Sunday, April 20, 2014

Welcome to Bayou Teche Dispatches. . . .

Bayou Teche Dispatches is a collection of my writings about south Louisiana history and culture. Often it consists of material I could not use in my books for one reason or another, but which I nonetheless found fascinating. I hope you enjoy reading these articles as much as I enjoyed researching and writing them.

If you publish information from them, however, please remember to cite this blog as your source and, if applicable, to supply a return link. Please do not repost articles in their entireties, but short block quotations that fall within range of "fair usage" are acceptable.
~ Shane K. Bernard

Table of Contents

 Sur le Teche: Exploring the Bayou by Canoe, Stage 1
Port Barre to Arnaudville

❧ Rough Rider Redux: A Photo of Theodore Roosevelt in Downtown New Iberia?
A forgotten photo of Theodore Roosevelt in Cajun Country

❧ A Fiction Interlude: My Short Story "The Phrenologist"
A short story about racism set in antebellum New Orleans

❧ A Floating Dancehall on the Teche: The Club Sho Boat
A riverboat that became a nightclub and restaurant

❧ A Meteor over Cajun Louisiana: Window on Atomic-Age Anxieties
Confusing a meteor for an atomic bomb

❧ A Film Documents South Louisiana's Logging Industry, ca. 1925: Responsible Stewardship or Environmental Disaster?
Digitized film about cypress logging along the Teche

❧ A Glimpse from 1968: Historic Films Looked at Cajuns and Creoles in Epic Year
Digitized French films capture an important year in south Louisiana history

❧ Now Available: My Children's History of the Cajuns in English and French Editions
Buy my Cajun book for kids so I can pay off my credit card

❧ "Cajuns of the Teche": Bad History, Wartime Propaganda, or Both?
A 1942 film with excellent images, horrible script,

❧ A Snake, a Worm, and a Dead End: In Search of the Meaning of "Teche"
Searching for the meaning of the word "Teche"

❧ Galaxies, Bowling and Swamp Pop: Johnny Preston and The Cajuns in Escondido
Examining a Cajun reference in a chain e-mail about old gas stations

❧ Serendipity and Fort Tombecbe: Cooperation between Historians and Archaeologists
Accidentally finding a map of a fort coincidentally excavated by my friend

❧ Notes on Two Nineteenth-Century Engravings of South Louisiana Scenes
Vintage magazine images of Cajun and Creole women

❧ Finding History Right around the Corner: Heroism on the Cajun Home Front
A nearly forgotten World War II landmark a block from my residence

❧ My Father's Childhood Autograph Book on the History Channel?
When Dad met Hank Williams, Sr.

❧ My Oddball Collection of Cajun Warplane Photos
Cajun-themed combat aircraft

❧ Elodie's Gift: A Family Photographic Mystery
An old tin type image given to me by a great-aunt

❧ The Nike-Cajun Rocket: How It Got Its Name
A rocket named "the Cajun"?

❧ Middle Name or Clerical Error?: Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil and "Gaurhept"
Perpetuation of a historical error

❧ Debunking the Alleged Origin of the Word "Coonass"
Finding a word by accident that wasn't yet supposed to exist

❧ More on That Word "Coonass": A Labor Dispute Trial Documents Its Use in 1940
The earliest known use of this controversial word

❧ "To Err Is Human": Errata from My Books
Everyone makes mistakes

❧ An Old Bull Durham Tobacco Ad in New Iberia, or Palimpsests on the Teche
This vintage advertisement has since been destroyed

❧ Remembering Polycarp: A Cajun TV Show Host for Children
Everyone loved Polycarp!

❧ From Jet Fighters to Football: Origin of the Phrase "Ragin' Cajun"
Where this catchy term originated (as far as anyone knows)

❧ The Elusive André Massé, Pioneer of the Attakapas
An almost mythical explorer of the Teche region

❧ More on the Elusive Andre Massé, Early Settler of the Attakapas District
Revelations about him in a historical document

❧ La Chute: A Waterfall on Bayou Teche?
A waterfall in largely flat south Louisiana

❧ Gumbo in 1764?
The earliest known reference to gumbo in Louisiana

❧ On That Word "Gumbo": Okra, Sassafras, and Baudry's Reports from 1802-1803
More on the history of gumbo in Louisiana

❧ La Pointe de Repos — Early Acadian Settlement Site along the Teche
Colonial-era settlement near present-day Parks, Louisiana

❧ A 1795 Journey up the Teche: Fact, Fiction, or Literary Hoax?
It almost fooled me . . . almost

❧ All the Same Place: Isla Cuarin, Côte de Coiron, Île Petite Anse, Petite Anse Island & Avery Island
Evolution of a place name in the south Louisiana coastal marsh

❧ The Grevembergs, Early Cattle Ranchers of the Attakapas
When someone accidentally transposes two numerals

❧ Tracking the Decline of Cajun French
Research behind the language stats in my book The Cajuns

❧ The Secret CODOFIL Papers
I waited how long for the FBI to release these documents?

❧ Agnus Dei Artifact Found on Banks of Bayou Teche
A religious symbol turns up in the mud at Breaux Bridge

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Rough Rider Redux: A Photo of Theodore Roosevelt in Downtown New Iberia?

Two days ago an acquaintance sent me the below image from a cache of family photographs owned by his mother, a Broussard from Iberia Parish. (Incidentally, his mother turned ninety only yesterday.) No background information accompanied the photograph, except that it showed a parade in downtown New Iberia.

The photograph, showing downtown New Iberia, early twentieth century.
(Click to enlarge)

I confirmed for myself that the photograph was indeed taken in downtown New Iberia. The two surnames appearing on buildings in the photograph, Siebeck and Renoudet, are historical New Iberia surnames. "O. Renoudet" was a well-known merchant in the town, selling carriages, wagons, and hardware. Moreover, in the photograph's distant background I could discern the rounded cupola of the old U.S. Post Office. This building exists today, perfectly restored, as the Schwing Insurance Building.

Close up of the old post office, New Iberia,
now the Schwing Insurance Building.

I then noticed something peculiar about the parade: it included a sizable number of men on horseback wearing cowboy hats and neckerchiefs. 

The same building today.
(Source: Phone Home Project,
Catholic High, New Iberia)

They reminded me vaguely of the Rough Riders, the cavalry regiment raised by Theodore Roosevelt during the Spanish American War (1898). I am familiar with Rough Rider uniforms because as historian and curator to McIlhenny Company on Avery Island, Louisiana, I maintain the Rough Riders uniform of Tabasco sauce heir John Avery McIlhenny.

I then remembered reading somewhere that Roosevelt had visited New Iberia and that he had been greeted at the edge of town by mounted locals dressed like Rough Riders. It was a 2011 article by the late New Iberia journalist Morris Raphael, who, citing 1971 research by LSU history professor Richard H. Collin, wrote "In the year 1914, while Roosevelt was making a barnstorming political drive through South Louisiana, running for President* on the Progressive 'Bull Moose' ticket, he had New Iberia in mind as his destination."

But could the photograph my acquaintance sent me actually show Roosevelt on his visit to New Iberia?

I believe this person to be Roosevelt.

I now believe this to be the case, for a few reasons.

First, there is the presence of the ersatz Rough Riders. A contemporary newspaper article about Roosevelt's visit observed, "Two miles from New Iberia he left his automobile, mounted a horse, and led a large procession of horsemen into the town [New Iberia]." (Collin echoed this primary-source document, noting in his article, "The highlight of the trip [to the Teche country] . . . occurred at New Iberia where four hundred mounted 'Rough Riders,' each with a bandana around his neck, welcomed the Roosevelt entourage at the outskirts of the city. Mayor Alphe Fontelieu, leader of the group, greeted Roosevelt: 'Colonel, we have a horse for you and wish you to take command of our troop.' The colonel was of course delighted . . . [and] he led the happy troupe into town.")**

Newspaper article from September 1914
about Roosevelt's visit to New Iberia.
(Source: Chronicling America)

Second, Collin observed in his 1971 article, "To add even more tone to the ceremony three little girls in patriotic dress were put at the head of the line. . . ." One can actually see those three little girls in the photograph in question.

The "three little girls in patriotic dresses . . .
at the head of the line."
The person I believe to be Roosevelt is directly behind them.

Third, another acquaintance, Laura Hanchey Hall, viewed the above image (I had posted it to my south Louisiana history page on Facebook) and recalled that her grandmother took a photograph with Roosevelt during his New Iberia visit. I examined that photograph, and in it Roosevelt appears to be dressed much like the person in the parade that I think is Roosevelt.

Roosevelt posing with children in New Iberia, 1914.
Note he seems to have been given a neckerchief.

For these reasons, I am convinced that the photograph in question shows former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt riding horseback down Main Street in New Iberia, Tuesday, September 8, 1914. As such, this may be a long forgotten image of the 26th President of the United States.

Article mentioning date of Roosevelt's visit to New Iberia.
But the day fell on a Tuesday, not a Monday.
Rice Belt Journal (Welsh, La.), 4 September 1914.
(Source: Chronicling America)


*Roosevelt was not running for President in 1914. He had run for President in 1912 and lost to Woodrow Wilson. He did not seek office during the next presidential election, in 1916.

**Richard H. Collin, "Theodore Roosevelt's Visit to New Orleans and the Progressive Campaign of 1914," Louisiana History XII (Winter 1971): 5-19.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Fiction Interlude: My Short Story "The Phrenologist"

Although I am a historian, and thus write non-fiction, I'm pleased to announce that one of my works of fiction, a short story titled "The Phrenologist," appears in the new anthology Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South (New Salon Press, available for Kindle and other digital formats from

Nathan Mark Phillips provided
artwork for my story and
others in the anthology.
(Courtesy Mark Nathan Phillips)

I wrote this short story in 1987, when I was twenty, and I recently took it out, revised it, and submitted it for publication. I know the story may offhand sound racially offensive, but it is actually a condemnation of racism, as well as of anti-intellectualism in general (even more so when it parades as scholarship).

In the late 1980s this story won me a spot in the creative writing class of African-American author Ernest J. Gaines (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and other works.)

I excerpt the story here:

The Phrenologist
by Shane K. Bernard 
I have noticed for a long time that those who deny the intellectual importance of the volume of the brain have, in general, small heads.” 
— M. de Jouvencel, “Discussion on the Brain,” Bulletin of the Paris Anthropological Society, 1861

Doctor Pierre Maturin, a son of France, hailed from a family that for generations had produced noted physicians. He earned his degrees from the Sorbonne and the fashionable university at Edinburgh. He subsequently returned to Paris to practice as a surgeon, but, finding the competition discouraging, sailed to New Orleans in the summer of 1850, where he established himself as a general practitioner. He set up his office on the corner of Chartres and Conti, in a small stucco building adjacent to the Slave Exchange. This proved a fortunate site for the young physician, for prospective buyers often sought his services as a medical examiner of slaves. One soon found the following advertisement in the local newspapers:
SLAVEHOLDERS! PROTECT YOUR INVESTMENTS! Owners or buyers wishing to insure the health of laborers will do well by contacting me at 444 Rue Chartres. — Dr. P. Maturin
Maturin shortly distinguished himself as a specialist in the examination and treatment of slaves, and his new-found affluence gave him much leisure time to occupy as he pleased. This he employed in furthering his knowledge of medicine and physiology, and through his reading and correspondence he developed an interest in the budding field of craniometry, especially in regard to its function in determining mental capacity. “I have begun to accrue a collection of skulls,” he informed a colleague in France, “and will soon commence research on the current question of brain size and its relation to intelligence . . . what has become the new science of ‘phrenology.’”

Phrenology was a pseudoscience popular
in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Maturin’s prime phrenological interests were of a racial nature, formulated through observations made during his months as a medical examiner of the black race. As he wrote to his colleague, “I have found it to be a peculiar characteristic of the craniofacial structure of the Negro, that the jaw is much larger than that of the average white man, and that the back of the cranium — that part we call the occiput — is much more extensive in the darker race. It is my supposition that such anatomical distinctions, especially that of the skull, have a direct correlation to the obviously inferior intelligence of the Negro.”

He started his phrenological inquiry by devising and calibrating a special pair of calipers, which he wielded to measure, record, and tabulate the sizes of the twenty-two skulls in his collection. He realized that so sparse a number of crania would hardly provide enough data for his research, so he began to include such measurements as part of every medical examination. This system worked well, because heads of the living were easier to borrow than those of the dead, and nearly as accurate to evaluate.

The science book that inspired
my short story.

Maturin soon possessed a voluminous index of the cranial measurements of all his recent patients. Unfortunately, he had neglected to gather similar measurements for whites, whom he intended to use as his criteria. Maturin now subjugated every white client and acquaintance to his silver calipers, that he might, as he told them, “record for posterity the size of their splendid crania” and simultaneously advance his vital scientific inquiry. After six months, he had indexed three hundred fifty white crania, nearly equal to the number of crania he had previously measured of the black race.

When all the recorded sizes had been averaged, Maturin discovered to his disbelief no apparent difference between the sizes of black and white crania. He informed an acquaintance, “My method of measurement must be at fault, else the figures should have reflected what is plainly the truth. I have decided to abandon the caliper method and, instead, to employ a more direct means of determining the size of the brain once held — I write ‘once held,’ mind you, because my new method of direct measurement demands that I return to the use of skulls.”

To the same acquaintance he described this “new method of direct measurement”: “I have found a more accurate and simpler method, which I call ‘internal evaluation,’ the only fault of which lies in the need for a multitude of skulls. This method consists of filling each individual cranium through the hole at the base of the occiput — this hole we call the foramen magnum — with a medium, which is then emptied into a calibrated vessel. This reveals the volume of the cranium and, therefore, the exact size of the brain it once contained.

He added, “I have experimented of late with a variety of media, these ranging from water to molasses to mustard seed. But I have found the most reliable medium to be lead shot, particularly of the size called ‘BB,’ which is one-eighth-inch in diameter. Using this medium during trial measurements, the results never varied greater than one-one hundredths of a cubic inch no matter how many times I repeated the experiment. I might add that lead shot does not leak through small fractures as water is apt to do, is not so thick as to remain inside the cranium as molasses, and does not flatten like mustard seed. It is in my opinion the ideal medium.” . . . 

Again, you can purchase the entire short story, and those of other contributors, at

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Floating Dancehall on the Teche: The Club Sho Boat

While researching Bayou Teche I learned about a riverboat on the bayou that had been converted into a floating nightclub, dancehall, and restaurant. Christened the Club Sho Boat, it sat on the Teche at New Iberia from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s. (I hesitate to call the vessel a “steamboat,” even though it looked like one, because diesel engines often powered later riverboats. Thus they were not true steamboats.)

The Club Sho Boat on Bayou Teche (ca. 1940).
(Courtesy Angelle-Leigh Breaux)

I did not know, however, exactly where along the Teche the riverboat had been moored.

While driving in New Iberia about a month ago I saw a battered old sign along Main Street. It obviously had been there for decades, even generations, and yet I never before noticed it. The sign stood over the entrance to a grassy lot along the Teche, and its faded letters on a white field read “Showboat Apartments.”

“Showboat?” I thought — might not that be an oblique reference to the Club Sho Boat?

"Showboat Apartments" sign,
1915 E. Main Street, New Iberia, La.
(Photo by author, September 2013)

A short time later I examined a photograph of the Club Sho Boat in the book Looking Back: Historic Images of Iberia Parish. The book credited ownership of the photo to a present-day local photographer. Tracking her down through the Internet, I learned that the Club Sho Boat had belonged to her great-grandfather, a New Iberia entrepreneur named George Angelle. Despite his illiteracy, Angelle had excelled as a businessman, operating not only the Club Sho Boat, but an establishment on Lake Dauterive called George’s Place and another in Hot Wells, Louisiana, named Angelle’s Cafe. He also let rooms there to tourists who came to bathe in the hot springs.

Moreover, I learned that the Club Sho Boat had indeed sat on the Teche at the site of the Showboat Apartments. (Originally used as barracks at Fort Polk, the apartments opened after the Club Show Boat began operation; they are not the same apartments that stand on the property today.)

Former site of the Club Sho Boat.
The gravel at center marks the spot of the boat's slip.
(Photo by author)

Angelle’s great-granddaughter referred me to her mother, who shared with me much of the Club Sho Boat's history. She informed me, for example, that prior to its purchase by her grandfather the vessel had served as a crew boat on Lake Dauterive, perhaps for workers building levees in the Atchafalaya swamp. I also learned that Angelle first moored the vessel in the bayou (as seen in the above image) behind the present-day site of Darby Motors in New Iberia (1305 E. Main Street), then moved it a little downstream into a slip running perpendicular to the bayou (1915 E. Main Street). In addition, Angelle owned a taxi, its door bearing an image of the vessel, that conveyed club goers to and from his establishment.

Among the musicians who performed at the Club Sho Boat (the vessel’s original name is unknown) were “Cajun swing” artists Happy Fats LeBlanc, Doc Guidry, and their band — known commonly as Happy, Doc, and the Boys, a playful reference to the Seven Dwarfs in the 1937 Disney movie Snow White.

The small building at right served
as the Club Sho Boat's "fish house,"
where fish were stored and prepared for dining.
(Photo by author)

Sadly, Angelle was murdered in 1953 by a Hot Wells landowner with whom he quarreled about cattle trespassing on his property.

Article about Angelle's murder.
(Source: Lubbock [Tex.] Morning Avalanche, 23 May 1953)

After his death Angelle’s family tore down the vessel, razing it to the waterline before filling up the slip with pieces of concrete, dirt, and other debris. According to the family, the hull remains buried in the slip — perhaps awaiting excavation by a future archaeology crew.

The Club Sho Boat from the east bank of Bayou Teche,
by noted Louisiana photographer Fonville Winans.
Winans is the fisherman at left.

Coincidentally, a friend of mine, eighty-nine-year-old Clarence Barrilleaux (pronounced BEAR-REE-OH in the Cajun French manner) of Avery Island, alerted me to a surviving artifact from the Club Sho Boat. Barrilleaux told me that around 1955 his former employer, Walter S. McIlhenny — president of McIlhenny Company, maker of Tabasco brand products since 1868 — sent him to the Club Sho Boat to pick up its ship’s bell. The riverboat was being torn down at the time, recalled Barrilleaux, and McIlhenny had purchased the salvaged bell as a decoration.

Ship's bell from the Club Sho Boat
as it appears today.
(Photo by author)

Barrilleaux directed me to the bell’s current location on the Island: atop a small wooden tower in a private yard. With permission from the lease holder, I hauled an extension ladder to the bell tower, climbed to the top, and photographed the artifact. The bell is stamped:


Casting imprint on the ship's bell.
(Photo by author)

According to aficionados of vintage cast bells (there are indeed such persons), bells with this imprint date to 1865 or earlier, subsequent imprints reading “A. Fulton's Son & Co.”* If this is correct, the bell evidently predated the riverboat by many decades, for such vessels had extremely short lifespans because of snags, collisions, boiler explosions, and the like. It seems probable, therefore, that the bell had been recycled any number of times before winding up on the riverboat that ended its life as the Club Sho Boat.

Could one of these features be the ship's bell
as captured by photographer Fonville?


*“The foundry went under the name Andrew Fulton from 1827 to 1865. . . . At this time they put 'A. Fulton' on their smaller, undated bells. From 1866 to 1889 they went first under the name 'A. Fulton's Son & Co.,' then under 'A. Fulton's Sons & Co.' . . ..” Source: Neil Goeppinger, posting on, 1 March 2007,, accessed 22 September 2013. While I do not know the source of Goeppinger's information, his claims do correspond to data provided by other bell enthusiasts. (I have corrected Goeppinger's punctuation slightly.)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Cajuns of the Teche": Bad History, Wartime Propaganda, or Both?

I first learned about the short film Cajuns of the Teche, directed by André de LaVarre and released in August 1942 by Columbia Pictures, while researching my book The Cajuns: Americanization of a PeopleThis find occurred by accident in the late 1990s, while looking for something else in the National Archives and Records Administration. (Serendipity often happens when I’m conducting historical research. I think it’s a perfectly valid form of discovery.)

Title cards from Cajuns of the Teche.
(Screen grabs by author)

In short, a reel of film labeled Cajuns of the Teche sat in the National Archives and had not yet been dubbed to videotape (much less had it been digitized; that technology was not yet at hand for most people). A student at the time, I didn’t have the $250 or so that the National Archives wanted to transfer the film to video, so I contacted my friend, Lafayette attorney Warren A. Perrin. Back then Warren served as president of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana and owned, as he still does, the Acadian Museum in his hometown of Erath.

Warren agreed to fund the film’s transfer to video through his museum, so I filled out the pertinent paperwork, mailed it off, waited, and a few weeks later a VHS dub arrived from Washington, D.C. I watched the film, found it delightful, but ultimately did not use it as research material for my book. Moving on to other projects, I forgot about the dub for about fifteen years, but recently pulled it out of my files and digitized it so that I can present it here:

(Click to play video)

Two thoughts come to mind when I watch Cajuns of the Teche: First, after seventy years the images are crisp, clear, well-composed, and in my opinion extremely valuable as a record of the Teche region around World War II; second, the narration is often extremely misleading and in some instances downright wrong. 

I’ll catalog these misleading and incorrect claims. The narrator repeatedly refers to the Cajuns’ ancestors as “Arcadians,” when the proper term is “Acadian.” Moreover, the Acadians did not arrive in Louisiana when it was “a colony of the kingdom of France,” as the narrator asserts, but a colony of Spain (albeit one administered for a time by French caretakers — Spain only slowly assumed full control of the formerly French colony).

The scenes of grandiose “Cajun homes” (see timestamps 3:19, 4:45 and 5:13 to 5:21 on the video) never fail to elicit snickers from other Cajuns to whom I’ve shown the film privately. The narration is entirely misleading when it states, “In the past we built many grand and spacious mansions, for our families were large and our attendants were many.” The dwellings in the film were far too luxurious for average, ordinary Cajuns, most of whom lived as subsistence farmers — and who certainly did not have many “attendants” (apparently a euphemism for “slaves”). Granted, a very few “genteel Acadians” managed to rise to positions of wealth in antebellum south Louisiana — mainly sugar planters with enslaved workforces — but they were the exception, not the rule.

Not a Cajun house.
(Screen grab by author)

In addition, the narration refers to the Louisiana colony as “a land with freedom of religion.” While it is true that the Acadians freely practiced their Catholic faith in Spanish-held Louisiana — the Spanish, after all, were Catholics, too — the colony was hardly a bastion of religious toleration. The Spanish, for example, forbid Protestants from holding public worship and they expelled all Jews from the colony.

The “Cajun garden” shown in the film at 5:27 — featuring a centuries-old Buddha statue, if one looks closely enough — is actually Jungle Gardens, owned and operated by Scots-Irish Tabasco sauce manufacturer E. A. McIlhenny (hardly a Cajun).

Some of the narration is drivel. I do not believe, as claimed at 9:47 in the film, that an appreciation of “fine silks and soft satins” represented “one of the strongest traits of French heritage” among Cajun girls. Equally nonsensical is the narrator’s reference at 5:55 — made over the image of fancifully dressed Cajun men and girls enjoying an elegant ring dance — to “slippered steps of old Acadia.” Acadian men and woman alike generally wore moccasins, living as they did on the rugged North American frontier. 

Historically inaccurate Norman milkmaid costume.
(Screen grab by author)

Fortunately, the images themselves are infinitely more valuable than the narration. This is not to say that some of the images are not misleading. For example, the Norman milkmaid costumes worn in the film by some Cajun girls and women (0:45 and 8:05) were unknown to their Acadian ancestors. An example of what anthropologists and other scholars call “fakelore,” these costumes were probably introduced to more upwardly mobile Cajuns through mass-produced, illustrated volumes of Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline (which follows the fate of an Acadian maiden exiled to south Louisiana). I say “upwardly mobile” because the mass of ordinary Cajuns never read Evangeline.

Circa 1890 depiction of Evangeline.
(Colorized by author)

Criticism aside (at last, you say), I made these other observations while watching Cajuns of the Teche:

The shot of boats moored along a bayou (1:43) seems to show some other waterway besides the Teche, perhaps Bayou Lafourche. I could be wrong — perhaps it is the Teche.

The stern-wheeler shown early in the film (1:50), the V. J. Kurzweg, is despite its appearance not a steamboat. As Carl A. Brasseaux writes in Steamboats on Louisiana’s Bayous, the Kurzweg “is widely — albeit inaccurately — remembered along Bayou Teche as one of the stream’s last steamboats,” but it “was not technically a steamboat” because “it was propelled by diesel motors.” Note the Kurzweg has no towering twin smokestacks as found on most steamboats: as a diesel-powered vessel it did not require them.

The V. J. Kurzweg on Bayou Teche, ca. 1942.
(Screen grab by author)

The fishermen at 2:35 do not seem to be on Bayou Teche, but rather in a cypress swamp. (A bayou is a slow-moving, muddy, usually smallish river, while a swamp is a wooded wetland.) If I had to guess, I would say the swamp in question is the Atchafalaya, if only because of its proximity to the Teche. But there are many patches of swamp in the region that are not in the Atchafalaya. In any event, the swamp in the film was clearly experiencing a flood, as indicated by the swift current.

Sugar cane field workers in Cajuns of the Teche.
(Screen grab by author)

Another scene depicts a mounted white overseer (3:55) supervising a work crew as it weeds young sugarcane shoots. I cannot tell if the work crew is black or white or both. A shot of three male field workers reveals one with black hands (also 3:55), but work gloves mask the race of the other two workers. A wide shot appears to show two white female field workers at far left (4:13). The other field workers in the shot, however, cannot be seen clearly enough to establish their races.

It is tempting to draw a lesson about race or race relations from this scene. But it is impossible to do so without really knowing the workers’ racial makeup. Regardless, the shot does illustrate the region’s dependence on manual field labor in 1942. It would take the ongoing war and resulting labor shortages to spur south Louisiana agriculture to mechanize. What I observed about rural Lafayette Parish in The Cajuns no doubt held true for much of Cajun Louisiana: Despite the findings of a 1942 survey “that ‘tractors are not thought to be necessary or even desirable,’” Lafayette parish farmers “had almost universally adopted mechanization within a decade. ‘The old days of the plow and the horse are gone,’ observed a 1951 survey.”

A ring dance on the banks of the Teche.
(Screen grab by author)

The reference to “giant spiders” (4:09) alludes to the legend of the Durand wedding, which allegedly occurred at Oak and Pine Alley on the outskirts of St. Martinville. As journalist Jim Bradshaw records:
It was only to be expected that [Durand] would throw the finest wedding ever when two of his daughters decided to get married on the same day. . . . [A]s the romantic legend is told, he ordered a million spiders sent from China and sent couriers to California to fetch hundreds of pounds of silver and gold dust. (A less romantic version of the story says the spiders came from nearby Catahoula Lake, but I like the China version better.) . . . Shortly before the wedding day, the spiders were set loose to spin millions of yards of delicate webs among the limbs of the oak and pine alley. On the morning of the wedding, servants armed with bellows filled with the silver and gold dust sprayed the cobweb canopy to set it glittering in the sunlight like something from a fairy tale.
Of this legend Brasseaux states, “Most southern Louisianians are familiar with the stories of the spiders imported from China for the Oak and Pine Alley wedding.” Yet it along with similar local legends, he notes, have been “proven unfounded by recent historical research.” (To Bradshaw’s credit, he concurs with Brasseaux that the story is a legend.)

Elsewhere, the narrator observes (6:08) “We Cajuns speak French among ourselves, and some of our children do not learn English until they reach the classroom.” Where they will have the French whipped out of them, I thought. I was being only slightly facetious, for south Louisiana educators often punished Cajun children for speaking French at school. More than any other factor, this practice accounted for the rapid decline of Cajun French during the early to mid-twentieth century. (See my previous blog article about tracking this decline.)

Quilters with garde-soleils.
(Screen grab by author)

Finally, although the Cajuns’ dress is not “authentic” (that is, historically accurate) in the spinning wheel scene at the beginning or in the ring dance scene, the clothing shown in other scenes does strike me as authentic.  See, for example, the field workers (Cajun or otherwise) shown from 3:55 to 4:29; and the school children from 6:05 to 6:24. (Note the students in question attended an all-white school: segregation did not end in much of Louisiana until 1969 — about fifteen years after the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education struck down separate-but-equal schooling nationwide.) See also the churchgoers at 6:38 and 6:45; the corn husk weavers at 7:05; and the quilters at 7:42 (complete with their garde-soleils, or sunbonnets). In addition, see the weaver at right, but not at left, at 8:04, and, conversely, the same weaver at left, but not at right, at 8:10; and the wedding goers at the end of the film (9:40 onwards). The apparel in these scenes looks very authentic to me. Perhaps the subjects had no time or compulsion to dress for the camera?

Horse and buggies leaving Cajun wedding.
(Screen grab by author)

Now to address an issue other than the film’s accuracy: Was the film wartime propaganda?

I found Cajuns of the Teche in the National Archives collection of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA). Founded in 1953 during the Cold War and still active today, the USIA, as its website notes, “explains and supports American foreign policy and promotes U.S. national interests through a wide range of overseas information programs . . . [and] promotes mutual understanding between the United States and other nations by conducting educational and cultural activities.” Created prior to the advent of the USIA, Cajuns of the Teche sat in a section of the USIA collection regarding an earlier organization, the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI). Established in 1942, the OWI, as the Library of Congress explains, “served as an important U.S. government propaganda agency during World War II.”

Logos of the USIA and the OWI.

Why would a travelogue film issued by Columbia Pictures be found in a collection pertaining to the OWI?

The answer might be found in a pictorial “feature” (pre-packaged photo essay for overseas consumption) issued by the OWI in 1944 and titled “The Bayou French of Louisiana.” This feature consisted of a four-page typewritten essay about the Cajuns along with many captioned black-and-white still images. These photos depicted “everyday” Cajun culture, activities, and places. 

Intriguingly, at least four of these black-and-white still images depict events also shown in Cajuns of the Teche. Moreover, these black-and-white images were clearly shot at the exact same moment as the corresponding images in the film — albeit from slightly different angles. See the below image comparisons: Those at left are “screen grabs” from Columbia Pictures’ Cajuns of the Teche, while those at right are still images from the OWI's “The Bayou French of Louisiana.” As you can see, the paired images are almost identical (click to enlarge):

The OWI’s “The Bayou French of Louisiana” was clearly wartime propaganda. Its purpose was to show overseas audiences how American society could support an ethnically heterogeneous population, yet still be undeniably “American.” As the OWI essay accompanying the images put it, “The persistence of Cajun French traditions in the United States, as those of other national groups, is encouraged in the belief that such diversity enriches and strengthens democratic institutions. The various population groups of the United States are encouraged to perpetuate their folkways so that each may contribute to the homogenous but broadly variegated culture of the United States.”

But was the earlier Cajuns of the Teche also wartime propaganda? 

The federal government created the U.S. Office of War Information in June 1942; Columbia Pictures issued Cajuns of the Teche the next month. This would hardly seem enough time for the fledgling OWI to produce an eleven-minute film shot on location in south Louisiana and to arrange for a major Hollywood studio to distribute it. And while there are examples of the OWI and Columbia Pictures teaming up later to release wartime propaganda films (such as the 1943 film Troop Train and the 1945 film The True Glory), there is no known evidence of OWI involvement with Cajuns of the Teche.

Back of OWI print indicating when and
from whom it had been purchased.
(National Archives and Records Administration,
Washington, D.C.)

A key to understanding the actual, tenuous relationship between the OWI’s propagandistic “The Bayou French of Louisiana” and Columbia Pictures’ Cajuns of the Teche may be found on the back of the original B&W prints used with “The Bayou French of Louisiana.” Data there indicates that the OWI licensed the images from a commercial entity named “Screen Traveler, from Gendreau.” Presumably a stock photo vendor, Screen Traveler may have sent a photographer to Louisiana in 1942 alongside Columbia Pictures’ film crew. This would explain why some of the images in Cajuns of the Teche and some of those in “The Bayou French of Louisiana” correspond so closely.

Ultimately, I do not believe — given the current evidence — that Cajuns of the Teche was a product of OWI wartime propaganda; but I do believe that still photographs taken during the filming of Cajuns of the Teche ended up in the wartime propaganda project “The Bayou French of Louisiana.” I make this assertion because we know for certain that the OWI, a government entity charged with producing wartime propaganda, issued “The Bayou French of Louisiana”; and we know that some of the images used in “The Bayou French of Louisiana” closely match scenes in Cajuns of the Teche.

Still, the question remains: why is there a reel of Cajuns of the Teche in the OWI section of the USIA's archival collection?