Monday, September 3, 2018

History of St. Tammany Parish By Polly Morris

On October 8, 1976, the St. Tammany News Banner published an article by Polly Morris telling of her research into the history of St. Tammany Parish. Here is that article. 

St. Tammany Parish History by Polly Morris, 
St. Tammany News Banner, Oct. 8, 1976

When did the first white men get foot on St. Tammany soil? And who were they?

One historian is quite definite about Discovery Day. He states that it was sometime during the last week in March when a group of Frenchmen arrived at an indefinite location between Polecat Curve and Rabbit island, in the Southeast corner Of SI. Tammany. Andre, ship's carpenter with Bienville, disagrees.

According to his journal it was August 28 "when we quit the sea on our left. . . and reached an island that we named Isle-aux-Pois," now identified with east Pearl River Island.

Other writers, too, disagree, but all give the Frenchmen credit because they left definite records about Lake Pontchartrain, Pearl River, Castine Bayou, Bayou LaCombe. and the Tchcfuncte River. However, this does not mean that someone else saw it first, and may even have landed, though briefly.

Legends of Long Ago

There is a legend about Prince Madoc ap (son of) Owain Gwynedd. His father ruled the largest principality in Wales. When Owain died in 1170, his principality of Gwynedd was, divided between his sons, but David ap Owain Gwynedd seized power. Legend has it that Prince Madoc left his homeland and sailed West. He might have been looking for the Utopia Isle of Avalon, the Celtic Para dite or he could have been looking for the elusive Lost Continent of Atlantis.

He landed on the Gulf Coast near Mobile Bay, and either explored or settled or sailed away in the search for the Isle of the Blessed. At any rate there is no proof of his voyage, but a legend persisted about blonde-haired blue-eyed Indians that spoke the Welsh language.

There Is another story that Is not all legend at all. Two hundred years before the Sun King of France sent his explorers to the land called Louisiana, there were Spanish Ships in the Gulf of Mexico mapping the coastline for men who would come later, seeking silver and gold.

The Great Sea Birds

It would almost have to be a fact, that one morning when the fog began to lift in the St. Tammany swamplands, a band of Indians would be paddling around the mouth of the Pearl River on a hunt.  They would freeze like statues to see a huge ghostly shape emerging from the mists. They would hide in the reeds, trembling with fear until it passed silently on its way.

That night they would bravely tell the villagers about a great sea bird with three tattered triangular wings that swept across the sea without a sound, and disappeared on the hazy horizon. Despite the warmth of a flickering fire, they would shiver with apprehension. Perhaps it was an evil omen, and they should prepare to leave this lush land.

They would not know that there were white men on the caravel who were not interested in their poor little villages. That they were making maps for those who would come later, greedy for gold and silver.

There is a possibility that the pilot of the Spanish ship was an Italian named Amerigo Vespucci, for he claimed to have made 4 trips to the New World. He said that one of these trips took place in 1499, and historians have doubted his sincerity.

But it is known that he made maps of his journeys, and that a geographer who used his maps to make other maps for navigators. This cartographer was named Martin Waldseemuller, and he made a map called the Tabula Terra Nova before 1508 that Is hard to explain.

The Tabula Terra Nova shows the coastlines of two continents designated as the two Americas by the map-maker. On the north shore is a great three tongued river that empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It is undeniably the Mississippi River, but the map-maker traced it from an original of before 1502. It poses some puzzling questions. What white man knew about the Father of Waters at that time? Could it have been Vespucci, who was esteemed enough by a famous map-maker to have two continents named for him?

The Strait of Anion

Twenty years passed, and those who had seen the great sea bird were under a cloud of disbelief as black as that which followed Vespucci. Their sons now hunted for the villagers, and they too waited for the fog to lift. They saw the great sea birds come out of the mist, and hurried home to vindicate their fathers. Maybe the sea birds were not evil after all. Maybe they were like the floating houses that were stacked one upon another that had been seen by the Florida Indians. They were said to be peopled by bearded white men who gave beads and blankets, but who had a terrible temper at times.

Historians know that the great sea birds were the expedition of Alonso Alvarez de Penida, a Spaniard who mapped the coast from the Florida Keys to Vera Cruz. No doubt his ship passed St. Tammany, and land-hungry men looked longingly at firm earth, but Pineda passed on, for he was searching for the Strait of Anian, a legendary passage to the Pacific Ocean. He too noted a great river less than half a hundred miles from St. Tammany, which he called Espirito Santo, or River of the Holy Ghost.

Fly by Night

No doubt the Indians were curious about the good-bad white men in big boats, and they might even have heard about an ill-fated voyage that ended in the Tampa area. It had been six months since the Spaniards under Panfilo de Narvaez had lost their boats before they were ready to travel again. It had been a horror-filled time of starvation and storms and savages who were truly savage.

While attempting to stay alive and build make-shift boats, they had lived on roots and berries and fish. Finally they had killed their horses for food, and when that meat was gone, boiled their belts and boots for leather soup.

At last they completed their crude fleet of five boats, stocked them as best they could, and pushed away from the shore well after dark. They kept as close to the shore as possible, for the boats were scarcely seaworthy.

It seems impossible that the gaunt survivors did not pass St. Tammany and not look at the Isle of Peas with haunted eyes. Since the Indian villages were inland on more solid ground, it also seems possible that the living skeletons of men did not i spend a tortured night or two where Frenchmen would in 171 years forget a sack of peas.

But their stay would have been brief, for they were trying to get to Tampico and safety. It would take them eight years to arrive, and only four out of an original 600 would live through the hardships of a tropical storm, slavery, and the terrible trek West. It is no wonder that the brave Cabeza de Vaca could not describe each stop-over in detail when he wrote about the ordeal. He was only interested in survival.

The Real One?

Although there is no proof of anyone stepping on St. Tammany soil from 1499 on to 1699. it seems incredible that they did not. It was necessary to take on fresh water regularly if available. Certainly the Pearl River would have been an ideal source, as it empties into the sound. Entering a partially enclosed bay for river water was risky business, for war canoes could surround a ship..or capture a work boat if the bay was too shallow for large ships. Ebb tide or sand bars or shallow water was also to be avoided.

Penicaut mentions game and fresh water in abundance at Isle of Peas. And certainly an expedition charged with making charts would keep close to the coastline. Indeed, it seems incredible for a map-maker to ignore the Rigolets. Certainly Pineda would have wondered if this wide passage did not lead to the Strait of Anian.

Even if the other white men did not come ashore, there is one other candidate who would have to have been in St. Tammany at one time.

In 1550 there was another star-crossed voyage. About 4,000 people left Spain for Mexico. There was a severe storm, and only 300 survived, coming ashore some where between Mobile Bay and the Mississippi River. It might have been better if they had perished in the storm, for they were brutally attacked by Indians who were either Mobillian or Acollapisa. 

Among the unfortunates was a Dominican lay-brother, Marcos de Mena. His companions, believing the Indians to be cannibals,   buried   the lay-brother in the sand, but leaving him an air hole to breathe through. His chances were slim indeed, for he had been hit seven limes with arrows, but if he died, the Indians could not defile the body of a holy man.

A miracle happened, and Brother Marcos was eventually able to dig out of his temporary-grave. He looked at the bloody mess around hun, and began praying. All of his companions had been brutally murdered and their clothing removed. He kept on praying. . and walking. When he finally limped in to Tampico his feet were bleeding. He told his story and from the description he gave of the Indians, they would have been near or in the Tammany area. Surely this man must have set foot on St. Tammany en route to Mexico.

Brother Marcos de Mena left no documented records, for he was a man on the move.
The French left records about everything, but there could have been things that were better omitted. Bienville told of an English ship, and English blankets found on Indians, and of trade between the Choctaws of Mississippi and the English peddlers. This was shortly after he arrived in 1699.

It could be that white men were not as much of a novelty as the St. Tammany Indians pretended. Perhaps they failed to mention that the enemies of the French gave them nice gifts too. . . and had better merchandise. It would have been to their advantage to have kept the right hand away from the left... and accepted gifts from each.

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See also:

Where did St. Tammany get its name?