A Water Route from the Opelousas to the Mississippi in 1791

by Lyle Givens Williams

Originally published in the Attakapas Gazette, Vol. 5-1, pg. 5, 1970. View archived document here.

Early French settlement in Southwest Louisiana has as its focal points two military posts, one in the Opelousas, the other in the Attakapas. The one is the present town of Opelousas, the parish seat of St. Landry Parish, the other St. Martinville, the parish seat of St. Martin Parish. William Darby, a geographer who travelled in the area in 1807, says that the boundry between the Opelousas and the Attakapas began on the south at the mouth of the Mermentau River and ran to the mouth of the Bayou Queue de Tortue; up that stream to its source; by an imaginary line to the head of Bayou Carrion Crow; down that stream to its mouth; up the Vermilion to the efflux, of Bayou Fuselier; down to its junction with the Teche; by an imaginary line east to the Atchafalaya. Everything west of the boundry as far as the Sabine was the Opelousas, which included the present parishes of St. Landry, Evangeline, Acadia, Jeff Davis, Beauregard, Allen, Calcasieu, and part of Cameron. The Attakapas included the present parishes of St. Martin, St. Mary, Iberia, Lafayette, Vermilion and that part of Cameron east of the Mermentau.

France, after several disastrous colonization projects, ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1763. After Spain took official possession of Louisiana in 1769, the colony flourished. The population rose sharply. It is estimated variously by historians that between the years 1757 and 1788 four to six thousand Acadian refugees found homes in Louisiana. These Acadians, early French settlers of Nova Scotia where they had made their living fishing, farming and raising cattle for one hundred and fifty years, clung tenaciously to their French folkways. They were expelled from their homes in 1755 for refusing to swear allegiance to England, their new master. Newcomers to Louisiana when Spain took it over, the Acadians were as hostile to Spanish dominion as they had been to English and readily joined an abortive attempt to keep the Spanish governor from taking over the province; hence there was no doubt shrewd calculation on O’Reilly’s part when he assigned to a large number of these Acadian families land grants along the bayous in the remote Opelousas and Attakapas.

The land of the Opelousas and the Attakapas was fertile and well suited to agriculture and cattle raising. The journey was hard and the trail devious through forest and swamp, but by 1791 not only the French and Spanish but the English, Scotch, Irish and some German colonists had found their way to the broad prairies. Some of the early settlers were free Negroes, and the Yankee traders were already bringing slaves into the area.

As the colonists flourished, the demands of trade required sure and free navigation between the prairies and the Mississippi, the highway to the outside world. Three documents from the year 1791 which repose in the archives of the St. Landry Parish Court House tell an interesting story of community effort to maintain an open waterway from the Opelousas to the Mississippi. The pattern of settlement in the Eighteenth Century followed the water ways. Lands were measured by their frontage on a river or a bayou. Houses were built with easy access to the water; even local traffic was by boat or pirogue. It is not surprising that the “habitans” of the Opelousas should have been concerned about an open route for all weather traffic from their prairies to the Mississippi and New Orleans.

The water route east from the Attakapas was logically the Teche, which flowed amply into Berwick Bay giving access through Lake Chetimaches to the Mississippi. To some parts of the Attakapas the upper Atchafalaya was also accessible, providing a northern route to the Mississippi.

For the Opelousas, however, the Teche was too far south to serve as a practicable route for any except those areas contiguous to the Attakapas.

The Teche was not always navigable as far as Breaux Bridge. The Bayou Courtableau, on the other hand, ran into the broad Atchafalaya from which a maze of rivers, bayous, lakes and bays gave access to the Gulf of Mexico or to the Mississippi. The floodways, channels, and other attempts by man to bend the Atchafalaya to his will have today dried up some of the bayous and shrunk many of the lakes. The U. S. Engineers’ Quadrangle Maps showing the old meander lines are of considerable help in reconstructing the face of the Atchafalaya Swamp as it probably was when the “habitans” of the Opelousas at the end of the Eighteenth Century steered their boats through it to the Mississippi.

This paper will treat only those aspects which help retrace a main water route from the Opelousas to the Mississippi. The following translation from the original French outlines the project in considerable detail:

Today, the seventeenth day of the month of February of the year seventeen hundred ninety-one, by virtue of the seal of office of his highness Mr. De Miro, Brigadier of the Army of the King, Governor and Intendent General of the Province of Louisiana, we, Don Louis de Villars, lieutenant of Infantry, interim Civil and Military Commandant of the Post of the Opelousas, have convoked the assembly of citizens of this post in order to share with them the letter of his highness and to receive the proposition made by M. Olivier de Vezin to clear Plakemines, to give it water in all weather, to consolidate the spur which nature has formed there and to make a road along the said Plakemines on the left downstream bank starting two arpents from the river, as far as the village of Champagne;

Furthermore, to clean the said Plakemines from the Bayou popularly called Grosse Tete, of all the trunks of trees and roots with which it is filled all the way to its mouth.

Thirdly, to open the entrance of the said Plakemines with a sixteen foot wide canal with a depth suitable to provide three feet of water at its entrance.

Fourthly, in order to clear the barrier in the Chafalaya from the head of Bayou Courtableau to the lower end in such a way that the exit from this post to the said Plakemines should be open in all weather, by concentrating the raft of the said Chafalaya above the said Bayou Courtableau, in such a way that it cannot interfere with navigation.

We, the commandant above named, after having informed all the citizens present at this meeting of the above; have proposed to them on the plea of M. Olivier de Vazin, to subscribe hereinafter for the sum which each of the subscribers shall judge proper, which will be payable in three years from the date on which the work shall begin and shall be paid in three equal installments, viz; one third each year….

The citizens who have signed here above having pointed out to us, the above named commandant, that being only the smallest part of the post, they ask and believe it a propos that the larger number of absent subscribe to the same clauses and conditions, in consideration of the general good of the post this same day and year but as it may be possible that a large number of the absent citizens may not be reasonable in their subscription, the subscribers, hereabove requested that they be taxed in proportion to their property….*

That the route was important to the Attakapas as well as to the Opelousas is apparent because Olivier de Vezin, a resident of the Attakapas, proposed the meeting called by the interim commandant of the Opelousas, Louis de Villars, to consider ways and means of keeping the Plaquemines and the Atchafalaya below Bayou Courtableau open to navigation in all weather. A barrier (a raft we call it) obstructed navigation in the Atchafalaya downstream from the confluence of the Courtableau. Clearing the river of this raft or fixing the raft so it would not interfere with the passage to and from the Opelousas was a project of considerable moment to the inhabitants. They undertook the project by voluntary subscription and by binding those of the inhabitants who failed to appear at the public meeting to contributions commensurate with their means, judged on the basis of their property. The project, which included several improvements on the distant Plaquemines, was truly a concern of more than local importance.

The documents make clear where the water road began — at the Courtableau — and where it ended — at the efflux of the Plaquemine from the Mississippi, but they leave the rest of the route to conjecture. The route was no doubt so well known in those days that there was no need to recapitulate it even for a public record.

Let us reconstruct the route by an imaginary trip from east to west.

Our trip from the Mississippi carries us down Bayou Plaquemine, but we look in vain for the probable whereabouts of the town of Champagne. Dredging of the Plaquemines for the Intra-coastal Canal has changed that stream considerably in depth and perhaps somewhat in width and has destroyed many landmarks. There is no difficulty in following the route down past the confluence of the Plaquemine with Bayou Grosse Tete. But from that point, even with the aid of the quadrangle maps, it is difficult to choose the most probable route from the several that might have been used.

Fortunately, in 1818 William Darby published his Emigrants * Guide , an early version of a road map for those swarming into the newly surveyed Louisiana Purchase. We shall steer our course by “Guide No. 14, New Orleans to Opelousas by Water:”

Effux of Bayou Plaquemine Blake’s

Mouth of Plaquemine into Atchafalaya

Outlet into Lake Chetimaches

Outlet of Lower Tensaw

Cow Island Lake

Lower extremity of Cow Island

Lower raft

Mouth of Courtableau River Mouth of Bayou Bigras Efflux of Bayou Fordoche Efflux of Bayou Fusilier Bayou Derbane

Barre’s first Prairie and settlement

Wickoff’s Prairie north, and Alabama Prairie south

Mouth of Bayou Wauksha

Bayou Carron

Opelousas Landing

Opelousas Town

Darby does not mention Champagne, but we look as vainly for Blake’s.

It was perhaps a store, a landing, or maybe a plantation located somewhere above the mouth of the Plaquemine. But, let us continue our imaginary trip. Below the confluence with the Grosse Tete, the Plaquemine loses itself in the Lower Grand which was formerly called the Atchafalaya.  If we assume that the route was through that arm cf the Atchafalaya known today as the Upper Grand River, we would pass Bayou Pigeon, the West Fork of Bayou Pigeon, and Little Tensas before we reach the outlet of Big Tensas, which outlet was probably the one Darby signaled as a landmark for his travellers. Any one of the three may have been the outlet into Lake Chetimaches, now Grand Lake. It is hard to tell because so many diversion cuts have beeh made in this area. The Upper Grand River route, however, takes us to Cow Island Lake which was much more extensive in 1791 than it is today.

When we get to Cow Island, we have to choose a route, either the more direct route north or the longer route south of the island. It is the latter route that Darby suggests. That this was probably the route used in 1791 is further indicated by the fact that this route passes Butte la Rose.

This picturesque community in St. Martin Parish has received in recent years much attention from feature story writers because of its remoteness and because it is an English-speaking settlement in an otherwise predominantly French area. Butte La Rose is accessible only by water and most writers have presumed it to have been a fishing and trapping community during its whole existence. I believe it started as a way station on the water route to Opelousas. The inhabitants of the northwestern part of the Attakapas could use the Atchafalaya near Butte la Rose as a loading station for cattle destined for the New Orleans market. The old township maps in St. Martinville Court House show opposite Butte la Rose and a little further upstream the location of a boat landing which is at the end of a cattle drovers’ trail leading to the river and branching west to the boat landing and east to an enclosed area labelled “cow pen.” But we must not tarry, for that is another story.

Having passed around the lower end of Cow Island, we ascend the Atchafalaya to the entrance of the Courtableau. It was in this area some two miles below the mouth of the Courtableau that the obstructions that troubled the “habitans” of the Opelousas in 1791 were found. Since the Lower Raft was still there in 1818, it had evidently not been removed as proposed, but perhaps the project to anchor the raft above the mouth of the Courtableau had been successful and had prevented the Lower Raft from blocking navigation.

It appears not to have been a problem thirty years later.

Once safe in the Courtableau, we look in vain for Bayou Bigras. This is today probably Big Bayou De Grasse. Bayou Fordoche is next, but Bayou Fusilier no longer runs out of the Courtableau. However, Fuselier de la Claire was the first commandant of the Opelousas and the Attakapas and as early as 1772 was the richest man in the area, owning not only vast acres but a house of considerable importance and many slaves. It is most likely that boats frequently carried merchandise for him and that some bayou leading out of the Courtableau bore his name.

Bayou Derbane is easily recognized as today’s Bayou Derbonne. Barre’s Prairie is familiar as Port Barre. Wickoff’s Prairie was no doubt well- known before the turn of the century. A later comer than Fusilier de la Claire. Wickoff too owned much land and more cattle than anyone else in the area. The St. Landry Parish Court House contains documents attesting to his sharp practices. He drove a hard bargain with the Indians, adding for a few head of cattle, minus the usual calves, many thousands of arpents to his holdings.

Passing Bayou Wauksha and Bayou Carron we arrive at Opelousas Landing near which rose the present town of Washington. From Opelousas Landing to Opelousas Town, traffic had to go overland.

It seems reasonable to suppose that the route pointed out by Darby in 1818, based on his travels in Louisiana as early as 1807, was the route preferred by the inhabitants of the Opelousas twenty years earlier. A route that warranted the joint effort of the provincial government and the individual communities must have been an important one. It may, then, be safe to say that the work of the “habitans” of the Opelousas and the Attakapas in 1791 defined and preserved a water route for the pioneers who poured into their prairies during the early decades of the nineteenth century.

In closing may I point out without comment an interesting analogy?

It was a waterway to the Mississippi that had to be maintained through the Atchafalaya Swamp that elicited the community effort of the Opelousas and the Attakapas in 1791. A hundred and eighty years later a roadway to the Mississippi is being constructed through the Atchafalaya Swamp. The destination – the Mississippi and New Orleans; the route — not a waterway, but an expressway!