Thursday, August 16, 2018

Portrait of a Cajun Woman: Andonia Thibodeaux of Bayou Tigre

My assistant found the below tin-type image in the archives I administer on Avery Island, Louisiana. The tin-type had been stored in an old letter envelope, and on that envelope someone had long ago recorded the name of the woman in the image as "Mlle." [Mademoiselle] Andonia Thibodeaux of Bayou Tigre. That bayou (bayou is the Louisiana term for a generally smallish, slow-moving, muddy river) runs through coastal Vermilion Parish.

Andonia Thibodeaux of Bayou Tigre, [ca. 1887].
Source: Avery Island Archives, Avery Island, Louisiana.
(Click to enlarge)

On searching the Internet for information about Andonia I found a description of her in an 1887 issue of Harper’s. (Think about it: what are the odds of that!) Composed by noted nineteenth-century writer Charles Dudley Warner, the article seems to have appeared around the same time the image in question was taken. I say this because Andonia, in both the article and the photograph, is depicted as a young woman. Furthermore, the article describes Andonia as sporting "small corkscrew curls" — just as she wears in the photograph. (The article also refers to Andonia "waving her handkerchief," one of which, I note, she holds in the image.)

Titled "The Acadian Land," Warner's article not only mentions Andonia, it offers a glimpse into the lives of Cajuns (Acadians) in late-nineteenth-century south Louisiana. The article reads in excerpt:

"[W]e came into the Bayou Tigre, and landed for breakfast. . . . Resuming our voyage, we presently entered the inhabited part of the bayou, among cultivated fields, and made our first call on the Thibodeaux [family]. They had been expecting us, and Andonia came down to the landing to welcome us, and with a formal, pretty courtesy led the way to the house.

"[T]he inhabited part of the bayou. . . ."
Present-day aerial image of Bayou Tigre section.
Source: Google Maps
(Click to enlarge)

Does the reader happen to remember, say in New England, say fifty years ago, the sweetest maiden lady in the village, prim, staid, full of kindness, the proportions of the figure never quite developed, with a row of small corkscrew curls about her serene forehead, and all the juices of life that might have overflowed into the life of others somehow withered into the sweetness of her wistful face? Yes, a little timid and appealing, and yet trustful, and in a scant, quaint gown? Well, Andonia was never married, and she had such curls, and a high-waisted gown, and a kerchief folded across her breast; and when she spoke, it was in the language of France as it is rendered in Acadia. [By "Acadia" Warner presumably meant the Cajun-populated parishes of south Louisiana — now called "Acadiana" — and not colonial "Acadia" in what is now the Maritime Provinces of Canada.]

Bayou Tigre, south of Erath and Delcambre, La.
Source: Google Maps
(Click to enlarge)

The house, like all in this region, stands upon blocks of wood [inevitably cypress blocks], is in appearance a frame house, but the walls between timbers are of concrete mixed with moss [actually a mixture of mud, straw or moss, and sometimes animal hair called bousillage in Louisiana French], and the same inside as out. It had no glass in the windows, which were closed with solid shutters. Upon the rough walls were hung sacred pictures and other crudely colored prints. The furniture was rude and apparently home-made, and the whole interior was as painfully neat as a Dutch parlor.

Bousillage in wall of historical home,
Acadian Village, Lafayette, La.
Photo by Shane K. Bernard
(Click to enlarge)

Even the beams overhead and ceiling had been scrubbed. Andonia showed us with a blush of pride her neat little sleeping-room, with its souvenirs of affection, and perhaps some of the dried flowers of a possible romance, and the ladies admired the finely woven white counterpane on the bed. Andonia's married sister was a large, handsome woman, smiling and prosperous. There were children and, I think, a baby about, besides Mr. Thibodeaux. Nothing could exceed the kindly manner of these people. Andonia showed us how they card, weave, and spin the cotton [cotonnade in Louisiana French] out of which their blankets and the jean for their clothing are made. They use the old-fashioned hand-cards, spin on a little wheel with a foot-treadle, have the most primitive warping-bars, and weave most laboriously on a rude loom. But the cloth they make will wear forever, and the colors they use are all fast.

Madame Dronet and daughter carding and spinning
to make Acadian homespun cloth.
From the 1942 film Cajuns of the Teche.
(Click image to enlarge it; or view film here)

It is a great pleasure, we might almost say shock, to encounter such honest work in these times. The Acadians grow a yellow or nankeen sort of cotton [coton jaune in Louisiana French] which, without requiring any dye, is woven into a handsome yellow stuff. When we departed Andonia slipped into the door-yard, and returned with a rose for each of us. I fancied she was loath to have us go, and that the visit was an event in the monotony of her single life.

Acadian homespun cloth (coton jaune),
woven ca. 1900, in the Avery Island Archives.
Photo by Shane K. Bernard
(Click to enlarge)

[Later] all the neighborhood, accompanied us to our boats, and we went away down the stream with a chorus of adieus and good wishes. We were watching for a hail from the Thibodeaux. The doors and shutters were closed, and the mansion seemed blank and forgetful. But as we came opposite the landing, there stood Andonia, faithful, waving her handkerchief. . . ."

Addendum of 21 August 2018:

Sadly, genealogist Stanley LeBlanc informs me that Andonia Thibodeaux, full name Marie Andonia Thibodeaux, died 4 May 1889 — only two years after the appearance of the Harper's article. The cause of death is unknown. Moreover, Stanley tells me, as does Donna Caswell Murphy, that Andonia was born in 1854 (22 June 1854 to be precise). Her age at death was 34, so she may not have been, as I thought, a girl when she sat for her photograph. I have thus changed the title of my article from "Portrait of a Cajun Girl" to "Portrait of a Cajun Woman." 

Stanley and Donna's sources are the 1870 U.S. Census and Father Donald Hebert's Southwest Louisiana Records, Vol. 1, p. 107, and Vol. 2, p. 162.

From Charles Dudley Warner, "The Acadian Land," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, LXXIV (February 1887). This excerpt originally appeared, albeit without annotations, on my personal Facebook page in April 2018. I have reformatted the article slightly to accommodate the images.