In 1976 News-Banner newspaper writer Polly Morris told the story of a priest from France who, together with a group of sailors from Canada, got lost in the Pearl River Swamp. It is an incredible story of survival, faith, and help from their Native American friends. Here is the text from her article:
Cross of the Colapissa By Polly Morris
"We shall follow the current of the River of Pearls without any desire to stop and search for pearls."
These despondent words were written over 275 years ago by a discouraged man who saw the raising of a crude cross in St Tammany in what is now the Indian Village area near Slidell. He would soon experience a horrible journey in the Honey Island Swamp.
This little known man was Paul du Ru. His faltering footsteps followed in the firm tread of fiery Canadians who served the Sun King of France, also earning fortune and undying fame for themselves and their descendants. Du Ru was a mere shadow beside them, for he had taken the vow of poverty, and had little to leave to posterity, except his journal. It was perhaps the greatest gift of all, outlasting riches and renown.
Almost three centuries after he penned them, the words of Paul du Ru leap from the printed page like living things, a stirring saga that ends with the most exciting adventure in St. Tammany.
Paul du Ru, a Jesuit priest, was a humble man who served his humble King as best he could. He was born in France in 1668 and became a priest when he was 20 years old. He was a teacher who had read much about the New World, and was astounded when his superiors selected him to be a missionary to Louisiana. He was made chaplain of the ship Renommee, of which the famous IbervilIe was commander.
The big Canadian had wanted a Jesuit priest because of their reputed ability to learn languages quickly. Such a man was needed to talk with the Savages.
The ship arrived in the New World welcomed back by cannon and musket fire that was strange to the ears of a sensitive man like du Ru. He began his Journal on the 1st of February, 1700. He had baptized his first child and 2 hours later boarded a transport bound for the Mississippi River and the Indian village of Natchez, with stopovers in between. For Father Paul it was to be a frightening Journey, but to the sturdy Canadians it was only rugged routine.
Some of his comments are interesting. He did not mind the crowded 7 foot square with a height of 3 feet that was sleeping area for 5 men, but he hoped the rats and spiders from the cabin did not visit them during the night.
He wrote a poem to the Mississippi River which he hoped he would be able to use if the river did not give them a bad reception. He wondered why the men were so eager to enter the mouth of the swift stream Obviously he was not. Moreover the transport was heavily overloaded, and he pleaded. "God protect us from bad weather. We are hardly in a condition to meet it."
He mentioned that he had learned 60 words from an old Indian that was as dried up as the bear meat given the crew. The native language, he said, was suited well to those who stammered.
Du Ru was happy when he raised crosses, taught the Indian about his religion, and built the first Catholic church in Louisiana at the Bayougoula village. But he mentions a "hundred different miseries at the same time" on much of the Journey. He endured clouds of mosquitoes, pouring rain, terrible thunderstorms, and diet of dry biscuits for days on end, for discomforted as he was, he was surrounded by determined men who knew rather well where they were going.
He put up with irregular Masses, vespers, and sermons, and lost his temper at the boisterous Canadians during services. He could catch up on eating and sleeping when he got back from the miserable trip.
On April 16th, he was glad the worst was over and he was safely back from the journey.
He wrote, "My journal must now end, but I shall add to it notable happenings. " One of these would be a visit to the Colapissa village up the River of Pearls. It would give him great pleasure to convert the Indians to Christianity, and such a short trip it would be to comparison with the one to Natchez.
It was to be the worst trip of all.
Paul du Ru and his party, set out with a light-hearted attitude The wind was in their favor and they made over 7 leagues that day The next day they said Mass at the head of Bay St Louis and started overland by a broken road through the woods. The route they took is hard to determine after 275 years.
According to du Ru they came to a river as large as the Marne in about a league and a half from the Bay. Here a man was drowned, but they did not let it dampen their high spirits too much They crossed over the river on logs, then came to marshes and creeks.
"We are well satisfied if the water is not higher than our waists," he wrote cheerfully. Later he added, "I am without shoes this is rather distressing, but there are worst things."
And indeed there were. A storm was on it way and soon there were raindrops pelting their backs. Lightening sent down jagged spears, and the high wind bent down the marsh grass. Thunder rumbled across the land, and hungry mosquitoes descended upon them in swarms They huddled together without fire or shelter or warm food.
At daybreak they left the dismal place and followed their guide through bogs and mud and thorns. They were cheered somewhat when they killed a deer and several buffalo. They roasted most of the meat for immediate consumption and fried the rest. Then they started put again, crossing deep streams on tree trunks. On the 29th they arrived at a small Colapissa settlement.
The inhabitants moved out of their 6 cabins and slept outside, so the Frenchmen could be more comfortable. They sent one of their messengers to the larger village that could be reached only by boat.
The next day the Colapissa of the large village arrived too late to take them to the big settlement, so they had to wait until the next morning. They went up a small stream for 2 hours, then came into the River of Pearls. At a small landing some distance upstream they left the boats and traveled by foot for 2 and a half leagues to the village. It was a settlement of about 20 cabins, but temporary shelters had been erected for refugees from an enemy raid, and all was surrounded by a pointed picket enclosure.
All went exceedingly well. The Indians gave them a royal welcome and a wooden cross they had made. They permitted them to take down a pagan symbol, and made a large cross to replace it. A bonfire was built, and the Frenchmen sang religious songs, followed by a celebration. Du Ru should have been elated, but he was sorely disturbed. He would be leaving the symbol of his faith here, but it would have no real meaning for these poor people unless they understood its true virtue.
Thus Father Paul was depressed even before they departed from the village on May 3rd. He was strangely uneasy about the weather, and even the 14 guides that would show them the way back did not assure him. Half of the little party would go by land to recover the dried buffalo meat, but du Ru would go by way of the Pearl River without any desire to stop and search for pearls.
By sundown, du Ru began to scoff at his fears. They had made 12 leagues in less than 7 hours and would get a reasonable night's rest with plenty of food. The next day they were troubled with rafts of driftwood that they had to break through, slowing their journey. That night the mosquitoes came in swarms and the men were too miserable to aleep. At midnight they decided to try and reach the sea The wind came up and the rough water kept them back. They thought they were close to one of the 2 mouths of the Pearl River.
They came to a small island, and paddled up a little canal that led to creeks that led to nowhere except into a large swamp. The Indian guides could not agree on the way out, so the little party went first one way and then another. It began to rain. They were wading in water and the tall grass was chin-high. Du Ru almost put his foot down on a rattlesnake.
With the thunder rumbling around them, and flashes of lightning illuminating their frightened faces, they grew panicky. The guides, fearing their anger, slowly slipped into the swamp.
They had faced much together, but they had never been hopelessly lost before. They frantically rolled fallen logs across creeks, making rude bridges They searched the starless sky for directions. They scrambled through thorns and slime and sharp grasses. Finally they came to a section of woods and built a fire, but a fresh storm put it out and brought in clouds of angry mosquitoes.
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One old Colapissa had not deserted them, and kept saying he knew the way to the Bay, so in desperation they let him lead them through waist deep water and muck and mud. Thorn bushes grabbed their clothing and their flesh. Father Paul wrote, "My legs are torn in 2 places. For 20 hours I have eaten only fragments of biscuit. For 3 nights I have not slept. I do not know where I am going. I doubt that our guide does."
He added that the thunder was enough to frighten one to death, to crack open the world. "If all this is endured for God, Heaven should be the recompense," he penned bitterly. They stumbled after the old Indian guide for 2 days, then he said they were close to the Bay.
One of the skeptics climbed a tree, and saw what looked like Bay St Louis, but he refused to believe his eyes. The weary men decided to discharge their guns. One hour before noon they were answered. One hour before dark, a canoe came, and they sent it their sloop, and lay down exhausted but very happy.
On May 7th the sloop took them to Bay St Louis where they said a Mass of thanksgiving. But they still had to battle a high wind and seas back to their destination. Water came over the sides of the sloop and threatened to submerge them for 4 hours. Their mast broke. Finally they rowed to the Renommee It was 8 o'clock on the 8th of May, and Paul du Ru ended his Journal.
It is not known whether he returned to the Colapissa village where stood the wooden cross. Du Ru was chaplain at Biloxi until 1701, when he was recalled to France where he died 3 years later.
Little more is known about this remarkable man who spent only 2 years in the New World. He was the first to build a Catholic Church in Louisiana, and probably the 1st priest to set foot in St. Tammany. And certainly he was the first to give a fascinating account of early Louisiana that is really good reading.
Yet only the faded journal with the vivid words remain and perhaps pieces of a wooden cross somewhere in the area known as Indian Village.
Polly Morris joined the writing team at the Mandeville Banner in February of 1974.