LEFT: TWO-ROOM HUT; RIGHT: ONE-ROOM HUT
CAJUN MARKET HUNTERS, CAMP, PALMETTO HUT, LAKE SALVADOR
Probably no section of North America in its primitive state was richer in bird life through the years than southern Louisiana, and this was especially true of the forests, marshes, swamps, and prairie areas for fifty miles and more inland from the Gulf of Mexico, essentially cut off from the rest of the world by its bayous and rivers.
So, if one were asked the best state for duck hunting in the olden days in the United States, one would find it extremely difficult not to say it was Louisiana. If asked the best area for duck hunting, one would say it was somewhere on the coastal region, which was one vast waterfowling Garden of Eden. Most would say it was a sixty-mile stretch eastward through a series of canals, bordered with marshes, that spanned the sometimes overflowed prairies from bayou to bayou, from Terrebonne to Lafourche, Lafourche to Des Allemands, so through Lake Salvador into and up Bartaria, again crossing the prairie and at length, leaving Lake Cataouache through cypress swamp to the Mississippi River, opposite New Orleans.
Furthermore, Lake Salvador, also known as Lake Ouacha, in the southern part of St. Charles Parish, would most likely be mentioned as being the best spot of that sixty-mile stretch. It was a shallow, marsh-bordered lake approximately 50 square miles in area.
All these mentioned places produced boat or railcar loads of waterfowl each season, and here the silent pirogues of the Cajun hunters plied unmolested. The posting of one’s grounds was associated, in the Cajun’s mind, with ideas of aristocracy—peculiar privileges to the rich and oppression to the poor. When seen, they heeded not such notices as this: “TAKE NOTICE-All persons found trespassing will be prosecuted as the law directs.” Claiming ownership of the countless flocks of geese and ducks that were wont to settle during the winter months at Lake Salvador, its ponds, and marshes, these warning on paper were disregarded and ridiculed. Therefore, they continued their encroachment, for this locality had always been noted for its excellent waterfowling grounds.
They knew their country as no stranger could and where waterfowl could be killed every day. For a pirogue, they didn’t go to the nearest Bass Pro Shop, instead they sharpened their ax and selected a nice cypress log. Traveling by pirogue to the hunting grounds was described by an Englishman as “floating in the water on a match.”
Camps built and used by family groups had been an important aspect of life around Lake Salvador during the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century. Families left their homes to move to their waterfowling camps at Lake Salvador every year during the duck or fishing season. The family camps were small, and organized around an extended family. Consisting of both houseboats and houses built on stilts, camps were built to house additional labor during the heavy season of any particular resource such as waterfowl where families could live together near hard-to-reach resources. Camps were typically accessible only by boat, and even in the twentieth century many did not have electricity.
Some camps consisted of one or two hunters and not a family. Their camp consisted of either a houseboat or a one-room, palmetto-cedar hut whose construction was learned from the Indians.
The typical family hut contained only two rooms, one of which combined all the features of a kitchen, dining room, living room, and bedroom. The other room was used as a bedroom. The whole family was crowded into these two rooms, which were small at best. Both beds and bunks were used for sleeping, with the children crowded three or four to a bed. A wood stove was used for both cooking and heating. A houseboat was merely a hut on a small barge.
Whether it was a family or only one or two hunters, the hut was located on the bank of a bayou or lake to make it easy to access by the families’ boats, which were used to procure supplies or haul their waterfowl to market, if not shipped by train or someone else’s boat. Slips for the boats were dug into the bank and were tied to stakes driven into the ground.
The family moved into their dwelling a week or two before the hunting season opened to get things in readiness. All took a hand in looking over their hunting paraphernalia, repairing anything if necessary. The ways of the father were the ways of the sons. The father and the boys set out decoys and made blinds, etc. When the season started, each member of the family had an appointed task. When the day’s waterfowl was brought to camp, the mother and girls gutted and hung the waterfowl to dry, with help from the boys when needed. While they were away from camp hunting, the women folk kept the camp clean and prepared the meals. This routine was followed every day of the hunting season, being interrupted only to celebrate Christmas, or a rare trip back to buy supplies at the nearest store. To learn waterfowling lore, the younger boys went along with their father to learn the tricks of the trade, how to set out decoys, etc.
In camp, the girls helped their mother with household tasks and were taught the proper way of gutting and drying waterfowl and shorebirds, a most important lesson because a damaged bird would bring only a fraction of what it would otherwise be worth. When the boy became old enough, he was given a share of the season’s kill, and, in time, usually between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, he became full partners with his father and was allowed to hunt by himself. This partnership often times endured for life, even after marriage. The girls, however, were not so treated. They received their food and clothing, and a little spending money on occasion, nothing more. It was a man’s world.
Although camps were placed in relatively inaccessible areas, they were not totally isolated. During certain seasons, such as winter in the hunting area, or summer in the fishing areas, several families would be found in the same vicinity, taking advantage of prime conditions. Camps were often placed for ease of communication, on the same route, if not the same spots. For example, houseboats were commonly moored along a bayou emptying into Lake Salvador and camps built on slightly elevated shell beaches or mounds around the lake or bayou. If enough families were nearby, Floating stores supplied these camps with a limited supply of groceries and bought their waterfowl, if not taken to New Orleans. The family camps provided a point of continuity—a place where the skills were passed from one generation to the next—and were a primary source of income for the family.
The Cajuns were amphibious people inhabiting a world of swamps and bayous. They hunted alligator in the hot summer months, beginning when the warm weather of spring had driven the waterfowl back north to the breeding grounds, or when the heated waters of the lakes and lagoons compelled the fish to seek the more temperate currents of the open sea. They hunted gators for meat for their own consumption and hides for the game markets, which were shipped to Paris. In the fall, when the waters were lowest, they fished, trapped, and continued alligator hunting, while preparing to hunt waterfowl.
In the earliest of days, waterfowl began arriving by the middle of October, sometimes even as early as September depending on the weather, but, for the most part, were not fit for consumption, being to lean and poor from their long migration, so the market hunters waited until they had had time to fatten up.
After a successful morning hunt, they often took their guns and walked to an old burn in the marsh, where it had been fired in the early fall for “marsh rabbits.” Here rabbits were taken for food. During migration, the burnt marsh swarmed with snipes of a dozen varieties and nearly that many species of rails, along with plovers, which also graced their table, and went to market at the French Quarters.
At camp, nothing was more relished than Cajun duck-gizzard jambolaya. Fricasseed rails were great, redfish court-bouillon was greater, and if duck-gizzard jambolaya be not the greatest dish a Cajun family ever tasted, then they would certainly liked to have tried it superior.
They lived in rude shanties or huts made of split cypress boards and some cane. The roof consisted of thatched palmetto fronds scavenged from land clearing. Windows were openings, sometimes covered with oiled cloth or paper, and had wooden shutters for protection. Doors were planked wood and floors were packed dirt.
Huts were sited on the banks and bordering Native American shell-mounds of Lake Salvador, Bayous des Allemands, St. Denis, Dupont, and Barataria, and numerous other sluggish tidal streams and lakes in the great wilderness of Louisiana. The region in which they resided was uninviting to more civilized communities. Here they remained, as they had been, for ages, unmolested by the inroads of civilization, and in undisputed possession of their moss-draped cypress swamps, their lonely shell-mounds and live-oak groves, their desolate sea marsh, and their lakes and lagoons.
Waterfowling on Lake Salvador goes back to the Native Americans. Following two centuries of sporadic visits by European explorers, settlement began in the early 18th century with the arrival of French colonists, then later the Spanish. During the late colonial period, Lake Salvador supported hunters, trappers, and fishermen. In the late eighteenth century, on the northern shore of Lake Salvador there were hunter’s camps with numerous tents, but no huts at that time.
When the first “norther” set in, Cajun market hunters turned to their lighter pirogues, called by the natives a “running pirogue,” and turned to market-hunting feathered game on land they owned, not by deed but by natural heritage: the numberless mallards, the “French duck” as the natives called it, black ducks, pintails, grey ducks, teal, sometimes the canvasback, and the poules-d’eau (waterhens), the rails, and the cache-cache—the snipe.
St. Charles Parish had many geographical advantages, and was partially bounded on different sides by three lakes of considerable size, namely: Pontchartrain, Des Allemands and Salvador, the last two being connected by Bayou Des Allemands. The distance by river from Lake Salvador to New Orleans was about twenty-five miles by rail or water. At all three lakes, the market hunters did very well, and during the winter months large number of ducks were shipped to New Orleans.
Bayou des Allemands was a beautiful stream, rising near Donaldsonville and emptying into Lake Salvador, where it was lost in the numerous bays and outlets extending to the Gulf of Mexico. Lake Salvador was a magnificent body of water north of Lockport, and was the entrance to one of the most charming body of lakes that led into the Gulf at Grand Pass, that could be found on the globe. Lake Allemands was a large body of water between Lafourche and St. James. These lakes were supplied with fish and crabs at all seasons, and during the hunting seasons were favorite resting places for the immense flocks of waterfowl that came down from the colder climes of the north.
In 1900, the Cajun families on the lake were invaded by professional white market hunters. After several years of conflict, the families ran them off.
One particular spot on Lake Salvador consisted of 425 acres along a four-mile shore of the lake, which had a famous duck pond on it, plus some additional smaller ponds and much swamp land. A group of market hunters leased this acreage for ten years from 1906-1915 and had made a fortune, clearing many thousand dollars during that time. Ten years of shooting had not diminished the supply.
During four-months in 1915, the hunters killed a multitude of ducks. For one week, shooting from daylight until dark, they killed and shipped 80,000 ducks from this particular spot to the French Market in New Orleans. They brought from 25 cents to 50 cents a pair wholesale, with the mallards bringing 50 cents, while teal brought 25 cents.
The reason for the 1915 slaughter was they had had a poor fishing season on the lake so they found it necessary to double up on their efforts to kill more waterfowl during the coming waterfowl season, needing money on which to live. The “slaughter,” which had the sanction of the game commission, was an effort to relieve distress among the poor Cajun families who were victims of the poor fishing season.
After the Civil War, the French Market was perhaps unsurpassed by that of any other city in the world, with its heyday being in the late nineteenth century. It received a constant supply of venison, bison, bears, pigeons, woodcocks, rails, quail, prairie chickens, plovers, snipe, squirrels, rabbits, coons, turkeys, cranes, geese, and ducks. Most of this game reached the populace, the principal hotels, restaurants, and saloons via the French Market to gratify the hungry stomachs of an immense army of gourmands, who did not partake of hog and hominy exclusively.
The market hunters at Lake Salvador had two latten-rigged “luggers,” which were constantly loaded to capacity with waterfowl during the four months. Taken to Des Allemands, the waterfowl, principally ducks, were shipped by the Southern Pacific railroad in great quantities to New Orleans, and large quantities were also shipped via the water route by the steamer St. Charles.
According to those in the know, there was no other place in Louisiana that was as good a market-hunting preserve as Lake Salvador, for it was very near the game markets of New Orleans and had an unlimited supply of birds. Being so close, ice was not needed, thus a large sugar barrel held 40 pairs of French ducks, or 80 pairs of teal. In addition, baiting was not necessary, for the fodder grew wild in great abundance. And before the universal use of breechloaders and the invention of nitro-powders, it was not unusual to see acres and acres of ducks on the lake.
Encompassing four million acres, Louisiana’s coastal marshes and swamps represent over 40 percent of the estuarine wetlands in the contiguous United States. Millions of people rely directly or indirectly on the marshes for their livelihood and for protection against hurricanes and storms. This land was the heart of the unique Cajun culture.
Located at the southern end of the Mississippi and Central Flyways, the lowlying coasts, where stretched great vistas of marsh and shallow lagoon, gave food and shelter to seventy per cent of the waterfowl of the United States and Canada. Wild geese and ducks of all kinds and species, shorebirds such as yellowlegs, plovers, willets, snipe, and woodcock migrated to these natural feeding grounds to escape the rigors and barren bleakness of northern winters.
For the migratory game birds of the Mississippi Valley, Louisiana was the “Grand Central Depot” with terminal facilities that were unsurpassed. Her reedy shores, her vast marshes, her long coast line, and abundance of food furnished what was not only a haven but a heaven for waterfowl and shorebirds.
But it has been and is still under attack. As the twentieth century progressed, each year coastal Louisiana lost its wetlands at an increasing rate, reaching about 40 square miles per year in the 1970s. This represented 80 percent of all coastal wetland loss in the United States and constituted an economic cost of about one-half billion dollars per year. Recently the rate of wetland loss has slowed somewhat.