Thursday, December 1, 2011

La Chute: A Waterfall on Bayou Teche?

I became aware of claims that a waterfall once emptied into Bayou Teche while examining one of the first extremely accurate maps of Louisiana — Barthélémy Lafon’s "Carte générale du territoire d’Orléans," printed in New Orleans in 1806. On the Teche above New Iberia, and a little upstream from the site of present-day Loreauville, Lafon printed in minuscule type the word "chûtte."

The "chûtte" as shown on Barthélémy Lafon’s
"Carte générale du territoire d’Orléans" (1806).
I've labeled the present-day sites of New Iberia,
Loreauville, and Spanish Lake.
(Source: Library of Congress)

In French chute means "waterfall."

A waterfall on the Teche?  In flat coastal south Louisiana?

Later I examined a report on Bayou Teche by former British soldier and spy (and, after switching sides during the American Revolution, official geographer to the fledgling United States) Thomas Hutchins. He had gathered intelligence on the bayou from circa 1772-1784, when Spain, a major rival to the British in nearby West Florida, held much of present-day Louisiana, including the Teche country.

Title page of Hutchins' 1784 book containing
his report on Bayou Teche.

As Hutchins guided his reader up the Teche, he observed:
About 3 leagues above la Nouvelle Iberia [New Iberia] is la Force Point [Fausse Pointe]. . . . Then to la Shute branch, which passes over a fall of about 10 feet, near to where it enters the Tage [Teche] river, it is 3 leagues. . . .
Moreover, Hutchins prepared a hand-drawn map of the Teche, which shows the approximate location of the fall or “shute” (or “shout” as he spells it on the map).

Detail of Hutchins' ca. 1780 map of Bayou Teche
showing the "Shout" (chute).  I've labeled New Iberia,
the present-day site of Loreauville, and the Teche itself.
(Source: Author's collection.)

That Lafon and Hutchins both mention the chute and show it at roughly the same location may not, however, be evidence of corroboration. I increasingly believe that Lafon used Hutchins’ report as a source in making his map. (Hutchins’ report and Lafon’s map share a few idiosyncrasies; moreover, Hutchins’ report had been published in 1784 and would have been available to Lafon.)

Enter fellow researcher Don Arceneaux, a native south Louisianian and trained biologist who works in the forests of the northwestern U.S. Don had been looking into the history of the Attakapas region and, as I had, noticed the one or two known references to the chute. But he also found another chute reference, namely, in an early-nineteenth-century land record mentioned in Glenn R. Conrad’s Land Records of the Attakapas District. That land record refers to the chute as sitting on the property of a specific landowner — which allowed Don to pin down more precisely the chute’s location.

In fact, Don believes that modern topographical maps and aerial photographs show the remnant of the chute. And that assumed remnant sits right in the area where the Hutchins, Lafon, and Conrad references said the chute had been located over two centuries ago. The feature in question is no longer a waterfall, its dirt or clay drop (no rock in south Louisiana!) having eroded away or having been removed by human activity. Rather, it is a coulee (our local word for creek) flowing into the Teche from two main branches, one coming from the direction of Spanish Lake to the west and another coming from the neck of land formed by a meander in the Teche near Loreauville.

Topographical map showing the assumed site
of the chute (coulee at middle flowing north into the Teche).  (Source:

Don theorizes that in the eighteenth century the Teche’s natural levee acted like a dam, turning this jutting neck of land into a bowl that flooded with rainwater during the region’s semitropical downpours. The water found its way through a narrow gap in the levee, and it was there that the chute poured into the Teche.

Interestingly, the word “chute” describes a particular kind of waterfall. According to James R. Penn’s Rivers of the World: A Social, Geographical, and Environmental Sourcebook (2001), a chute is "[a] ‘shortcut’ across a meander bend” or “any narrowing of a channel through which water velocity increases. In this way, water confined by protruding rocks in waterfalls or rapids produces chutes." While it is possible that the chute on the Teche was merely "[a] ‘shortcut’ across a meander bend" (since the assumed spot is indeed on a meander in the Teche), Hutchins, however, recorded that the chute had "a fall of about 10 feet," indicating clearly that it was a waterfall.

Penn is concerned with the modern definition of chute, but what did the word mean in the eighteenth-century?  Chute in French literally meant "fall" (as it still does today) and could be used in reference to any number of things. For example, "la chute de l’empire romain" — "the fall of the Roman Empire." But in a hydrographic sense, chute — used primarily in French at the time — did in fact denote a waterfall. In The Royal Dictionary (1773), for example, the English waterfall is translated into French as chute d’eau. Likewise, Le grand dictionnaire géographique, historique et critique (1768) observes, "Waterfall, dans la langue du pays, signifie chute d’eau." ("Waterfall, in the language of the land, signifies chute d’eau.")

Aerial photograph showing assumed site of the chute.
Click image to enlarge. (Source: Google Maps)

Hutchins, by original training a surveyor and cartographer, had explored the former French territories of Illinois and Ohio.  As such, he might have known the word chute before traveling to the Gulf Coast around 1772. Along with the word’s local use by francophone Acadians and French Creoles, Hutchins prior knowledge of the term would explain his use of “shute” in his report and on his bilingual (English and French) map of the Teche.

At this point Don and I cannot say for certain that the present-day coulee flowing into the Teche near Loreauville is the remnant of the eighteenth-century chute. But this modern geographic feature seems to us the only clear candidate for the chute.

Don has recently examined the area by kayak, and I plan to go there shortly by canoe.

Addendum (of 1 December 2011):

I think we just solved the puzzle!  While examining a digitized U.S. Geological Survey map, I noticed that the USGS provided a name for the present-day coulee that Don has suggested as the chute’s former location.  And what does the USGS call the present-day coulee?  "Bayou La Chute"!

Screen shot showing the identification of the assumed site
of the chute as "Bayou La Chute" (Source:

Can you imagine that?  The memory of an over two-hundred-year-old waterfall preserved in the name of a present-day waterway on the same spot!

I think this pretty much closes the case in Don's favor!

Addendum (of 4 December 2011):

Yesterday I canoed to the site of the chute with Keith Guidry and Don Arceneaux.  Don had already been to the site six days earlier, but Keith and I had never been there.  Actually, Keith had canoed passed it previously, but didn't know its significance at the time.

The entrance to Bayou La Chute and the location
(or approximate location) of the eighteenth-century
waterfall known as "the chute."
(Photo by the author)

What we saw at the site of the chute was the entrance to a small bayou [30.03667, -91.786284], about thirty-five feet wide at its mouth, running through a deep cut in the natural ridge that follows the Teche.  The banks at this spot are higher than any others I've seen along the Teche, rising about eight to ten feet above the water on the left side of the cut and about three to five feet on the right.  A prominent grassy hill or ridge tops the bluff on the right, rising perhaps another twenty-five to thirty feet above the surface of the Teche.  One can imagine a chute here two hundred years ago, spilling into the Teche over a drop that at the time connected the high lands to either side of the waterfall.

Heading upstream on Bayou La Chute.
Note the cypress trees and cypress knees
(and someone's fishing chair) on the left bank.
(Photo by the author)

As mentioned, there is no waterfall at the site today, the drop having eroded away or having been cleared by human activity.  As such, one can now canoe directly into the chute's remnant, a waterway called Bayou La Chute, and navigate a fair distance up it and its tributaries.  Kevin, Don, and I followed Bayou La Chute for about a quarter mile upstream from the Teche, stopping — though the depth of the water would have permitted us to go farther — only when we reached the fork where the bayou's tributaries turned east onto the neck of the Teche meander and west toward Spanish Lake.

Fork in Bayou La Chute, one heading east (left) onto the neck
of the Teche meander and one heading right (west) toward Spanish Lake.
(Photo by the author)

Although there is a small amount of garbage, an occasional drainage pipe, and some non-indigenous ornamental bamboo along its banks, Bayou La Chute is otherwise wild in appearance, very beautiful, and well worth diverting from the Teche for a side trip up its narrow, winding course.

Addendum (of 7 December 2011):

As lagniappe here is a detail of an 1846 plat map for the area T12S R7E (just below the Teche) showing the bayou in question as "Bayou La Chute."  Its intersection with the Teche does not appear because that feature lies slightly to the north in the next township (T11S R7E).

(Source: Office Of Public Works Plat Map
for District Southwestern T12S R7E [1846],
Louisiana Office of State Lands)

Even better: below is an 1850 copy of a 1795 French-language map of the same area, showing "la chute" as lying on the property of Monsieur Claire Dauterive Dubuclé (Dubuclet) — something Don Arceneaux pointed out to me a couple weeks ago in Conrad's land records book.  I only found the below map today, however, in the Louisiana Office of State Lands.  (Thanks to Michael Marie for telling me how to search the office's records!)  Interestingly, the surveyor who made the original 1795 map was none other than François Gonsoulin, whom I mention in a couple of previous blog articles.  By the way, the below map is oriented so that north is to the lower left.  (In other words, the map is more or less upside down.)

Map showing "la chute" near the "Rivière Thex" (Teche). Click to enlarge.
 (Source: Claim Papers S.W.D. T12S R3-7E, Vol. 24,
Louisiana Office of State Lands [1850 copy of 1795 original])


  1. Shoot la Chute! Great article! Now, where are the old natural springs of So. LA??

  2. Plaqueman,
    There are many... The exposed cut of the Prairie de Vermilion - The Coteau Ridge, yielded hundreds of "springs" which were simply edges of various porous sands left exposed as the Mississippi River relocated to the East.

  3. FYI Shane,
    The Hutchins map indicating that number of buildings and their rough location indicates to me that absolutely his map is later than mid 1779. I gather that it is undated, but if published in 1784, then we have a bracketed time frame in my opinion.
    As regarding a waterfall created by a confluence of a coulee draining the inside of the Fausse Point loop of the Teche and a coulee connecting "Lake Flammand/Tasse/Spanish" fed c 1780 by Bayou Tortue connected to both the Vermilion River on today's north Lafayette and Cypress Bayou above today's de la Crois / Cade catching all of the runoff of the Prairie de Vermilion North and East of New Iberia/Coteau, East of Youngsville and virtually all of today's Broussard, you would have a "Waterfall" if the Teche Ridge had recently been initially breeched circa 1780. I think today the "Chute" is approximately 7 feet MSL, but if it was "fresh cut" at that time, with the area's elevation today, a "10 foot" "falls" is reasonable.

  4. George, I agree: Historian Joseph Tregle says that the British military sent Hutchins south to gather intelligence on Spanish Louisiana's defenses and watercourses around 1772-73. But Hutchins didn't publish the resulting reports, including his report on the Teche, until 1784 -- by which time he'd left the British military to became an early US citizen. In that meantime the Spanish founded New Iberia on the Teche in 1779. Because Hutchins mentions New Iberia in his published report and also on his unpublished map, he clearly created or updated both documents sometime between 1779 and time of the book's publication five years later.

  5. Gentlemen, I'd suggest the possibility of a potential damn and or milling operation at the spot " Chutte' " I've studied old maps for years. Often we overlook the fact that many areas now abandoned were populated early the colonial period...long before villages and towns sprung up. Thus those buildings their homes would have built damns...etc to feed crops as well as run mills.It is not difficult to determine the possibilities. Return to the spot...and check for materials, pilings, etc... that would indicate a previous structure. nice read, hope this helps..or at least gets others to consider ...other possibilities concerning the waterfall... NOTE: Dig along the may find milled material buried...especially milled log remnants.

    1. Hi, Shane here: Yes, you're right. My friend Don Arceneaux and I got permission from the local landowners to follow a canal in that area; and where the canal meets the Teche are large quantities of brick and even some old metal parts. UL Lafayette has since done an archaeological survey of the site, and I write about it my new book about Bayou Teche. (Surprisingly, I later realized the historical marker in front of the rebuilt Wyche Plantation home at that spot says there was a water mill on the property . . . so we aren't the only ones who know about it!)

    2. By the way, the archaeological site is not exactly at La Chute, but is very close to it. (I should write an entry on it and post the photos I took of the site; some of the bricks still stand in little arches, and I speculate those may represent little ovens on top of which sat the sugar kettles.)