A new history of Kenner chronicles the development of a diverse community
Book review by Ricardo Coleman
While we have a wealth of books dedicated to the history of New Orleans and her neighbor unincorporated Metairie, there is a distinct lack of scholarly work on the history of Kenner. Thankfully, Craig A. Bauer addresses this void with an expansive effort titled An Untractable Country: The History of Kenner, Louisiana. Bauer, Professor of History at University of Holy Cross and the author of Creole Genesis: The Bringier Family and Antebellum Plantation Life in Louisiana (2011) and A Leader Among Peers: The Life and Times of Duncan Farrar Kenner (1993), is highly adept in writing insightful microhistories that focus on a singular historical event, community, or individual. An Untractable Country falls into that interesting genre of historical scholarship.
The title of the book is taken from the words of the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who claimed the area now known as Kenner in the name of the French crown in 1682. The history of Kenner unfolds, Bauer suggests, in “three dramatic phases.” He traces Kenner’s history from its origins, when it was home to several Native American tribes and bountiful wildlife and natural resources, to its current position as the sixth largest city in Louisiana.
French settlement of the area began in the early eighteenth century. The area was named Cannes Brûlées after the French observed the indigenous people’s habit of burning the tall cane that was abundant in the region. The proximity to the river and other waterways accentuated its importance for trade. The area quickly became an important landmark for early cartographers, making Cannes Brûlées the first site identified on a map in eastern Jefferson Parish
Several events began to change the fortunes of the fledgling outpost. While the rich alluvial soils and natural resources should have drawn explosive interest from French settlers, immigration to Cannes Brûlées, initially, proved to be a dud. In September 1717, Antoine Crozat pulled out as the sole proprietor of Louisiana and was replaced by the Company of the West, led by the Scotsman John Law, and later known as the Company of the Indies. Though Law’s scheme would end with bursting of the infamous “Mississippi Bubble,” the creation of land grants, or “concessions,” to wealthy and influential individuals began to tap the area’s agricultural potential. After the Natchez Massacre in 1729, many French settlers fled south and took up residence in the area. Law also began transporting France’s “undesirables” into the French colony. A motley group of rogues consisting of: debtors, gamblers, convicts, women of the night, and smugglers were invited into the territory. Over the next century, sugar, indigo, cattle, lumber, and other goods made the area very inviting for commercial development.
One of the men who viewed Cannes Brûlées with great interest is an individual central to Bauer’s narrative. By 1805, William Kenner and his family had developed several prosperous plantations in the area—most notably, Oakland Plantation. Kenner had gained prominence in Natchez, and he eventually spread his influence into New Orleans and the surrounding parishes. Much of the book reads like the saga of the rich and powerful Kenner family dynasty. This is a welcome entry into the annals of Louisiana history that underscores the influence of the city’s namesake. William Kenner enjoyed great prosperity, near-ruin, and redemption in his short life. His six children—Martha, Frances Ann, Stephen Minor (known as Minor), William Butler (known as Butler), George Rappele, and Duncan Farrar became leaders in the region. Throughout the nineteenth century, Duncan Farrar expanded the family’s influence in politics and business. He served as a legislator in the Louisiana House of Representatives, and was the Confederate States of America’s chief diplomat to France and England.
Bauer includes information on the German Coast Slave Revolt of 1811. The large group of slaves led by Charles Deslondes traveled from present-day St. Charles Parish into St. John, and ended in bloodshed on the Kenner and (Stephen) Henderson plantation in Cannes Brûlées. While it is a welcome inclusion in this book, readers in search of a deeper understanding of this event should look to On to New Orleans by Albert Thrasher, and American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen.
The people of Cannes Brûlées and the Kenner family had to contend with rice and sugar crop failures, levee breaks, unpredictable weather, venomous pests, and yellow fever. The yellow fever epidemic of 1853 was an important catalyst for the town that would eventually grow into the city of Kenner. After losing his brother and nephew in the outbreak, Minor Kenner would begin the bold move of carving a town out of his sprawling Bell Grove plantation. Bauer gives us an interesting display of urban planning that includes information on how its important streets and thoroughfares were named.
The controversy over the birth of Kennerville was indicative of the squabbles that have endured in Jefferson Parish, a place where political and personal boundaries are often crossed or obliterated. Throughout the rest of the book, Bauer presents a narrative that illustrates Kenner’s fight to maintain its own identity—separate from Jefferson Parish.
Bauer provides a colorful glimpse into the important events and figures that defined Kenner over the next century. In 1870, Oakland Plantation was the site of the first world’s heavyweight boxing championship, between Jem Mace and Tom Allen. An influx of German and Italian immigrants helped the town grow into a thriving agricultural center. Rice, sugar, and fruits, and vegetables were cultivated, and Kenner also became well-known for a thriving dairy industry. Bauer also recalls the story of former Kenner mayor J. C. Baumann, who escaped several assassination attempts by political rivals only to be accused and later acquitted of a retaliatory attempt on one of those rivals, Henry Long. Bauer also sheds light on other Kenner notables such as longtime Jefferson Parish Sheriff Frank Clancy, the former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile, rock ‘n’ roll superstar Lloyd Price, pianist Henry Gray, singer King Floyd, and songwriter Chris Kenner. Events such as the 1982 Pan Am plane crash, as well as various hurricanes, are documented in detail.
Bauer employs a host of solid sources that provide the research framework for this book. The generous collection of maps and illustrations includes one of the original 1855 survey plans for Kenner on the site of Bell Grove Plantation. Untractable Country is recommended for readers keenly interested in Louisiana’s political, urban, or, in this case, suburban history.
Ricardo Coleman is a native of New Orleans and holds a master’s degree in adult education. He is currently in the master’s program at Southern New Hampshire University, majoring in American history.