Monday, February 15, 2016

Layers of History

St. Francisville’s Layers of History
By Anne Butler
Tunica-Biloxi Cultural and Educational Resources Center
St. Francisville, Louisiana’s popular Audubon Pilgrimage each March features West Feliciana’s fascinating historic plantation homes and gardens from the 19th century, but the history of the area goes much farther back than that. Indeed, some of the earliest roadways, sunken deep into the soft loessial soil with steep sides showing striations delineating the layers of history, began as game trails leading to watering holes, then as footpaths trod by the moccasins of the area’s earliest Native American occupants.

The 1680s journals of French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, mention the Houma Indian nation living on the eastern banks of the Mississippi River across from the mouth of the Red River around what is now West Feliciana Parish, and in 1686 explorer Henri de Tonti visited the Houma village. Peaceable farmers whose numbers in 1699 were recorded by Iberville as 350 men, it was the Houmas who marked the boundary of their hunting grounds with the tall red pole that gave Baton Rouge (Red Stick) its name. By 1706 the Houmas had been driven farther south by the Tunica tribe, fierce tattooed warriors as well as skilled traders, who moved near the present site of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. It was an ideal location for the continuation of their role as middlemen in the trading of commodities like salt, highly valued by both Indians and European explorers.

In 1731 the Tunica moved a few miles south to the site of Trudeau Plantation, and over the course of the next three decades, until 1764, the burial grounds at this Indian village would grow to include over 150 graves. It was the custom of the Tunica to bury valuables with the dead, and these graves contained not only the wealth of the tribe but also exotic imported goods attesting to their extensive trade with Europeans.

pottery tunica
 Tunica Indian's Artifacts
After joining the military campaign of Governor Galvez which overthrew British control in Baton Rouge, the Tunicas were rewarded with Spanish land grants in the Avoyelles Prairie, now the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Reservation in Marksville on the west side of the Mississippi River. The 2000 census showed 648 Tunicas on the reservation, which is run by an elected tribal council with its own police force, health services, education, housing authority, court system, and they also operate Louisiana’s first land-based casino.

But the Trudeau Landing burial grounds remained on the east side of the Mississippi River, undisturbed until the 1960s, when an amateur treasure hunter and Angola guard named Leonard Charrier from Opelousas, having pinpointed the location of the Indian village site by poring over old maps and journals, began excavating the graves, unearthing without landowner permission what came to be known as the Tunica Treasure.

Eventually estimated at 2½ tons of artifacts (Charrier cast aside the bones), his findings included not only intricate native pottery, calumets and three-legged cookpots but also large amounts of European trade goods, glass bottles, brass and copper items, flintlock muskets, iron tools, French faience pottery, lead-glazed bowls and stoneware. As Charrier explored possible sales for his booty, various respected archeologists and museums across the country got involved. The bulk of the artifacts were sent to the Peabody Museum at Harvard and later stored at the LA State Museum while a lawsuit over ownership of the treasure made its way through the cumbersome court system. The state of Louisiana eventually purchased the Trudeau Plantation property and the Tunica tribe was declared the legal owner of the burial goods. One significant upshot of the legal wrangling was passage of protective federal legislation called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

Today the Tunica Treasure collection is housed on the reservation in Marksville at the Tunica-Biloxi Cultural and Educational Resources Center, a soaring architectural wonder housing a library, learning center, conference facilities, tribal offices, museum on Tunica tribal history, and a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory where a large percentage of the artifacts have been painstakingly restored.

D. Chitty tunica road
 Old Tunica Road by Darrell Chitty
Visitors to the St. Francisville area today have access to state preservation wilderness areas in these same Tunica Hills, and a drive along the Old Tunica Road between Weyanoke and Tunica offers a thrilling roller-coaster ride as it parallels the Mississippi River’s course, traveling along steep hills and deep hollows back through the centuries along paths once trod by the area’s earliest inhabitants. A favorite of hikers and bicycle racers because of the challenging terrain, the Old Tunica Road traverses some of south Louisiana’s most spectacular scenery, but it is not for the hurried or the faint-hearted during inclement weather, as some unpaved sections become impassable when wet without four-wheel drive. The road passes through the south tract of the Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area, sunken between high roadside banks rising 20 or 30 feet above the roadbed and covered with mosses and wild ferns that thrive in the cool shady habitat. From St. Francisville, go north on US 61, left onto LA 66, left onto LA 968 and right onto Old Tunica Road, which eventually winds back out to LA 66 for a right turn to go back to US 61 and south into St. Francisville.

Less strenuous but just as challenging (mentally, at least) is St. Francisville’s popular annual Writers and Readers Symposium, bringing together an amazing group of authors and artists to speak about their creative processes and mingle with enthusiastic lovers of good literature at Hemingbough Conference Center on Saturday, February 20. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m., with presentations by featured authors starting at 9, lunch at noon, a 1 p.m. author’s panel Q&A, followed by an hour-long autograph session at 2 p.m. An added visual treat will be A Novel Image, a competitive exhibit of photographs, paintings and sculpture matched with literary works. The Saturday symposium will be followed on Sunday by a Writers Workshop led by Margaret McMullan for both experienced and aspiring authors at the West Feliciana Parish Library from 9 to 4.

Margaret McMullan
Featured presenters this year are award-winning novelist Margaret McMullan, who released her moving seventh novel Aftermath Lounge on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina; Renaissance man Michael Rubin, jazz pianist, national speaker/humorist, and practicing attorney whose murder mystery The Cottoncrest Curse was published by LSU Press; New Orleans poet Mona Lisa Saloy returning to share a new book of poetry called Second Line Home; and noted Louisiana photographer Philip Gould and renowned public muralist Robert Dafford. The Public Art of Robert Dafford, one of Gould’s dozen books, features his superb images in both words and photographs of some of Dafford’s most memorable murals, painted in this country, Canada, France, Belgium and Great Britain, and both artists will be present for the symposium at Hemingbough.

For tickets, register online with credit card at (OLLI members Advance fees for the symposium are $50; $60 at door. Writers Workshop fee is $150; limited scholarships are available. Online information is available at

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: the Cottage Plantation, Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday).

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit, or (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).