Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Grevembergs, Early Cattle Ranchers of the Attakapas

Eighteenth-century colonists in south Louisiana’s Attakapas region commonly raised cattle, not only to feed themselves, but to feed the lower Louisiana colony in general and New Orleans in particular. An important source of information about this early cattle industry is the historical document known as The Brand Book for the Opelousas and Attakapas Districts. The original is located in the Jefferson Caffery Louisiana Room of Dupré Library at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. 

Nineteenth-century engraving of a south Louisiana cattle rancher.
(Source: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline
[NY:  John B. Alden, 1892].)

Researchers are fond of citing The Brand Book’s earliest entry as proof that cattle ranching in Louisiana extended back as early as the 1730s. The entry in question is the brand registration for Louis and Barthélémy Grevemberg, colonists of Flemish ancestry who settled around present-day New Iberia. 

As Maurine Bergerie writes in They Tasted Bayou Water: A Brief History of Iberia Parish (1962), “Louis and Barthélémy Grevemberg registered their brand in 1739. . . .” Likewise, William Faulkner Rushton observes in The Cajuns: From Acadia to Louisiana (1979), “Louisiana’s cattle industry goes back at least to 1739, the date the first cattle brand was recorded in the state’s French ‘brand book.’”

However, I think 1739 is incorrect. 

I have no doubt that The Brand Book reads “1739,” but I think this date is a mistake — perhaps a simple careless error made by an anonymous scribe in the course of copying and recopying The Brand Book.

Louis and Barthélémy Grevemberg's cattle brand entries
in The Brand Book, dated "1739." (Click to enlarge.) 
(Source: Jefferson Caffery Louisiana Room, Dupré Library,
University of Louisiana at Lafayette.)

I am not the first to suspect an error. As folklorist Lauren C. Post noted in The McNeese Review academic journal (1958):

As might be expected, with a long succession of brand recorders working over a period of sixty-four years and for a period which extended over 128 years, the work had many inconsistencies. At least, there appear to be inconsistencies. One page . . . shows that Louis Grevemberg registered his 5F brand in 1737. In another place the same book shows that he registered the same brand in 1739. The book for 1760-1888 listed Louis Grevemberg as registering the 5F brand on October 14, 1793. 
Besides these inconsistencies noted by Post, I believe the 1739 (and 1737) date to be incorrect for the following reasons:

First, a glance at other early entries in The Brand Book reveals no others from the 1730s. Indeed, except for a couple of entries from the late 1740s (which I also find suspect), the mass of registered brands date from the 1760s and later, when settlement of the Attakapas District finally began in earnest.

Detail of a sample page from The Brand Book. (Source: Photo of
facsimile in The African American Museum, St. Martinville, La.)

Second, there is no evidence that the brothers Louis and Barthélémy Grevemberg were in the Attakapas District before 1770, when Jean-Baptiste Grevemberg (presumably their father) received a Spanish land grant in the region. (France gave Louisiana to Spain in 1762, explaining why Jean-Baptiste received not a French but a Spanish land grant in 1770.) Indeed, Louis and Barthélémy only received land grants for themselves in the region in 1774 and 1781, respectively. (Correction: In 1765 Jean-Baptiste Grevemberg wrote the French caretaker government of Spanish Louisiana that he had been in possession of his Attakapas land "for fourteen years past" and noted that he purchased this land "to form a vacherie. . . ." In short, Grevemberg established a cattle ranch in the Attakapas District in 1751. Regardless, the founding of this vacherie still post-dates the 1737 and 1739 dates so often cited and does not preclude Grevemberg from first registering his brand decades later, when the region's increasing population demanded the creation of cattle brands. Note that Jean-Baptiste Grevemberg still did not receive a formal Spanish land grant until 1770. [Source: Jean-Baptiste Grevemberg memorial, Pintado Papers, typewritten translation on microfilm, St. Martin Parish Library, St. Martinville, La. — thanks to Don Arceneaux for informing me of this document.])

Finally (and most convincingly), Louis and Barthélémy Grevemberg were born, respectively, in 1731 and 1753 — which means that Louis would have been only six to eight years old when his brands were allegedly registered; and that Barthélémy’s brands would have been registered fourteen to sixteen years before his own birth!

For these reasons I do not believe that Louis and Barthélémy Grevemberg registered cattle brands in the Attakapas District in 1737 and 1739. Rather, I think it most likely that Louis and Barthélémy registered their brands some time after their father received his Attakapas land grant in 1770, or after they received their own land grants in the region a few years later. Indeed, as Post observed, The Brand Book does refer to Louis Grevemberg registering a brand in 1793, even while it also refers to him doing so allegedly in 1737 and 1739.

Louis and Barthélémy Grevemberg's cattle brand entries
in The Brand Book, dated "1793" (Click to enlarge.)
(Source: Jefferson Caffery Louisiana Room, Dupré Library, University of Louisiana at Lafayette)

However, there is one (I think minor) flaw in my assertion — that is, Louis and Barthélémy Grevemberg had a grandfather named Barthélémy (born ca. 1685 in Flanders, Belgium). One could therefore argue that it was this earlier Barthélémy Grevemberg who registered his brand in the 1730s. This seems unlikely, however, because, again, there is no other evidence that the Grevembergs — or any other colonists, not even the intrepid André Masse — had settled in the Attakapas region so early. Moreover, such a counterargument would still not account for the alleged registering of Louis Grevemberg's brand in 1737/1739.

An addendum concerning the identity of Jean-Baptiste Grevemberg: In 1779 a colonist by this name rendered enormous assistance to the founders of Nueva Iberia (present-day New Iberia). I believe that this Jean-Baptiste Grevemberg was a brother of Louis and Barthélémy Grevemberg, but have yet to prove this link. He clearly was not Jean-Baptiste Grevemberg, father of Louis and Barthélémy Grevemberg, for colonial records indicate that their father had died by 19 June 1772.

Signature of Jean-Baptiste Grevemberg,
who assisted the Nueva Iberia colony, 1779.
(Source: Center for Louisiana Studies, 
University of Louisiana at Lafayette.)

A related note: In his book Changing Tides: Twilight and Dawn in the Spanish Sea, 1763-1803 (1995), historian Robert S. Weddle identifies this same Jean-Baptiste Grevemberg as “Jean Baptiste Grevemberg dit Gonsoulin” — that is, Jean-Baptiste Grevemberg nicknamed Gonsoulin. But this is incorrect: Jean-Baptiste Grevemberg actually bore the same nickname as the other males of his family, which was “dit Flammand,” a reference to the family’s Flemish roots.

Gonsoulin, on the other hand, was an entirely different colonist. His full name was François Gonsoulin and he often worked as a surveyor in the Attakapas region.

Signature of François Gonsoulin, 1779. (Source: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Louisiana at Lafayette.)


Maurine Bergerie, They Tasted Bayou Water: A Brief History of Iberia Parish (New Orleans, La.: Pelican, 1962).

Rev. Donald J. Hebert, Southwest Lousiana Records, Vols. 1 and 2, s.v. "Grevemberg."

Lauren C. Post, "Cattle Branding in Southwest Louisiana," The McNeese Review X (1958): 101-117.

William Faulkner Rushton, The Cajuns: From Acadia to Louisiana (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1979).


  1. I think I can help clear up some of this confusion, as I am a Grevemberg descendant working on the family history. Jean Baptiste and his brothers Louis & Barthelemy (twins) were born in Flanders, Belgium in the early 1700s and moved to New Orleans in 1721. My records show Louis & Barthelemy helped establish military outposts near New Iberia and St. Martinville (Attakapas) and then began farming and raising cattle in the Attakapas area. I believe they are the ones who registered their brand in the 1730s, and supposedly the brand was passed to their younger brother Jean Baptiste. Jean Baptiste's sons Louis and Francois registered a brand in 1793. Jean Baptiste also had a son named Jean Baptiste.

    1. I'm also a Grevemberg descendant and interested in our families history. If you see this anonymous would you kindly make time to share our families history? Alvin Charles was my grandfather , Lyle was my mother.

  2. looks like a simple act of mistakenly reversing the 3 and the 9...supposed to read 1793 but got the numbers reversed and put 1739.