History & Culture
The Bayou Teche takes you on a journey into the geographical heart of Acadiana. Once described as the “most richly storied of the interior waters, and the most opulent,” this body of water was the center of a booming cypress industry in the early 1900s. The Teche winds its way through four parishes and ends in the Atchafalaya Basin, an essential source of food, timber and fur, a refuge for escaped slaves and a natural resource for enterprising Cajuns and Creoles.
The meandering of the streams within this channel, as well as the floodplain around it, have resulted in areas with fertile soil. However, humans’ attempts to control flooding have all but eliminated the natural replenishing of fertile soil in the floodplains. These engineering practices have naturally impacted the landscape and its inhabitants, but without them, property damage and loss of human life would certainly be greater.
Early economic development of the Atchafalaya Basin hinged on the Bayou Teche. Before roads, the little Teche, not the Atchafalaya, was the highway from the Gulf of Mexico into the heart of Louisiana. The Teche was navigable over 100 miles, yet just wide enough, deep enough and swift enough to maneuver. Several Bayou Teche settlements materialized because of the timber and waterborne economy.
Native American Influence
Two major Native American tribes lived along the banks of the Teche for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. They were the Chitimacha, who settled along the lower sections of the bayou and still have tribal lands around what is now Charenton, and the Attakapas tribe, which settled along the upper sections of the Bayou from its headwaters around what is now Port Barre to the area now known as St. Martinville.
Legend of Bayou Teche
As told by the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana
Many, many years ago, there was a huge and venomous snake. It was so large and so long that its size was not measured in feet, but in miles. Its head was at what is now known as Morgan City and its body stretched beyond St. Martinville and Breaux Bridge to its tail, which rested in Port Barré. This enormous snake had been an enemy of the Chitimacha for many years, doing a lot of destruction to their ways of life. One day the Chitimacha Chief called together his warriors and had them prepare themselves for battle with their enemy, the snake. In those days, there were no guns that they could use to destroy the snake. All they had were their clubs and bows and arrows, the arrowheads being made not from flint, but from a large bone from the local garfish. Of course, a snake over 124 miles long could not be instantly killed. The warriors fought courageously to kill the enemy, but it fought just as hard to try to survive. As the snake turned, coiled and twisted in the last few days of a slow but sure death, it broadened, curved and deepened the place wherein his huge body lay. As his body decomposed, the place began to deepen more. The Bayou Teche (”Teche” meaning “snake”) is today proof of the exact position into which this enemy placed himself when overcome by the Chitimachas in the days of their strength.
Before European immigrants came to the area, Chitimacha roamed the Teche, fished it and made their home there. Chitimacha used the Teche as one of their major trade networks, and built several Chitimacha mounds along its banks.
At one time the Chitimacha were in danger of extinction. During this time many of them hid in the Atchafalaya Basin between the Bayou Teche and the Atchafalaya River. These small villages helped to assure their existence in a time of peril and danger of extinction.
The Chitimacha Indian reservation sits on a bend in the Bayou Teche. The city of Charenton, near the reservation, was once known as “Indian Bend.” Near the Chitimacha Indian reservation and Charenton, the Bayou Teche comes closest to the Atchafalaya Basin, one of the largest swamp and wild areas in the nation. Today, the Chitimacha Indians have a casino on their reservation.
Attakapas – Ishak
Attakapas is a name given to this tribe of Indians by other Indians in the area and literally means “man-eaters.” They were known for their alleged custom of cannibalizing their enemies. They called themselves Ishak (ee-SHAK). The Attakapas were wiped out as a people by the early 1800s as a result of defeats by other tribes and diseases contracted from early European settlers for which they had no immunity. The Attakapas were friendly with the Chitimacha and traded with them.
Acadians and European Peoples
During the years 1519-1687, many explorers came to Louisiana, including Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, sponsored by France. The French explorers befriended the Native Americans but the Spanish and the British, for the most part, were not very well received by the Native Americans. These European countries were all trying to expand their empires into the New World, thus began a colorful history of Louisiana switching hands several times before becoming a state.
European colonists came to Louisiana under the promise of a land of milk and honey. Many settlers perished shortly after their arrival, and others either went back to Europe. Of those who remained, life was difficult. Some received land grants and became wealthy through the establishment of plantations and use of slave labor. Settlers from France, Spain, Britain and Germany settled along the Mississippi River, but westward expansion into the Atchafalaya and Teche basins shortly followed.
One of the more celebrated groups of South Louisiana’s many colonial immigrants came from Acadie, which is now Nova Scotia, Canada. These peasant people of French descent were exiled from their homes in Canada when they refused to abandon their Roman Catholic beliefs to worship as members of the Church of England. Dispersed along the Atlantic coast, some found their way to south-central Louisiana and settled along the banks of the Bayou Teche.
Many customs in south-central Louisiana have their roots in the traditions of the Acadian settlers. Descendants of this group are still in the area and are proud of their “Cajun” heritage. The Acadians arrived during Spanish Colonial rule, and many settlements along the lower Bayou Teche, including New Iberia, still thrive today.
Check out Historian and Archivist Shane Bernard’s blog logging his research for his book about the Teche: http://bayoutechedispatches.blogspot.com.