End of the Beginning: Prelude Part VI

Sometime during the age when Greece was creating Western Civilization and Paul and the other Apostles were laying the foundations of a great world religion, ( 400 BC to 100 AD) the Mississippi cut a crevasse at Cannes Brulee (near modern Kenner). Through the crevasse poured the flow that would cut a channel west to east and traverse modern Orleans Parish. This channel would eventually become what the French would call Bayous Tchoupitoulas and Sauvage.

These streams ran along today’s paths of Metairie and Gentilly Roads, creating the high ground of the Metairie and Gentilly Ridges. The ridges in turn created the backbone upon which the roads were built.

During the first millennium AD the two bayous were in reality one long bayou distributing water from the Mississippi into Lake Pontchartrain. They ran through the a long narrow stretch of swamp between the river and lake. There was, however, a peculiarity to this place. Here the river makes its famous crescent U- shape. Into the middle of this U, on either side of the Metairie-Gentilly Ridge would occasionally pour the waters of the flooded Mississippi or a heavy rainstorm or a hurricane.

These occasional floods created shallow, seasonal lakes on both sides of the ridge. The lakes weakened the ridge between them and became the origin of Bayou St. John. As the ridge collapsed, water would course into the lowlands between the original main bayou and the lake, eventually creating the channel that would get deeper as each rainy season passed.

The low areas in the upper middle portion of the U (aka Lakeview and Gentilly) would drain via this channel into the lake. One can see similar hydrographic effects today in Eastern New Orleans toward the mouth of Bayou Sauvage.

By the time Iberville and Bienville arrived, the bayous around the Indian portage were three in number. What had been one became by 1700 three branches of the same watercourse. The “three” bayous –

Metairie (or Tchoupitoulas) Bayou,
Gentilly (or Sauvage) Bayou,
and Bayou St. John

– met where today’s Metairie and Gentilly Ridges meet Bayou St. John at the base of City Park. To speak of bayous running in any direction is a gross exaggeration. They only “run” when something – a river, a rainstorm, or a flood – is pushing them. But, for the sake of clarity, we can say that Bayou St. John ran north into Lake Pontchartrain. Bayou Metairie or Tchoupitoulas ran west to the Tchoupitoulas country on the river in Old Jefferson. Bayou Sauvage or Gentilly ran east into the swamp between river and lake and faded into Lake Pontchartrain somewhere before Chef Menteur Pass. Of the three, only St. John remains. The other two and their levees are now roads – Metairie and Gentilly respectively.

In the seventeenth century, the local Natives made great use of the “three” waterways to travel through the swamps between river and lake, and to fish and hunt along their banks. The bayous brought river and lake together, and the final tie that bound the region into one was the portage. This soggy trail was so important to their colonial efforts that the French authorities gave out eight land grants where the portage and the bayous merged. The ‘village’ and trading post at Bayou St. Jean were established in 1708, fully 10 years before the capital was authorized and begun.

Before the city of New Orleans rose from the swampy ground, Colonial authorities searched for and even nominated several spots to locate a capital which would be able to control the traffic on the river. But it was Bienville who would finally choose the spot – on that portage he and his brother first saw in 1699, where the city would be built.


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