Know Thy Teche

Historian Shane Bernard knows Bayou Teche and its history. It’s his business. The son of swamp pop pioneer Rod Bernard and author of several books, including The Cajuns: Americanization of a People and Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues, has a new book out: Teche: A History of Louisiana’s Most Famous Bayou (University Press of Mississippi). Following is an excerpt.

After roughly two millennia of Native American occupation, Bayou Teche enticed Europeans to explore its murky waters around the mid-eighteenth century. Behind early French pioneers came the Spanish, followed by Anglo and Scots-Irish settlers along the bayou’s lowest stretches. With them were enslaved Africans and the gens de couleur libre (free persons of color). For a century and a half the meandering Teche served these explorers, settlers, and slaves, as well as subsequent travelers and entrepreneurs, as a primitive superhighway. It guided them from the soggy littoral to the heart of one of the most fertile, most hauntingly beautiful, sections of the colony, territory, and state.

The region’s first major industry, cattle ranching, flourished; the second, indigo planting, failed. Cotton production, however, took to the upper Teche and, eventually, sugar growing, to the lower Teche.

Sugar, slavery, and the invention of steam power coalesced on the bayou around 1830. These factors transformed the Teche from a backwater into a thriving “sugar bowl” rivaled only by bayous Lafourche and Terrebonne, and exceeded only by the lower Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The region’s enormous wealth in part attracted the marauding armies and dueling ironclads of the Civil War, devastating the bayou’s banks and making its course unnavigable. This destruction left the Teche Country less resilient to the floods, epidemics, and bankruptcies of the postwar era. It also contributed to the sense of despair and fear that vented itself in the period’s often racially motivated violence.

Cotton and sugar planting endured along the bayou, though joined by forays into rice and lumber. The advent of the railroad and eventually the motor vehicle and highway stimulated the region’s economy—even as these innovations doomed the steamboat and, seemingly, the bayou to insignificance. Predictably, the steamboat did become extinct, both on the Teche and elsewhere; but the same ingenuity that created the railroad and highway soon reinvented river transportation, producing the new pushboat-and-barge system on rivers across America. On the Teche this new system ultimately generated a net increase in tonnage of goods conveyed up and down the bayou; yet it required only a fraction of the boats and deckhands that once moved cargo on the waterway.

With fewer boats and hands — and fewer whistles and searchlights coming ’round the bend — the Teche clearly seemed to lack the vitality of earlier times. Indeed, by the midtwentieth century the bayou struck some as downright moribund. “[T]he Teche is the Past in Louisiana,” author Harnett T. Kane commented sympathetically in the early 1940s. “It has seen and heard excitements. . . . Now it has settled down to a period of serene rest.” It was a serenity imposed partly by the construction of so many levees, floodgates, locks, and other water-control structures. These enormous projects changed the Teche from a force of nature into a more obedient stream, one incapable of disrupting everyday life and commerce with the occasional raging deluge.

Shaped by these levees, floodgates, and locks, the story of the Teche in the twentieth century was one of designing the bayou to human advantage. Its story so far this century has been one of conservation in the face of mounting environmental threats, including litter, pollution, overdevelopment, and the spread of invasive species. . . .

[R]estoration of the Teche will require government and grassroots activists to overcome any number of obstacles, from lack of cooperation between the upper and lower reaches of the Teche — Port Barre, Leonville, and Arnaudville, for example, sometimes seem worlds apart from Franklin, Centerville, and Patterson — to financial and bureaucratic issues, to pushback from those who do not share their visions for the bayou. When, for instance, the TECHE Project [conservation group] suggested the state legislature declare the Teche a Louisiana Historic and Scenic River, many landowners along the waterway objected because of property rights concerns. Despite their differences, both factions agreed on the Teche’s importance as a natural resource. As an opposition leader noted, “I’ve lived on the banks of that bayou for 59 years and nobody loves it more than I do.” He added, “We are willing to assist with cleanup efforts in any way we can.” And those clean-up efforts are working. “It is coming back,” the executive director of the TECHE Project [Conni Castille] observed in 2014. “The water quality is good again. It has come a long way.” As an ecologist, [UL’s Whitney] Broussard concurred, [stating,] “Bottom line is that the Teche is much better than it was . . . even 10–20 years ago. . . . I expect that we are 10–20 years away from a healthy bayou similar to its glory days before the industrial revolution.”

Bayou Teche belongs to everyone: this is not mere sentiment but state law, which holds that “all navigable waters and the beds of same within its boundaries are common or public things and insusceptible of private ownership.” At the same time, much of the land along the Teche is privately owned. If “the Teche” is regarded not merely as the bayou, but as the bayou and the landscape through which it runs — the Teche Country, as this book has called it — then it stands to reason that the Teche’s welfare depends on a public-private alliance. This alliance will undoubtedly spark tension, not only between public and private sectors, but between developers and conservationists. Indeed, these tensions are already evident: traveling the bayou today reveals venerable live oaks, stands of mature bald cypress, and preening wildfowl beside industrial sites, convenience stores, and modern suburban housing. Yet lengthy segments of the Teche remain untouched or at least bucolic — the windswept fields of ripening sugarcane, the shaded bayouside cemeteries of whitewashed shrines, the stately antebellum homes that have survived war, floods, and neglect. It is time to decide how much of the Teche should be spared from the advance of modern sprawl, else, like the proud, ornate steamboats that once commanded the bayou, the beauty of the Teche might exist only in memory.