The Lakes of Pontchartrain; What a Great title !!!!

Since a title cannot be copyrighted, I feel no compunction in commandeering Mr. Robert W. Hastings’ entitlement of his excellent 2009 examination of the history, geography, topology, and biology of our Pontchartrain Basin. And seeing that the Bonnet Carre’ spillway was opened this past week, it seems like an opportune time to reflect on how the lakes influenced the development of Greater New Orleans and SE Louisiana 300 years ago. It is commonly accepted that New Orleans is where it is because of the Bayou St. Portage from the Vieux Carre to Lake Pontchartrain.

Before exploring the Pontchartrain/New Orleans relationship, an editorial opinion needs to be stated regarding the Native American name of the big lake, “Okwa’ta” . I cannot help here but to recall a reservoir one passes as I-40 crosses the Arkansas/Oklahoma border out of Fort Smith. The highway signs along the Interstate inform the traveller that this relatively large body of water (apparently a natural outflow of the Arkansas River) was known to the Native Americans as – Lotsawa’ta. C’mon folks, the Indian name for a big lake is lotsa water – give me a break! and now the Choctaws are telling us that Lake Pontchartrain is OK water. This blogger would very much appreciate any Choctaw speakers in the audience to give us European-Americans a clarification of this situation. Personally, I can accept a reasonable linguistic coincidence, wa’ta = water. But lotsa and OK give me pause to think that our Choctaw friends might just be pulling our legs a bit.

Now back to some history. While there “ is no clear evidence that any Europeans entered Lake Ponchartrain prior to Iberville (1699)…” p. 25 Spanish explorers of the northern Gulf Coast of the 1500s and 1600s knew of some kind of waterways in the region around the “lakes”. The Cortes map of 1520 may have been the first to actually depict the estuary in its approximate location along the coast west of Florida. The map shows two blobs at the mouth of two combined rivers named the Espiritu Santo as it opens into the Gulf. This could easily be the conflation of Mobile Bay, Lake Borgne, and Lake Pontchartrain with the mouths of the Mobile, Pearl, and Mississippi rivers. In later references, the lakes were often called bays (and also included the Chandeleur, Breton and Mississippi Sounds).

“ Even before New Orleans was developed, Lake Ponchartrain, Bayou Manchac, and Bayou St. John had become important waterways for the transport of goods to the French colony at Mobile. The voyageurs were active in the upper Mississippi Valley and would transport to Mobile by way of Lake Ponchartrain pelts, lead, bear’s oil, slaves, smoked meat, wheat, and flour, . . .” p. 37

In 1717 it was “suggested that store houses be built at “Biloxy on the Mississippi”, the future site of New Orleans, to shorten the journey of French Canadian voyageurs traveling down the river from the Illinois country. p.37

“Another idea presented long before its time was that of Darby (1816), who apparently was the first to propose a diversion of the Mississippi River flood water through an artificial channel at “Bonnet Quarre” to reduce the incidence of damaging floods along the lower Mississippi River.” pp. 38-39.

All of this information should remind us about the reasons for the European powers to push these efforts and spend lots of money on colonies. The prevalent economic theory in the 17th and 18th centuries was the Mercantile system. That is, the potentates and governments of the European powers back then wanted to establish colonies for two reasons. Colonies had natural resources and populations that could be exploited to increase a county’s wealth – in other words, to make money. The second reason can remind us of our own colonization efforts in 1990s and first decades of of this century. I am talking here about our colonization of the WWW. A common refrain during the fist dozen years or so of the Web’s existence was we (individuals, companies, and corporations) need a web site – why? – because our competitors have one ! – in other words, to make money. In the case of the emerging nations of the West in the 17th century, political and military power was also a driving force. To the point, Louisiana was founded by the French to exploit North American resources and to “balance the power” of Spain and Britain on the continent. The lakes of Ponchartrain were a vital conduit for the trade from and political/cultural expansion into the Mississippi valley.

Mention must also be made of the three very important connections in south Louisiana between the lakes and the extremely valuable trade highway we call the Mississippi. These bayou/portages formed the links between the easy passage through the lakes and the more problematic passage that the mighty river posed to navigation. First, of course is the Bayou St. John portage – the raison d’etre of our fair city. Water traffic from the Gulf and from upriver could easily be moved (in 18th century terms) to and from the city through the lakes and the bayou to New Orleans. Next upriver is the bayou/portage at Bayou Trepaigner (tre-pan-yay) at what soon became the German Coast and is today the Bonnet Carre. The third passage between the waterways was Bayou Manchac to the Amite river to Lake Maurepas. This outflow dis-tributary of the mighty river was very useful – but only during its annual floods. Constant dredging and tree removal hindered its year round use. Taken together these three passages to the lakes and the Gulf made a perfect trade route for traders and the furs and agricultural produce coming downriver from Upper Louisiana (aka the Illinois country).
Between the river and the lakes was THE natural place to locate the capital and chief port of Louisiana. It’s hard in these days of steam and diesel to visualize the amount the commerce that travelled over the waterways surrounding New Orleans. It was the fastest way to get cargo in and out before the railroads came, so it should come as no surprise. So next time you’re tooling around the lake in your Lafitte skiff or sailboat, or crabbing and fishing off the seawall, or even crossing the Causeway; the next time you’re at Spanish Fort at the mouth of the bayou, take a walk over to Robt. E. Lee Blvd and check out the Locks of Bayou St. John – say a silent thanks to that Bayougoula scout that showed the brothers LeMoyne where to build their city.

The page references above point to passages in Robert Hastings’ book, The Lakes of Pontchartrain  ISBN-13: 978-1604732719


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