Written by Dylan Tingley
On January 17th, St. Martinville, Louisiana’s 3rd oldest town, celebrated its bicentennial, beginning a yearlong commemoration of the small city’s storied history. St. Martinville is representative of many of Louisiana’s distinct cultural and geographic histories. Seated on the Bayou Teche, the water highway of over 100 miles has been an essential part of the settlement and commercial development of St. Martinville. The word “teche” may be derived from the Chitimacha word for “snake”, and some say the Great River will one day avenge the serpent. The term recalls the pre-colonial history of the land, where near present-day city limits there was an Attakapas Indian settlement. When the first census of the then Attakapas district was taken in 1766 there were already 40 Acadian and Creole households. During this time, Louisiana’s French rulers allocated land for the raising of cattle to supply meat for New Orleans, additionally sugar cane production fueled the growth of the region. The original land grant issued to Jean-Antonie Dauterive was eventually seized and divided between other landowners, with the St. Martin de Tours Church remaining intact and providing the city’s namesake.
When St. Martinville was still part of the French colony of Louisiana many slaves from the Senegambian region, St. Louis, and Goree Island provided essential knowledge of agricultural technology, which was used to produce crops in the hot summer months. Spanish and French colonial law provided the means for a number of slaves to obtain freedom; this group came to form a prosperous class of farmers, tradesmen, and business people. By the 1850s nearly half of the free people of color living in the St. Martinville parish were urbanites, where in the city they were involved in the building trades. Their story is highlighted by the work of Dennis Paul Williams, which can be viewed currently in the African American Museum in St. Martinville. Acadians, Creoles, and Creoles of color collectively shaped the language, religion, foodways, music, dance, and festival style of Cajun culture, which is central to St. Martinville.
As one of the oldest surviving towns of Louisiana, there have been many chapters in the history of St. Martinville. In the 1800s, epidemics that swept through New Orleans lead many to seek refuge and escape to St. Martinville. During this period it’s nickname, Petit Paris (“Little Paris”), was coined thanks to the French theater and many good hotels, which made it a cultural mecca. This surviving architecture and cultural landscape hold sacred the history and legends of the Acadian people. As the reputation of St. Martinville as a bustling Victorian city was extended, Germans and Italians, including creoles, joined the ranks of the city’s community, demanding many of the luxuries they enjoyed elsewhere. This ethnic and cultural diversity is reflected in the musical and culinary history of the region.
The products made in St. Martinville are distinctly Louisianan. Since its inception sugar cane production has been integral to the city’s economy, with much of the city’s initial wealth coming from plantations. There is also a sizeable crawfish harvesting industry, which contributes millions of pounds each year in overall production from sources in the Atchafalaya Basin and surrounding lakes. Currently the largest employer is in Cajun food production, the Bulliard family has made hot sauce for four generations based on a recipe developed in 1910. Hot sauces and other Cajun culinary products made by the people of St. Martinville are now available around the world.
Currently St. Martinville has a number of attractions, which showcase its cultural heritage. The Teche boardwalk allows visitors and locals to stroll on a promenade through the bayou, experiencing the beauty of nature and imagining the glories of the past. Those Acadian settlers who navigated the river originally would’ve likely lived in Creole Cottages. One of St. Martinville’s historical wonders is a replica of one of these Acadian cabins where tourists can envision what life was like in the early days of Louisiana. For greater detail and immersion in these stories the Cultural Heritage Center holds both the Acadian Memorial Museum and the African American Museum, the center itself is collectively made up of the original St. Martinville fire station, power station, and waterworks. The Bicentennial is a perfect opportunity to experience the cultural gumbo alive in St. Martinville.