Louisiana Roots

When you tell people you plan to retire in a few years, the typical question you get is, “What do you plan to do in retirement?” Most advice you read about retirement planning suggests you should have an answer to this question, as simply quitting work “cold turkey” can lead to loneliness, loss of your sense of purpose, isolation. and depression.

Of course, the answer to what one will do once no longer chasing a paycheck is as varied as there are people, and most people think they know. Some plan to spend more time with grandchildren. (I have none and do not expect I ever will, as my one and only daughter has told me several times!) Others say they plan to spend more time doing things they currently enjoy but don’t have much time for, like hobbies, and travel. Besides spending more time riding my bike, I plan to read and write more!

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Over the years I have had several book ideas, and have been saving my ideas and bits of related data I have found, but none has piqued my interest more than a mysterious family story that has led me to study more about my family roots in Louisiana. Descended from a fisherman who settled on Grand Isle, Louisiana after immigrating from Rome in 1822, my family history is very similar to that of many folks from Louisiana: a mix of Italian, Native American, French, German (lots of french and German) and Anglican ancestries living in a rich culture formed by a unique blend of French, Spanish, Native American and Anglo-American cultural influences. I won’t be discussing my book idea in detail on these pages, but I would like to share some of my research so far.

The family event that inspired me occurred in December of 1928, less than a year before the famous “Black Monday” event that ended the prosperous “roaring twenties”. It was an interesting time in Louisiana History. In contrast to broad prosperity, Prohibition was in full swing, a cultural event that strongly conflicted with the culture of south Louisiana. The 18th amendment to the Constitution prohibited the production and consumption of alcohol in the US. The state legislature had ratified the amendment by a narrow margin as northern and central protestant dry areas defeated the “wet’ votes of New Orleans and other southern wet parishes, which were dominated by Catholic and Lutheran folks. Here, the enjoyment of adult beverages was as much a part of their culture as religious festivals, zydeco music, Jazz and gumbo.

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Lets just say the folks in South Louisiana were not happy about Prohibition. It is estimated that within days of the 18th Amendment enabling Volstead act going into effect in 1920, over 10,000 New Orleans had already broken the law. Even the local authorities turned a blind eye as “mystery rooms” appeared all over. “Where did you get that liquor, Sir? Its a mystery, it’s a mystery”, was a common joke. It was not long before large liquor smuggling operations began bringing in liquor through channels near Chalmette as well as up the Bayou Barataria made famous by the early nineteenth century privateer Jean Lafitte, whose port and village at Grand Terre, (next to Grand isle), provided easy transfer of smuggled and confiscated goods onto small boats for silent transport to New Orleans. As it was, this history of smuggling that existed through 1815 or so would have been well understood by the rural bayou inhabitants of southern Louisiana, the Cajuns.

The French Arcadian (Cajun) culture that dominated rural south Louisiana was naturally distrustful of authority, having been forced from their Canadian homes by the British several times, and physically deported in 1755 to several different ports in North America and the Caribbean. Many eventually settled in French and Spanish Louisiana. A predominantly self-governing group, the Cajuns did not appreciate (or even recognize) laws and rules being imposed on them by outsiders, including the new government of the United States, whose jurisdiction they fell after the famous Louisiana Purchase in 1805. Together with the remoteness of the swampy south and the prevailing attitudes against authority, the smuggling operations of famous privateer Jean Lafitte, thrived until being forced out of his Grand Terre village by a state led military operation around 1814.

This happened despite his having warned the State government of a pending invasion by the British during the war of 1812. The state did not believe him, given his reputation as an outlaw. The British, who had heard of Lafitte’s reputation, assumed he could be bought to commit treason against his new adopted country for a tidy sum, and tried to enlist his help getting troops up the Barataria Bayou to cut New Orleans off from the north. The offer to Lafitte was turned down by the patriotic Lafitte, who instead delivered written documents delivered to him by the hopeful British describing their plan to invade Louisiana, Besides describing the role they wanted for his band of sea faring privateers, it also included plans for the British to block any northern escape up the Mississippi from New Orleans, capture the city and then join up with troops from Canada to invade the young US from the west as part of their plan to win the War of 1812.

The British instead tried to invade New Orleans by coming in from the south west, through Chalmette, leading to the famous Battle of New Orleans, where forces led by Andrew Jackson defeated them decisively. This successful defense happened because Lafitte, his warnings having been ignored by the state government, traveled to New Orleans and warned the inhabitants of British intentions. There, he helped to organize the resistance that led to the defeat of the British. Lafitte’s story is even more interesting but since it is not the subject of my inquiry, I will leave it here. For those interested, there is much to found on the Internet. This is one of the best stories I found, which is the source of much of what I wrote above: http://www.storyvilledistrictnola.com/lafitte.html

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Jean Lafitte was long dead of course by the early 20th century, but the smuggling operation he perfected would have been perfect for resisting Prohibition, so the rum flowed freely from the Caribbean via pirogues (small boats) up the Bayou Lafourche and Barataria routes to New Orleans and beyond so freely the price of rum actually went down! There were too many routes to New Orleans to patrol, so smuggling was easy, and lucrative.

There is a lot more I have discovered as I research my roots and I find Cajun culture and history to be very interesting, especially as it relates to stories handed down from both sides of my family. I may write another post soon abut what I have discovered about Cajun culture. I also plan some trips back to my parents homeland to do some on the ground research. Perhaps we will attend one or more of the Cajun festivals that celebrate life in the spring and fall. I very much look forward to the day when, retired, I have more time to research and can write that book I have in mind! In the meanwhile, I will research for it and write about what I can!

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