THE CALCASIEU RIVER GUARDS ITS SECRETS
© By W. T. Block
(click here for W. T. Block web page)
For countless eons of antiquity, a beautiful stream
has flowed through Lake Charles en route to the Gulf of Mexico. The Spanish
called it the Rio Hondo - or "deep river," where huge catfish still
paddle near the bottom of the lazy stream's depths.
As the turbulent, matchless Calcasieu River slithers
toward its estuary by the sea, one wonders how many secrets are still clutched
within its bank crevices. Two centuries ago, bandits robbed the Spanish pack
trains bound for Natchitoches, and later countless outlaws fled across the
river in search of safety in its "Neutral Strip."
In 1816 John Fletcher wrote that he was one of the
bandits that robbed a Spanish mule train of 12 jack loads of silver and 30 jack
loads of gold in 1813, which they buried on the west bank of the river. The
next day they were attacked by "Jackson's cavalry," who killed all of
the bandits except one. Fletcher, who was lingering in the New Orleans jail,
was offered his freedom if he would fight the British, but the Battle of New
Orleans left him a helpless cripple, unable to search for his treasure. In
1867 about 220 pounds of silver were dug up while a wharf foundation was being
excavated at "Star's Landing."
The French fur traders of 1750 called the river the
"Calcachouk." They always named a stream after the Indian tribe or
the Indian chief that controlled the river. Thus the names Calcasieu and Mermentau
are principally attributable to the fur traders.
There is a map in the British Admiralty archives,
drawn in July, 1777 by Capt. George Gauld of the English surveying and mapping
sloop Florida. He drew the Calcasieu and Sabine rivers and lakes so accurately
that it would do justice to a modern cartographer. He too called the river the
Calcachouk, the name he had picked up from the French fur traders.
There have been other spellings of the rivers name
before it developed into the present spelling of Calcasieu. In 1820 Gen. James
Long used the river as the staging area for his filibustering army at Bolivar
Peninsula, across from Galveston Island. Three of his surviving letters,
written at a place he called the "Calqueshak," were published on Aug.
8, 1886, but the Galveston Daily News reminded its readers that the proper
spelling for the river was "Calcasieu."
As of 1885, the Calcasieu River for 30 years had been
Galveston and Houston's principal supplier of lumber and cypress shingles.
Another letter published in the News of 1886 was that of George Graham, written
on Aug. 20, 1818 to Gen. E. W. Ripley of Vermilionville. In 1817 President
James Monroe became suspicious of the colony of French Royalists, founded on
Galveston Bay by Gen. Charles L'Allemand, one of Napoleon Bonaparte's most
Graham was the president's personal emissary to
investigate the French colony and the pirate commune on Galveston Island. Although
his report of the pirate Lafitte was sufficiently descriptive to cause the
latter's ultimate demise, there is no cause to repeat it here. Graham also
reported his passage through "Lake Cassessee" (Calcasieu) twice while
en route between Natchitoches and Galveston Island. Other letters and land
patents of those years referred to the stream as the "Carcashu"
Lafitte's ships did visit the river at intervals,
perhaps to bury their loot along its shores. In 1870 the ex-slave Wash, a
native of Africa once owned by Catherine Sallier, often spoke of Lafitte's
treasures buried along the river - at Cidony's Shipyard, of the Barb Shellbank,
and of Napoleon's seachests buried on the cheniers bordering the coast. In
May, 1867, a Galveston journalist, as he sailed up the river aboard a schooner,
"....An elevation on the river is called Money
Hill, where Lafitte buried his money... Contraband Bayou had a depot for the
stowing of goods that the pirates smuggled into this country.... One is seldom
out of sight of alligators 14 feet long. In the stillness of the night, it is
dismal to hear their croaking. You feel as if there are monsters all around you
that are ready to eat you up...."
Col. Warren Hall was a close friend of Gen. Ripley's
and a member of 3 filibustering expeditions into Spanish Texas, that used the
Calcasieu River as a staging area. When Gen. Ripley died, Hall inherited a
trunk filled with Ripley's papers, and after Hall died in 1867, Galveston News
obtained the letters that it published in 1886.
The matchless Calcasieu, unmindful of its variety of
spellings, flows ever on to its jetties in the sea. It wears a coat of
stillness during the night that is broken at intervals by the croaks of the
frogs and gators, or by the murmurs of the whitecaps that lap against its
shore. I wager that no one still hunts for buried money along its banks.
However, the dollar signs are ever visible on its surface - in the cargo ships
churning its waters; or the service vessels bound for the offshore rigs; and
the scores of shrimp boats returning with their daily catch.