Lafayette (LA) Daily Advertiser, July 29, 1997
St. Martin is the Cradle of French Louisiana
Acadian and Aristocrat, African and Anglo Found Shelter Together
by Jim Bradshaw, City Editor
If New Orleans is the birthplace of French Louisiana, St. Martin Parish is the cradle where it was nurtured, and a place where it continues in robust health today.
It is where Acadian and aristocrat, African and Anglo--peoples of widely divergent classes and lifestyle--have found shelter beneath the oaks of the Teche and sustenance from the cypress swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin.
It was once the seat of the Attakapas District, a region stretching to the Gulf of Mexico from a northern border running roughly across St. Landry, Evangeline, and Allen parishes, encompassing everything between the Atchafalaya River on the east and the Mermentau on the west.
The first Europeans to settle in St. Martin probably got there in the 1730's, when a few Frenchmen began to graze cattle in the area. C.C. Robin, a French writer, botanist and traveler who lived in the Attakapas district in the early 1800's, said that one of the first settlers was Edouard Masse, "who belonged to a rich family of Grenoble. He brought to the Attakapas some twenty Negroes .... He lived about twenty years in that wilderness ...."
A man named Sorel and Jean Berard, a former St. Louis merchant who married an Acadian, ran cattle early on in the region.
In 1755, Father Pierre Didier, a Benedictine who had done missionary work in various parts of Louisiana, began to visit the area. A Capuchin missionary named Father Valentine also came from Natchitoches from time to time. The two priests would visit the area until 1764.
In 1756, France established the trading post called the Poste des Attakapas (St. Martinville today), named for the Attakapas Indian tribe that lived in the area.
Nicholas St. Denis, who served as commandant at Natchitoches from 1715 to 1744, had licensed merchants at the Attakapas Post, which was a trading post for sometime before it became a military outpost in the days of Spanish rule.
Gabriel Fuselier de la Claire became the first commandant of the Attakapas Post and in 1760 bought land from the Attakapas Chief Skenne-mok. The commandant was joined there during the early 1760's by several families from Fort Toulouse and Mobile, which had been ceded to the British by the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
Etienne de Vaugine, a French militia captain, bought a large estate on the east bank of Bayou Teche as early as 1764. In an inventory taken in 1773, Vaugine's indigo estate was listed as 40 arpents wide by 40 arpents deep on the east bank of the Teche, and 40 arpents by 20 arpents on the west bank.
(An arpent is an old French measure of land, slightly less than an acre. It is also sometimes a linear measure, equivalent to about 192 feet.)
The first Acadians began arriving in numbers at the post in 1765, 10 years after the expulsion from Acadie. In February 1765, acting Gov. Charles Philippe Aubry allowed Acadians led by Joseph (Beausoleil) Broussard to go to the Attakapas post, although he had first wanted tosettle them on land on the Mississippi River.
The Mississippi River would have to be cleared before the Acadians could live off of it. The Attakapas prairies would not. Besides that, the Attakapas district was perfect for raising beef cattle, something important in Aubry's eyes. The 1763 treaty had given to the British all of the French territory east of the Mississippi River and, said Aubry "since the cession of Mobile, we are entirely without cattle."
On April 4, 1765, eight Acadian leaders agreed on behalf of themselves and about 200 others to raise cattle on lands that would be provided to them by Antoine Bernard Dauterive.
Under the terms of the contract, the Acadians agreed to tend Dauterive's livestock for six years. At the end of that time, they would get half of the herd's increase and would get land from the grant that Dauterive and Edouard Masse had acquired in 1760.
The contract was signed by Dauterive and by Joseph (Beausoleil) Broussard, Alexandre Broussard, Joseph Guilbeau, Jean Duga (sic), Olivier Tibaudau (sic), Jean-Baptiste Broussard, Pierre Arcenaud (sic), and Victor Broussard.
The prospective Attakapas settlers were given enough flour, hardtack, rice, salt pork, and beef to maintain themselves. They were also provided with tools to clear their lands and with seed rice and corn.
Louis Andry, a veteran military engineer, was directed to take the Acadians across the Atchafalaya Basin and into the Attakapas country.
According to his instructions, Andry and Beausoleil Broussard were to lay out a village, establish a common area around it, then parcel out outlying lands to families according to their size and needs. The colonial officials wanted the Acadians to live in the village and go out from it to tend their lands, as was common in Europe at the time.
But the Acadians did not like that scheme. In Acadie, they had lived on the land that they cultivated, and that's what they wanted to do--and did--in their new homeland. They spread onto widely separated pieces of land between La Manque (near today's Breaux Bridge and Fausse Pointe (present day Loreauville). And that was not all that did not go exactly according to plan. Some of the Acadians in the Fausse Pointe settlement decided that they didn't want to raise cattle on shares for Dauterive. Instead, they bought cattle from his neighbor, Jean-Baptiste Grevemberg, which Grevemberg didn't mind. But he got upset when the Acadians tried to claim land at Fausse Pointe. Grevemberg claimed everything between Fausse Pointe and the Vermilion River and wasn't keen on the idea of giving land away to the newly arrived Acadians. The government in New Orleans let the Acadians have their farmsteads. Grevemberg grumbled but had to content himself with only about 20 square miles of land.
Besides needing beef from the Attakapas region, Spanish authorities wanted to populate the area for military reasons. When the Treaty of Paris transferred French territory east of the Mississippi to Great Britain, it took away Choctaw, Creek and Cherokee allies, who were then wooed into alliances by the British. As these tribes became more friendly to Great Britain, the French, then Spanish Louisiana colony became more vulnerable to them.
Spanish Gov. Antonio de Ulloa countered this by building forts on the eastern border of the colony and by building up the districts of St. James, Attakapas, and Opelousas.
In late June 1766, he appointed commandants for these posts, who were given civil and judicial powers but who were mainly local military officers.
The Acadians under Broussard were particularly good colonists for these posts. They got along with the Indians. They hated the British. And many of them had experience under fire, from a brave but futile guerrilla war they'd helped fight for a short time after their neighbors had beenshipped from Acadie.
Not everyone making a new life in the region were the simple, hardworking Acadians of the Evangeline legend. The area was settled during turbulent times in Europe. Frenchmen fleeing the Revolution, and other European immigrants, found Louisiana to their liking. Even before that, the colony became attractive to younger sons of aristocratic houses that traditionally passed on lands and titles only to the oldest boy.
The influx of French immigrants and Santo Domingo refugees combined with the established Acadian and Creole farmers to produce the seeds of a thriving plantation society along the banks of the Teche in the early 19th century.
The unlimited opportunities in turn attracted a significant number of English-speaking planters and professional people from New England and the Middle Atlantic states.
Between 1765 and the early 1800's, many more settlers came to the Attakapas area--more Acadians from Nova Scotia, Spanish-speaking Canary Islanders (Islenos), refugees from the French Revolution, as well as Creole families from New Orleans, Mobile, and other early French settlements in Louisiana.
An 1803 census of the Attakapas District counted "2,270 whites, 210 free people of color, 1,266 slaves; in all 3,746 souls."
Groups of all nationalities came at the time of the War of 1812, a time of westward expansion for the United States as a whole. Italians settled in the Atchafalaya area with over 30,000 of them coming to Louisiana to work as laborers in the sugar industry. Anglo-Americans settled in and around the basin in the mid-19th century, beginning after 1803 and peaking during the 1850's. Many entered the cypress lumber industry. Some became fishermen and trappers.
English-speaking Africans and French-speaking men and women of color from Haiti came as slaves, many of whom remained as sharecroppers after the Emancipation.
Attakapas Parish was renamed St. Martin Parish in 1807. Louisiana became a state in 1812 and the town of St. Martinville was incorporated that same year. By the early 19th century, Bayou Teche was lined with successful farms and several small but growing towns. After the Louisiana Purchase, the Acadians who had made their homes in south Louisiana were joined by English speakers from other states and by other European immigrants seeking to settle vacant land.
Copyright ©1997 by the Lafayette (LA) Daily Advertiser. Reprinted with permission.