Jim Bradshaw: Atchafalaya Basin was home, battleground for native Americans
About 2,000 years ago, a group of people settled on the natural levee on the western edge of the Atchafalaya Basin, near what is now known as Bayou Amy, just north of the bridge at Henderson. It was a good place for them — high enough to keep from flooding, yet close to rich swamplands that offered nearly everything they needed for a good life.
These people lived well. Swamp critters provided a steady and reliable food source and these levee dwellers had no need to plow or plant. They made a good living just fishing, hunting, and collecting wild plants.
They may or may not have lived there all year long. Archaeologists say pieces of bone from deer and rabbit the settlers ate suggest they were surely there during the fall. We don’t know where they went during other seasons of the year (if they went anywhere), nor do we know where they went when they suddenly moved after several hundred years at the site.
The Basin (perhaps responding to a change in the Mississippi River’s course) apparently changed in such a way that it flooded the Bayou Amy village. The people moved away, into the mists of time.
The Atchafalaya Basin itself was the home of the Chitimacha Indians when Europeans first began to settle in Louisiana hundreds of years later.
The original Chitimacha tribal territory formed a triangle in the middle and lower Atchafalaya Basin. It was once bounded by three sacred cypress trees at Vermilion Bay, Lake Dauterive, and Lower Lafourche. However, only a few Chitimachas were still living in the Basin when Europeans began to settle there.
Two neighboring tribes to the Chitimachas were the Opelousas and the Attakapas. There is a story that the fierce, war-mongering Attakapas dominated the area, preying upon their neighbors until the Chitimachas and the Opelousas finally got fed up. They banded together against their murderous neighbors and fought it out on a hill just west of present-day St. Martinville.
The Attakapas were virtually wiped out, according to the story, but some people think that’s improbable.
First, they argue, the Europeans named a region after the dominant tribe, which was still the Attakapas at the time of settlement. If they’d been wiped out, that wouldn’t have happened.
Second, the area named for the Attakapas was barely explored by the French, partly because they were put off by the Attakapas’ fierce reputation, which would not have been the case had there been only remnants of a once-powerful nation.
Third, the Attakapas were still cohesive enough to want to do business with the French in New Orleans as late as 1733.
An Attakapas delegation went to New Orleans that year and promised they would trade deer pelts, bear oil, and horses smuggled from Spanish Texas for French goods. But Gov. Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville did nothing about it.
The Acadians who settled St. Martin Parish apparently had little trouble with however many Attakapas neighbors there were.
Most of the Acadian exiles maintained good relations with the Micmac Indians in old Acadie, and Micmacs had allied themselves with the Acadian guerrilla fighters who remained behind after the expulsion.
Those Acadians who came to the Attakapas region were accustomed to dealing with their aboriginal neighbors and had no fear of them.
An early account, written perhaps in the late 1700s, tells of a place called Indian Bend about 25 miles above “where the meandering Teche flows into the Atchafalaya.”
According to that report, “Here for more than a century has dwelt the remnant of the once powerful tribe of Attakapas, once the terror of all other red men hereabouts, for it was told of them that they devoured the flesh of their fallen foe.”
Other, more likely, accounts say the residents of Indian Bend were Chitimachas. William Coleman, writing about the time of the arrival of the Acadians in 1765, said that the men were dark-complexioned with high cheekbones and eyes “keen and quick of movement. … They are fully up to the average height of the white man, and their broad shoulders show that they come from big-framed people.”
Coleman said the people at the Indian Bend community dressed like everyone else in the region, with the men in cottonade (a light, homespun cotton cloth) pants and calico shirts, and the women in calico skirts and brightly colored blouses.
He said they spoke a Creole patois, but also that among themselves they used a language that sounded “like the twittering of birds.”
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.