The park preserves significant examples of the natural and cultural resources of Louisiana’s Mississippi Delta region and teaches visitors the influence of environment and history on a unique region and its equally unique blend of cultures.
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve Headquarters
365 Canal Street
New Orleans, LA 70130-1142
ph.: (504) 589-3882, ext. 100 or 102
fax: (504) 589-3851
Web site: www.nps.gov/jela/
The importance of the sites preserved or paid tribute to in the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (named for the pirate who was so instrumental in this region’s history) extends back to the pre-European days of the Chitimacha; to the period of the French and Spanish in southern Louisiana; to the rise of the slave trade; to New Orleans as a naval, military, and market center; to the Louisiana Purchase, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the long ecological battle to preserve the unique flora, fauna, and terrain of the Louisiana swamps and marshlands from the inroads of the Gulf of Mexico. These sites also celebrate the Acadian, Cajun, Native American, and African American cultures.
When immigrants from western France were forced from Acadie (now Nova Scotia, Canada) during “The Grand Derangement” (1765 to 1785), some fled to south Louisiana and settled in the rural Mississippi Delta region. By the turn of the nineteenth century, over three thousand Acadians had settled in Louisiana. Three of the Jean Lafitte Park Centers commemorate this Acadian culture. The Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette demonstrates Acadian cultural resources and provides ways to interact with and understand traditional and contemporary Acadian culture, including the forty-minute film The Cajun Way: Echoes of Acadia. This facility’s extensive exhibits and artifacts tell the story of today’s Cajuns–their origins and history, language, music, architecture, and culture–through their recreational and farm implements, clothing, furnishings, religious items, and cuisine.
In turn, the exhibits of the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center, along Bayou Lafourche near Thibodaux, the heart of this wetlands area, bring to life the rich combinations of cultures found in the swamps, marshes, and coastal waters of southeastern Louisiana and the realities of water-based lifeways (fishing, hunting, and trapping). This center features talks about the region, music programs (including Cajun jam sessions), and a variety of videos and films about the history, culture, ecology, and wildlife (both human and animal). The center has an art gallery displaying local arts and crafts, a two hundred-seat theater for productions by the Thibodaux Playhouse and for other programs about Acadian culture, and a craft room for demonstrating boat building, duck carving, net making, and other local crafts.
When the Acadians expanded westward beyond the Atchafalaya basin onto the prairies of southwest Louisiana, they evolved a new lifestyle suited to cattle raising and rice farming. The Prairie Acadian Cultural Center employs live demonstrations, video and film presentations, exhibits, and artifacts to capture how the lush grasslands transformed the Acadian heritage. Workshops demonstrate local crafts, spinning and weaving, and the musical techniques of the region, including musical instrument making, and even an Acadian kitchen where local food specialties are prepared. The center also features The Rendezvous des Cajuns, a two-hour live Saturday night radio broadcast of Cajun and zydeco music, stories, anecdotes, recipes, and local humor, in Cajun French, performed at the restored fifty-year-old Liberty Theatre in downtown Eunice.
The tiny Chitimacha Reservation, bounded by cane fields and Atchafalaya basin swampland and dominated by a casino, boasts an interpretive center and two craft shops with traditional handiwork–highly prized basketwork, tribal weapons, pipes, beads, and jewelry.
Approximately twenty thousand acres of hardwood forest, cypress swamp, and freshwater marsh, with eight miles of hard-surfaced hiking trails (including 2.5 miles of boardwalk) and over twenty miles of waterways, nine miles of which is accessible only by canoe, constitute the Barataria Preserve, subtropical delta land in constant flux. Plants include live oaks and other hardwoods on the elevated natural levee, forest palmettos on the levee backslope, giant blue iris and bald cypress amid the standing water of the lowest portion of the levee, and marsh grasses in the flat eastern expanses.
The visitors’ center highlights Barataria’s natural history, ecosystems, culture, and ways of life with dioramas, photographs, maps, wildlife displays, and a twenty-five-minute film, Jambalaya: A Delta Almanac. Its raised walkways make accessible a representative section of the delta’s environment–natural levee forests, bayous, swamps, and marshes filled with nutria, alligators, fox, armadillos, swamp rabbits and swamp deer, owls, hawks, eagles, herons, egrets, migratory birds, and a wide variety of frogs, turtles, snakes, lizards, and seasonal insects such as spectacular butterflies and orb-weaving spiders.
Though teeming with wildlife, this seeming wilderness contains signs of prehistoric human settlement (two thousand-year-old Native American village sites along the bayous), colonial farming (the 1779 Spanish government’s Isleño settlements–Canary Islanders–along the banks of Bayou des Families), plantation agriculture (sugarcane), logging (cypress), commercial trapping, fishing, hunting (still ongoing–by permit–as the numerous “camps” or hunting cabins testify), and oil and gas exploration (in the 1930’s); down one canal the city of New Orleans is visible in the distance. Guided nature walks and canoe treks (some by moonlight) are available.
The Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery is on the St. Bernard Highway in Chalmette, on the east bank of the Mississippi River. It marks the site of Andrew Jackson’s surprising victory in the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815–the last battle in the War of 1812 and the last battle ever fought between England and the United States. This decisive victory over the British was the greatest American land victory of the War of 1812.
The victory was unanticipated because the British had already burned the White House and Capitol in Washington, D.C., and subsequently sent ten thousand battle-tested soldiers into the fray under thirty-six-year-old British major general Sir Edward M. Pakenham. Pakenham had orders to capture New Orleans and control the mouth of the Mississippi River in order to seriously hamper the American economy and westward expansion. The Americans had only five thousand militia and volunteer soldiers (including a contingent of pirate Jean Lafitte’s Baratarians), but forty-seven-year-old Major General Andrew Jackson took the battle to the enemy. On December 23, with Pakenham’s troops within nine miles of the city, Jackson led a fierce night attack that caught the British off guard. Cherokees fought alongside American troops against their traditional enemies, the Creeks, who were British allies. The Americans withdrew behind a canal bank on a narrow strip of dry land between the Mississippi River and an impassable cypress swamp. In this advantageous position, with stubbled sugarcane fields providing devastatingly open fields of fire, Jackson’s men stood behind a shoulder-high mud rampart on the canal bank thick enough to withstand cannon shot. When they could not dislodge the American troops, the British were forced to attack head-on into withering fire.
The major fighting was over in thirty minutes and the entire Battle of New Orleans in less than two hours; two thousand British and thirteen Americans were killed. This victory not only enhanced American patriotism and pride but also preserved America’s claim to the Louisiana Purchase, a claim confirmed by immediate migration and settlement along the Mississippi River. The victory made Jackson a national hero and paved the way for his election as president.
Modern facilities include a tour road, a monument, a visitors’ center, the Malus-Beauregard House (c. 1833), and the adjacent national cemetery. The 1.5-mile tour of the battlefield begins at the visitors’ center with exhibits and an audiovisual program explaining the battle’s significance and continues with six stops at important features of the battlefield, including a thirty-two-pounder naval gun put into play by the Battalion of Louisiana Free Men of Color. The Chalmette Monument, laid out on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the battle, was not completed until 1908. The Malus-Beauregard House, a country residence built eighteen years after the battle, is a fine example of French-Louisiana architecture. The Chalmette National Cemetery was established in May, 1864, as a burial ground for Union soldiers who died in Louisiana during the Civil War, but it later served as a burial site for veterans of the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War.
The park features regular talks about the Battle of New Orleans and, on the second Saturday of each month, living history demonstrations; it commemorates the Battle of New Orleans during the second weekend of January, with British and American living history encampments set up on the battlefield.
The exhibits, performances, demonstrations, and walking tours of the French Quarter Visitors’ Center provide a political and cultural historical overview of Louisiana’s Mississippi Delta region and of the French Quarter or Vieux Carré (old square) of New Orleans. Now a National Historic District, the quarter was established shortly after the French founded New Orleans in 1718. The regular walking tours explore delta cultures, the architecture of the garden district and the French Quarter, and the music and history of New Orleans (from its beginnings as a small French outpost in an unhealthy wilderness area to today’s ethnic and cultural diversity).
The National Park Service, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, National Park Foundation, and Eastern National combined with Amtrak (National Railroad Passenger Corporation) to provide on-board educational programs for passengers traveling on trains through the southeastern United States. The Trails and Rails Program is offered during the summer months on board the Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Houston, Texas, the City of New Orleans between New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi, and the Crescent between New Orleans and Atlanta. National Park Service rangers and volunteers provide information and occasional special programs on the significant natural and cultural sites, history, environment, and cultural diversity along each route.
“A Cajun Christmas.” Southern Living 33 (December, 1998): 64. Tours of park areas. “Carry Me Back to 1815.” Southern Living 31 (January, 1996): 12. Tours of park areas. Greene, Jerome A. Historic Resource Study: Chalmette Unit, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Denver: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1985. Fortifications and military installations. “On the Watery Trail of Jean Lafitte.” Southern Living 25 (February, 1990): 28. Tours of park areas. Roush, J. Fred. Chalmette National Historical Park, Louisiana. U.S. National Park Service Historical Handbook Series 29. 1958. Reprint. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982. Park history, significance, and offerings. Swanson, Betsy. Terre Haute de Barataria: An Historic Upland on an Old River Distributary Overtaken by Forest in the Barataria Unit of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Harahan, La.: Jefferson Parish Historical Commission, 1991. A valuable historical overview of the natural history, archaeology, and founding of the park; with a comprehensive bibliography, including archival collections. “Touring the Streets of New Orleans.” Southern Living 21 (October, 1986): 32-34. Tours of park areas. U.S. Department of the Interior. National Park Service. Barataria Preserve Unit: Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Louisiana. Denver: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1996. Explores wetland ecology and environment. Young, David. “A Tour Through Bayou Barataria: Jean LaFitte National Park.” National Parks 58 (July/August 1984): 16-19. A walking guide.