Sunday, July 10, 2011

All the Same Place: Isla Cuarin, Côte de Coiron, Île Petite Anse, Petite Anse Island & Avery Island

I recently stumbled on a historical mystery while examining the online inventory of the Historic New Orleans Collection.   Going through its list of documents concerning the Attakapas region (south-central Louisiana), I noticed a reference to a 1799 survey map of an otherwise unidentified place called Isla Cuarin.

This is actually the second of two 1799 maps
of "Isla Cuarin
in the Historic New Orleans Collection.  
(Source: Historic New Orleans Collection)

The name "Isla Cuarin" struck me as similar to "Côte de Coiron," which a former professor and mentor of mine, the late historian Glenn R. Conrad, once claimed — unconvincingly, it seemed to me at the time — was synonymous with Île Petite Anse or Petite Anse Island, known from the late nineteenth century onward as Avery Island, Louisiana.  (See Conrad, Land Records of the Attakapas District, Vol. 2, Pt. 1, p. 86.) 

Avery Island is a rolling, verdant salt dome located in lower Iberia Parish, Louisiana.  It is home to a massive working salt mine, the sprawling semitropical estate known as Jungle Gardens, the private wildfowl refuge known as Bird City, and world-famous Tabasco brand pepper sauce (for whom I work as historian and curator).

A photograph I took of Avery Island in 2006
for Wikipedia's article about the geographic oddity. 
(Source: Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons.)

Intrigued, I asked the Historic New Orleans Collection for a copy of the Isla Cuarin survey map.  When the map arrived in the mail, I examined it immediately, but did not recognize the amorphous hand-drawn landmark in the survey. 

I realized, however, that the surveyor had not oriented the map in the modern way, with north facing toward the top of the page; rather, he oriented the map with east facing toward the top.

Adjusting the orientation, I saw that the landmark in question did indeed look very much like Avery Island.

A comparison of the 1799 map of "Isla Cuarin" (left)
with an 1810 map of Avery Island (formerly Petite Anse Island). 
(Sources: Historic New Orleans Collection; Avery Island, Inc., Archives.)

The more I examined the document, the more evidence I found to confirm this impression.  For example, the map showed not an "isla" (island) in the traditional sense (a land mass surrounded by open water), but, rather, a landlocked geographical feature — just as Avery Island is landlocked, sitting about three miles inland from the nearest body of open water.

In addition, the course of the waterway called "Bayou des Petite Cote" on the 1799 map corresponded to the course of Bayou Petite Anse, the name of the bayou that encircles Avery Island.  Likewise, the courses of other, lesser bayous on the map corresponded to those that meander around the perimeter of Avery Island.

The 1799 map identified a "cipriera" off the east side of the island, just as there has been a cypress swamp on the east side of Avery Island for as long as anyone can remember.

Moreover, the 1799 map identified a "praderia temblenta" (trembling prairie — that is, waterlogged prairie that trembles when disturbed) north of the island.  Such a prairie did exist near Avery Island, having been written about by explorers as early as 1779 and later by the interrelated Avery/McIlhenny family that owns the Island. 

The 1799 map gave the area of Isla Cuarin as 2,050 arpents (an arpent being an ancient French unit of measurement that is still sometimes used in Louisiana).  This is approximately the same size as Avery Island.  Indeed, an 1810 map of Avery Island gave the landmark's area as 2,074.75 arpents — a figure not terribly different for a period using inexact measuring tools to estimate the size of a land mass with fluctuating borders (according to the rise and fall of adjacent bayous, swamps, and marsh waters).

Most convincingly, however, the 1799 survey referred to an early land claimant named "Santyago Fontenet," which is the Spanish name of Jacques Fontenette ("Santyago" and "Jacques" both being forms of Jacob), an actual early owner of Avery Island.  The other claimant listed in the survey, Carlos Olivier Deverin, is no doubt Charles Olivier Devezin, who founded Olivier Plantation about seven miles from Avery Island — in fact, what I read as an "r" on the 1799 map may well be a "z".

Satellite image of Avery Island, ca. 2010.  (Source: Google Maps.)

For these reasons I believe the survey map of Isla Cuarin shows what was known for most of the nineteenth century as Île Petite Anse or Petite Anse Island and what is now known as Avery Island — making this 1799 map the earliest known map of Avery Island, and the only known map of the Island from the colonial period.

So it turns out Professor Conrad was right! 

But why was Avery Island called "Isla Cuarin" and "Côte de Coiron" in the first place?  Conrad suggested that the French word "Coiron" (spelled "Cuarin" by the Spanish) was a surname.  A companion document in the Historic New Orleans Collection bears out Conrad's suggestion, referring to Isla Cuarin's owner as "Dn. Cuarin" (i.e., Don Cuarin, Don being the equivalent of "Mr.")  While I have found no other references to Cuarin in colonial papers, there was an Antoine Coiron who owned land elsewhere in Attakapas during the same period.  Is he the same person as "Dn. Cuarin"?  Who knows, but I hope to find out.

Addendum of 10 April 2013

While examining historical papers in the Avery Island, Inc., Archives I noted a circa 1796 land document in which Spanish colonial governor Carondelet revoked the concession of "Antonio Coiron" in favor of a settler named "Lovelace" (Thomas Lovelace, a known early part-owner of what is now called Avery Island).

Detail of a 1796 Spanish land grant document
referring to "Antonio Courin"
(Antoine Courin) as a former claimant
of what is now Avery Island.
(Source: Avery Island, Inc., Archives,
Avery Island, La.)

The document does not actually mention the Island, but it clearly concerns this subject, given its references to four early owners of the Island (besides Coiron and Lovelace, it also mentions "Fontenet y Devezin," who are the aforementioned Jacques Fontenette and Charles Olivier Devezin) — not to mention the fact that the original document resides today in the Avery Island, Inc., Archives, in a collection concerning the Island's chain of ownership.

In short, it seems clear to me that "Isla Cuarin" and "Côte de Coiron" do indeed stem from the surname of Antoine Coiron.