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Brief history of the Cajun Prairie By Malcolm Vidrine, Ph.D. - LSU Eunice

  The Louisiana prairie (aka Cajun Prairie, Great Southwest Louisiana Prairie, Louisiana coastal prairie, etc.) represents roughly 2.5 million acres of historical grassland bordered to the south by extensive freshwater and brackish marshes, to the east by the Atchafalaya Basin with massive bottomland hardwood forests, and to the north and west by Longleaf pine forests. The prairie is also dissected by four major drainages (Bayou Teche, Mermentau, Vermilion and Calcasieu) that are lined by mixed gallery forests of pine and bottomland hardwood. The prairie also had inland forested islands of pines and Live oaks, thus it resembled a sea of grasses with wooded coves and islands. The vast grasslands were dominated by grasses (Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Eastern Gamagrass, Switchgrass, and Yellow Indian grass) that grew to the height of a man on a horse; however these prairies were burned often annually by Native Americans and later ranchers to promote luxuriant early spring and summer pastures for livestock introduced by the early Spanish Historic Range of the Cajun Prairie explorers (DeSoto and Coronado in the 1500s). A great variety of at least 500 species of forbs (flowering plants best exemplified by wildflowers) co-evolved with the grasses and the fire in the ecosystem. This essay will focus on cultural history and economics of the region. Inject livestock into this massive southern grassland and you get literally a sustainable system where the livestock literally replace Bison and deer. Increase or modify the burning regimen and a new economy is developed by the Native Americans. Upon the arrival of the colonists, mainly Spanish, French and English, and the establishment of permanent settlements, and the livestock resources become the mainstay of survival and profit. The prairie is used as pasture for the au large (free-grazing) livestock, while the gallery forests and navigable streams provide safe locations for settlements and passage into and out of the region. Livestock were moved from one location to another by herding them in large ‘cattle trains’ along cattle trails across the prairie to the ports for portage to New Orleans or Natchez through developing towns like Opelousas and New Iberia. For more than a hundred years during the 17th and 18th centuries, the French (including Cajuns) and Spanish (including Islenos) would vie to control the area, which was eventually sold and annexed with the Louisiana Purchase as late as 1819, when the Cajun Prairie west to the Sabine River officially became part of the United States. Following the Civil War, the Cajun Prairie inhabitants sunk into deep poverty and economic depression. Most of the livestock had been confiscated by the Northern and the


Brief history of the Cajun Prairie By Malcolm Vidrine, Ph.D. - LSU Eunice

Southern armies for food and labor leaving the prairie in ruins. But a new era was soon to begin. The arrival of Germanic settlers to the Cajun Prairie in an area just south of Eunice, where marais (wet depressions) and platins (ponds) were abundant, sparked an entirely new economy, the cultivation of rice and later the cultivation of soybeans and sugarcane. In the early 1880s, successful rice cultivation expanded into the western parts of the Cajun Prairie companioned with the development of railroads to carry the new economy, new towns like Eunice, Crowley, Jennings, etc., massive canal systems to supplement irrigation and maintain the wet areas for rice cultivation, and a mass migration of a variety of new settlers not only Germans but also many other nationalities and cultures. The prairie now was settled by people and plowed into farmland dissected by levees to create pans for rice cultivation. The eastern prairie remained cultivated in rice and corn and a variety of vegetables as its soils were not suited for rice cultivation. After decades of plowing and irrigation, sandy-bottomed streams were choked with mud lost by erosion, and the mid-1900s is characterized as the time when massive channelization begins in the Cajun Prairie. The rivers are channeled and rerouted to enhance drainage. Oil and natural gas, first discovered at the turn of the 20th century, extraction economies had slowly spread over the prairie, but by the mid-1900s, it had exploded into the marshes. The marshes were then channelized and the hydrology of both the prairie and marshes was changed to enhance opportunities for extraction of petroleum products onshore. By the 1980s, the prairies had been fully developed into massive croplands, pastures of exotic grasses, oil production areas, and urban centers, leaving only small remnants of native vegetation along a few railroad rights-of-way. Numerous exotic animals and plants formed the economic base for agriculture, and the Cajun Prairie ecosystem ceased to exist as a natural system. Extraction economies were operating at full throttle: farmers were removing record harvests and depleting all extant water and soil resources, oil and gas production was polluting above and below-ground spaces, and urban areas were cutting the prairie into lawns and parking lots with the typically required landscaping, mowing and other forms of maintenance. The timber associated with the gallery forests had also been extracted, and these forests were reduced to small remnants often colonized by exotic Chinese tallow trees. Additional extraction economies developed around other minerals, including salt (Avery Island and Jefferson Island are salt domes that have been mined extensively) and sulphur. All of these extraction economies are now being replaced by service economies: schools, restaurants, entertainment, banks, shopping malls, etc. The Cajun Prairie looks like any other part of the United States—a sprawling suburban cancer on the natural world. However, the Cajun Prairie sounds, smells and tastes differ from the rest of the United States. The infective influence of Cajun culture prevails even 250 years after their arrival in the Cajun Prairie in the 1760s. Food, festivals, and religion are all intertwined in a novel (somewhat old European but unique to southern Louisiana) culture. Numerous books are written about this way of life. The foods are famous from crawfish pie to


Brief history of the Cajun Prairie By Malcolm Vidrine, Ph.D. - LSU Eunice

jambalaya (both made famous by Hank Williams Sr. in his famous recordings) to modern blackened redfish. The festivals of the Mardi Gras and the traditional boucherie (community butchering of livestock) and the couchon du lait (roasting of a young pig), and their festive dishes (e.g., boudin, sausage, cracklins and hogshead cheese) are integrated into modern religion and social life—altogether generating significant sub-economies. The music also has worldwide appeal that appears to be growing exponentially. Companion the music, food and festivals, and you have a modern Cajun Prairie economy. The Native Americans resurged by developing a new economy in the prairie—the gaming subculture. In the midst of all these changes, a small group of naturalists and nature enthusiasts, The Cajun Prairie Habitat Preservation Society, Inc., a 501 (c) nonprofit corporation, linked with local universities and other organizations, focuses on preserving that part of the natural prairie that remains, recreating prairies, and teaching about prairies. The society is now linked the other groups interested in the coastal prairies of the Gulf of Mexico including The Coastal Prairie Partnership, Inc. Our overall goals include awakening the general population to their natural heritage and integrating nature into our perceptions of the prairie, both its culture and its economy.


Brief History of the Cajun Prairie