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Sunday, June 23, 2019

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Remembering Cheniere

Remembering Cheniere

Monday marks the 125th anniversary of the great storm

I remember Betsy. I remember Katrina. I remember each storm that passed over and through us in the 10th Ward.

It seems that most, or at least the most severe, pass at night when homes and people and whole communities are most vulnerable. That was true in 1893, as the night of October 1st passed into the morning of October 2nd, when a suddenly intensified hurricane drove itself without much forewarning across the southeastern Gulf Coast of Louisiana.

In its direct path was the coastal village of Cheniere Caminada, a village densely populated with our ancestors.

In 1893, Cheniere Caminada was a thriving fishing village of nearly 1600. It was the largest supplier of fresh oysters and other seafood to the markets of New Orleans and the largest coastal village of its time in Louisiana — supporting a community of not just home-owning residents but also itinerant fishermen and boarders.

The community was multinational, having attracted not only Acadian descendants who left their lands along upper Bayou Lafourche during the economic hardships of the middle 1800s but also fishermen from such distant countries as China, the Philippines, and Croatia.

Though the nativity of the village was geographically diverse, a single culture was prevalent: French-speaking, Roman Catholic, living and learning off-the-land, Cajun.

There was a Catholic church to support the spiritual needs of that culture, and for it the villagers had arranged the forging of a church bell specially made from the metal silver. The church was well known to vacationers from New Orleans who spent time at the resorts on Grand Isle during summers. In fact, the main character in Kate Chopin’s famous novel, “The Awakening,” travels by boat from Grand Isle to Cheniere Caminada to attend mass.

Geographically, Cheniere Caminada was built atop the common point of a collection of prehistorical shorelines, each successive shoreline forming farther into the Gulf waters. Those shorelines were long, linear, ridges made of silt from the Mississippi River and shells from the Gulf. Rising 2-6 feet above the Gulf, they were high enough to support the growth of oak trees, giving these spits of land not only distinct appearances to passing fishermen but also the French name, “cheniere.”

According to legend and historical record, villagers cut down the majority of oak trees on Cheniere Caminada to afford enough room to build houses for their fast-growing community.

A cold front had passed over Cheniere on Saturday, September 30th, 1893, making the sky cloudless and the weather cool. On the morning of the 1st, only a few breaking waves added a soundtrack to a church wedding held that day.

Over the hours, however, darkness grew, turning to blinding rain and howling wind. And then, in the darkness of night, a wall of Gulf surged ashore with too few of the native oak trees remaining to resist its force. By sunrise on the 2nd, when the church bell finally stopped pealing, no boats and nearly no homes remained. Half of the village population had perished, nearly all women and children.

Before exiting the continent in the Carolinas a few days later, an estimated 2000 persons had perished in the storm, mostly in communities along the Gulf Coast. The village of Cheniere Caminada was levelled and destroyed. It would not be rebuilt.

Today, Cheniere is a small collection of carefully built homes and fishing camps nearby the fragile, historic cemetery that inters those villagers who perished in the storm and could be found. And only dead remnants remain of the historic oak groves that lined the Gulf trail to Grand Isle, themselves victims to many storms, coastal erosion, and saltwater intrusion.

Survivors of the Great Cheniere Hurricane of 1893, like my great-great grandfathers John Rebstock and Pierre Curole, are our ancestors here in Gazette country. They redrew the settlement pattern of southeastern Louisiana forever, relocating northward to Leeville, Golden Meadow, Cote Blanche, and Cut Off, as well as Westwego, Morgan City, and elsewhere.

The historic Curole House located up-the-bayou from Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Cut Off is a home rebuilt from its abandoned location in 1893 Cheniere.

Rebstock himself relocated to Leeville, where he is buried in a 1916 grave facing Bayou Lafourche, as was early custom in that village, across LA 1 from the north entrance of the new overpass. His large family gave rise to all the Rebstocks of southeastern Louisiana, and survivors like him kept alive many of the family names we know and read in the few telephone books remaining today.

It’s amazing to think that 25 years have passed since the communities of the 10th Ward joined forces in 1993 to help us all remember the impact of the great storm. One hundred years after landfall, under the visionary leadership of Windell Curole, the Cheniere Hurricane Centennial produced an incredible historic festival that told the story of 1893 Cheniere to thousands of both locals and visitors from around the world.

Generations later, many of the descendants of Cheniere survivors are sending their children to college at Nicholls. So it's appropriate that we commemorate the hurricane on its 125th anniversary at our up-the-bayou university, which is incidentally celebrating an anniversary of its own. Nicholls opened its doors 70 years ago in September 1948 to all folks up and down this and neighboring bayous.

From October 11th through 14th, the Nicholls Players will perform an adaptation of the award-winning Cheniere Hurricane Play, “Tant que Durera la Terre” (“As Long as the Earth Lasts”) in the newly renovated Mary and Al Danos Theater at Talbot Hall.

Before the Friday performance on October 12th, I will be deliver a lecture entitled “The Great Cheniere Hurricane of 1893.”

All events are open to the public. For specific times and other information, please visit the Nicholls anniversary website at I hope to see you there.

As night turns to morning on October 1st and 2nd, I invite you to join me and other descendants of 1893 in a moment of remembrance inside our respective homes to commemorate the villagers of 1893 Cheniere Caminada, to consider their losses, to envision the horrors they faced during that night, and, importantly to appreciate once again their tenacity to live on and build communities and churches and schools and newspapers that we, their descendants, still enjoy 125 years later.