history, Nonfiction

Louisiana and Local History

Whether you’re a native of the Bayou State or a newcomer, enjoy some history with local flavor. Topics include utterly strange stories, leprosy, the Civil War, politics, life in Gonzales and along the Lower Mississippi River, and more. Curated by Samantha Matherne.

Strange True Stories of Louisiana by George W. Cable
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Revealing historical tales of the Southern mystique.

“From various necessities of the case I am sometimes the story-teller, and sometimes, in the reader’s interest, have to abridge; but I add no fact and trim naught of value away. . . In time, place, circumstance, in every essential feature, I give them as I got them–strange stories that truly happened, all partly, some wholly, in Louisiana.” –George W. Cable

Featuring seven factual accounts of life and history in the area, this compilation includes tales of French nuns, haunted houses, and even a Union woman trapped behind Civil War battle lines. Cable brings together all the unusual and unique aspects of New Orleans and the South in this literary collection.


Carville’s Cure: Leprosy, Stigma, and the Fight for Justice by Pam Fessler
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The unknown story of the only leprosy colony in the continental United States, and the thousands of Americans who were exiled—hidden away with their “shameful” disease.

Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the Mississippi River curls around an old plantation thick with trees, with a stately white manor house at its heart. Locals knew it as Carville—the site of the only leprosarium in the continental United States from 1894 until 1999, where generations of afflicted Americans were isolated, often until death. While experts today know that leprosy is not nearly as contagious as once feared, there remains a virulent stigma around those who suffer from it. Pam Fessler tells the story of Carville’s patients against the backdrop of America’s slowly shifting attitudes toward those cast aside as “others.” She also reveals how patients rallied together with an unlikely team of nuns, researchers, and doctors to find a cure for the disease, and to fight the insidious stigma that surrounded it. With original interviews and newly discovered archival material, Fessler presents an essential history of one of America’s most shameful secrets.


Firsthand Louisiana: Primary Sources in the History of the State selected and edited by Janet Allured, McNeese State University, et al.
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Firsthand Louisiana: Primary Sources in the History of the State brings to its readers a companion to the study of Louisiana’s history. Compiled for the first time in a single book, the dozens of important, interesting, devastating, and even entertaining firsthand accounts cover Louisiana’s history from 1682, when Sieur de La Salle claimed the land for the French, up through recent controversies over the removal of Confederate memorial statues in the state. Edited by experts in the field of Louisiana history who saw a need for a collection of primary sources in the college history classroom, it also provides a fascinating read for non-academics who simply want to gain the perspective of the people- women, men, Native Americans, whites, African Americans, and many others-who created the state’s complicated past. Gain on-the-scene views of important moments in the Bayou State. How did the initial interactions between Native Americans, French colonizers, and enslaved Africans play out? Why did colonists overthrow their own governor in 1768, and how did the Spanish Empire react? What did Louisianians say about the coming of the Civil War and its aftermath? How did the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which originated in New Orleans, and the state Constitution of 1898 set the stage for Louisiana’s race relations in the twentieth-century? What effects did World War II have on the state? Closer to our own time, what can we learn from firsthand accounts about the “Race from Hell,” the dangers of the “chemical corridor,” and the debate over how the Civil War is remembered? Read letters, speeches, reports, diaries, and more to gain a deeper understanding of Louisiana, its peoples and cultures, and its history.


A Cajun Girl’s Sharecropping Years by Viola Fontenot
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Winner of the 2019 Humanities Book of the Year from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

Today sharecropping is history, though during World War II and the Great Depression sharecropping was prevalent in Louisiana’s southern parishes. Sharecroppers rented farmland and often a small house, agreeing to pay a one-third share of all profit from the sale of crops grown on the land. Sharecropping shaped Louisiana’s rich cultural history, and while there have been books published about sharecropping, they share a predominately male perspective. In A Cajun Girl’s Sharecropping Years, Viola Fontenot adds the female voice into the story of sharecropping.

Spanning from 1937 to 1955, Fontenot describes her life as the daughter of a sharecropper in Church Point, Louisiana, including details of field work as well as the domestic arts and Cajun culture. The account begins with stories from early life, where the family lived off a gravel road near the woods without electricity, running water, or bathrooms, and a mule-drawn wagon was the only means of transportation. To gently introduce the reader to her native language, the author often includes French words along with a succinct definition. This becomes an important part of the story as Fontenot attends primary school, where she experienced prejudice for speaking French, a forbidden and punishable act. Descriptions of Fontenot’s teenage years include stories of going to the boucherie; canning blackberries, figs, and pumpkins; using the wood stove to cook dinner; washing and ironing laundry; and making moss mattresses. Also included in the texts are explanations of rural Cajun holiday traditions, courting customs, leisure activities, children’s games, and Saturday night house dances for family and neighbors, the fais do-do.


They Called Us River Rats: The Last Batture Settlement of New Orleans by Macon Fry
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They Called Us River Rats: The Last Batture Settlement of New Orleans is the previously untold story of perhaps the oldest outsider settlement in America, an invisible community on the annually flooded shores of the Mississippi River. This community exists in the place between the normal high and low water line of the Mississippi River, a zone known in Louisiana as the batture. For the better part of two centuries, batture dwellers such as Macon Fry have raised shantyboats on stilts, built water-adapted homes, foraged, fished, and survived using the skills a river teaches.

Until now the stories of this way of life have existed only in the memories of those who have lived here. Beginning in 2000, Fry set about recording the stories of all the old batture dwellers he could find: maritime workers, willow furniture makers, fishermen, artists, and river shrimpers. Along the way, Fry uncovered fascinating tales of fortune tellers, faith healers, and wild bird trappers who defiantly lived on the river.

They Called Us River Rats also explores the troubled relationship between people inside the levees, the often-reviled batture folks, and the river itself. It traces the struggle between batture folks and city authorities, the commercial interests that claimed the river, and Louisiana’s most powerful politicians. These conflicts have ended in legal battles, displacement, incarceration, and even lynching.

Today Fry is among the senior generation of “River Rats” living in a vestigial colony of twelve “camps” on New Orleans’s river batture, a fragment of a settlement that once stretched nearly six miles and numbered hundreds of homes. It is the last riparian settlement on the Lower Mississippi and a contrarian, independent life outside urban zoning, planning, and flood protection. This book is for everyone who ever felt the pull of the Mississippi River or saw its towering levees and wondered who could live on the other side.


Pistols and Politics: The Dilemma of Democracy in Louisiana’s Florida Parishes, 1810—1899 by Samuel C. Hyde Jr.
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In the nineteenth-century South, there existed numerous local pockets where cultures and values different from those of the dominant planter class prevailed. One such area was the Florida parishes of southeastern Louisiana, where peculiar conditions combined to create an enclave of white yeomen. In the years after the Civil War, levels of violence among these men escalated to create a state of chronic anarchy, producing an enduring legacy of bitterness and suspicion. In Samuel C. Hyde’s careful and original study of a society that degenerated into utter chaos, he illuminates the factors that allowed these conditions to arise and triumph.

Early in the century, the Florida parishes were characterized by an exceptional level of social and political turmoil. Stability emerged as the cotton economy expanded into the piney-woods parishes during the 1820s and 1830s, bringing with it slaves and prosperity — but also bringing increasing dominance of the region by a powerful planter elite that shaped state government to suit its purposes.

By the early 1840s, Jacksonian political rhetoric inspired a newfound assertiveness among the common folk. With the construction of a railroad through the piney-woods region at the close of the antebellum period and the collapse of the planter class at the end of the Civil War, the plain folk were finally able to reject the planters’ authority. Traditional patterns of political and economic stability were permanently disrupted, and the residents — their Jeffersonian traditions now corrupted by the brutal war and Reconstruction periods — rejected all governance and resorted increasingly to violence as the primary solution to conflict. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, the Florida Parishes had some of the highest murder rates in the country.

In Pistols and Politics, Hyde gives serious scrutiny to a region heretofore largely neglected by historians, integrating the anomalies of one area of Louisiana into the history of the state and the wider South. He reassesses the prevailing myth of poverty in the piney woods, portrays the conscious methods of the ruling planter elite to manipulate the common people, and demonstrates the destructive possibilities inherent in the area’s political traditions as well as the complex mores, values, and dynamics of a society that produced some of the fiercest and most enduring feuds in American history.


The Early Years: Gonzales Louisiana a Journey Through Yesteryear by Doris B. LeBlanc
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“A trip down ‘Memory Lane’.”

“This is not a history of the city or genealogy of the people, but it is memories of Gonzales as I remember it. This book is written with the hope that it will restore memories of Gonzales and it will let you know what Gonzales was like in yesteryear.”

Chapters in this book include:  Gonzales in the beginning, Churches, Automobile Dealerships, School Days, Funeral Homes, Hotels and Rooming Houses, World War II and CCC Camp, Telephone Company and Gonzales Weekly, Plants-Services-Repairs, Stores, Doctors-Pharmacies, Early Homes, etc.


Touched by War: Battles Fought in the Lafourche District by Christopher G. Peña
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Touched By War: Battles Fought in the Lafourche District chronicles in detail for the first time the military activities leading to the five major battles fought in the Lafourche region of Southeast Louisiana during the American Civil War between fall 1862 and summer 1863. Louisiana’s secession from the Union, state militia reorganization and preparation for war beginning in December 1860 (with particular emphasis placed on the Lafourche region), together with some dozen skirmishes fought in this area between May 1862 – July 1863 are also chronicled in this book.


Winding Through Time: The Forgotten History and Present-Day Peril of Bayou Manchac by Mary Ann Sternberg
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Once considered one of the most important waterways in the American southeast and a vital link in a shortcut from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana’s Bayou Manchac rests in virtual obscurity today. Few now notice the bayou–which runs for eighteen miles, forming the boundary between several south Louisiana parishes–or remember that everyone from French explorers and steamboat captains to modern-day loggers and fishermen have plied its waters and lived along its banks. Even fewer are aware that the bayou remains a place of striking, intense beauty in spots untouched by development and pollution. In Winding through Time, Mary Ann Sternberg interweaves the bayou’s history with tales, anecdotes, and personal observations, creating an entertaining and educational introduction to this overlooked natural haven.

With the tenacity and skill of a historical detective, Sternberg uncovers Bayou Manchac’s rich and colorful past. She reveals that the waterway that most know only by weathered highway signs on the parish line served, several times in its history, as an international border, forming part of the northern boundary of the Isle of Orleans. She recalls the flourishing Native American cultures that occupied sites along the bayou as early as 250 B.C. and describes the many unsuccessful schemes over the years to make it navigable and thus provide a major commercial artery connecting the Mississippi River with Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain. Bayou Manchac survives still, she shows, as a somewhat frayed relic of our natural past valued mainly for its drainage capacity and abused by polluters.

More than simply an environmental history, however, Sternberg’s Winding through Time offers her personal narrative of discovering Bayou Manchac a few years ago and her growing awareness of its untamed beauty, historical significance, and threatened well-being. She traveled the bayou, meeting some of the people who live along its banks and who shared many of their stories. Through her engaging prose and lively commentary, she succeeds in providing a life-history and, indeed, a personality, for this geographical feature.

Sternberg shines a long overdue spotlight on Bayou Manchac, questioning how such a valuable resource could have become so diminished. As she eloquently illustrates, the wandering tale of this little waterway, though unique, also strikes a cautionary note for other small historic American streams.


The Last Madam:  A Life in the New Orleans Underworld by Christine Wiltz
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In 1916, at age fifteen, Norma Wallace arrived in New Orleans. Sexy and shrewd, she quickly went from streetwalker to madam and by 1920 had opened what became a legendary house of prostitution. There she entertained a steady stream of governors, gangsters, and movie stars until she was arrested at last in 1962. Shortly before she died in 1974, she tape-recorded her memories-the scandalous stories of a powerful woman who had the city’s politicians in her pocket and whose lovers included the twenty-five-year-old boy next door, whom she married when she was sixty-four.

Combining those tapes with original research, Christine Wiltz chronicles not just Norma’s rise and fall but also the social history of New Orleans, thick with the vice and corruption that flourished there—and, like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Philistines at the Hedgerow, resurrects a vanished secret world.

*All summaries courtesy of the publisher unless otherwise noted.

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