Southwest Louisiana hunting clubs are focus of new history
Book review by Christopher Everette Cenac, Sr.
“In a civilized and cultivated country wild animals only continue to exist at all when preserved by sportsmen. The excellent people who protest against all hunting, and consider sportsmen as enemies of wild life, are ignorant of the fact that in reality the genuine sportsman is by all odds the most important factor in keeping wild creatures from total extermination.”
— President Theodore Roosevelt, 1905
John James Audubon arrived in New Orleans just after daybreak on Jan. 7, 1820. The next morning, as the city prepared for the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, Audubon made his way to the French Market. There he found “Vast Many Malards, some teals, some American widgeons, Canada Geese Snow Geese, Mergansers, Robins; Blue Birds; Red wing Starlings—Tell Tale Godwits—everything selling extremely high.” In his journal, he recorded no disgust toward the options, but rather at the price: $1.25 for a pair of ducks seemed revoltingly high.
The birds arrived in New Orleans as products of market hunting, a thriving enterprise in 19th-century Louisiana, particularly in the coastal regions. A reported 1,000 market hunters in Louisiana operated with little or no regulations on limits. It didn’t last. The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act outlawed the practice, led to the breakup of vast land holdings and caused the rise of sport hunting clubs, which continue to play an important role in southwest Louisiana. Richard B. Crowell’s new book Chenier Plain considers these clubs as keys to understanding the economic development, geography, biology and land ownership of the region.
By Richard Crowell
280 pp. University Press of Mississippi. $34.95
If Louisiana is boot-shaped, the area called Chenier Plain is the bottom of its heel. It extends westward some 200 miles from Vermilion Bay to East Bay near Galveston, Texas. Crowell, a retired attorney from Alexandria, describes in great detail the geographic history of the region, which takes its name from cheniers, the French-Acadian term for “oak” or “place of oaks.” In this freshwater habitat, the east-west trending oak ridges run a few miles north and parallel to the Gulf Coast. This is in contrast to the north-south oriented bayous of the younger Deltaic Plain that originate as freshwater distributaries. They flow through a brackish region before entering the salt marsh environment of the Gulf Coast. Each of these regions contains their own flora and fauna.
Crowell evokes the image of “sports” and their guides on cold mornings with thousands of ducks blackening the dawn’s sky.
Market hunting—and the insatiable appetites of New Orleanians for waterfowl—led to the decline of migratory bird populations throughout the 19th century. Crowell quotes the Acadian historian William Thibodeaux: “Duck hunting was not considered a sport—ducks were harvested like a crop.” One example of the business model was the operation of Fred Dudley, an Englishman who leased 11,000 acres of marsh west of Bayou Misere in present day Lacassine Wildlife Refuge. In the winter and spring hunting season of 1911-1912 respectively, Dudley’s camps “shipped 2,000 waterfowl per day to New Orleans, and his corporation earned $2,500 ($45,800 today) each week.” His hunters packed their kill in wood barrels in alternating layers of fowl and ice and shipped the harvest by boat or rail to the French Market.
The market hunting grounds were sold to the newly established sport hunting clubs following the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Using a combination of maps, sketches and original drawings, Crowell traces the development of the clubs while including important environmental information on the migration of waterfowl. The book centers on six of these organizations with structure and history of the Coastal Club receiving the most detailed study. Crowell evokes the image of “sports” and their guides on cold mornings with thousands of ducks blackening the dawn’s sky. By attracting diverse hunter clients, the clubs expanded the reputation of Cajun and Creole cuisine nationally during the first and second decades of the 20th century. But their importance goes beyond cuisine, as Crowell argues that the early sport hunting clubs of South Louisiana were the first non-public incubators of waterfowl conservation. Many worked to address the trends of market and unregulated hunting.
As we say in South Louisiana, the author has “done well.” This history of the Chenier Plain’s hunting clubs greatly expands our concept of Louisiana as the “Sportsman’s Paradise.” As Cromwell makes clear, Chenier Plain remains important as one of the preeminent areas of the Mississippi Migratory Flyway, an important part of our state’s history and our understanding of present-day Louisiana.
Christopher Everette Cenac, Sr., M.D., F.A.C.S., Houma, Louisiana, is a practicing orthopedic surgeon. He is the author of Eyes of an Eagle: Jean-Pierre Cenac, Patriarch: An Illustrated History of Early Houma-Terrebonne (selected book of the Louisiana Bicentennial Commission) and Livestock Brands and Marks: An Unexpected Bayou Country History 1822-1946 Pioneer Families Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana (a Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Book of the Year) both distributed by UPM.