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Exploring Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin

Atchafalaya (chaf-e-li’e) means long river in Choctaw.

Louisiana swamp

Used with permission

One of the things we loved about living in New Orleans was exploring Louisiana. It’s a beautiful state with a fascinating history and a diverse ecosystem. When I was first planning Worry Beads, I had an idea of taking my characters out of New Orleans and into the swamps but they flatly refused. The research was fascinating, even my characters were uncooperative. Lol 

Atchafalaya (chaf-e-li’e) means long river in Choctaw. The Atchafalaya Basin is the largest river swamp in the U.S. and the ancestral home of the Choctaw and Houma tribes who lived as one with nature there. The Acadians, who came to be known as Cajuns, followed their lead.

The Acadians were exiled from France and then they settled in Nova Scotia until the British took over and threw them out. They went to Louisiana and began to farm along the bayous and swamps near New Orleans, where many of their decedents live to this day and speak their original antiquated French language. 

In addition to the Cajuns who lived there and made the swamp their home, different types of people used it as a place to escape to and hide out. Former runaway slaves sought refuge there before the Civil War. And during the war, draft dodgers and outlaws hid out there.

After the war, flooding grew so much worse that the land wasn’t viable for farming anymore. But many people stayed in the basin and made a living, gathering wild rice, onions, and other edible plants. They hunted otter and raccoon, and later muskrat, for their pelts, ducks and other water birds to eat, and they fished for catfish and buffalo-fish. In addition, they went shrimping and crabbing. They also caught bullfrogs and turtles by hand. Plus, in the spring, families went crawfishing together. They even picked Spanish moss off the Cypress trees, dunked it in the river, and dried it black to use like scouring pads and to stuff their pillows, mattresses, sofas, and chairs. The swamp provided all their needs.

The innovative Cajun boaters created a type of flatboat called the bateau for the shallow swamps and the pirogue based on Indian dugout canoes. They also built luggers and skiffs. In 1873 fish dealers in Morgan City started buying fresh catches from the fishermen of the Atchafalaya Basin. 

Cajuns constructed homes of heavy timber framework and packed the spaces between the wood with mud and moss. But floods destroyed many of these homes. That’s when many Cajuns started living on houseboats, which was more sensible for fishermen. If the fish weren’t biting in one spot, the fishermen would just float their houseboat down to an unclaimed fishing ground and pull up there. 

In 1894 there were about 173 houseboats on the Atchafalaya and the waterways running into it. The number grew to 679 by 1922. People along the Atchafalaya Basin also called houseboats campboats. The boats were probably first used as camps when fishing away from home, then later they moved their family in, and made it their permanent residence. 

Campboats were used by fishermen, hunters, and loggers. Many loggers would move their houseboats to better spots for finding work. In the early 1900s a floating chapel started traveling down the basin to go to places where people didn’t have a church.

 High water wasn’t harmful to floating houses. So, the Cajuns were no longer afraid of floods, and other than the minor inconvenience, they considered them a benefit because they brought more fish to catch.  

For many centuries now, people have lived as one with nature in the Atchafalaya Basin. And in turn, the swamp has influenced Cajun culture. Their music, their folkways, their houses, their myths, their jobs, and their food all came from there. 

The hubs and I learned to love Louisiana and I hope you enjoyed this “trip” to the Atchafalaya Basin!

Perilously yours,

Pauline

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