The history of a people can never be separated from the geography of the land in which they dwell. Cameron Parish, the largest in Louisiana, is no exception. Located in the Southwestern comer of the state, it is a land of abundance, unique in formation, fertile in soil, rich in beauty, and a veritable storehouse of oil and gas, a repository for game and fish, fur-bearing animals, and cattle.
Geologists tell us that at times Cameron Parish had been the bed of the Gulf of Mexico; at other times, it was far inland with the coastline much farther to the south than it is at present. During the period when the polar parts of the world were covered by great glaciers, the level of the sea dropped hundreds of feet, exposing immense areas of land. With the warming trend and the inundation of coastal regions caused by melting ice, Cameron was again submerged by the Gulf waters. Then its rivers ran freely and fiercely, dumping silt at their mouths. Year after year the silt spread along the coast, thickened, and slowly rose to the surface. Solid land appeared. Thus did the prairies in the northern part of the parish come into existence? In a similar manner, the marshes were formed. One might say that a prairie is a marsh grown older.
The cheniers in the southern part of the parish are in reality former beaches that, through the activities of nature, have become isolated from the sea by strips of marshes. The older cheniers lie to the north.
The Sabine, Calcasieu, and Mermentau Rivers harbored fish and crabs. The deeper marshes were the habitat of monstrous alligators. All manner of wild fowl, including the migratory ones, found sanctuary, there. In the woods were deer, bear, and smaller animals. There are strong reasons for supposition, not proof, that wild hogs and cattle roamed the ridges and marshes before the white man came
Prior to 1870, the region that is now Cameron Parish had been a part of varied political divisions. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the territory lying between the Sabine and the Calcasieu, called by the Spaniards the Rio Stondo, or Deep River, was known as the Neutral Strip. Spain had claimed the Calcasieu River as the boundary; the question again arose between the governments of the United States and Mexico. In 1819, a final settlement placed the boundary at the Sabine.
Louisiana was divided into parishes early on, ill defined though they were. The present Cameron Parish fell into two of these. The territory west of the Mermentau belonged to Opelousas-east of the river to the Attakapas. The Opelousas district became St. Landry Parish. The southwestern section of St. Landry was later converted into Calcasieu Parish. In 1870, the extreme southern part of Calcasieu was included the newly-created parish of Cameron. The land east of the Mermentau has been a part of five different parishes. In 1807, it was included in the formation of St. Martin. In 1828, it became a part of Lafayette Parish, which was carved from the southern part of St. Martin Parish. Vermilion Parish was formed from the southern part of Lafayette in 1844, and in 1870, the southwestern corner of Vermilion became a part of the new parish of Cameron.
The earliest inhabitants of the present parish are believed to have been Indians of the Attakapas tribe. Although the Indian name is derived from a term meaning “man eaters,” it remains an unsettled question as to whether they were actually cannibalistic. Comparatively large concentrations of Indian archaeological finds have been unearthed around the shores of Grand Lake and particularly on Little Pecan. Burial mounds are also found on Little Chenier. Pots, herds, and arrowheads arc found on all the cheniers, indicating that the Indian population must have been large and widespread.
It may be that the Spanish explorers under Cabeza de Vaca touched at points along the Cameron coast. De Soto’s survivors most certainly landed on its shores on their voyage from the mouth of the Mississippi to the Spanish colonies in Mexico. The pirate brothers, Jean and Pierre LaFitte, were undoubtedly on the Cameron rivers and bayous and may have gone inland to build temporary camps on the wooded cheniers. Tradition tells us that the first white settlers in the area were a family bearing the surname of Phillips. They lived at the western end of Grand Chenier beside the bank of the Mermentau in a shack built of poles covered with palmettos. A lone Indian had attached himself to their household.
A hurricane swept in, in all likelihood all other Audrey. A number of Louisiana weather authorities pinpoint it as the disastrous one of 1824. The sole survivor was the Indian. He later crossed the marshes till he found other white people to whom he reported the tragedy. As previously mentioned, the boundary between the United States and Mexico was not officially settled until 1819. The disputed area developed into a virtual “no man’s land.” Devoid of official supervision, it became a hideout for criminals. After the Sabine River had been decided upon as the line of demarcation, the federal government sent in officials to control the territory. Another factor delayed the settlement of present Cameron until the 1830’s. Previously, Congress had reserved the tracts of live oak lands as naval reserves. When it was determined that such vast amounts of oak timber were no longer needed for shipbuilding, an amendment was passed to free the cheniers (oak groves) for private ownership. Pre-emption laws, similar to the Homestead Act passed by Congress in 1862, were in existence at the time. Many of the early immigrants to the cheniers availed themselves of these laws. About the same time, Congress passed a law to pay off old army veterans with land grants to the formerly reserved naval lands. The elderly or middle-aged veterans had little desire to move westward. They sold their grants to speculators, who in turn sold to prospective landowners. In the 1830’s and ’40’s, a wave of migration from Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi swept into the cheniers. Some also came from Texas, sojourners there for a few years after having left their original homes in some of the northeastern and eastern states. They were for the most part of Celtic or Anglo-Saxon lineage. Later arrivals came mostly from the French of Louisiana, descendants of the displaced Acadians or of French Creoles. Early census records contain names of individuals born in various foreign countries.
The present parish has been cited for the cosmopolitanism of its beginners. It appears from census records that the cheniers were settled before the prairies to the north. Logic indicates the truth of this supposition since the cheniers were more accessible to water travel, and the waterways were the great highways of that day. The pioneer settlers of the prairies were more of French lineage than of Celtic or Anglo-Saxon. Prior to the Civil War, the settlements were of a typical pioneer nature. Land was cleared; houses built; gardens and fields cultivated. For the most part, each farm was self-sufficient. Mere trails became wagon roads. Money was rare. Bartering was the ordinary means of exchange. Banks were not used until the latter part of the 19th century. From the very beginning of the settlements, education was deemed important. Private schools were maintained long before public schools came into existence. Another priority was religious worship. Missions were established early by the Methodist, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and Baptist Churches.
Then came the War of the Secession, or the Civil War, the bitterest, the most tragic of all conflicts in which the people of this country have been called to participate. The suffering in what is now Cameron Parish was no exception, although little actual fighting occurred. There were minor battles at Leesburg (now Cameron, the parish seat) and at Sabine Pass. Federal gunboats patrolled the Sabine, the Calcasieu, and the Mermentau. Many families had relatives in the Union States. A few of the men in the cheniers were not only Union sympathizers, but were activists as well. Some of the men hid out in the marshes to avoid conscription and even affiliated with the despised Jayhawkers. Be that as it may, by far the people supported the Confederacy. They believed in their right to govern themselves and to solve their problems locally. Many of the soldiers died of wounds or illness, caused by contagion or exposure. Many a veteran carried a Civil War bullet to his grave after having lived to an old age. Back home during the conflict, the women and children, the elderly men, and the Negroes carried on as best they could. The year 1865 witnessed the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the fall of the Confederacy. Surviving soldiers returned home, some to die within a few months of disease contracted during the war. All were weary, suffering from malnutrition, thankful to be reunited with their families, to mend the broken threads of their lives, and to begin anew. The Jayhawkers continued their raids. More deaths followed before their activities ceased. The freed Negroes continued living on the lands of their former masters. There was some racial trouble. On one occasion, a pitched battle occurred near Leesburg. Each side fired a volley of shots at the other. When the smoke-cleared, only two men, both white, remained at the scene. All other combatants had taken to the bushes. No one had been injured.
The close of the Reconstruction Period ushered in an era of prosperity, resulting in the building of new homes, one-room schools, and churches. More cattle, cotton, cane, and oranges were raised for outside markets. Trapping became an important occupation. Boats plied the three rivers of the present parish, and schooners made regular runs to Galveston, Texas, to New Orleans and New Iberia, as well as frequent trips to other coastal ports. On March 16, 1870, by Legislative Act 102, the new parish of Cameron was created. It was carved from the southern part of Calcasieu and from the southwestern comer of Vermilion. Henry Clay Warmoth, carpet-bag governor of Louisiana, created Cameron Parish as a favor to his friend, Colonel George W. Carter. The latter, with friends and adroit political manipulation came down into the newly created parish as Parish Judge.
Governor Warmoth had given him carte blanche to appoint the parish officers, sheriff, police jurors, constables, justices of the peace, and registrars of voters. Governor Warmoth’s memoirs read, in part: “The reader will not be surprised that with all this power, Colonel Carter was able to fulfill his ambition and my wishes by being elected a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives from Cameron Parish. He was unanimously elected, and when he returned to the city, boasted that he had been elected to the Legislature as a Republican on his Confederate record. “A remarkable fact was that Carter, who represented Cameron Parish, was never in that parish sixty days. The fact was that I signed the bill creating the Parish of Cameron and sent Carter down there to organize it and to get himself returned to the House.” There is no established record as to why Cameron Parish was so named. According to the March 20, 1902, issue of the “New York Sun,” one reads: “The Hon. Samuel P. Henry, “father of Cameron Parish” …gave it the name of Cameron in honor of his friend, Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania.” Both Henry and Cameron (United States Senators from 1866-77) were born in Lancaster County Pennsylvania. The former, having moved into Calcasieu Parish in 1870, soon became the Parish Judge of Cameron. Another version of the naming of the parish is that it was given in honor of Robert Alexander Cameron, a soldier of the Confederate army who took part in Bank’s Red River campaign. He was prominent in Louisiana politics during the immediate postwar period. The name Cameron itself is of Scottish origin. In the old Gaelic tongue it meant “Crook Nose. “It is derived from the words kam, meaning crooked or bent, and ieron, meaning nose.
When the parish was organized in 1870, an already existing building was purchased for use as a courthouse. The building burned in 1874. Tradition has it that this was a clear case of arson, the purpose of which was to destroy certain land records. Neighboring parishes suffered similar experiences about that time. A new building was erected immediately. It served until 1937, when the present courthouse, a steel and concrete structure, was built. The Spanish-American War of 1898 was scarcely felt in Cameron. Not so were the two World Wars, the Korean Conflict, and the war in Vietnam. Hardly a family was left untouched by these struggles. Some were affected by anguish and apprehension alone; others by death or injury to their loved ones. Times were hard in Cameron Parish during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, but there were no “bread lines” and no person was even threatened by starvation. The greatest disaster that ever struck the parish was Hurricane Audrey on June 27, 1957. For a time the entire nation was aware of the destruction of life and property. There had been other intense hurricanes, namely those of 1886, 1915, and 1918, but none had wrought the devastation of Audrey.
Cameron survivors showed an indomitable spirit. They set out at once to recoup their losses. They worked hard. They succeeded.