In southern Louisiana, life revolves around the Mighty Mississippi River. For as long as man can remember, the river has brought life to this region. When the earliest French explorers arrived, they found the Houma tribe to be residing in what would become Louisiana. They understood the value of this impressive waterway which supplied a thoroughfare inland. Centuries later, it is still the river that calls to the people of the land. While the rise and fall have been controlled by levees, the river remains untamed. A new attraction in the Louisiana River Parishes is the Great River Road Steamboat Museum, which is designed to show how we are navigating the Mighty Mississippi.
We want to thank Louisiana River Parishes and Houmas House for their hospitality. Rest assured all opinions are our own.
Being guests of Houmas House, we were excited to sample the morning breakfast at the Dixie Café. Our packet of goodies included two passes and we found that arriving early gave us the place nearly to ourselves. As we dined, our discussion revolved around the amazing landscape of this plantation. Before we left the restaurant, we were honored with a chance to speak with Kevin Kelly, the property owner who actually lives in the majestic home. After a brief chat, we moved on to our museum tour.
Entering the grand foyer, we discovered an assortment of displays that whet the appetite for the main course that is to come. Here we were introduced to some of the key players in the region. Besides the background on the Houma tribe, we also found a couple of names that are common to the foundation of the cities along the southern Gulf Coast. The LeMoyne brothers explored the shorelines along the coast and discovered the safe harbors that would become New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.
Stepping into the museum, we fast forward to a period when ships were regularly navigating the Mighty Mississippi. A vast section of the interior of the continent was controlled by France. For the United States to grow, it needed land. Changing dynamics in Europe concerned the legislators in Washington. Delegates were sent to France to seek the purchase of New Orleans. To their surprise, they were offered a deal that would sell all of France’s holding, in the continent, to the United States. A drawn-out war with Britain had taxed France’s economy and they were in need of a cash injection. While this $11 million deal was beneficial for a growing nation, it did not pass unnoticed.
Defending the Region
The United States had won its freedom only a few decades before this point. The War of 1812 was Britain’s last major conflict with the United States. It brought to bear not only these two nations but also drew in Spain and France. While the Revolutionary War had gained freedom, this would bring an end to British occupancy in the U.S. The need to secure the borders created an unusual situation that called for unusual solutions. The Battle of New Orleans would see Andrew Jackson team up with pirate Jean Lafitte to defeat the British forces. At the Cabildo, in New Orleans, we had learned about this key battle for control over the river and the surrounding territory.
With the argument over ownership ended, it was time to move forward with taming the lands along the Mississippi River. In the Louisiana River Parishes region, the lands were divvied up for the development of plantations. The landholdings in this area ranged from small one or two-acre farms to the immense sugar plantations that occupied hundreds of acres. The common bond between these was navigating the Mighty Mississippi to get goods to market. New Orleans would become the hub for transportation to the East and Midwest. The time of the steamboats was reaching its pinnacle.
Navigating the Mighty Mississippi
After the War of 1812, there were about 20 ships plying the waterway along the Mississippi River. Now that peace had come to the land, this number quickly escalated. By the 1830s there were more than 1200. The plantations were directly tied to the steamboats, as it was the easiest way to reach their customers. The typical steamboat was constructed of wood and designed to navigate the rivers. They came in a variety of sizes with some nearly 300 feet long and up to 80 feet wide. These massive ships needed seasoned captions to navigate the Mighty Mississippi. To aid in this, the Army Corps of Engineers worked diligently to remove sandbars and other obstacles in the waterways.
Gambling on the River
As with any venture, people will look for ways to profit from others. With a large number of people traveling on steamboats, clever businesspeople found ways to earn a living. Gambling was an easy form of entertainment and quite profitable. Many jurisdictions had laws prohibiting this activity on land. In the middle of a river, people were free to partake. This continues even today, as there are many cities that have “floating” casinos that are all but land-locked.
Much like Westward Expansion, the Great River Road Steamboat Museum continues to evolve. New exhibits are being added that will focus on the plight of the enslaved. It was on the backs of these people that the fortunes of the sugar barons were built. We hope to have an opportunity to return, at a future date, to see the completed exhibits. We are sure they will be as diligent in the details as they have been with their other displays.
One Final Pause
Visiting the plantations in the Louisiana River Parishes can be an eye-opening experience. It’s a chance to walk through over 250 years of history that encompasses so many cultures. Houmas House, and its accompanying attractions, was a good start for exploring the lives of those who came before. With a better understanding of how the region developed, we were prepared to learn more of the background of the different peoples who formed this history. We couldn’t wait to do more exploring.