I’ve been down to South Louisiana so many times that I never bothered to do the really touristy things, like go on tours. I’ve family there, so why would I do a tour or go to a museum or something? The most touristy thing I’ve done is do a crawl down Bourbon Street, which isn’t even that overly alien of a thing for the locals either. So when I was there with my wife, who had never been, I decided we should get the whole experience. And there are some fantastic things to do, too.
The two tours any visitor should look into doing is a swamp tour and a plantation tour.
On a swamp tour, you ride around in a small open boat that fits maybe twenty people. The tour operator trawls through the mangroves, swipes away the Spanish moss and hunts down some cheap thrills with the local gator life.
common sight on a swamp tour
The plantation tour is by far the more important tour of the two, and one every American, especially every white American, should do. It’s sad though that the most people on that tour we saw were Germans, Japanese, and so on, where foreigners are getting a more well-rounded history than even many of the local folk.
You can do either of these tours from pretty much anywhere in South Louisiana. They’re much cheaper of course if you have your own car, but they’ll usually provide transportation if necessary. If you’re two or more people, I’d seriously look into renting a car and driving out to the swamp or plantation yourself, as you’ll easily save fifty dollars or more on that (depending on how many people you are). And then you can stop in a village and stock up on all that Cajun food I was talking about in the other blog.
It’s hard to choose a proper swamp tour. Most of South Louisiana is packed with beautiful wildlife and nature reserves, which has both good sides and bad. On the good side, you can go almost anywhere and see something amazing and beautiful. On the bad side, it’s attracted a lot of out-of-state shysters looking to give tours on the cheap, and not really caring about the condition of the local environment. For this, be sure to get a local operator, such as out of New Orleans, go with a group like Cajun Encounters.
Hoot dat! The owl is a Saint's fan
As we were out at Lafayette at the time, we decided to do a tour of Lake Martin. There are two great legit operators in Lake Martin. We went with Cajun Country Swamp Tours, but if you speak French and you’re up for a real bonafide Cajun experience, then you should definitely go with Norbert LeBlanc (you’ll have to book with him by phone).
Spanish moss hanging out
Lake Martin is a beautiful landscape. It’s a lake, but on all the coasts it’s freshwater swampland. Our guide Shawn took us trawling throughout the swamp, which was covered in mangroves and lilies, along with algae so thick it looks like solid ground. It’s a perfect tour for bird watchers, as you go right under all the egret and heron nests and they’re constantly in the state of flight (and fright, I would suppose). Shawn’s environmentally conscious though, and you can see his real care for everything and knowledge of it all, especially in the way he treats the gators.
a boat... on land?
That’s right, you can get real up close and personal with a gator. But unlike with the shysters, he doesn’t toss out hot dogs for cheap thrills. He gets just close enough so that you’re not really comfortable with that giant, dinosaur lizard staring you down, but not close enough to really disturb its ecosystem and stays plenty far away from its nest. There are more and more illegal tour operators running through that will brush up against the nest, and as gators have such a slim chance of survival as it is…
Why hello there. Please don't eat me.
I was up in the front of the boat, which meant I was the first in line for this gator. She was first just eyes out of the water, and then brought her head fully out, and made a kind of hissing sound that you would expect if a hot steam pipe blew open (check out the video up top for the hissing). As it kept coming towards us, that is, towards me, I was a bit relieved when the boat started backing up.
don't be fooled, that's water
Lake Martin used to be part of the main trunk of the Mississippi. But as the river shifts every few tens of thousands of years, it’s now just one tiny branch that has splintered from the core, making its own way to the ocean.
The tour lasts about an hour and a half, but every minute is worth it.
I strongly advise to just rent a car if you don’t have one and go to your plantation of choice. You’ll save serious dough. Tour operators will be happy to take your money and deliver you there, but don't expect any really different experience. We chose the Oak Alley tour, the manor made famous on such movies as Interview with the Vampire. However, it’s also the only plantation that licenses its views, so if you’re wanting to sell some stock photos, choose another one.
regular walk for the Vampire Lestat
Each plantation had one Big House, where the white family would live, and then a row of some twenty or thirty small wood shacks where the slaves would quarter. With Oak Alley, the slave houses were a side exhibition, while the Big House tour talked a lot about the lives and culture of the owners, and also the lives of the slaves in relation to the House.
Arriving there, we first walked along the slave quarters. My mom was constantly remarking about how small and horrible conditions they were. My wife, having grown up in similar conditions in the Republic of Georgia, didn’t think they were too horrible.
cozy cabins for two families of six
The houses were divided in condition. The house slaves got the best. They’d have their own private room in a two-room house, usually, even stocked with a bed and book shelves and so on. If they had children, the children would usually stay in that room as well until they were of age to be sold, traded, married, or however it would go.
house slaves had it made
This is the bit where Code Noir, or French slave law, differed from English and American slave law, as Code Noir stressed keeping families together (though the Code was ever only marginally enforced). It also stressed Catholic upbringing (this blending of Catholic and African Tradition is what led to Voodoo), where regular Americans tended to not want their slaves being Christian, because then they’d have to treat them better. As Code Noir was a slightly more humane legal structure for slaves (keeping families together, not allowing beatings, and so on), I suppose it was better to be Catholic then. You can read more about Code Noir here. It’s also important to note though that once Louisiana became a state, Code Noir less and less customary.
Field slaves had it much worse. In the same size room, which is about the size of my bedroom, they could have two or three whole families living, lucky to have straw mattresses on the floor.
the high life
In some instances, the slaves would be fed and such, but mostly they would have their own tiny plots of land where they could grow their own food. They were allowed to sell that food to the landlord, or to neighbors, and get some of their own income this way, and they were also usually allowed to rent out any crafts abilities they had, at the approval of their owner. This might seem generous to some, but also remember the slave working day was typically about 16-hours of heavy manual labor for the master, and only after that could they work for themselves.
the washing machine
At the Oak Alley, there was also an on-staff doctor who had a cabin among the slaves but spent most of his time in New Orleans, leaving most care to two slave nurses. The remedy most common for things that the slave nurses knew was to simply cut off appendages. For strong and productive slaves that could fetch a high price on the market, the landlord would summon the doctor and try to save them from this, as a lost appendage would greatly decrease their resale value.
Leaving the slave quarters for the Big House, you pass a sign that lists the sale value of the slaves that were on the property register at a specific date in time. Slaves were always listed as property and value, never as humans in their own right. Because they weren't. They were livestock.
the property list
The average cost of a slave in today’s dollars was about 13,000 dollars. If the slave was missing an appendage, was infertile and couldn’t be bred, or was mentally ill or suffered another handicap, they could be as cheap as 200 dollars, two were listed at about 50 dollars. The average plantation had about 100 slaves. You didn’t have to be a plantation owner to have a slave though. Many common households had a slave or two, as well.
the Big House
Considering the history I've studied, the stories told on the Big House tour were tame. Most of it you learn about the house and the family, but because the slaves were part of life, you learn about them too. I think this article sums up the tour nicely.
Some treated their slaves quite well. Stonewall Jackson, for example, was known to spend a lot of his extra time teaching slaves to read and write, and he bought mentally-ill slaves to save them from worse treatment.
Oak Alley was in a kind of collective of family owned plantations, so the slaves had some chance of interacting with the other slaves of nearby plantations and being cross-married, baptized, and so on, but this was rarely the case in the larger scheme. This plantation was also a younger one, being built by slaves in the 1830s and then not having them anymore after the Civil War, when the owners switched to sharecropping and then the house eventually fell to disuse and disrepair, being found a little more than 50 years ago as a place where cows were hanging out.
a big house bedroom
Others treated them terribly. Once, the mistress at Oak Alley didn’t like the way her chicken was cooked, so she ordered the slave cook to be locked up in the plantation brig for two weeks until she could feel herself capable of forgiving him. Slave children were often required to wave fans for 6 hours at a time for their masters. Deviation or tiring could mean a beating or being locked in the brig.
the curtain thing is a fan controlled by a rope, why have electricity when you've got slaves?
I think it’s doubly important for white Americans to understand what it meant to be a slave, and to understand that the entire Southern economy was based around this institution. A slave had no rights. They were not allowed to choose their job, their home, their master. Their master could beat them, rape them, or send them to jail at their whim. You could have a good master, if you were lucky, or a bad one, which was more likely, and anyway, that wasn’t your choice. Your value was equal to that of a horse or a pig. You were not a human. Anyone who defends the Confederacy, defends these things.
I’ve heard people say, “Well, many had better living conditions as slaves than they did free.”