The Place-Name Legend of Pecan Island, Land Use, and Efficiency Narratives (2022)

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The Place-Name Legend of Pecan Island, Land Use, and Efficiency Narratives (1)

By Keagan LeJeune

On occasion, a Google search spits up my name alongside my office phone number, and the Googler calls me up to ask me why Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas residents stay on the coast when it's so lousy with hurricanes. "After a Natural Disaster; Is It Better to Rebuild or Retreat" records how former mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu faced that question after Hurricane Katrina. For him, the should-or-should-not question about people moving was the tip of the iceberg (Schwartz 2018). It was always followed with people wondering if residents and the government in certain areas should even try to rebuild after disasters. Of course, it's much more complicated than that, and Landrieu's responses, like those of many others, often pointed to the limitations of such kneejerk reactions and stressed the more serious obligation we have to ask the more pressing questions of why people move to high-risk locations to begin with, or why people choose to stay in these places, or even why people feel like rebuilding is necessary.

The simplistic questions aren't all that shocking, I suppose. I guess it's natural to bluster about common sense, saying that if people know they're living in the path of danger, they should just move out of the way, or asking why rebuild when another hurricane is bound to come again. I'm dead certain Landrieu and plenty other people face these questions more often than I do, but those few times have been enough to make me wonder not if or why or even how people should go about rebuilding, but if our basic assumptions about what rebuilding looks like make some of our typical answers dangerous.

Places like Pecan Island have had to face these questions more often than most. It rests about ten miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico and is a key settlement in Louisiana's Chenier Plain, one of North America's most extensive marshes. The Chenier Plain blankets more than a million acres, stretching from Marsh Island in Iberia Parish to the banks of the Sabine River.1 Resting practically at the dead-center of the Chenier Plain, Pecan Island is located in Vermilion Parish at its westernmost edge, and that parish, like many of Louisiana's coastal parishes, has completed a comprehensive resiliency plan to respond to the danger of rising sea levels (Vermillion Parish). The plan considers nine plan elements, including housing, economic development, coastal restoration and flood protections, and land use. Economic development and land use have long been tied together, especially in places like Vermilion and Cameron parishes. The relationship has often been a matter of developers wondering how to transform "unusable" marshland into "productive" land.

This attitude about the land is at the core of the place-name legend of Pecan Island. On one level, the story of Pecan Island's naming exemplifies how early settlers arrived, pushed deeper into the marsh, and adapted to the landscape, which had its share of challenges but also a certain kind of bounty. But on another level, especially in the hands writers and reporters visiting the area during spurts of industrial or agricultural expansion, the legend defines place in terms of "use" or "usefulness." The legend, then, may connect to how surveyors or certain outsiders have viewed idle land versus how locals or indigenous people have viewed it and, in turn, may clue us in about some of our typical assumptions about how land remaining idle might or might not be considered land being used efficiently or effectively.

Grand Chenier in Cameron Parish, Pecan Island in Vermilion, and the parishes' other chenier settlements exist as the epitome of the bizarrely beautiful landscape that has made Louisiana famous and enticing to settlers and visitors alike. Special, unique, unusual, the Chenier Plain is an interplay of marsh and cheniers—beach ridges comprised of sand or shell rising from the flat marshland surrounding it.2 Two of the earliest geographers to study the cheniers, RJ Russell and H.V. Howe should be credited for retaining the local name chenier. Generically, these elevations would be called ridges, but Russell and Howe realized local wisdom had aptly named these "conspicuous ... sharply localized, well drained, and fertile" elevations cheniers that "support naturally a luxuriant vegetational cover of large evergreen oaks." These oak groves are so "striking...the ridges have been called cheniers [italics theirs] by their Creole inhabitants" (1935: 446).

Deriving from the French word for oak, the name chenier references its primary landscape feature—the ability to sustain hardwood trees—which in turns speaks to its primary psychological feature—its ability to provide solid ground to sustain life (or settlement). The names of settlements reflect local awareness of a chenier's raised landscape and that feature's importance to sustaining life—Grand Chenier, Little Chenier, Chenier Perdue, Pecan Island, Oak Grove, Hackberry Island (now known only as Hackberry), and the uninhabited Mulberry Island, Chenier au Tigre, and Belle Isle.

In her work devoted to the region, cultural geographer Gay Gomez touts the rarity of this place, explaining it stands as "one of only three extensive chenier plain systems" on the planet (1998: 14)3 but the natural world of the cheniers is difficult to capture in words. "A strange country and a strange people" is how an 1883 reporter described the residents of this portion of Louisiana's coast (Dennett 14, C1). Gomez equates the wonder of seeing "a chenier from afar" to "seeing a mountain range from across a broad plain" (1998: 9).4 As another writer puts it, "To the so-called marsh dweller, the chenier was a refuge from the recurring tempest and storm, a means of economic livelihood, and a favorite home site."5 And when geographer Axel Schou visited them in the 1960s, he noted that "for long times [sic] the chenier islands were isolated localities" and even when visiting them now "you still have a feeling of coming to the limits" of the inhabited world (1967: 321).6

Settling these isolated cheniers appears to have been a matter of "island-hopping," homesteading places deep in the marsh but closest to rivers, or the Gulf, and then forging deeper into the marsh in order to reach even more isolated or remote locales. Several local histories exist about the earliest settlers slogging by foot and horseback to take up residence on an unsettled chenier. For example, when Gerard Sellers was working on a book about Chenier au Tigre, he interviewed several people in Vermilion Parish. In a video titled Islands in Vermilion Parish, Sellars asks Daniel Broussard, the longtime tax assessor of Vermilion Parish, about the region's history. Broussard quickly tells him about some early settlers. One is a Mr. Veazey, who was living on Chenier au Tigre, a ridge with access to the Gulf. To homestead Pecan Island around 1840, Veazey traveled by horseback miles through the marsh to make it to Pecan Island. He had nothing more than "an ax, a horse, and a gun and built a lean-to and stayed there three weeks." After three weeks, Mr. Veazey finally left Pecan Island to return to Chenier au Tigre. He didn't stay home long. A few days later, he traveled back to Pecan Island, this time bringing along his wife and children.

While various families like the Veazeys may have homesteaded Pecan Island, in legend the naming of it seems to fall to Jacob Cole. In his interview with Sellers, Broussard also mentions Jacob or Jake Cole who around 1840 "used to ... travel ... by sailboat from some place around the Galveston area toward the Franklin/Morgan City area, and in sailing off the coast of Vermilion Parish, he saw what we know today as Pecan Island." Broussard tells Sellers that Cole was a cattleman who left Texas for better grazing land. When Cole saw the grove of hardwoods, he anchored at nearby Grand Chenier, accessible to the Gulf by the Mermentau River, and tramped across the marsh to find Pecan Island. But Broussard is not alone in mentioning Cole alongside other locals. For instance, as part of a Sea Grant project,7 Donald Davis and historian Carl Brasseaux interviewed Judge William P. Edwards. At the time of the interview, Edwards was president of the Vermilion Corporation, one of the largest landowners in Vermilion Parish.8 During the interview, Edwards discusses the settlement of the area—Pecan Island in particular. When the interview turns to a discussion of cattle in the region, Edwards says, "Pecan Island, you know, was settled — I'm sure you know, was settled by Texans."

"Yes," Davis responds.

"But there was a Mr. Cole. You familiar with him?" Edwards tells Davis and Brasseaux after a few more sentences.

"I know the name," Davis answers.

"That I think first settled Pecan Island," Edwards says, "and he came from the west and he brought cattle with him. So, the cattle ranged out and all those Chenieres and you go, I mean, that's natural cattle country, that's beautiful stuff. Then, you had if you look at the old, the old maps of the area adjacent to the Chenier, the surveyors always seem to label that impenetrable marsh." It appears Jacob Cole is only one of many settlers pushing deeper into the marsh. Yes, in some accounts he's the first to arrive at Pecan Island. Of course, that alone would explain his name coming up when people discuss the region's settlement, but as I explored the place-name legend of Pecan Island, reviewing various newspapers and local written histories and comparing them to the oral histories like those by Vaughn and Edwards, I noticed a few interesting differences and developments.9

Perhaps the earliest mention of Cole's 1840 discovery of Pecan Island in print is S. Arthur Pipes in his 1883 Picayune article titled "On Pecan Island: A Beautiful and Fertile Spot Shut Out from the World." In this article, Pipes communicates the potential of Pecan Island. He regales his readers with a few of the Island's current agricultural figures (e.g, "the orange grove of Remey Broussard contains 1000 trees... now in full bloom") and poetic lines describing the place's rare, picturesque beauty (e.g., "The morning came as a revelation, for never did human eyes behold a more beautiful vision"). Then, he accounts for the "mystery" of the "Louisiana historian's... silence about this wonderful island," now vacant except for the 300 or so inhabitants.

What's kept people away? Getting there "is no easy task," Pipes tells readers, "requiring three to five hours poleing in a small boat from Gueydan to reach White Lake, here it will require a sailing sloop and another five or seven hours to cross, providing the wind is fair, with another hour's poleing through the marsh after the south side of the lake is reached, before you have set foot on the island." But even that journey, Pipes explains, "would be rather an unusually quick trip," the other options taking more than thirty-six hours. Pipes does not mention that Cole is from Texas; instead, he labels Cole as "a rancher, living in the southern portion of the Sixth Ward" of Vermilion Parish. A resident cattle rancher often traveling the marsh, Cole "by accident stumbled upon the island after being lost several days when out looking for a bunch of cattle that had strayed off."

That's the written account. The often-told version of the Pecan Island place-name legend likely traces back to a 1920s version offered by Sarah Vaughan (Koch), a descendant of one of the Island's first families. She told her version to Leroy F. Dubose, the principal of Pecan Island High School.10 There's no date on the transcription, but the interview likely took place in the late 1920s or early 30s.11 Vaughan was around sixty-four at the time, and Vaughan tells Dubose that Cole traveled first to Grand Chenier, but that place was already settled and so he wanted to move on.12 At Grand Chenier "old Mr. Jake Cole ... met two residents, Valcour Miller and Damon Miller," and the two Millers agreed to act as Cole's guides and help him reach the mysterious spot he spied from the sea.

Vaughan explains the three men searched "the marsh for high land ... fighting the tall grass and animals most of which were alligators ... vicious looking ... twelve or fourteen feet long ... as many as twenty-five in one hole" (Dubose 2). They struggled all day through the marsh, "cane and sawgrass ... high as a man on horseback," hacking a trail where there was none, "under constant attack by swarms of mosquitoes," not to mention those congregating alligators.13 Finally, they reached a small island known as Long Island "at almost sun down[sic]" and spent "a weary night" there (Dubose 2). At daybreak, Cole woke and made a survey of the place, but he realized Long Island's narrow size wouldn't meet his herd's grazing needs. Then, standing at the edge of Long Island, Cole peered across the marsh again and spied Pecan Island in the distance. Unfortunately, his guides refused to go one more step, so Cole does not travel to Pecan island this time.

Vaughan tells Dubose that Cole, despondent, returned to East Texas. But he wasn't finished. He returned later with "two slaves" known to be "good cowboys" who, following the first route, reached Long Island again, but this time the group went all the way to Pecan Island. When they reached it, the cheniere was "so thick with vines and brush that the men were obliged to tie their horses and travel the ridge on their hands and knees cutting their way" through it (Dubose 2). Once there, the men found the place full of pecan trees. Cole scooped up a few in his hands and named the island accordingly.

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As the legend develops, especially in the hands of writers and reporters visiting the area during spurts of industrial or agricultural expansion, Cole's role in settling and understanding the landscape becomes more pronounced. He's depicted as an outsider with an outsider's perspective—a perspective that imagines or defines place in terms of "use" or "usefulness" of the land. What's more, he perseveres in transforming this perceived idle or marginal landscape into one that's used to its full potential, or at least that's how he's framed in certain narratives. To me, the place-name legend, then, acts as a sort of efficiency narrative in which Cole is tasked with converting "idle" lands so that those lands can reach their untapped potential, perhaps even their ordained potential.

We can see this type of efficiency narrative in other places and times, including the writings surrounding Manifest Destiny.14 To me, there seems to be a strong correlation to Manifest Destiny's premise of converting "idle" lands so those lands can reach their ordained potential to the attitude writers espoused as they discussed the untapped potential of Pecan Island. Or one could look to Nikita Khrushchev's 1953 Virgin Lands campaign to plow and cultivate "virgin and idle lands" for food production (Jackson 1962). And there are also examinations of more recent usages of this sort of legend. In "Howling Wilderness and Promised Land: Imagining the Victorian Mallee, 1840-1914," Katie Holmes and Kylie Mirmohamadi (2015) trace the broader Australian struggle with land use and the founding narrative of the pioneer legend propagandizing the idea of a preferred English settler, and Erin Kitchell examines the spate of foreign investments through the "reclamation" of stores of available 'idle' and 'marginal' land, emphasizing how "land reforms and land-use policies are underpinned by particular narratives of efficiency" (2014).15

To my mind, Pecan Island's history and legend run parallel to these places'. In 1849 the first of The Swamp Land Grants acts transferred "to Louisiana those Federally owned swamp and overflowed lands within her borders on the condition that they be reclaimed as far as possible and made available for settlement" (Harrison and Kollmorgen 1947: 396).16 By 1905 outside investors began marketing Pecan Island's strange landscape by embracing its otherworldly potential, labeling "the wet prairies" of "the country south of Gueydan" as 'The Holland of America.' (The Holland 1905). Seeking to reclaim "a vast tract of low prairie land" which they labeled as "the richest in the world," they endeavored to build "a system of canals at a small cost and in a short time." To this end, "some Northern people" purchased "nearly 2,000,000 acres" of the 'wet prairies and sought to remake places like Pecan Island through a series of drainage ditches and levees. Afterwards, they could resell these lands "to good settlers in quarter sections."

In addition to land reclamation through drainage, outside interests built canals as the solution to save Pecan Island from its isolation and perceived uselessness or underutilization. That was only one stipulation for the area near Pecan Island— "a canal" from "White Lake and Pecan Island" would need to be dredged "within two years." This proposed canal from White Lake to Grand Lake and Pecan Island would give Pecan Island residents "an outlet for this year's crops" to be shipped to Gueydan's market. By 1910, a much larger canal was in the works. A Lake Charles American Press article extolled the new intercoastal canal linking the Vermilion River with the Mermentau that would put "Romantic Pecan Island in Easy Reach of Travel," shortening the route and time from "about 100 miles, 24 hours or more ... by rail and team" to "an all water route ... [at] 55 miles and the time shortened by about eight hours" (Puts Romantic Pecan Island 1910: 4).17

By the late 1920s and early 30s, there's a clear desire to promote the region again to outsiders, this time for the fur industry.18 In his aritcle "Traînasse," Donald Davis explains that "after the 1922 increase in fur prices, land owners leased their properties to fur dealers and 'outsiders' ... who indiscriminately cut traînasses (canals) between bayous and across ridges and dug extensive interconnecting systems." While early marsh dwellers hacking ditches for their pirogues also cut passages through the marsh, Davis explains that locals managed the potential damage by monitoring the depth and width of each traînasse, limiting the number of canals made, and damming their access points to the Gulf to prevent salt water creep. However, the traînasse system ramped up as prospects for money increased. Davis explains that:

Marsh folks did not bother to lease their trapping land because they felt it was free for everyone to use. Leasing agreements destroyed traditional areas of family trapping and legally barred the marsh dweller from what he considered his land....The wetlands were recognized for their exploitable resources by the outsiders (called '"outlaws" by local people)....When trapping had been carried on exclusively by marsh inhabitants, traînasses were never cut across ridges and were always dammed to protect against saltwater intrusion. As the number of trappers increased, these precautions were ignored and the traînasse network evolved into its current chaotic pattern. (355)

Finally, technological developments, like the mudboat and then the "ditch digger," increased the canals' size and the speed at which they could be built and then the price for fur rose, which increased the number of canals needed and altered the people making them. Soon the marsh near Pecan Island was a crosshatch of canals.

By the 1930s, when there's a clear desire to promote the region again to outsiders and as the landscape of Pecan Island itself changes dramatically, the place-name legend of Pecan Island and the depiction of Cole changes as well. In 1935, Dean Tevis shared the local legend of "adventuring Jake Cole ... from the raw country of the lower Neches in Texas" with the readers of Beaumont's Sunday Enterprise (1935:1). The narrative's punch comes as early as the title: "Pecan Island—Once a Weird Burial Ground of Man-Eating Indians Is Strangely Isolated Community of Louisiana Marsh." Tevis supposes Cole "likely knew the Bowies of Vermilion bay" when he "pushed his way east ... along the beaches of the outer coastline" and "with his life in his hands, crossed the deepest part of the marsh." Unlike Vaughan in her account, Tevis doesn't name Cole's guides; he simply places Cole and his "two companions ... on the tip of Grand Chenier" where "they had climbed high into gnarled oak branches. Off in the distance, they had seen, dimly outlined in the haze of a spring day, clumps of oaks to the south." Heading to them, Cole and his companions traveled "over the boggy ground" until "they found themselves on what later became known as Long Island." With a thick slathering of exoticism, Tevis paints Cole's foray into the "curiously beautiful" Pecan Island as "entirely surrounded by impenetrable marsh, cut off from every avenue of intercourse with the mainland ... a last frontier."

In her version, Vaughan says Cole's guides (the Millers) were beaten, insect-bitten, and pure worn out, and even "against Mr. Cole's begging them to continue their search the following day," the Millers refused to travel anywhere but back home to Grand Chenier. Tevis, however, writes that the Millers, standing at the edge of Long Island who "still beyond, through yellow coastal haze ... caught mirage like[sic] glimpses of other seemingly greater oaks," did not have the will to keep going. What's more, while Vaughan tells Principal Dubose that Cole chose not to press on without the Millers, Tevis writes that once "Cole's friends refused to go farther ... he struck out alone," reaching Pecan Island to find a coppice of trees and vines and brush so thick he was in awe. "It teemed with wild life. No coast line nor inland marsh of the continent had so many ducks," Tevis writes. "Its flora was rich and in endless profusion. Palmettos grew in thick mats on the marsh edges. And scattered from tip to tip of the island .. were wild pecan trees by the hundreds, and all bearing when he saw them ... the first white man ... to step foot on the island."

Dubose offers a similar, if less magical, description:

[Cole] said that he had never seen so many different kinds and beautiful fruit. There were also many animals such as raccoon, opossum, bear, deer, and wildcats.... There also were many different trees of all varieties consisting of pin oak, live oak, pecan, willow, wild peach, hackberry, magnolia, large flower, tupelo, elm, toothache, cypress, and wild china.... The next spring ... his cattle[moved to Pecan Island with Cole's family] were wild and fat as butterballs.

Then Dubose describes the route Cole used to drive his cattle from Pecan Island to market in Texas.

But Cole's "discovery" of Pecan Island isn't so quick for Tevis. According to that writer's account, Jake Cole discovered something in addition to beautiful fruit and booming pecans on that isolated ridge. Cole "walked slowly among the trees ... like shelters of gnomes ... scores of hoary old oaks, twisted and corpses of those which couldn't stand the buffeting of the winds and water," and among them, he found a landscape at once frozen in time, but not quite never touched. Tevis explains Jacob Cole searched the Island, and as he did, he found "abundant signs" that people had been there, including the wild pecan trees appearing "almost as though they had been set as tiny saplings by some larger intelligence" and "dry, bleached bones." Tevis claims when Cole first climbed out of the marsh onto Pecan Island "before him ... as far as his vision reached ... stretched Indian mounds—the burial places of the Atakapas."

Local legend tells us the Atakapa in the Chenier Plain were wiped out by disease, likely smallpox, and most of these legends claim the disease was spread by a visiting boat, and in some versions, a boat captained by Lafitte. However, in Tevis's story, it's Jacob Cole who spread the story "that Lafitte ... brought three of his crew, dead, to bury them under the oaks" of Pecan Island. But Tevis dismisses Cole's account of that, wiping it away with these words: "At any rate, no Indian was ever seen on the island by any white man ... apparently disappear[ing] from the face of the earth, and seemingly without rhyme or reason" (Cameron Parish 1947: 11). In fact, whatever the actual cause for the desertion of the place, no version explicitly blames Cole for bringing the disease there, not even Pipes's account that places Cole arriving there after it "had only been deserted a few hours" or Tevis's version that casts Cole as witness to Lafitte.19

Beyond that, despite evidence that people had once called the chenier home, Cole "determined that Chenier Pecan was wholly uninhabited" (Tevis 1935: 2). And of Pecan Island's "peculiar stillness," Tevis simply describes it as "one of the mysteries of the marshes." According to the written versions of the local legend, Cole's "lonely travels had taken him into many of the queer, unexplored nooks of the Louisiana and Texas coasts," but even he "became oddly fearful" of the chenier's "peculiar stillness." For Jake Cole, "no other spot had resembled this strange island," this "fairyland ... changed little by time" (Tevis 1935: 2). In Tevis's account, Cole found the place almost eerie, almost unnerving, but despite the stillness, despite the Island's emptiness, or perhaps even because of it, no other place "had drawn him with the appeal of Pecan." Cole sees beyond the isolation and emptiness of Pecan Island to grasp its potential, and not only does he possess the tenacity to march through the marsh alone, he holds the steadfastness to withstand the landscape's peculiar appeal.

Though the legal reports appearing after Cole's death say he "passed most of his life on an island off the coast of Vermilion parish, known as 'Mulberry Island,'"20 according to the legend, after Cole's thorough search of Pecan Island, he realized he wanted to resettle his family there. Knowing he must return to his wife back in Texas, Cole readied himself for his trip back home. He "filled the pockets of his ragged buckskin jacket with fat, wild pecans" and returned to his wife and family "to prove he had reached his goal."21 With these pecans as inspiration, "from all the rich choice of names, he called" his new home Pecan Island. I suppose few wives would relish the call to uproot from Texas and move to a remote place in the middle of the chenier plain, especially if the new place was called "Island of Bleached Bones."

While at first glance an admiration for Pecan Island locals seems to drive Tevis's account of Pecan Island, a portion of his article mentions something suggesting his story is aimed at someone else. "They have and need no government other than the unwritten laws of pure friendliness," Tevis writes. "There is no greed here, nor superstition—strange as that is in this eerie island in the marshes ... isolated as is no other spot on the coasts of the southern states." Then Tevis tells his readers, in case anyone is planning a foray into the island itself or is simply trying to understand it, "Today there is some vague talk of a highway across the miasmic wilderness." With that, Pecan Island's isolation seemed to turn.

Pecan Island's opening to the world just so happened to align with industrial expansion. In November 1933, while northern Louisiana oil production was limited to 24,300 barrels a day, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes "set southern Louisiana's proration allotment at 44,528 barrels daily," which "touched off a great oil boom" (Franks and Lambert 1982: 184).22 By 1942, fur seems to have shifted to oil, and the desire to promote the untapped potential of Pecan Island only escalated. At that time, Humble Oil drilled No. 1 Louisianan Land and Fur Company well. By the 1940s and early 50s, oil companies scoured the marshland for oil-bearing formations deep under the soggy soil. For Pecan Islanders, as one local explains, this meant work. Several locals left trapping "to doodle buggy (seismograph) for the companies. Later when those jobs were finished, men hired on with either Humble Oil or Union Oil companies."

One newspaper of the day describes the bustling oil scene in the heretofore sleepy marsh communities of Pecan Island and its neighbors: "Trucks rumble through the streets, restaurants are crowded, hotels are filled and business houses are busy," it wrote, and "out in the network of navigable streams, barges and boats of all descriptions are traveling to and from the marshlands fields and seaplanes dot the skies."23 Perhaps this is the reason Tevis tells his Texan readers Pecan Island's "peculiar isolation is as virtually complete as it was nearly 135 years ago when hardy, adventurous Jake Cole came ... to discover it" and why Tevis offers such an extended description of Cole's strange discovery on the island. In the years following Humble's drilling of No. 1, innovations in the industry, like slant drilling and improvised floating platforms, made offshore production feasible and profitable.24 This industrial potential made Pecan Island's location near the Gulf appealing, even though the "impenetrable marsh" surrounding it still posed a logistical problem. That is, until the early 1950s, when a "16-odd mile" shell road "from Cow Island to Pecan Island" became a reality (Dixon 1953).25 One wouldn't think this tiny bit of bureaucratic improvement would draw much attention, but one Louisiana paper after another ran stories about the road; New Orleans's Times-Picayune, Baton Rouge's Advocate, Lafayette's Advertiser, The Beaumont Enterprise, not to mention the papers of nearby towns like Abbeville or Lake Charles all had something to say.

In a newspaper article for the Lake Charles paper, David Levingston described the remoteness of Little Pecan, one of the small communities near Pecan Island. "One striking out to visit Little Pecan," he wrote in 1941, "traveled by road awhile, then by boat awhile, then by skiff, then dragged a distance and finished the trip walking" (Levingston 1941: 35). Val Bowman tells New Orleans Times-Picayune readers in 1946 that "only a natural-born liar could tell the truth about" Pecan Island, quoting from a popular comedian of the day who had traveled there on hunting expeditions. Bowman says visiting the "island is like stepping back into the past, into the kind of life your grandfather lived ... no telephones, no moving pictures, no electric lights." In " ... on a Slow Boat to Pecan Island ... " Wilfred d'Aquin hints at the budding excitement about the road and its new sign of progress through Pecan Island's rare landscape. Known to his readers as "Wanderin' Willie," in 1949 d'Aquin takes a "voyage to one of Louisiana's offshore outposts." Equipped with "a sense a humor and a camera," Wanderin Willie hitches a ride on Margie, the mail boat leaving Abbeville at 9 AM and arriving in Pecan Island a little after 3 PM. It's an uneventful trip. Willie sees nothing more than passing boats and clothes hanging on a line. He even asks the boat owner "if anything unusual had happened on the run" previous to Willie's trip, and when the owner can't offer anything interesting, Willie explains it "by the fact that the unusual is the usual on the mail boat" to Pecan Island (d'Aquin 1949).

In people's minds, as national media like television "opened" South Louisiana up to far-off places, the road to Pecan Island would open the cheneir to the outside world and to progress, so by the time a road was built to the island, Pecan Island essentially stood as the symbolic embodiment of the entire state's readiness to take a leap into the "modern world." Or at least that's how the infrastructure project was billed.

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One might choose to ignore this minor narrative. What is, after all, one place-name legend in the whole history and oral tradition of the chenier plain? But the issue of land use and development—of areas being "idle" and "useless" and needing the shrewd sense of a developer to realize the untapped potential of a place—has been a central part of the Gulf's history. Consider what Jack E. Davis says about Florida alone in his The Gulf: Making of American Sea. While so much of the book is striking, his discussion of the widespread removal of the mangrove hem surrounding Tampa Bay for the sake of "progress" and "development" speaks to the reasoning behind my focus on Pecan Island.

More to the point, for me these types of narratives, like placename legends with their answer to a fundamental question of why or how a certain place deserves a name, may be the most intimate and truest expression of a local population's relationship with the land. It appears that Pecan Island's place-name legend developed and changed as exploration and exploitation of the area increased, during the region's offshore drilling boom becoming the "go-to" narrative to correlate the outside oil companies to Jacob Cole's monumental "discovery." Exploring this legend may offer an avenue to explore the locals' deep-seated understanding of, attitude about, and relationship with their landscape, the "affective bond" between these people and their place, what I take Yi-Fu Tuan to mean in his term "topophilia" (1974:4).

Pecan Island would remain without road-access until 1951. At that time, Louisiana stood on the precipice of change, as Shane Bernard explains in The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (2003). Electricity arrived in "May 1954 ... spurring Pecan Island's four hundred residents to embrace consumerism with a vengeance" (Bernard 2003: 40-1). To make his point, Bernard quotes from one of many newspaper articles popping up across the state at that time. Tiled the "Age of Electricity Comes to State's 'Last Frontier," the article claimed Pecan Island had been transformed "from the primitiveness of yesterday to the luxury of today as quickly as it took to flip a switch" (Dixon 1954; qtd. in Bernard 2003: 40).26

Indeed, Pecan Island's remoteness endured long after Jacob Cole, but that doesn't mean the two would remain separate. In fact, in 1952 a Morning Advocate newspaper article by Margaret Dixon made a point to connect the two. "Grand Isle ... and Pecan Island represent two of the last frontiers in the state," she told readers, and though "life at both places is still somewhat primitive," Dixon promised "a hard surfaced[sic] road has brought considerable conveniences to Grand Isle;" even though "Pecan Island is still almost as isolated as it was 135 years ago when a Texan named Jake Cole cut his way through the marshes to the high ridge" (Dixon 1952). Roughly a year after her Morning Advocate article, Dixon returned to Pecan Island for the completion of the shelled road, touting how "the islanders are getting a new taste of civilization and losing the isolation that made Pecan Island unique in Louisiana" (Dixon 1953). In this 1953 article, Dixon notes that the trip off the Island to Abbeville or Forked Island still wasn't "to be taken lightly," but people could take it "in any kind of weather," at least. Once again, Dixon mentions Jake Cole, writing "a Texan ... who had been told by sailors that within the marsh there was high ground" and who had "reportedly traveled across the dense marsh, encountering alligators, huge snakes and clouds of mosquitoes" to reach his goal and "gathered a handful of pecans as proof of his discovery."

It's impossible for me to say why Dixon includes Cole's discovery in her articles. Perhaps she saw Cole's journey as emblematic of the new road being built. Perhaps she felt the trail Cole blazed through the marsh to find the promise of pecans paralleled the discoveries oil companies were making in the marsh soil. Maybe she thought Jake Cole's story was too good not to mention. I can only guess, but that she sees the road as a clear sign of progress seems rather clear to me. The end of her 1953 article drives the point home. There, she quotes the people of Pecan Island: "'What we want next,' they say, 'is electricity, and then blacktop. Then Pecan Island will get somewhere.'"

For a very long time, progress and development and economic growth have been tied to land use. That's not very surprising. What may be surprising or interesting, though, are the current debates about land use and resiliency appearing in the various resiliency plans coastal parishes are writing. Of course, preparedness and resiliency do include the benefits of building levees and berms to protect existing development and prevent flooding, but one surprising aspect of land use involves doing the opposite—leaving land idle, leaving it alone, not building those levees and berms. Vermilion Parish's plan, for instance, argues effective land use considers how "building a series of levees to prevent flooding is likely to encourage more intense land use—residential, commercial and other—in the areas protected by the newly constructed levees. The question becomes: Is more development wanted within those protected areas or are those lands better left unprotected so they return to a natural state" (Vermillion Parish 2014: 18). Of course, another question, especially in places like Vermilion and Cameron parishes, is why the question of leaving land idle might be moot. First, much of the land that was once idle is now gone, and second, the natural disasters that have driven so many residents from their homes and prompted questions about the wisdom of their moving back may have inadvertently opened up huge swathes of land available for mega LNG projects.27 It will be interesting to see what the future will hold.

Notes

1. Certain scholars claim the cheniers extend beyond the Sabine River. For a discussion of the extent of the chenier plain, see Gay M. Gomez, A Wetland Biography: Seasons on Louisiana's Chenier Plain (Austin: U of Texas P, 1998), 15. Gomez points readers to James G. Gosselink, Carroll L. Cordes, and John W. Parsons, An Ecological Characterization Study of the Chenier Plain Coastal Ecosystem of Louisiana and Texas, 3 vols. FWS/OBS-78/9 through 78/11. (Slidell, LA: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Biological Services, 1979).

2. According to the report issued by US Army Corps of Engineers, the cheniers were formed, in part, by the westward shift of the Mississippi River over several thousand years and the sediment deposit of the Sabine, Calcasieu, and Mermentau rivers. During some geographical periods, gulf currents built fine-grained sedimentary deposits and extensive mudflats. During other periods, currents shift and "rework the mudflats into beach ridges." The westward shift of the Mississippi "strand these cheniers inland, giving the Chenier Plain its defining characteristic" (Ecosystem Restoration Study, US Army Corps of Engineers, Vol. 1, Nov. 2004, MR 4-40).

3. Gomez explains "a second exists along the north central coast of South America" and "a third chenier complex fringes the north coast of Australia" (14). Anyone interested in the region should seek out Gomez's A Wetland Biography: Seasons on Louisiana's Chenier Plain. The work offers thorough descriptions of the region, its history, natural resources, and people.

4. There are "as many as five series of ridges" or cheniers running parallel to the coast, each separated from the other by "fingers of broad marshland" and "the oldest cheniers rest 9 to 12 miles from the coast, the youngest within a mile of the shore" (Gomez 11, 13).

5. "The Chenier Plain," unpublished paper in Gay Gomez collection, McNeese State University Archives, 42. The author of this paper appears to be Timothy F. Reilly."

6. Schou described the landscape as amphibious, extolling the development of the specialized mud-boat, with "a strong automobile motor," a windshield, and "a heavy constructed propeller ... to work through layers of vegetation" (321). While these boats stood as new adaptions to this isolated environment, Schou also commented that many "old traditions resist here as a result of this isolation" (321), like the traditional aquaculture occupations of fishing, muskrat trapping, alligator hunting, and oyster farming.

7. Judge Edwards, interview by Carl Brasseaux and Donald Davis, Louisiana Sea Grant, n.d. The Louisiana Sea Grant based at Louisiana State University is part of the National Sea Grant Program, a network made up of 33 programs located in each of the coastal and Great Lakes states and Puerto Rico. Sea Grant Programs work individually and in partnership to address major marine and coastal challenges.

8. The Vermilion Corporation has had five predecessor companies: Louisiana Land and Mining Company (1912), Louisiana Gulf Coast Club (1923), Louisiana Coast Land Company (1924), Louisiana Furs, Inc., (1927), and the Louisiana Furs Corporation (1952). For a history of this organization, see Frank A. Knapp, A History of Vermilion Corporation and its predecessors, 1923-1989 (n.p.: Vermilion Corporation, 1991).

9. I'm not the first to wonder how the strange legends of Pecan island might shape people's perception of it as a place. For example, stories of pirates making the island home before other settlers have endured as a key part of the place. In 1891, William Perrin penned in Southwest Louisiana, Biographical and Historical (New Orleans: Gulf Publishing, 1891) that local tradition holds "people living on the island are descendants of the pirates that once infested the island" (247), but like the 1883 reporter, Perrin was engaged to some degree in promoting settlement in Pecan Island. With this goal in mind, Perrin wondered how these legends might affect people's reception of the place. "Pecan Island is soon to be put upon the market," he informs readers, and, "when it is, then perhaps some of the traditions may be unraveled." He supposed they had to be because "if the island is filled with the ghosts of slaughtered men," he wondered, "who will want to make it home?" It seems like quite a few people writing about Pecan Island have wondered about how to sell it.

10. This article is divided into three sections: 1) "Some History of Pecan Island, Louisiana," 2) "How and by Whom Pecan Island Was Given Its Name," and 3) "Southwest Louisiana: Historical and Biographical." The last is copied from the source with that title, and while the first comes from Sarah Vaughan, "known as Mrs. Koch," the second section could be from Dubose. It's unclear. An article titled "Was Pecan Island the man-eaters' feasting place?" in The Daily Advertiser's History of Acadiana special issue explains that Jacob Cole stopped at Grand Chenier because it was "the first coastal settlement east of the Sabine River" (Jim Bradshaw 7).

11. The date is based on the type of document, which matches other work compiled in the 1930s by collectors contracted to document the history of the area, and the age of Sarah Vaughan Koch given in the article, which is 64.

12. While Cole lands and travels inland, another type of settlement story in the region is about a person jumping ship to travel to one chenier. One story involves Charles Cronea. Block claims Charles Cronea of Marseilles, France, was the "first known Western European" to live in Grand Chenier (W. T. Block, "Some Notes on Early Grand Chenier, Louisiana," 1). One of Jean Lafitte's pirate crew, Cronea jumps from the Hotspur in 1820 and stays for two years. While Cronea doesn't appear in much local history, Block claims the Hotspur does since he identifies it as the ship famous in local legend for having sunk at the mouth of the Mermentau (See W. T. Block, "Buried Treasure Still Can Fire Imagination," Cameron, LA: Cameron Parish Pilot, July 20, 2000.) Without naming the ship, locals tell the story that early residents used the deck of a partially submerged sunken ship as a place to skin caught alligators (See e.g., Cameron Parish Louisiana Resources and Facilities (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1947 and Geneva Griffith's "Tales of Buried Treasure Are Coupled with Parish History" in Cameron Parish Pilot, January 7, 1970.").

The surname Cronea hasn't stuck around in the region, but a more common local legend involves a surname that has. Amid the surnames Theriots and Conners and Dysons that first settled the Chenier Perdue area of Cameron Parish, one unusual vowel-laden name appears—Baccigalopi (originally spelled Bassigalopi). "As a boy of 12 living in Sicily," Bartholomie Bassigalopi stowed away on a ship bound for America. Before it sailed, Bartholomie was discovered and "put ashore," only to sneak back onboard right as the boat left harbor for Galveston, Texas. After a long voyage, when the boat neared Lake Arthur, Bartholomie hopped overboard, swam to shore, and was taken in by Vileor Theriot to be raised like a son (Come One Come All to Explore the Treasures of the Past and the Present in Chenier Perdue-Little Chenier-and Creole, compiled and written by Mrs. Harold D. Carter, Cameron Parish Home Demonstration Council, May 14, 1968: 3).

13. This detail in particular has lasted through the years. Jim Bradshaw includes it in his version of the Cole legend. His words— "alligators 12 to 14 feet long, sometimes as many as 25 of them in one hole" —are strikingly similar to Vaughan's.

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14 John O'Sullivan argues as much in his 1845 "Annexation" published in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review (Volume 17) and "The Great Nation of Futurity" published in 1838 in The United States Democratic Review (Volume 6.23, 1838): pp. 426- 430, accessed April 1, 2010, The Making of America Series at Cornell University.

15. One may also want to see "Agricultural Expansion and Intensification in the Foothills of Mount Kenya: A Landscape Perspective" from Remote Sensing, Volume 9.8: 1-20, which traces land use in this African region and notices these same underpinnings. And as Sophie McCall explains in "Land, Memory, and the Struggle for Indigenous Rights (pgs. 178-195) in Canadian Literature (2016), the contemporary "Idle no More" movement, which "first came to public attention with the demand to repeal significant sections of Canadian federal omnibus legislations (Bills C-38 and C-45)," is simply "one dimension of a larger social transformation in which Indigenous people are seeking new pathways to assert their rights," one of which is land use rights and the local population's desire to use land as they see fit." And I do consider the name of this movement intentional.

16. It wouldn't be until the turn of the century that this scheme of land reclamation emerged on a large-scale level in Pecan Island. See Ory G. Poret, History of Land Titles in the State of Louisiana (1972), State Land Office, Department of Natural Resources, 33-34. Poret was the former Director of the Division of State Lands.

17. These canals have their own ecological impact—allowing for salt intrusion and erosion. See "Traînasse" (Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 66.3: 349-359).

18. See "Raising 'Cameron Beavers'" (1926) or Ramsey (1943).

19. "They were victims of smallpox, which was transmitted to the Atakapas," Tevis explains, and "as the story has it, were wiped out in that part of Louisiana" (Cameron Parish Louisiana Resources and Facilities 1947: 11). For a discussion of the smallpox blanket story as an item of folklore, in particular as a story of the Other and community commentary of ethical behavior, see Adrienne Mayor, "The Nessus Shirt in the New World: Smallpox Blankets in History and Legend," Journal of American Folklore 108.427: 54-77.

20. Southern Reporter. Vol. 2, May 25—October 19, 1887, 794.

21. Beyond naming the island for a positive life-sustaining feature (pecan trees), Jake Cole carries proof of high land back across the deluge of swamp water. Perhaps this story aligns more with the traditional story of the hero's journey to a terrestrial otherworld, like the English tale of the swineherd who finds terrestrial paradise while looking for his lost sow. Several Irish place names derive from trees, too; for example, in traditional stories about Ireland, "The Island of the Woods" as it is sometimes known, "a man of wonderful size" comes from the west and carries "a branch of a tree" that he shakes to form the five sacred trees of the island" and these trees, one of which is the hazel, play a predominant role in place-name legends throughout the country.

22. Proration, sometimes termed allowable, is "the daily rate of oil or gas that a well is permitted by state authorities to produce during a given period" (Louisianan DNR Glossary of terms).

23. Qtd. in Franks and Lambert, 184.

24. To access potential oil pockets in the marsh, oil companies relied on that tried-and-true method of digging canals; however, these petroleum canals were much larger than their predecessors since bucket dredges and spud barges dug them. See Donald W. Davis and John L. Place, The Oil and Gas Industry of coastal Louisiana and Its Effect on Land Use and Socioeconomic Patterns, United States Department of the Interior, U. S. Geological Survey, Open File Report 83-118. Davis and Place explain "in 1951 the traînasse was the leading canal type in the Pecan Island portion of the chenier plain, with a total length of 499 km. More than 30 km of the oilfield canals appear on the 1951 map. Seventeen years later the system has increased to 135 km, an average addition of 6 km per year" (33). However, Pecan Island appears to be luckier than other parts of the coastal marsh since "the chenier plain's soils can support drilling equipment [and] canals are not a necessity" (33)

25. To support travel even if the "weather [hadn't] been good for some weeks," the road was also scheduled to be hardpacked at a "cost in the neighborhood of $800,000."

26. Bernard also cites several other newspaper articles about electricity coming to the Island, including one appearing in Rural Power Magazine, one of many promotional magazines published by America's electric cooperatives.

27. "Cameron Parish is the Foundation of SWLA Growth," Posted by George Swift and Eric Cormier, SWLA Economic Development Alliance, September 24, 2019.

Sources

Bernard, Shane. 2003. Cajuns: Americanization of a People. Jackson: U of Mississippi P.

Bowman, Val. 1946. Pecan Island: Only a Natural-Born Liar Could tell the Truth About It. New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 12.

Cameron Parish Louisiana Resources and Facilities. 1947. Baton Rouge: LSU Press.

d'Aquin, Wilfred. 1949. ...on a Slow Boat to Pecan Island.... Times-Picayune (New Orleans), March 6.

Davis, Donald. 1976. Traînasse. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 66.3: 349-59.

Dennett, Dan'l. 1883. Scrap Collected at Grand Isle. Daily Picayune (New Orleans), September 1, 1883, Page 14, C.

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Dixon, Margaret. 1952. Louisiana's 'Frontier' Libraries. Morning Advocate (Baton Rouge), August 3.

---. 1953. Pecan Island Gets a Taste of Civilization. Morning Advocate (Baton Rouge), September 6.

---. 1954. Age of Electricity Comes to State's 'Last Frontier. Lafayette Progress, May 29: 1.

Dubose, Leroy F. n.d. How and by Whom Pecan Island Was Given Its Name. In "Pecan Island High School," State Library of Louisiana Archives, vertical file folder "Pecan Island."

Franks, Kenny and Paul F. Lambert. 1982. Early Louisiana and Arkansas Oil: A Photographic History, 1901-1946. College Station: Texas A&M UP.

Gomez, Gay M. 1998. A Wetland Biography: Seasons on Louisiana's Chenier Plain. Austin: U of Texas P.

Harrison, Robert W. and Walter M. Kollmorgen. 1947. Land Reclamation in Arkansas under the Swamp Land Grant of 1850. The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 6.4: 369-418.

Holmes, Katie and Kylie Mirmohamadi. 2015. Howling Wilderness and Promised Land: Imagining the Victorian Mallee, 1840-1914. Australian Historical Studies 46.2: 191-213.

Jackson, Douglas W.A. 1962. The Virgin and idle Land Program Reappraised. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 52: 69-79.

Kitchell, Erin. 2014. Fixity, the Discourse of Efficiency, and Enclosure in the Sahelian Land "Reserve." African Identities 12.1: 110-23.

Knapp, Frank A. 1991. A History of Vermilion Corporation and its predecessors, 1923-1989. Vermilion Corporation.

Levingston, David. 1941. Gulf Breezes. Lake Charles American Press, December 13: 35.

McCall, Sophie. 2016. Land, Memory, and the Struggle for Indigenous Rights. Canadian Literature 178-195.

Perrin, William. 1891. Southwest Louisiana, Biographical and Historical. New Orleans: Gulf Publishing.

Raising 'Cameron Beavers' for Meat and Fur Pelts, Is Next Big Farm Industry in Southwest Louisiana. 1926. Lake Charles American Press February 16.

Ramsey, Carolyn. 1943. Rats to Riches. The Saturday Evening Post, May 8.

Russell, R. J. and H. V. Howe. 1935. Cheniers of Southwestern Louisiana. Geographical Review 25.3.

Schou, Axel. 1967. Pecan Island. A Chenier Ridge in the Mississippi Marginal Delta Plain. Geografiska Annaler, Series A, Physical Geography, special issue, Landscape and Processes: Essays in Geomorphology 49.2/4.

Schwartz, John. 2018. After a Natural Disaster; Is It Better to Rebuild or Retreat. The New York Times. December 13. < https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/us/after-a-naturaldisaster-is-it-better-to-rebuild-or-retreat.html>

The Holland of America: Richest Land in the World to be Reclaimed by Construction of the Gueydan, White Lake and Pecan Island Transportation Canal. 1905. The Meridional (Abbeville, LA), May 27.

Tevis, Dean. 1935. Pecan Island—Once a Weird Burial ground of Man-Eating Indians Is Strangely Isolated Community of Louisiana Marsh. The Sunday Enterprise (Beaumont, TX), March 31.

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Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1974. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values. Prentice Hall: New Jersey.

Vermilion Parish Comprehensive Resiliency Plan. 2014. Vermilion Parish Police Jury. http://vermilionparishpolicejury.com/ PDFforms/RESILIENCYplan/Vermilion%20Resiliency%20Pla n082014.pdf

This article was first published in the 2019 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Keagan LeJeune is Head of the Department of English and Foreign Languages at McNeese State University in Lake Charles. He is a former president of the Louisiana Folklore Society and editor of the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. His research interests include Louisiana's Neutral Strip, outlaw legends, place, and landscapes. His book Always for the Underdog: Leather Britches Smith and the Grabow War was published in 2010 by the Texas Folklore Society in cooperation with the University of North Texas Press. His book Legendary Louisiana Outlaws: The Villains and Heroes of Folk Justice was published in March 2016 by LSU Press.

FAQs

How did Pecan Island get its name? ›

Pecan Island is a cheniere made up of three sandy ridges covered with pecan and live oak trees. For many years it was an isolated place, difficult to get to, and, because of that, an attractive place for people who wanted to be left alone.

What parish is Pecan Island in? ›

Pecan Island (French: La Pacanière) is an unincorporated community with a population of about 300 located in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, United States.

What language is pecan? ›

The name pecans come from the Algonquin language of the Native Americans. The word pecan translates to something which requires a stone to crack.

Who named pecans? ›

The origin of the pecan can be traced back as early as the 1500s and was named by Native Americans. The word pecan is derived from the Algonquin tribe's word “pacane” which translates to “nuts requiring a stone to crack”. Native Americans were the first to cultivate and utilize wild pecans and their trees.

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