The History of the Vermilion
“The Vermilion, by its union with the gulph, forms the natural communication of its inhabitants with the sea. The time is not far remote when many thousands of people will exist on the shores of this river…”
— William Darby, A Geographical Description of the State of Louisiana, 1817
A river’s course, and what happens along its banks change with the times — the Vermilion River is no exception.
For millennia throughout the pre-historic era, each time sea level made a drastic change, so would the course of what we now call the Mississippi River — and the Mississippi’s changes affected all the waters in its vicinity.
At some point between 25,000 and 125,000 years ago, the course of the Mississippi shifted to the west — in fact, for a while, the river flowed right through the Lafayette area cutting a new course through the coastal plains. When it shifted back, it left a course through the prairie and created the channel for the eventual Vermilion River.
Archeologists have divided the native people who roamed the region into four different stages, dating as far back as 12,000 years ago. Other than what can be learned from fragments of pottery, mounds and various tools revealed in archeology digs, we knew very little about the early hunter-gatherers of the region. .
Bowie on the Bayou
In 1809, an American named Reason Bowie bought 640 acres of land along the lower Vermilion River. His family worked in the lumber and sawmill business, eventually moving to the Opelousas region of St. Landry Parish. According to John J. Bowie, son of Reason and brother of Jim Bowie, of the Alamo fame, and Rezin P. (who gave Jim a knife the original Bowie knife, which was probably made in a blacksmith shop somewhere near Abbeville), the Bowie brothers made a fortune working with the pirate Jean Lafitte.
John J. Bowie said that when Lafitte overtook a slave ship, the brothers would purchase the slaves from Lafitte “at the rate of one dollar per pound, or an average of $140 for each negro; we brought them into the limits of the United States, delivered them to a custom house officer, and became the informers ourselves; the law gave the informer half of the [auction] value of the negroes, which we put up and sold by the United States Marshall, and we became the purchasers of the negroes, which entitled us to sell them [legally] within the United States. We continued to follow this business until we made $65,000, when we quit and soon spent all our earnings.”
The Bowie brothers would bring the slaves up the Vermilion River, then overland to St. Landry Parish, where the slaves were sold.
The Seat of Justice
In 1823, a commission selected the Pinhook Bridge site as the seat of the Lafayette Parish government. John and William Reeves donated four arpents (an arpent is about four-fifths of an acre) of land for the public buildings. The parish built a jail and rented a room near the bridge as a courthouse. In the meantime, Jean Mouton, who owned land in what is now downtown Lafayette, formed a local faction to rival the Reeves. Mouton had donated land for a Catholic church. The land is approximately three miles from the river. Mouton proposed and proceeded to lay out a town around the church. He offered to donate land for public buildings and lobbied the legislature to move the seat of justice to his land. In 1824, voters chose the Mouton site — making downtown Vermilionville (eventually Lafayette) to become one of the few towns or cities along a river not to build the city around the river.
The Pinhook Bridge of the day was a low wooden structure with a draw that could be opened to allow boats to pass. Jim Higginbotham built his home and businesses near the bridge (on the side of the river of present day Bendel Gardens). He had a large warehouse with storage space, used by steamboats and shippers. He had a wheelwright shop, where he made hickory chairs with rawhide seats, spinning wheels and other household items. He also operated a lumberyard adjoining the warehouse. Higginbotham's neighbor, John Baumgartner, also was a woodworker, assembled cypress cisterns, hogsheads (for sugar cane) and molasses barrels in a shop next to his home.
Travelers who crossed the Pinhook Bridge found the Higginbotham’s businesses on the left side William Butcher's saloon and billiard parlor on the right side. In the years before the Civil War, Butcher’s establishment was a popular place of leisure and tonic. Louis Grange had a restaurant nearby which served popular chicken pies.
The Steamboat Era
Once the steamboat era reached Louisiana, the Vermilion River’s advocates did their best with near constant pleas to the government for dredging and other projects to remove obstructions and make the waterway capable of competing with the Bayou Teche or Bayou Courtableau. However, the Vermilion’s periodic low waters and many obstacles made it an uphill battle. For example, between 1840 and 1850, the police jury of Lafayette Parish appropriated a whopping $4,000 of local money to remove obstructions in the Vermilion — not to mention the many petitions to state and federal governments for help.
Robert Perry of Vermilionville was one of the few local ship owners. He owned four ships. One of them, the Augustus, was built in Vermilion Parish and may have sailed often on the Vermilion.
On average, steamboats from the Vermilion only made up about 3 percent of the Bayou Country steamboat docking in New Orleans between 1845 and 1860.
The steamboats exported large numbers of livestock and leather goods (including hides and saddles), cattle horns, cotton, moss, sugar, eggs, live poultry, bales of hemp, lumber and a large variety of seasonal fruits and vegetable — usually potatoes, peaches and oranges. Occasionally, the steamboats also carried barrels of rum and cotton items produced by the numerous Acadian weavers. Rice didn’t become popular until after the Civil War.
By 1859, a variety of hazards — sunken logs, stumps, floating mill logs, immense quantities of floating grass, sunken remains of discarded flatboats and public and private bridges — made the Vermilion virtually in accessible.
Plantation life along the Vermilion
Prior to the Civil War, numerous plantations lined the Vermilion. Steamboat traffic along the Vermilion made a huge difference in getting their products to market.
Izidor Broussard's plantation used slave labor to cultivate cotton in the area along the river near Pinhook Bridge, in the neighborhood along today’s East Bayou Parkway. Three miles further down the river, Honore Beraud had Long Plantation and a sawmill. Though Beraud died of yellow fever in the epidemic of 1858, his plantation home survived well into the twentieth century.
The John Republican Creighton plantation, later called Myrtle Plantation, was situated above the Pinhook Bridge, upstream from Beraud and Broussard, along the east side of the bayou, just southwest of the present-day Lafayette Regional Airport. Creighton was married to Euphemie Mouton, niece of Governor Mouton. Along with the cotton grown on his plantation, Creighton also ran a sawmill near the Vermilion Bayou. Attached to this sawmill was a gristmill where he ground his neighbors' corn into meal and grits.
Just beyond the Creighton plantation, heading upriver, was the eastern portion of Governor and former U.S. Senator (1837-1842) Alexandre Mouton's large Ile Copal or Sweet Gum Grove Plantation. His plantation extended across both sides of Bayou Vermilion. Mouton used the Lake Martin side for its timber. After the logs were cut in the swamps, they were then floated downstream to the Creighton sawmill and processed into lumber. The Ile Copal Plantation the mansion, brick sugar mill and slave quarters, were on the west bank of Bayou Vermilion. Mouton's real estate, according to the 1860 federal census, was valued at $81,000 and included 2,100 improved acres and 18,140 unimproved acres. His personal property was even more significant and was valued at $120,000 — which included 120 slaves. While the rest of his neighbors grew cotton, Mouton planted sugar cane. In 1860, he harvested 180 hogsheads (1,000 pounds each) of cane sugar, 12,000 gallons of molasses, 4,000 bushels of Indian corn, 60 bushels of peas and beans, 30 bushels of Irish potatoes and 900 bushels of sweet potatoes. His livestock included 20 horses, 50 mules, 12 milk cows, 16 working oxen, 70 sheep (yielding 140 pounds of wool) and 15 swine. Mouton assigned garden plots to his slaves, who also were permitted to raise chickens and gather Spanish moss for sale in Vermilionville.
Jean Sosthene Mouton’s Walnut Grove Plantation was located a few hundred yards below the Pinhook Bridge, on a high bank overlooking the Vermilion River (on its right descending side) and included most of today’s Bendel Garden Subdivision. When Sosthene Mouton married his cousin, Charlotte Mouton, daughter of Governor Alexandre Mouton (1843-1846), the property was given to the couple as a wedding gift. In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, Sosthene Mouton owned 56 slaves. He produced cotton on his 900-acre plantation. He owned 20 horses, 20 mules, 26 sheep (yielding 60 pounds of wool), 25 swine, 25 milk cows, 15 working oxen and 20 other cattle. In 1860, his plantation produced 180 bales of cotton (each bale weighing 400 pounds), 3,000 bushels of Indian corn and 180 bushels of sweet potatoes. The plantation house at Walnut Grove was burned by Federal troops during the Civil War.
When the Civil War first started, people in and around the Vermilion enthusiastically supported the formation of the Confederate States. Once the reality of war sank in — up close and personal — their fervor waned.
Not only did Union troops patrol the Gulf and Vermilion Bay, in April of 1863 they captured New Iberia and destroyed the salt works on Avery Island. After that victory, Federal commanders divided their forces into two groups, with one heading directly toward the Pinhook Bridge and the other advancing up the west bank of Bayou Teche to St. Martinville and then westward to the Pinhook Bridge.
On April 17, 1863, just as Confederate General Richard Taylor, the son of U.S. President Zachary Taylor, and the last of his supply wagons crossed the bridge, the first group of Union soldiers arrived at the Pinhook Bridge. Once the Confederate troops and supplies were safely across, Taylor ordered the bridge destroyed. With the bridge ablaze, the Confederates positioned their infantry and artillery and engaged the advancing Federal forces. The two armies struggled for about four hours, with few casualties.
The next day as Union troops built a pontoon bridge, about half of the tired and dirty soldiers decided to take advantage of the spring weather and water. They stripped off their clothes and jumped into Vermilion. About that time, some of Taylor’s cavalry doubled bank and opened fire on the bathers. Madness ensued as naked and half-dressed Union soldiers scrambled amidst Confederate shots firing.
According to an eyewitness description, “Such a spectacle never before was seen. The long [drum] roll was sounding and naked men, in every direction, were making a dash for their guns, trying to dress as they ran. Some with their trousers on hind side before; didn't know whether they were advancing or retreating.”
About six months later, on October 9, 1863, Union troops approached the Pinhook Bridge again. Once again, Confederate soldiers set the newly rebuilt bridge afire. And, once again, Union soldiers built another temporary bridge. However, it was not strong enough to support their artillery and wagons.
Once the Civil War was in full force, the Union’s naval presence along the Louisiana coast intercepted occasional schooners operating as blockade-runners out of the Vermilion.
Antebellum and post-bellum Vermilion
Before the Civil War, the Pinhook corridor along the Vermilion was growing to be a thriving community even though steamboat traffic was somewhat sporadic, due to accumulations of driftwood and on the river’s water level. In 1852, the Louisiana State Legislature directed the state engineer to examine the feasibility of establishing locks on the lower Vermilion River. However, little was done and by 1859, the Vermilion was virtually inaccessible.
In 1865, after the war ended, the region struggled economically. Because of extensive wartime damage along the upper Vermilion — crops were burned, livestock was killed, homes were destroyed — the region’s farmers had little to nothing to send to market. During that time and considering the problems associated with navigating the Vermilion, what cargo was ready to be sent to New Orleans likely went along the Teche. Even so, the ten vessels that called on Bayou Teche ports between October and December 1865, carried relatively small cargos of cotton, sugar, molasses, hides and rolls of leather.
Effect of the Railroad and Congressional help
The growing rail presence began to affect the importance of steamboats throughout the region. In the spirit of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” some steamboat captains and steamboat lines partnered with railways to offer lower prices — thereby undercutting the competition. The practice led to the eventual demise of steamboats. However, for a period in the 1870s and 1880s, smaller steamboats left the busier rivers and ports and came to the less served regions — especially the Vermilion.
“Boats unable to compete with the corporate juggernaut withdrew from the market or attempted to exploit niche markets in communities along minor waterways that were not yet services by the railroad. In the 1870s and 1880s, the lower Vermilion River accordingly saw a dramatic but short-lived increase in steamboat traffic…” (Steamboats Along Louisiana’s Bayous, 2004, Louisiana State University Press, Carl Brasseaux and Keith Fontenot).
By the 1870s, the railroad and the steamboat lines, working together, were able to undercut unaffiliated steamboats’ prices.
With so much energy focused on recovery from the Civil War and the additional activity along the Vermilion, the region clambered for improvements along the Vermilion, which were slow to materialize. In 1879, Congressional legislation commissioned an engineering survey through the Army Corps of Engineers.
“The Vermilion River, which had been the sugar region’s ‘weak sister’ in terms of shipping activity and tonnage throughout the nineteenth century, traditionally did not warrant — or receive — much interest from the corps. In a report dated January 31, 1880, Assistant Engineer W.H. Hoffman advised Major C.W. Howell, commander of the corps operations in lower Louisiana, that at Pinhook Bridge in present-day Lafayette, the head of navigation on the stream was ‘wide and deep enough for small steamboats.’ The portion of the stream extending four miles below the Pinhook crossing, however was ‘so filled by snags, logs, and trees blown in . . . as to be impassable.’ The few boats plying the Vermilion were consequently obliged to deposit their cargo at Four Mile Point. Goods were then transferred to ‘flatboats, which were poled up to the bridge.’” (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Annual Report of the Chief of Engineers, 1880).
Intrepid steam captains brave enough to ascend the stream were few and far between. Overhanging trees and dangerous shoals almost completely obstructed passage above Abbeville, making the trip to Four-Mile Point nearly impossible.
Throughout the early 1880s, Congressional help was on the way.
In June 1880, Congress appropriated $5,000 to fund the removal of navigational hazards between Abbeville and Pinhook Bridge. In February 1881, the Corps of Engineers let a contract for $4,750 to clear “22 miles of river.” In March 1881, Congress appropriated $4,900 to underwrite the cost of closing the Vermilion’s “ eastern entrance, at its mouth, by a low-water dam, and applying the balance that may remain to clearing the banks of overhanging trees, and the bed of the river of all trees, logs, and snags that may be found in it. By June 1883, inspectors reported that the river had been cleared for a distance of 47.5 miles “from the railroad bridge (at Vermilionville) down-stream to its mouth.” (Steamboats on Louisiana’s Bayous)
Completing the Vermilion River improvement project marked the end of the federal government’s postwar effort to restore navigability to the region.
Because the railroads didn’t reach New Iberia and Abbeville until later, the late-blooming steamboat traffic along the lower Vermilion thrived for years after it had virtually disappeared in other places. But the railroad eventually reached those communities too, and steamboat traffic disappeared.
For more than a century, Pirates used the Vermilion was used as a smuggler’s highway. Sparsely populated and untouched, the river’s direct access from the Gulf of Mexico made passage up to the Pinhook Bridge a great outlet to sell the loot captured from ships. In 1903, according to an article in The Times-Picayune, two men found “a large quantity of Spanish gold and silver coin recently found by them near the mouth of the Vermilion River.” The men brought a portion of their find to the Bank of Lafayette.
“At first blush, President Girard considered the matter a hoax. Close questioning only confirmed the apparent truthfulness of the story, which if verified. Will prove beyond doubt one of the riches and most remarkable finds of treasure made in this country,” (Times Picayune, Pirates’ Plunder, July 21, 1903).
The men said they found an old-fashioned cannon filled with gold and silver coin, “which they claim was discovered by means of a diving rod.” The newspaper says that the men came to the bank that day without the coin and left without giving further information.
“This story will revive in the public mind the tradition of Lafitte and his famous band of corsairs plundering Spanish treasure ships in the gulf and hiding the booty along the coast, or possibly hotly chased by warships, they pitched the cannon overboard in some obscure nook for future recovery. Hundreds of people throughout south Louisiana believe that hidden treasure may be found all along the coast and even in the interior. Excavations attest the conviction of many that great wealth has been stored away by the famous old sea robbers, and only awaits some lucky finder.”
Ecological threats of 1911
In April 1911, the question of salt water in the Vermilion River came once again to the forefront of regional discussions. According to reports in the Times Picayune, Manager Daniels and his assistant, Franklin Stiener, of the hunter Canal pumping station, fifteen miles below Lafayette, made a trip to investigate the source of the extra salt blamed for endangering rice fields.
“They found a flow of salt water entering the Vermilion from the field, which tested a high percentage of salt, and the stream being extremely low, the influx of salt water seriously affected the purity of the Vermilion below the point of contamination” (Times Picayune, Salt water from oil field wells endangers Vermilion rice fields, April 11, 1911).
The story goes on to say that, as a temporary fix, the Hunter Canal people pumped water from the “great plant near Milton, on the Vermilion” to furnish water to thousands of acres of rice. “If the river becomes impregnated with salt, the plant must shut down, and bring ruin to an extensive section of rice country. The people on the oil field have been warned that if they continue to allow the escape of salt water from the wells into the Vermilion, they will be held responsible under the law, which strictly forbids this practice during the irrigation of rice fields.”
Connecting with the Intercoastal Canal
In February 1913, General Bixby, chief of the Board of Army Engineers, announced plans and cost estimates to improve the Vermilion River and connect it with the Intercoastal Canal, between Franklin and Mermentau at Schooner Bay. The goal was to increase the depth of the channel to 6 feet — even though it was dredged to 6 feet in 1910, the channel shoaled rapidly and by 1913 was only 3 feet deep.
According to reports in The Times-Picayune, Major Edward H. Schulz said that about 95 percent of the Vermilion’s commerce at the time came from the west through the Mermentau River and the inland waterway at the mouth of Schooner Bay, then crossed the open waters of Vermilion Bay to enter the Vermilion River. “The danger of the open waters and the shallowness of the waters in West Bayou Vermilion have rendered unprofitable previous attempts to run boats from New Orleans to Abbeville and the commerce has been greatly reduces and hampered by the unsatisfactory conditions” (Times-Picayune, Vermilion River Report is Filed, Feb. 4, 1913). To create the new channel connection, the district officer estimated a cost of $37,500 and $1,800 annually for maintenance.
No good deed goes unpunished: The consequences of the 1927 flood
In the 1930s, in response to the great flood of 1927, levees constructed around the Atchafalaya Basin cut off the flow of fresh water to the Vermilion River. This hydrological isolation led to better flood control and navigation, but came at a great price to the river. The lack of fresh water led to continued pollution and pollution accumulation, leading it to gain the infamous title of “Most Polluted River in America” on national television in the 1970s and eventual creation of the Bayou Vermilion District.