Six sites comprise the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, giving a
glimpse into southern Louisiana's culture.
The impact of Jean Lafitte on the Gulf Coast is far-reaching. He was a pirate (although he called himself a privateer) who may have been born in France or possibly present-day Haiti. He smuggled goods and slaves into the United States. He may have been a spy, but later joined ranks with Gen. Andrew Jackson.
Stories abound about this mysterious 19th-century man, but we do know he had a special fondness for a new U.S. territory called Louisiana, and Lafitte left his mark on the land and the heritage of Louisiana's delta.
Recognizing his influence, the National Park Service created the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in 1978. Since that time, it has grown to six locations throughout southern Louisiana, from swamps to battlefields, and even to the streets of the French Quarter.
Start your exploration at Jean Lafitte park headquarters, which is at the French Quarter Visitor Center. If you arrive when the French Quarter Visitor Center opens at 9 a.m., you can snag one of the tickets to the riverfront history walk. As you stroll along the Mississippi River levee, listen to a park ranger bring the history of New Orleans alive.
Only nine miles from the French Quarter is another piece of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, the Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery, but it might as well be a world away for its differences. What Chalmette and the French Quarter share are a proximity to the Mississippi River and ties to Lafitte.
With the United States and Britain at war in 1812, the British decided to attack from the Gulf of Mexico. The British asked for Lafitte's help, but he joined American forces. Eventually, Gen. Andrew Jackson accepted Lafitte's help.
The Battle of New Orleans erupted on Jan. 8, 1815, on Chalmette Plantation. Lafitte's knowledge of the area, plus his artillery and men, helped to eventually secure a victory for the U.S.
A plantation house from the 1830s faces the Mississippi River. The Creole Queen paddle wheeler makes two stops a day as part of its narrated cruises. On the grounds, rangers continue with details of the Battle of New Orleans. On occasion, re-enactors add to the story as well.
Important spots on the battlefield are marked to allow visitors a glimpse into history. Beyond the battlefield is the national cemetery where approximately 15,000 American soldiers, from the War of 1812 to the Vietnam War, and their dependents, are buried.
Protecting Louisiana's Bayous
The 23,000-acre Barataria Preserve outside Marrero, La., comes closest to what people typically think of as a national park. A 45-minute drive south of New Orleans brings you into bayou country and to the third location of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.
Half of the preserve's trails are boardwalks that take visitors over marshes and swamps. Stay on marked trails and be alert for snakes and alligators. Insect repellent can also come in handy.
Rangers, phone audio tours, and interpretive signs point out highlights like Indian shell mounds and the remaining bald cypress that once prospered in the swamp. These slow-growing trees stretching to 100 feet high and 15 feet in diameter can live thousands of years. See the 600-year-old Monarch of the Swamp holding court on the Bayou Coquille Trail.
Wildlife is all around – turtles, birds, and the ever-present alligator. Visitors eagerly watch for alligator sightings, and most days aren't disappointed. Two-thirds of the preserve is a rare floating estuarine marsh, present in only a few of the world's river deltas. Barataria Preserve is also an area at risk as Louisiana loses about an inch of coastline every two years.
Barataria is an important cultural site as well. Louisiana swamps and marshes have been a way of life for generations who have made their living hunting and fishing since before Lafitte's time.
The last three parks in the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve are located in southwest Louisiana. Each location shares stories of the Acadian culture.
In the 1600s, French farmers and fishermen settled in an area of Canada called Acadie (now Nova Scotia) and became known as Acadians. In the mid-18th century, the British began an expulsion of the Acadians, and many found a new home in southern Louisiana. Some settled near the bayous, while others moved into the grasslands to grow rice and raise cattle.
They brought a strong cultural heritage with them – food, crafts, language, and above all, a love of music and dance. Adapting to Louisiana led to some changes, including their name. They soon became known as Cajuns.
The national park service's Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, La., explains the origins and culture of Cajuns and their influence on the development of Louisiana. Beginning in March, Cajun music jams will be offered from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on Mondays at the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux, La. Fiddles, accordions, and triangles inspire toe tapping and dancing. On Saturday mornings in the fall and spring, a farmer's market on the grounds offers seasonal produce and Cajun food.
The town of Eunice introduces the westernmost point of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park sites. At the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center, Louisiana grasslands are more plentiful than swamps, but the rich Cajun culture is apparent as you enter the door to the sounds of Cajun ballads. The Cajun French Music Association Acadiana Chapter often offers free workshops to people interested in learning Cajun music or dancing. In addition to musicians, craftspeople demonstrate Cajun life to visitors.
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve allows visitors to experience a multi-faceted culture without ever leaving the country. This collection of historical and natural sites is as rich as any pirate's treasure trove.
Karen Gibson is a contributor from Norman, Okla.
May/June 2016 Issue
While not part of the National Park Service, Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park in Lafayette, La., is a wonderful resource where you can learn about Cajun culture. AAA members save $1 off admission. For additional information, click on www.vermilionville.org.
Artisans demonstrate crafts at Vermilionville. Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park
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