Historical sketch of Vermilion Parish during the early years
By William Thibodeaux, History columnist
On October 28, 1905, Wakeman W. Edwards began a series of articles identified as Historical Sketches of Vermilion Parish. They were subsequently published in The Meridional and have been used extensively by historians. Wakeman Edwards was an extraordinary individual—he was greatly concerned with the void of missing Vermilion Parish history. First, it was the state capitol at Baton Rouge that was burned during the War Between the States and all of the records they contained were destroyed. Next was the destruction of all the courthouse records in Vermilion Parish by fire, which occurred on the night of April 6, 1885. At the time of Wakeman Edwards’s writings there were very few people left who had been in Vermilion Parish since 1844 when the parish was created. Not many people knew of the Attakapas District and of Southwest Louisiana, nor its vast prairies. Up to that time, the history of thousands of men and women who had lived and died in
Vermilion Parish was largely “unwept, un-honored and unsung” wrote Wakeman Edwards. They were all simply neglected. Wakeman Edwards decided to take up the matter himself and preserve as much history as possible. He began by interviewing some of the more senior residents of the area but unfortunately remembering all the dates, names, and events were problematic. Too much time had elapsed. Wakeman Edwards implored his readers to preserve history for future use because they may never appear in any other form.
Vermilion Parish was created in 1844, during President John Tyler’s administration. At the time the country was just beginning to recover from its first great depression known as the Panic of 1837, which was a financial crisis. Some historians say it was caused by President Andrew Jackson when he issued an executive order whereby the government refused to take anything but gold or silver specie (coined money) in exchange for public lands. This was one of President Jackson’s last acts before leaving office. His act was actually carried out by President Martin Van Buren. Many businesses closed their doors and were never opened again wrote Wakeman Edwards. He referred to banks without capital as “wild cat concerns without real capital.” He also indicated that these banks issued bank notes or bank bills that he referred to as “red backs.” When these banks failed; the country was flooded with bills called “red dog” money. The red dog money was worthless, and the scarcity of money greatly caused depressed prices of all commodities.
The area that became Vermilion Parish was more than half of the territory of former Lafayette Parish. A large portion of that area included “sea marsh,” along the Gulf of Mexico, which was considered “valueless and uninhabitable.” Once the parish was created Governor Alexandre Mouton appointed a parish judge, sheriff, and all other officers necessary for parish government, which was part of the Fifth Judicial District of the state. The new parish judge convened the Justices of the Peace within the limits of the new parish—not less than five nor more than nine Police Jury Wards. An election was immediately held for Police Jury in each ward. The Seat of Justice was located on the west side of Bayou Vermilion “not more than one mile from Perry’s Bridge, which is south of Abbeville.
All original papers affecting acts, deeds, and titles in the former portion of Lafayette Parish that had been carved out of original Lafayette Parish was supposed to be transferred to the Parish judge of Vermilion Parish, at the expense of the newly created parish. This was never done and according to Wakeman Edwards, the first District Judge was George R. King, who was also the district judge of the Fifth District at the time. The succeeding district judges were Cornelius Voorhies, Edward Simon, Adolph Bailey, J. M. Parton, Eraste Mouton, Edward Mouton, John Clegg, Conrad Debaillon and others, all of whom were nonresidents of Vermilion Parish. The first resident to hold office of district judge in Vermilion Parish was Wakeman W. Edwards on July 16, 1889. Governor Nicholls appointed Wakeman after Judge Debaillon resigned. Wakeman held the judgeship of the 25th Judicial District, which composed of Lafayette and Vermilion Parishes. He was succeeded by Orther C. Mouton, A. C. Allen, Minos T. Gordy Jr., and William P. Edwards.
Robert Cade Smedes was the first resident of Vermilion Parish to hold the office of District Attorney, which he held from 1888 to 1890. He was succeeded by M. T. Gordy, Jr. The Parishes of Vermilion and Lafayette had one state representative each. Governor Alexandre Mouton appointed William Kibbe as the first parish judge. The first sheriff of Vermilion Parish was Captain Robert Perry. Although, according to Wakeman Edwards, Perry had much business with little or no time to devote to his duties as sheriff, so Perry appointed his deputy John M. Miles to fulfill his duties as sheriff. Felix O’Neal was the first Clerk of the District Court followed by Andrew J. Kearney as his successor. Ambrose Lacour succeeded Kearney, and in 1868 Lastie Broussard succeeded Lacour and held that position until 1892 when he was succeeded by Alcide LeBlanc, who was succeeded by Simonet LeBlanc, who happened to be the clerk at the time of Wakemen Edwards’s writings.
The Recorder of Conveyances was Leo Perrett from about 1870 until the office was consolidated with the Clerk of Court under the constitution of 1879. The first elected sheriff of Vermilion Parish was Nathan Perry, who held that office for two terms. And, according to Wakeman Edwards, Nathan Perry was not of the same family as Capt. Robert Perry. After retirement Nathan Perry engaged in a farm with stock animals at Cane Island, in the southern part of the parish, near the marshes where he resided for many years. One of the oldest Spanish-Creole families of the Attakapas area was Demosthene Nunez. He owned a large tract of land occupied as a stock ranch. He had been one of the largest merchants in Abbeville.
In compliance with the law when Vermilion Parish was created, the Seat of Justice was located at Perry’s Bridge on the west bank of Vermilion Bayou, on land belonging to Capt. Perry. Back then Perry’s Bridge was the trade center of the new parish. Robert Perry also owned a drawbridge spanning the bayou. When a post office was established there, it was named Perry as it is today. Immediately on the bank of the bayou just below the end of the bridge was a place selected for a courthouse, although it was quite small for a public square. On the main street a lot was given for a Protestant Church and another lot was tendered for a Catholic Church. Father or Père Antoine Désiré Mégret as he was called was a Frenchman from France. He was the appointed priest for the new Parish of Vermilion. After an inspection of the lot offered for the Catholic Church, Pere Mégret objected to the location for one reason or another. Pere Mégret asked Capt. Perry for
a more suitable lot, which Perry refused. The two men parted ways, and according to Wakeman Edwards, there has never been a Catholic Church in Perry. Some of the first settlers in Perry were Dr. Mudd, Dr. William Mills, Jacob Isaacs, Jos. Wise, John Stiffel, and C. Asher.
William Caldwell owned a blacksmith shop there. Judge William Kibbe lived on the opposite side of the bayou and so did Capt. Perry. Kibbe owned a store on the corner of Main and Bridge Street in Perry. Robert Perry had the first store at Perry’s Bridge since before Vermilion Parish was created. The store was used as the courthouse. John Stiffel had a store on the Southside of Main Street near the bank of the bayou not far from the graveyard. Ambrose Toups, the grandfather of Hon. Adrien Nunez was one of the first residents of Perry. His house was on the west side of Bridge Street and the first court ever held in Vermilion Parish was held in his house. The next court was held in Robert Perry’s store. No courthouse was ever built in Perry. Joseph Walker was the first lawyer to locate in Perry. He later moved to Franklin, La. Daniel O’Bryan was the next lawyer to locate in Perry. He was the son-in-law of Capt. Perry.
Pere Mégret was still interested in building a church. He purchased forty arpents on the east bank of the Vermilion from Joseph LeBlanc for $400 of his own money. He had intentions of building a town similar to the old provincial towns of France “with narrow crooked streets and small squares.” The dimensions of the town were described as having 848 feet front on Bayou Vermilion with a depth of 1979 feet. A large area on the front was laid out for the church, parsonage, cemetery, and “several lots for church use, which Pere Mégret donated to the church.” For many years this area was known as La Chappelle. The town of Abbeville “was laid out about the year 1847.” It was presumably named after Abbeville on the River Somme in France, which was where Pere Mégret was from. Some of the earliest settlers of Abbeville were Hilaire Davide and “Emile Bodin (Duhon),” who owned the first store. Jean Pierre Gueydan was among the first merchants of Abbeville. His store was located on “Rue de bas de ville” now named Washington Street, opposite the Catholic cemetery.
John Bte Cavilhez opened a store on Madeline Square. Alonson Spaulding operated a brick yard east of town. Eugene Demary and Leo Landry were among the early residents of the town. Abbeville was incorporated on March 13, 1850. The town was governed by a mayor and four aldermen. The town grew rapidly being situated on a navigable waterway and in the middle of a rich prairie. It also quickly became a rival of Perry’s Bridge. A struggle ensued for a number of years after the seat of justice was moved from Perry’s Bridge to Abbeville. What made matters worse, was the fact that section six of the charter exempted all property within the town limits of Abbeville from parish taxes. The tax exemptions lasted at least until 1902, when Wakeman Edwards was doing his writing. Vermilion Parish had been established for ten years and still had no courthouse to call their own. Perry’s Bridge was dealt a fatal blow when the Louisiana legislature approved an act on
March 31, 1854, which made Abbeville the permanent seat of justice for Vermilion Parish. The sheriff published that fact and informed the police jury that the seat of justice and offices should be removed from Perry’s Bridge posthaste for the purpose of a new courthouse, jail, and other necessary office buildings being erected in Abbeville.
During that time “the prairie was an ocean of grass with few groves of trees scattered here and there over the broad expanse.” The groves were called islands by the inhabitants because of their resemblance to the wooded islands in the sea. Wakeman Edwards was told by William Harrington, the father of Joseph Harrington, that when he first came to this country the prairie grass was thick and as tall as a man’s head on horseback. People traveling over land back then did so in large homemade ox carts called beef carts. They were made entirely of wood-- no nails or iron was used in their construction. They were hand hewed out of rough timber and held together by wooden mortises and pegs, and sometimes aided with strips of rawhide. The wooden carts were heavy and strong, capable of carrying heavy loads great distances over the smooth surface of the prairie. The axles were lubricated with tallow rendered from beef or mutton fat.
The Attakapas carriage was a cart or gig, like the “old deacons one-horse shy” which was made of light wood without iron like the beef carts. It was a horse drawn cart, the body and seat was supported by rawhide tugs as it swung back and forth like a bird’s nest. It was called a “Calleche.” The carts were used in Vermilion Parish up to and including during the War Between the States. After the war they began to disappear. Very few carts were seen after 1875. The late Madam Michel Hardy used to ride into Abbeville in a calleche. Back then there were no roads, anyone could travel in any directions along the vast prairies, which weren’t fenced in at the time. There were lots of cattle on the prairies between 1844 and 1854 to keep down the grass, unlike earlier times. And the prairies were burned each year during the winter in order to have an early grazing in the spring.
During that decade—1844 to 1854, the principal settlements were along Bayous Vermilion, Tigre, and Que de Tortue with few settlers at Prairie Greig, Grand Chenire, Lake Arthur, and Lake Peigneur. Among the earliest settlers of Prairie Greig were John Greig, Mark Lee, and Celestin Nunez. Later came William Henry, the father of Joseph Trahan (sic), Robert Johnson, and the Primeaux family. They mostly all raised stock on small farms. Allen Campbell, Robert Cade, Daniel McCaskell, Notley Young and Brashear had sugar plantations on the lower Vermilion Bayou. Joseph Nunez, the father of the Hon. Adrien Nunez, had a large ranch or Vacherie as they were called on the west side of the Vermilion near Abbeville.
Sabastian Nunez, the father of Demosthene and Joseph Nunez, was also a large stockman on the west side of the bayou. The heirs of Martin Mouton lived on the west side of Mouton Cove along with the Bodoins (sic). They lived above the Hebert family at Hebert Cove. The main occupation for the majority of the inhabitants back then was raising cattle. They lived in small one or two room wooden houses with a stick and mud chimney. The windows were without windowpanes and the space between the logs of the cabin was filled in with a mixture of mud and Spanish moss. There was always a cow pen or corral for keeping cattle, a corn crib, and a small garden. They usually planted several acres of corn. The women folk tended to the garden, raised poultry, milked cows, and spun and wove cottonade and other fabrics. The husband rode about the prairie barefoot on his Attakapas pony tending his herd of cattle and horses.
According to Wakeman W. Edwards, the population of Vermilion Parish in 1858 was summed up like this: the total number of whites was 3,210, the total number of free Negroes was 19, and the total number of slaves was 1,370 which make a grand total of 4,500 souls in the parish. Also in 1858 Vermilion Parish had the dishonor of being one of the most illiterate parishes in the state of Louisiana. According to Wakeman Edwards, the cause was easily found after he sat with the state audit report and other official reports. He wrote that in 1858 there were 12 public school districts in Vermilion Parish, which were all white. There were no private schools in the parish. Reading, writing, and French were taught. The report showed how many students attended school in each district, and each district was about the same concerning attendance. Example: the first district showed there were 11 students who attended school, 75 students did not attend school. The amountpaid to teachers was $155.35. Another example: the eleventh district taught four pupils for three months at a cost of $231.00. The report was completed by a Mr. O. LeBlanc, Jr., who at the time was parish treasurer. LeBlanc was quoted as saying: “The schools in general are good.” Governor Wickliffe’s last message in 1860 was: “The public school system ought to be reformed.” In Wakeman Edwards’s writings of 1905 concerning Vermilion Parish, he indicated that the census report for 1900 showed her to be the most illiterate parish in the state.