Oftentimes, when I have been asked to give an informal tour of New Orleans, I have chosen to pay particular attention to Bayou St. John. This may be influenced by the fact that I have lived on Grand Route St. John for over twenty years, and like to point out that old maps show my street ran directly to Bayou Road and was part of the portage between the bayou and the Mississippi River.
On such occasions, I have driven to the mouth of the bayou at Lake Pontchartrain and happily pointed out that the ruins of the “Old Spanish Fort” are sitting on top of those of an older, French fort. On the way to or from the lake, it is fun to drive along City Park Avenue and tell about the ponds that run parallel to the roadway not being man-made: They are the last remnants of Bayou Metairie, which had a confluence with Bayou St. John near the bridge at the entrance to the park and New Orleans Museum of Art.
It is not unusual for me at this point to jump ahead in my story and switch to the visit of General Andrew Jackson on his way to Chalmette in 1814. This is not to tell the story of the battle of New Orleans, but to show another significance to Bayou St. John. Admittedly I risk the consternation of the history lovers who live in some of the small towns just east of the Pearl River, as they have been fond to claim that Jackson came through their area, but I recount the eyewitness history of the general’s chief engineer, Major Arsene Lacarriere Latour. His history shows that their route from Mobile was to go northwest to the so-called federal road, a couple of wagon ruts along the 31st parallel. From there they passed Ford’s Fort on the Pearl, and then went southwest to Madisonville, from which they would have commandeered boats to cross Lake Pontchartrain. They entered New Orleans through Bayou St. John.
Somewhere I have read that Jackson was invited for a short respite at the house of one of the inhabitants of the bayou.
Bayou St. John in Colonial Louisiana
I have accve[ted from several sources, including a wonderful research volume, Bayou St. John in Colonial Louisiana, 1699-1803 (Freiberg), that settlement along the bayou predated Bienville’s founding of New Orleans in 1718. The identity of these settlers has been known, and their land grants can be located. Indeed, along the bayou stand several authentic plantation manor houses, standing fairly close together. It is noteworthy that plantations along the bayou, much like those along the Mississippi River, were narrow strips of land having at least a small frontage on the waterway in order to move their product to market.
(As an aside for those interested in Hancock County as well, I should point out that in an analysis of Bay St. Louis in 1850 I discovered that almost every property with beach frontage had depth of forty arpents, well over a mile.)
Iberville’s Own Logs
The thought occurred to me that I might find the very earliest description of the bayou. For this I consulted Iberville’s Gulf Journals (McWilliams, ed.), looking for that part where Iberville would certainly have passed the mouth of the bayou. I was, however, disappointed in his account of his first voyage on the Mississippi River in 1699. (It must be explained that on the descent Iberville had been convinced by his Indian guides that he could leave the river and take a shortcut through a large lake, thus saving a day’s travel back to the Gulf. This he did, through what became known as the Iberville River and Lake Pontchartrain.)
The following is in the log of March 28, 1699:
"We went on along the shore of this lake for about 10 leagues east by south…I came on and camped on a grass-covered point, without trees, rather uncomfortably as we had no drinking water, and there were many mosquitoes, which are dreadful little beasts to men who need rest. For 4 leagues prairies extend along the lake, being deep enough to extend to the great forest, about a league away."
Judging from his description of the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, he must have passed the mouth of the bayou, but perhaps its significance did not become apparent until later.
The journal of the second voyage shows that by January 17, 1700, Iberville was in fact already well acquainted with the existence of the bayou. His account of reads as follows:
"I got to the mouth of the stream which leads to the portage. This stream is at the far end of the lake, towards the south; it is 20 yards wide, 10 feet deep, and 1 league long. Where it flows into the lake I found only 1 foot and 2 feet of water; 3 feet during high water."
Significantly, I berville knew not only of the bayou, but the portage as well.
In a footnote, editor McWilliams writes that this was Bayou St. John but called by the Choctaws “Choupicatcha,” or “grindle river,” thus confirming my memory from another source that the bayou in those days was full of that prehistoric fish called choupiques.
They are still fished with bamboo poles in many borrow pit canals along old highways, like old Airline Highway, going toward Baton Rouge.
Iberville wrote more on the 18th:
I went to the portage, which I found to be 1 league long, about half the distance being full of water and mud up to the knee, the other half fairly good, part of it being a country of canes and fine woods suitable to live in. I had three canoes carried over the portage. I went and looked at a spot where the Quinipissas once had a village, 1½ leagues above this portage; here I found that the land did not become inundated, or did so very little….Today I had a small field cleared in which I had some sugar cane planted that I brought from St. Domingue.
Once again from a forgotten source I have believed that the Houma tribe had occupied the land along Bayou St. John which now includes St. Louis Number Three cemetery. The empty land between the bayou and the cemetery once was the Confederate soldiers home, bulldozed down almost overnight a few years ago. Soon it will be the new home of the Deutsches Haus. From the above, I must correct my memory and bend toward Iberville’s account that it was the Quinipissas who were there in the early days of occupation by colonists.
On the 20th it appears that Iberville described land which I believe was later to become City Park, and also another stream which eventually was known as Bayou Metairie:
The little stream to the portage runs north and south with the one by which I came down from the Mississippi last year, the two being 4 leagues apart. The south side of the lake is bordered by a prairie half a league to one league wide, after which comes to the tall trees. This looks like a fine country to live in. I came on and spent the night three leagues from the outlet of the lake. The islands here are covered with meadows; from among them issues a freshwater stream, flowing from the north.
Excerpts from Giraud’s History of Louisiana
Other volumes of early history have also been examined for their bearing on specific information about Bayou St. John. In fact, it was a brief perusal of the indices of two that prompted this writing. For some time, I have been fortunate to have three of Marcel Giraud’s History of Louisiana. These are Volumes One, Two and Five, translated from French by LSU Press. They are now out-of-print, selling on eBay for about $88 for one. It is my understanding that Volumes Three and Four have been translated but not yet published.
What follows are some of the fine bits I have happily found.
From Volume One, 1698-1715
The Colapissas are said to have had poor lands, partly because they did not protect them from deer and buffalo. Other groups mentioned as living along the bayous are the Chitimachas, Washas, and Peloussas; they were “confined on the marshy of the bayous, where they lived on fish, shellfish and alligators,” and were the “most destitute” when compared with a number of other tribes which could “supplement their hunting with agriculture owing to the fertility of the soil, and in some cases, by raising chickens.” The Colapissas were among those who had “a double resource of hunting and agriculture.”
Importance of St. Denis
The important personage of Louis Juchereau de St. Denis appears often. This soldier and adventurer was commander of the Fort of Mississippi, also known as Fort de la Boulay, and the founder of Natchitoches. He is said to have moved the Natchitoches tribe about 1705 to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, next to the Colapissas. However, it seems this was on the north shore of the lake. About the same time, St. Denis ordered the transfer of the Biloxis around Bayou St. John.
Early into his administration, Iberville encouraged agriculture to relieve dependence on France for food. As mentioned above from another source, Iberville experimented with planting sugar cane along the bayou. However, it is recorded that “there were no other developments in this nascent period of agriculture. It is hardly worth mentioning the few fields that d’Iberville cleared along the portage from Bayou St. John to the Mississippi and near the village of the Bayogoulas, with the intention of growing wheat and sugar cane….”
Something very new, to me at least, is the revelation that the area of Bayou St. John was also known as Biloxi. It is an important passage for more than its name, and so the whole is quoted:
Less fortunate had been the attempt of a small number of inhabitants to settle between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi, near the site that Saint Denis had assigned to the small tribe of the Biloxis in order to put them closer to the Fort of Mississippi [de la Boulaye] – eleven leagues (thirty-odd miles) away – and which for this reason was named Biloxi….The area involved here was Bayou St. John, which Penicaut called the Soupicatcha River, near the portage which gave access to the river.
According to Penicaut, “Bilochy” was “an Indian establishment located toward Lake Pontchartrain, from which establishment one can make a portage of one league to go to the Missicipy.”
An experiment in farming began in 1708, when five or six settlers were each cultivating an acre of land, according to French official Dartaguiette. These lands were on the east side of the bayou. However, two years later the work was considered unsuccessful, apparently negating a promise by Bienville to build a mill for them.
Some of the first colonists were Antoine Rivard Delavigne, Baptiste Poirier, and Francois Dugue, all Canadians. It is not clear whether they were among those who were active in the above experiment.
Once more, Giraud quotes Penicaut, asserting that St. Denis was a relative of Iberville, and also “a volunteer officer…not bound to any command.” As such, he refused Bienville’s request to join him at Biloxi and took command of the “territory of Saint John” along the bayou in 1708. There, he “maintained a commerce in skins, maize, fruits, and melons at Biloxi (Bayou St. John).” In one report, Bayou St. John is referred to as “the residence” of St. Denis.
The community that had at first failed at agriculture initially did not give up totally and after a while were actively growing maize along the bayou. One was Delavigne, who later was to buy “all the lots of land” which were “like the ‘river lots’ of New France, long and narrow, with a frontage of two and a half or three arpents on the bayou.”
From Volume Five 1723-1731
Progress had been made around the bayou by 1723. Cattle were grazing along the natural levees of the Mississippi. This was so by the bayou as well, but here pigs were even more common, being raised by settlers in numbers as high as sixty. Imports of animals were coming from St. Domingue.
A census was taken in 1726. Twenty-one settlers were counted along Bayou St. John, and thirty more on the banks of Bayou Gentilly. There were in addition fifty blacks, presumably all slaves.
By 1728 it could be observed that woods were being cleared in areas around both Bayou St. John and Bayou Gentilly. The latter was also called “Chantilly” in early reports.
Once more begging the reader’s excusing of my personal accounts, I must say that I enjoy the contours of Gentilly Blvd. as they followed at least to some degree the meanderings of Bayou Gentilly. In front of Dillard University is a delightful duck pond with cypress trees, the last remnant of the bayou. At the Broad Street intersection there was once a mound, possibly a midden, but not even a rise in the median is it any more detectable. Somewhere in this area was also “washerwoman’s bridge,” and just a little ways toward the river, at the beginning of Bayou Road, was an Indian market.
The populations of the 1720s could not be said to have formed villages, except perhaps for a minor concentration at Gentilly. However, in at least one case a concession was expanded substantially in exchange for work on the bayou itself. Driftwood had to be cleared; cypress stumps had to be dug out by their roots. Navigation had to be unimpeded in order for colonists to have access to New Orleans and to Lake Pontchartrain.
Even now, a stroll along the bayou allows an observer to see huge root systems, preserved for however long one might imagine.
In Conclusion, a Surprise: Windmills!
Before 1726, Adrien de Pauger, a mapmaker who designed the first street system of New Orleans, had proposed a canal linking Bayou St. John to the river. The intention was to drain off flood waters from the city. Remarkably, the plan included a lock and a small boat harbor to protect boats from hurricanes. Governor Etienne Perier tried to implement the plan again in 1728, but was unsuccessful.
Pauger also considered a mill to turn rice and corn into flour. The idea was to power it by water from the Mississippi. However, because he was unable to implement the canal and lock, he suggested mills run by horses and wind. In my wildest imaginings, I would never have pictured a windmill in south Louisiana. But sure enough, by 1726 one had been built and was grinding corn. It was on the levee near where Pauger’s canal would have connected the river to Bayou St. John.
A mill with horses took a bit longer, partly because of a delay in securing millstones, but it too was completed in 1728.
Significantly, the mills did substantially alleviate the colony’s demand for flour which could no longer be obtained from France.