…from a memoir by Mrs. Hoppe
We have been treated to a delightful memoir by a lady who was born at English Lookout and often visited her grandparents at Sea Glen Plantation.
All in the space of one brief document, she has now cleared up for us two of the many mysteries with which we have wrestled over the years. In short order form, English Lookout was on Pearl River Island, and Sea Glen was better known as the Claiborne Plantation.
Now we know, all through the efforts of one little lady, Doris Peterson Hoppe. She is now 89 and possessed of a fine memory of fondly remembered childhood experiences. Mrs. Hoppe now lives in Metairie, but her roots are in our close neighbor, St. Tammany Parish, as well as in Hancock County.
Her narration about the Louisiana connection is a welcome addition to my files, as it elucidates something that for a long time I was afraid represented another one of those fictions which come about through the telling and retelling of our history. It is made very clear that the name, English Lookout, has some basis in fact, as it is described as being on an island with a railroad and easy access to New Orleans. It is now called on modern nautical charts “Pearl River Island.”
A good deal of history goes with the island, whatever its name.
It is one and the same as that which Iberville called in his logs, “Pea Island,” because his crew had lost a sack of peas there on his early expedition to the Mississippi River. It remained so named for many years, and is called such in some of the official British documents pertaining to the preparations to invade New Orleans in the War of 1812.
I doubt that the invading British called it a lookout, as their purpose there was not to observe but to be a midpoint in the transfer of thousands of soldiers from the big sea-going ships at Cat Island to St. Bernard Parish. This was accomplished in two steps by means of small “barges,” rowboats which took the troops first to the island and then to the mainland.
Perhaps sentries were posted, and thus the name English Lookout may have been applicable.
The time was a cold and rainy December in 1814. While the soldiers waited on the island, British Lt. Gleig was to observe, “It is scarcely possible to imagine any place more completely wretched.” Author Robert Remini, in The Battle of New Orleans: “Pea Island was hardly more than a swampy sandbar, virtually stripped of all vegetation and singularly unfit for an army encampment.” Gleig reported that before that encampment, he “had never known what rain, real genuine rain, was.”
And it was cold. The British had planned in advance, and had ordered the barges to be made in Jamaica long in advance. In addition, they augmented their forces by taking in native Jamaican soldiers. These troops had never known anything but tropical life. They had not known cold. Many died there on Pea Island from exposure. One wonders whether they were interred there on the island.
Such was the unseemly history before English Lookout became a train stop and village for fishing and trapping.
The island is nowadays again a desolate one, covered by marsh grass, oyster shells, and little else. Its elevation probably would be measured in centimeters rather than meters. Scarcely a tree grows along its seven-mile length. The railroad that runs the full length is almost certainly the same as was created in the 1870’s to connect New Orleans to the Gulf Coast. English Lookout shows as a stop in the map of the railroad contained in the L&N publication of 1894, called Along the Gulf.
English Lookout: a Community
Current maps clearly identify the village as having been at the midpoint of the island, just east of an artificial cut into the marsh. That location is confirmed by Mrs. Hoppe’s youngest brother, Robert. There were five or six houses.
To raise families in these circumstances, whether on English Lookout or at Sea Glen, work was very hard for the adults. Undoubtedly, the children too had difficult chores to do, but to the young Doris Peterson, it was not a desolate island. She remembers it as one who might have been given a glimpse of paradise many years ago. The house was shared with her two sisters, three brothers, and of course their parents. They did not have electricity, and heat was provided by a wood stove in the kitchen – not always adequately, she reports. The children did their homework by the light of a lamp. But they fished, they crabbed, they picked blackberries. They would go swimming, the presence of gar fish and alligators adding to the fun. Their father trapped muskrat in winter and fished in summer, sending strings of fish by train to the French Market in New Orleans.
It is recorded that there was once an oyster factory on the island. Mrs. Hoppe remembers what was leftover from the factory: “We didn’t have any trees because it was an oyster factory years before anybody moved there. We didn’t have any mud either, just oyster shells.” In an interview granted in 1904 by Poss Lafrance, then 91-years old, he
Recalled an old, derelict schooner left over from the factory, but it would have been gone before his time: “I can’t remember that factory. So, anyhow, this schooner must have come to that factory delivering oysters.”
What is most surprising is that there was a village of residents in the early part of the 20th century, and probably in the latter 18th. It was in fact a community of people. They subsisted on hunting and fishing. The children went to school in New Orleans, specifically Colton School on St. Claude St. They caught the train close by their houses in the morning and returned in the evening. This was certainly the L&N commuter, the one my father and many other businessmen took daily from places like Clermont Harbor and Waveland when I was a child.
The mother of the Peterson family had come as a child with her parents to live at Sea Glen Plantation. After she married, they lived on the island, while her parents, the Stoufflets, continued at Sea Glen.
It was not far from the island to the plantation. To visit the grandparents, the family would go by canoes across Mulatto Bayou to the mainland.
I asked Mrs. Hoppe if they ever called Sea Glen the Claiborne plantation, and she said they had done so. This was a welcome assurance, as the name had sometimes led to confusion about whether the two were one and the same. In addition to Mrs. Hoppe’s memory that it was Claiborne, details of the house describe Claiborne accurately. She writes of a “lookout tower at the top of the house,” obviously the belvedere recognizable in pictures of Claiborne. Her memoir describes “two slave quarters under the house with iron bars on the windows,” so like the report in the WPA project. The house was remembered to be near Jackson Landing and Indian mounds, surely what we now call the Claiborne site and Cedarland. Also mentioned is “a fort all along Mulatto Bayou,” probably the prehistoric earthwork sometimes called the Boisdore Fortification, which Marco Giardino refers to as “the Ancient Earthwork which is still the largest extant structure of its type along the northern Gulf of Mexico.”
The old house is remembered as spooky but beautiful. Another source tells of a mural on the interior walls having been painted by a New Orleans artist. It was also strong. Mrs. Hoppe recalls, “It was built with pegs instead of nails.” Obviously, it had survived the serious hurricanes of 1860, 1893, and 1915.
Though her grandparents lived at Sea Glen for many years, Mrs. Hoppe said that it was not owned by her grandparents, but by Lester Alexander of New Orleans, who dealt in barges at the Industrial Canal. He owned the plantation through the many years that Stoufflets lived there.
The period before and after Claiborne are the troublesome ones for a historian. Previous ownership is at best a mixed account. We know a good deal about the plantation during the days when it was the residence of J.F.H. Claiborne. Much has been recorded about him and “Laurel Wood,” the name used for the plantation during that period, and there are articles on this web site about him and the plantation.
There is some information known about early owners in the area, in the names of Saucier and Boisdore, but it is difficult to discern where one boundary began and the other ended, and I cannot be certain as to which covered the land called Laurel Wood.
The period after Claiborne is even more complex, listing various owners in different deeds and claims, and involving the names of J.F.H. Claiborne, Martha D. Claiborne, Henry B. Claiborne. S. Tyler Read, Joseph S. Copes, and Robert N. Ogden. To add confusion, some of those documents refer to the same land as being known as “Zama Plantation.”
One interesting deed in our files recites a sale by the Claibornes to Read. It is dated March 1, 1867, and summarizes previous sales. Included is an 1852 purchase by Martha D. Claiborne from Francis Saucier. It is noteworthy that the initial purchase by the Claibornes was in the name of Martha, wife of JFH. It is possible that she, a Dunbar and owner of a Natchez plantation, was the source of funds from the beginning of the Claiborne occupancy. Both Claibornes, husband and wife, entered into the 1867 deed to Read.
Another fascinating document in Mrs. Hoppe’s papers is a copy of a New Orleans Times article of August 4, 1868, as reported by the New York Times on August 9. It tells of S. Tyler Read’s success with his crop of Sea Island cotton, which has “rattooned.” The word is explained as follows: “For those readers who do not understand what is meant by the word rattoon, we may state that the cotton was not planted at all, but shot up this year from the roots of the old plants. The price of Sea Island cotton last year from the same place was $1.20 per pound in the Savannah market, and this year is said to be very flourishing and even more valuable.”
Read had bought the property from the Claibornes only the year before. Whether Sea Island cotton continued to he harvested in the latter part of the 19th century and into the early 20th is not known. It might be assumed that Read was not terribly successful as a rattooner of valuable cotton, as he sold back to Martha Claiborne in February1872 at a public auction.
Grandpa Stoufflet as Farmer
It is doubtful that the Stoufflets were beneficiaries of the rattoon process in the same way as Read enjoyed it, as there is no such mention in the memoir. What is mentioned is the abundance of edible crops raised by grandfather Stoufflet. Vegetables were not grown on English Lookout, but it was just a short canoe trip to get a supply from the grandfather of peas, potatoes, onions, melons, bananas, pecans. “Grandpa Stoufflet grew a large garden and he had just about any vegetable you could name.”
Grandma also helped to provide: “Whenever they would get company grandma would go out in the yard and wring a couple of Chicken’s necks.” In addition, they had cows for milk and eggs from the chickens.
It is sometimes believed that a tomb near the manor house was the burial place of either Philip or Francois Saucier, and this belief is rekindled by a photograph in Mrs. Hoppe’s collection. It clearly shows a brick tomb with a tree growing out of its center. The tomb, however, is misidentified as that of a son of Governor Claiborne. Nonetheless, the photo is exciting to see, as it is evidence that there was in fact an above-ground tomb, not simply a grave.
Mrs. Hoppe’s brother Robert remembers the tomb, but does not recall an inscription. He does recall that it was to the north or northeast of the house, about a quarter mile or less away.
It would indeed be exciting to one day confirm the tomb of an early Saucier.
Among the items in the collection is a clipping from a 1940 newspaper containing a photo of the grandparents at a party. To quote from the unidentified paper, “Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Stoufflet, two of the most popular persons in the Pearl River country, celebrated their golden wedding anniversary at Seaglen plantation Sunday, with hundreds of guests attending. The old Spanish colonial home was filled all day with well wishers, who stayed to eat a bit of the golden wedding cake, and dance to the music of a New Orleans night club orchestra.”
Mrs. Hoppe’s memoir elaborates: “The band came from New Orleans on the train to English Lookout and they went to the plantation on Uncle Lawrence’s boat….The band came from the Court of Two Sisters in the French Quarter. Jimmy Cooper was the owner then.”
Gone except for the Memories
An important and lovely plantation home and a community of people on an island no longer exist, except in the memories of folks like Doris Peterson Hoppe.
The site of the Sea Glen manor house cannot be visited unless one has permission from the Port and Harbor Commission. To see the prehistoric mounds and earthwork one may also need an OK from GE or other companies which now make up this industrial area.
English Lookout cannot be reached except by water, and it is a safe assumption that the train no longer makes a whistle stop there. But if a traveler on Highway 90 wants to have an idea of where it was, he may observe the train trestle from the peak of the high new bridge over the Rigolets. It can be seen in the distance, to the east, fully nine-spans long and over six miles away. It bridges that body of water, swift tidal current and all, which the Petersons considered was an easy paddle over to Grandpa and Grandma’s.
Needless to say, this observation is not to be done by the driver of the car. One may get a better view from a boat.