extension of this line is contemplated. Natural gas has already been provided to the town of Cameron, and is available for home use.
The first producing oil well in Cameron Parish was brought in 1926; this was located in what is now the Sweet Lake Oil Field; other fields of importance, and the order of their discovery are: East Hackberry - 1927; West Hackberry - 1928; Black Bayou - 1929; Cameron Meadows - 1934. Creole, Little Chenier, Gum Cove, Chalkley, Pecan Lake, Mud Lake, Big Lake, and Grand Lake, are other fields that are now in production.
The shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico have become the scene of much activity and interest in recent years. The continental shelf off the Cameron coast has proved to be a source of rich oil deposits, and a number of major companies are presently engaged in off-shore drilling and exploration. Some of the more distant locations are completely out of sight of land, and it has been necessary to employ entirely new techniques and processes for the successful production and transportation of petroleum.
Probably the area of the greatest activity and promise at present is that laying to the east of Grand Chenier. Still only partially explored, it may yet prove to be the largest and richest field in Cameron. Certainly the prospects are bright.
Cameron is known to have a number of salt domes; one at Hackberry is being exploited for its brine by a chemical-producing concern at Lake Charles; the others are untapped. Sulphur is also present but unused. Large beds of clam and oyster shell exist; huge amount are dredged up each year for road surfacing purposes.
When the first man appeared in Cameron, possibly 3,500 years ago he found conditions quite different from what they are today. Let us, in our imagination, try to visualize the country as it was then. We will have to eliminate from our concepts some of the more common features that we accept without thought. Let us imagine a country without roads, fences, bridges, canals, or buildings of any sort; take away the cleared fields, and all the works of man. Restore the natural forests and the wild life, including the deer, the bear, the panther, and the wildfowl.
Remains of early man are found only on the chenieres; he does not appear to have been in the northern part of the parish at this time. Into the chenieres then came the first man who lived in what is now Cameron, a man who had to make the land in its original state furnish him a livelihood. His food, his clothing, his shelter, his medicines - everything that he needed and used in his daily life - had to come from the land where-on he lived, since he had no means of obtaining anything elsewhere. Early man had very restricted modes of travel and communication, and the things he required had to be found at hand. We must further remember that this early man was in a very primitive state of knowledge; his brain was probably as good as ours but he lacked the racial accumulation of learning that we have inherited from five thousand years of civilization. He lacked knowledge of medicine, of the arts, of the thousand and one things that we employ daily. He had no means of accomplishing work, save by the strength of his body; except for the dog he had no domestic animals, he had no metals and all his tools were made of bone, antlers, and perhaps shell; there is little or no rock in Cameron so that it is likely that he knew or used even the simplest and crudest tools and weapons of stone such as we expect to find among the other primitive peoples in a similar stage of human culture. The wheel was unknown and the crudest of carts was out of the question. It is possible and even likely that this early man built a kind of rude, fire-hollowed canoe or pirogue, but wood rots quickly and no remains of these have been found. In all probability when his craft became worn out he simply used it as a source for fuel.
His economy was largely an economy of gathering, and that meant the gathering of fruits, nuts, berries, clams, oysters - food that could be had for the picking up. His supply of meat was no doubt limited to the smaller and slower members of the animal species. The sick animal, the aged, the wounded, or crippled, which he found himself capable of capturing and killing, were the most likely items on his menu, and he counted himself fortunate indeed if he found a deer that he could dispatch. We may be sure that he did not spurn the remains of animals killed and partially eaten by the panther or bear, and it didn’t need to be fresh either for him to enjoy it. Armed only with his bare hands, or a club, early man had to take his food where he found it if he were to survive; empty stomachs and discriminating appetites are seldom found together.
True hunting as such appeared later, and marked a great advance in the mode of living. Even a crude spear, tipped with bone, antler, or pointed shell, was a much more effective weapon than a club. Our archaic man could go after larger game now, with some assurance of getting it; it is likely that he also developed the atlatl, or throwing stick, which gave his spear greatly increased range and accuracy.
All that we know of this early people is gathered from the middens or ancient dump-heaps they left behind. The midden is simply an accumulation of the things that were no longer needed, and consisted in the main of the shells of the clams that must have provided the major article of diet. Other things are found as well however, such things as the bones of turtles, deer, bear, gar, and raccoon. Broken tools, worn-out articles of furniture, fragments of shell cups, spoons and jewelry, all these were thrown onto the scrap heap.
The immense size of these middens is conclusive proof that man must have lived here for a long time, occupying the same camp site century after century; these were gathering people with no agriculture what-ever, and the land could support only a relatively small population that lived in such a manner. Hence these accumulations could have been effected only through continuous habitation over a period of many centuries.
Charcoal remains testify to their knowledge and use of fire; this they probably produced by twirling a dried stick between the hands while resting one end of it upon another piece of dry wood. They lacked pottery entirely, but had learned to prepare boiled food in a rather ingenious manner. An animal skin was suspended on stakes and filled with water which could be brought to the boiling point by dumping into it stones or lumps of dried clay that had been thoroughly heated over an open fire. The art of basket-weaving may have been practiced, but we have no positive evidence as to this; neither is it likely that the bow and arrow was known at this early period. In addition to the spear mentioned above, this harpoon with detachable head had come into common use.
We can form no clear picture as to archaic man’s physical appearance. He skeletal remains show that he was a little, long-headed creature of the primitive Caucasian type. We know nothing of his complexion, the color of his eyes or his hair, the clothes he wore, the kind of house he lived in, or the language he spoke. His customs, his religion, and his form of tribal government, are likewise unknown.
For uncounted centuries this race inhabited the chenieres, building their middens higher and higher with the passing years and slowly, very slowly, acquiring knowledge and skill in the eternal struggle for survival. This “struggle for survival” is no empty phrase, but a hard literal fact. Hunger and disease were never very far away, and even as we, early man surely regarded the hurricane with awe and fear, cursed the mosquitoes, shivered in the winter, and sweltered in the summer. Digging clams from the bottom of the river on a freezing January day is not an activity that could be classed as pleasurable. Early man was not well off by any standard; with him it was always “hard times.”
This period represented by archaic man, drew to a close somewhere around the 750 A.D. New influences and new peoples were coming in from the west and displacing the original inhabitants. The new comers were bigger men, decidedly Mongolian in physical make-up; whatever archaic man might have been, there is no doubt these were Indians. One curious feature of their culture was their custom of “head-flattening.” Small children had their heads bound by flat boards during the early years of their lives, producing a flat, sloping fore head that was especially noticeable. Whether this was done with an eye for what was considered beauty in those days, or whether it was dictated by some religious requirement, we are not certain.
Our evidence concerning these Indians is drawn from their burial mounds, a distinguishing feature of their development. These mounds are found throughout most of the southern part of the state; those on Little Chenier and Little Pecan are especially worthy of attention. The mounds of Cameron have not been studied by capable scientific investigators, but similar mounds elsewhere have been thoroughly explored and their contents closely examined. What is true of Indian life there, as revealed by the mounds, is quite likely to be a fair picture of Indian life on the cheniers at the same period.
Burial mounds in Louisiana reveal two separate phases of Indian culture and these periods are referred to as Burial Mound 1 and Burial Mound II. The term “Tchefuncte Culture” is often applied to the former, and “Marksville Culture” is used to designate the latter, since the best remains occur in those two geographic areas. It is quite possible that a thorough study of the mounds in Cameron would reveal the existence of those two phases of Indian Culture here also, but until such a study is undertaken we cannot definitely say that both are represented. At present, it would probably be better to treat both cultures as one, particularly since the second period grew out of the first. We shall set the date for this period as 750 A.D. until the coming of the white man. There seems to be no evidence of the existence of the culture represented by the builders of the temple mounds such as may be found elsewhere in Louisiana.
With the coming of the Indian a distinctive type of pottery appeared - something archaic man lacked. The pottery of this period is represented by a square bottom; four little legs supported the vessel, and peculiar markings suggest the imprint of the human fingernail made while the clay was still soft and moist. For the first time we can be sure of the use of baskets and know that by now the art of basket-weaving was being practiced. Tubular clay pipes, closely resembling a modern cigar holder, are found; the nature of the material smoked in these pipe is uncertain, but it may have been wild tobacco, the inner bark of the red willow, or perhaps some other vegetable substance. Bows and arrows were certainly in use, and no doubt a great variety of wooden tools also that have since decayed. Agriculture may have been introduced during this period but we have no positive evidence of such; the size and number of the burial mounds indicate that this was the case however, since hunting, fishing, and gathering alone do not provide the food requirements of any great number of people. Tools of polished stone appear, in contrast to tools of bone and antler. Polished stone axes, far superior to those of the preceding period, are found.
The burial mound represents the introduction of some sort of religious cult or belief, as these mounds are simply the graves of the dead. Numerous bits of broken pottery, found in the graves, attest some link between the spirit of the departed Indian and the broken pot. Evidently the belief in a life after death was a part of their religious creed.
As this culture developed, various changes may be noted. The tubular clay pipe gave place to the platform pipe, so called because the bowl of the pipe rested upon a small platform. Some of these pipes have been worked into the representation of an animal, and these we know as effigy pipes. Bone fish-hooks with barbed points came into use, not greatly different in form from the steel hooks we use today. The pottery became much more elaborate and a better quality. This pottery is really very fine; it has been buffed off and polished to give it a smooth appearance. Deeply incised lines are noted, and the conventionalized snake motif appears. As in most primitive religious cults, the snake probably has a special and significant place in their thinking and it is not surprising that their pottery shows this influence.
As has been said before, positive evidence to support many of our ideas concerning these people cannot now be produced, but we are in a position to make intelligent guesses abut a number of things. For one thing, we can be fairly certain that the Indians of the chenieres did not live in the conventional skin tent or tepee that we associate with the Plains Indians. To begin with, they were not a nomadic people but semi-sedentary, and they built houses as we would expect people to build them who contemplated using them for a period of years. For another, there were simply not enough large wild animals to furnish the skins for the tents. Palmetto is abundant throughout the chenieres, and it formed the main source of building material; a frame-work of poles stuck into the ground, and lashed together with strips of animal hide were erected. Palmetto fronds were used to cover the sides and the roof, in much the same manner that wooden shingles are used today. These houses lacked windows; the door as only a low opening; chimneys were unknown, and the smoke from their fires was allowed to find its way through the walls and roof, which probably were not too tightly built. (It would be almost impossible to construct a palmetto house that would hold smoke.) Most likely, in summer all the cooking was done outside; only rain or cold would drive them indoors. Then the main problem facing the Indian was that of freezing outside, or strangling inside; the smart Indian, and those not so smart too, probably moved in and out, depending upon the respective distress of his skin or his nose. Mosquitoes were as much of a problem to the Indian as to his successors, and while he may have accepted them more philosophically, and limited his remarks accordingly, nevertheless when a mosquito bit an Indian, that Indian felt it as much as the white man. Smudges were employed to a large extent, and the white man immediately adopted this custom in mosquito time. The furnishings of the house were simple; the bed was built on forked limbs stuck into the ground; a frame-work of poles, covered with cane or reed mat, took the place of a mattress; moss and furs were probably added to this in cold weather. Such a bed would be far more comfortable then one would assume; besides, the Indian was accustomed to it. Near each Indian dwelling was a smaller house that served as a granary or storehouse. Usually this was elevated several feet above the ground to protect it from marauding animals, particularly rats. Another way of storing food was by placing it in a pit dug in the ground, and covered until such time as it might be required.
We know that during the latter part of this period agriculture was practiced. Their farms were surprisingly large, and were cultivated for considerable periods of time. Most of the actual field work was done by the women while the men were engaged in hunting and fishing. Maize, or Indian corn, was the most important crop grown; pumpkins, squash, gourds, and a variety of beans were planted also, and the sweet potato was highly regarded. Lacking steel tools, the Indian was not able to clear a piece of land completely; he merely girdled the trunk, killing the tree, and planted his crops between the trees while waiting for them to die and rot away. (If he was dealing with live oaks, his children and grandchildren also helped him in the waiting process, for a live oak will stand for 50 years after it is dead, and any one who has had personal experience with live oak roots will be inclined to think that they never rot.) The underbrush was cleared away and burned and the ashes scattered over the land for the small amount of benefit that might be obtained from them. They knew little about the use of fertilizer and modern farming methods to maintain soil fertility and when a field was exhausted they abandoned it and cleared another nearby. In such a case it might have proved desirable to move the village to the new fields; this would not work any particular hardship for the Indian’s house would need rebuilding every few years and building a home was not a problem in those days that it is now.
Farming tools were quite simple and quite inefficient too. A sharpened stick, or the shoulder-blade of deer or bison fastened to a convenient stick to make a how, were the common ones. With the products of the field, the wood and the streams, the Indians of this period had a fairly easy life of it; no longer was he on the ragged edge of hunger and want, and since his food supply was assured he had time for improving and experimenting in various ways that life still more comfortable. He had learned to turn nature to his ends, and was no longer dominated by the fears that haunted Archaic man.
After a thousand years of such culture the white man appeared on the scene, and apparently the Indian gradually forsook his home on the chenieres and moved on westward. It would seem that he made the change peaceably and without bloodshed; no trace of him remains save for a few middens and burial mounds, a few words that the invader borrowed from his language, a handful of customs that he bequeathed to his successor, and the memory of his presence not altogether forgotten. A few white people, and some Negroes in Cameron , claim Indian ancestry, but the amount of Indian blood still present is small indeed, and diminishing with each generation. It is unfortunate indeed that more knowledge of their laws, their religious beliefs, their social customs, their traditions, and their oral literature have not been preserved to us. We might have learned much from this now-vanished people.
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