Basin Law and Order
How would it work if we just decided one day to suspend the 911 service, including the calls to the fire department, the police or sheriff’s department? How would it be if our rights, or life, or property was being threatened and there was no institutional authority to call? It is what happened to the people who lived in the Atchafalaya Basin in the 1800s and early 1900s. It is interesting to wonder if they knew that they were giving up access to law enforcement when they decided to move farther and farther back into the Basin in pursuit of the swamp’s resources. Indeed, whether they cared? Today this would be one of the first issues we might consider, but oddly, it did not seem to deter them from voluntarily choosing isolation. Perhaps it is a case of not missing what you never had? When you ask the interview questions about law enforcement, people shrug their shoulders and respond with “there wasn’t any”. In pursuit of more detail you can push on with questions about sheriffs or their deputies, and the answer is the same. There just wasn’t any.
However, if you lived on the edges of the Basin instead of in the interior, things could be different with respect to the legal attention paid to situations. The landing at the foot of the Attakapas Canal on Lake Verret was close enough to Napoleonville (eight miles by road) to receive direction from the Assumption Parish sheriff’s department. One of the Myette Point ancestors was known to cause trouble when he came to town, and the sheriff chose to address the potential problem by banning the individual from using the landing at all. This would have been about 1850.
“They used to do all their business at Attakapas Landing. Yeah, that’s it. And he’s the one I was telling you that…uh, that grandpa Sead’s daddy, he was so…such a bad character, that the sheriff wouldn’t even let him land at Attakapas Landing anymore.” [EJ Daigle, 1995]
But even in the interior of the Basin, in some rare instances, particularly those involving murder, cases came to the attention of federal authorities. Why some criminal acts were addressed this vigorously and others not, is not known. This particular time, a man accused of murder was traced by federal marshals to Hog Island, about ten miles south of Bayou Chene. They showed up looking for him and a fishboat came in and docked about the same time. The fishboat operator saw what was happening and told the marshals that he needed to leave and continue on in his boat. Knowing the close association between the fishermen and the fishboat operators, the marshal suspected the murderer would get help from the fishboat. The names are masked in the following account by Edward Couvillier, who would have been a teenager at the time and living on Hog Island.
EC: I remember old [. . .] He killed a man. And he came down there between Hog Island and Keelboat. Marshal came down there to look for him, and they got everybody in one house, made everybody stay together, didn’t let nobody leave. [. . .] pulled up, [. . .] on his fishboat, and he was gonna leave and that marshal told him “No, you got to stay here” he says. He was afraid he would go pick him up and take him, you see. That’s what he didn’t want. “No” he say, “I’m gone”. He pulled out that big old gun, he put it in the back of his head, he say “You gone stay”.
JD: When was that Edward?
EC: Aw, that was in the ‘40s. Way back in the ‘40s. At Keelboat [Pass] and Hog Island. Got on that island between Keelboat and Hog Island. And they finally caught him, but it took about three or four days with bloodhounds. They got back in there with bloodhounds, got him out.
JD: And what…what was it that had happened? He had…
EC: He had killed a man, [. . .]
JD: And did he get taken off to jail, and everything?
EC: Oh yeah, they hauled him off.
Apparently insults were dealt with by direct confrontation. Fist fighting was the usual method of confrontation between men, with the parties afterward refraining from communication with the other family for a period of time. Most of the time affronts would be forgotten in a year or less, and communication would resume. Serious disagreements, such as the accusation of fish theft, might require longer than a year to subside. As a young man, Myon Bailey was involved in the question of fish theft and fought with his accuser, falling overboard and causing his wife to miscarry their first child. Five years later the parties reconciled their differences and became good friends, but it took that long.
“And he come and attack on me at my camp. When he hit me he knocked me overboard. When I got outta there we got hooked up [tangled fighting]. And Blaise come there and separate us, and then Blaise went to whip Alvin’s ass. It was a big coulou. We stayed about five years I guess. Caused her to lose her first baby. [Myon Bailey, 1995]
Generally, theft seems to have had a kind of sliding scale of degree vs. reaction. It was understood by just about everybody that there was a line between what the victim could be expected to shrug off with a verbal exchange and what required a direct physical response. The known temper and physical capability of a potential victim might have had an influence on what a thief planned to do.
According to interviews, the theft of timber was a common thing in the first half of the 1900s. There was so much timber, and the territory was so big, and the patrolling of it so sparse, that many people routinely made part of their living by cutting cypress and tupelo and hiding it for later removal to a sawmill. And you had to hide the trees you cut so that other people looking to do the same thing you were doing didn’t come along and steal the logs you had just “acquired”. Myon’s daughter, Lena Mae Couvillier, says “They had to, ‘cause they’d steal em. That’s why they’d hide em. “
Firearms for legal purposes were a common tool in the Basin. They were used for hunting game so much that no one thought anything of seeing people carrying rifles or shotguns. So it was that if a disagreement over something occurred there may have been a gun to settle it. It was this availability that could be dangerous at times. There are several well-known instances of arguments being settled by the death by gunshot of one of the people involved. Most of these cases, however not all, were the end result of longstanding disagreements not of issues that just flared up suddenly.
One such situation is well documented, and it occurred in Iberia Parish. It was near the place then called Grand Bayou. This is the waterway on the west side of the Basin that fed Lake Fausse Point from the Atchafalaya River system prior to the levee blocking Grand Bayou. There was a community there for a while. The story goes like this. One man was in the small store getting supplies and he looked through the front door and saw someone else about to enter the store. The first man told the store owner that he didn’t want to talk to the incoming second man and left the store. He walked to his pirogue and got in and began to paddle away down the bayou along the bank. The second man came up to the bank and began to walk along the bank harassing the first man in the pirogue. After a short time, the man in the pirogue lifted a shotgun loaded with buckshot and fired at the man on the bank, hitting him in the body with several of the pellets. As the man fell, he told a friend “He’s killed me”. And he died. The sheriff of Iberia Parish arrested the first man and took him to jail in New Iberia. A hearing was held during which an attempt was made to determine if self defense was involved. Eyewitnesses testified that the man on the bank was not threatening the man in the pirogue except verbally. It was shown he had no weapon but a very small pocketknife. No self defense was justified. However, the victim’s records were reviewed and it was found that there had been complaints filed against him for assault with a weapon, and other complaints involving intimidation, etc. The hearing officer ruled that the homicide had been justifiable based on the dead man’s antisocial character. End of case. Being that formal complaints had previously been filed, the incident must have been within reach of the New Iberia system of law. If this had happened farther out in the Basin it is doubtful if complaint records would have existed.
Running someone else’s fishing lines almost always brings about a potentially violent reaction from the wronged party. The most often mentioned weapon is the paddle kept in the boat. Ida Daigle (born in 1918) caught a man stealing fish from her lines once. She says.
“[. . .] He had all my fish in his boat. And I went right up to him, too. I put my paddle, though, by me. He’d a made a pass at me I’d’a hit him with my paddle. And uh, I went right up to him. [. . .] “I did good!” he say. I say “Where’s your lines?” “Oh, here and there”. I say “You know darn well you lyin” I say “You ain’t got a line in yuh.” I say “Them fish is mine” I say “Throw em in my boat”. [. . .] I say “I’m gone hit you in the…I’m gone hit you with this paddle”. And I had…Russell had made me a big, heavy paddle.
And I say “I’m goin bait my line and tomorrow” I say “ I’m gone be here earlier than what you is” and I say “Look” I say “if I see you on a line” I say “you gone stay there” But I didn’t have no gun with me [means she was bluffing]. [laughs]. I never brought no gun with me. But he got scared. The next day I went and filled up my wellbox. It was my fish.” [Ida Daigle, 1996]
Infidelity was as frequent as with any other group of individuals. Sometimes it happened. The unwritten law was that if a couple was discovered while so engaged, the consequences were up to the wronged man. If he chose, he could shoot the other man, and the woman too for that matter, and no law would punish him. Sometimes the offended person just didn’t think the issue was worth the trouble and just walked away, but sometimes not.
We wonder at the flexibility of what we think of as the system of crime and punishment in the Basin in the first half of the 1900s. But it is a difficult assessment to make. From our position in a much more monitored and regulated society, it is unrealistic to assess someone else’s reactions that took place in a time and place unfamiliar to us. People who lived 150 years ago in the Atchafalaya Basin lived by the codes they inherited from previous generations. If these progenitors lived in conditions far removed from organized law enforcement, they learned to function within a set of rules that had proven through time to work well enough to let people get on with life. Live and let live seems to be what evolved as a guide for most people. If this system at least allowed individuals to live their lives without the constant fear of threat to life or property, it seems to have been enough.
The river is playing tricks. It went down to five feet last week and I dug out the lower-level platforms that lead to the crib and dock when they are far away from the bank in low water. Now the river is coming back up to at least seven feet and maybe more due to rain in Ohio. Oh well. It ain’t boring.
The black and white picture is from the collection of Darlene Soule'.
The river is at 6.0 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 7.8 feet by next Friday. The Ohio and Mississippi are really rising up above. We could get some serious mid-summer water this year, not flooding, but higher than usual anyway.
Rise and Shine, Jim