Buried at sea: As cemeteries on Louisiana’s coast wash away, so does history
By Ted Jackson 2018
Talbot Serigny edges his johnboat toward a forsaken spit of land. His labored arms show the colors of tattoo ink and heavy doses of sun. He kills the outboard near tall grasses awash with driftwood and trash, and glides along on a falling tide flowing out on Bayou Lafourche, through small mounds of broken brick. Leaning over the gunnel, he stabs a stick into the soft muddy bottom, over and over until he taps something solid.
“There’s another one,” he exclaims.
Talbot seems to have a sixth sense of the hidden layout of graves crumbled just out of sight – the resting places of South Louisianians who lived, died and were buried here long before the land began to sink and the waters began to rise. He has a talent for finding those now-submerged cemeteries, a sense he earned by watching the changing tides and the changing landscape from across the bayou. This waterway and the town of Leeville along this banks were Talbot’s childhood playground.
Born in 1961, he grew up on his grandfather’s houseboat, moored directly across the bayou only a few hundred feet away. The mooring, long abandoned, is now shadowed by a massive concrete bridge linking the “Gateway to the Gulf” expressway built in 2009. The state erected the 19-mile elevated roadway after old La. 1 highway flooding became common during storms and high tides.
In an astounding transformation, much of the coastal marshland surrounding this area has become open water in less than a generation. Hardly anyone lives permanently in Leeville anymore. The town was settled around a critical juncture of Bayou Lafourche and the Southwestern Louisiana Canal (or East-West Canal as some call it), about two hours south of New Orleans – nearly as far south as you can drive in Louisiana. Once vibrant, it’s now little more than a collection of fishing cabins, a few supply stores, industrial docks and boat launches.
For Talbot and many others, the sunken Lefort cemetery is just one more tick in the long list of reasons to distrust the weather, and the industries – like oil and gas – that reaped the bounties of these lands and never bothered to repair the damage left by the canals they dug. In Talbot’s view, the sunken graves he’s trying to find are a glaring example of a place and a people that have been exploited and then abandoned.
Along the shore, he digs his fingertips under a brick and nudges it loose. A faint scent of oil rises through the water and a blue tinge spreads across the surface. “Here’s a headstone,” he says, and traces his fingers deeper into the mud for an inscription. “Let me see if I can lift it,” he said. He gathers his stance and digs in with a long, heavy groan, but it seems that he’s no match for the vegetation and mud covering the tombstone.
“That son of a gun is in there,” he said. He rips out more clumps of grass and tries once more, groaning. “Come on up out of there.”
Suddenly, the vacuum releases and the mud lets go. The stone rises, covered in a thick, brown sludge. Talbot splashes bayou water against it, and slowly history is resurrected. “S GUILB.” More splashes and a few excited swipes of his hand and the whole epitaph, written in French, is revealed. “FRANCOIS GUILBEAU – Decedee 24 Janvier 1901 - age de 99 ans.”
Just one more name to add to the list of the forgotten corpses of Leeville.
“How you like that?” Talbot says.
* * *
Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost 1,900 square miles of coastal land – about the size of Delaware – according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Another 500 square miles could wash away in the next 50 years if nothing is done.
Such land loss threatens more than the living. Nearly 140 cemeteries across South Louisiana are at risk because of flooding and coastal erosion, according to Jessica Schexnayder and Mary Manhein, who catalogued threatened cemeteries in their book Fragile Grounds. Hurricane Ike’s surge in 2012 flooded nearly all of these burial places, they wrote.
“We’re losing the bottom of our state” Schexnayder said in an interview, “like a piece of fabric that is unraveling, and with it, our culture.”
Many cemeteries are already beyond saving. Many others are being left behind by an inland migration prompted by coastal loss.
“They can’t take their cemeteries with them,” Schexnayder said.
Velma Lefort Ellender may be the last living soul who remembers the Leeville cemetery in its glory. At 90, her mind is sharp, albeit a bit rambling – bouncing from one remembrance to another and often breaking into Cajun French.
A fisherman’s daughter whose family lived mostly off the land and the sea, Ellender was 10 years old when her family was enticed away from Leeville by false promises of more productive shrimping grounds and better prices. But her stories of family life on the bayou sparkle with details, especially when it comes to her family’s cemetery.
“It was a beautiful cemetery because they took good care of it,” she said at her home in Houma, an hour’s drive from Leeville. Her mother, Ellender recalled, would muster a “whole gang of kids” for a work day. “We’d cross that little pontoon with our (sugar cane) knife and with everything we needed to clean up the place.”
She can still picture the headstones, the crosses and the whitewashed brick, shadowed by moss-draped oaks, and the ample land protecting the tombs from the bayou. She can still hear her mother’s warnings to the children. “AHH! Don’t go too close to the tomb, cher,” warning them about the big ‘congos’, her mother’s word for cotton mouth moccasin snakes.
Her memories rely on stories handed down through generations, supplement by facts from Lafourche Parish librarian and historian, Paul Chiquet, who cobbled together a booklet of her family’s history chocked full of names, dates, a few photos and documents. She takes the facts and fills in the gaps with her remembrances, starting with her great-great-grandfather.
He was a Frenchman, born in 1776 and named Alexis Eugene Lefort. He crossed the Atlantic by steamer around 1800 with “a pocketful of money,” Ellender said. “I picture him, you know, in my mind with a big cigar with a … big glass of wine…sitting over there in New Orleans - big shot, you know.” She described him as an investor looking for an opportunity, when “all of a sudden, his eye catches Grand Island,” an environmentally exposed coastal outpost nearly 50 miles south of the city.
Ellender speculates that Lefort must have liked the idea of a quiet, slow-paced lifestyle on the island for his family. “He fell in love with that place,” she said. He also fell in love with Hypolite Marie Ferlau, from Donaldsonville, whom he married in 1805, according to Chiquet’s records.
In short order, he’d built a thriving mercantile store on the western end of the Island at Cheniere Caminada. With no road from the mainland, Lefort used fast boats to bring supplies to the island, and to deliver fresh seafood for New Orleans restaurants. The family prospered. The couple had 13 children.
But in 1860, the winds of fortune took a nasty turn. Red skies in the morning were well-used harbingers for “September storms”, back before hurricanes had names. There was little time to prepare - much less evacuate. Besides, there was no place to run. “The only ones that survived,” Ellender said, “they took sheets and tied themselves up in the oak trees.” Even the children were tied up in the trees, she said. Lefort’s body was never found.
Another devastating hurricane struck in 1893 and totally destroyed Cheniere Caminada, including the business.
That was the last straw for most of the family. Lefort’s grandson Julian Noel Lefort took what was left of his share and lumber from the destroyed mercantile, and moved 13 miles inland to Leeville, where he found fertile, solid ground planted with orange, peach and fig trees and cotton. He opened his own mercantile store. “He married my grandmother, who was a Cajun,” Ellender said, “that was all that was there in Leeville.”
Julian Lefort’s business flourished as the town grew. He built his house, store and warehouse in one continuous white framed building on the corner of land facing the bayou and the canal, a manmade shortcut between Grand Isle and New Orleans. There, next to his house, Julian and his older brother Elfrege created a small family cemetery. A solid and fitting place to honor family.
Natural resources abounded, even so that fishers, hunters and trappers often found it hard to market their bounty since their neighbors were catching as much if not more than they. “It was a good place, even if you didn’t make no kind of money, you could live good,” Ellender said. “You could survive without needing groceries.”
A rugged life cut with bare hands in an isolated coastal wilderness is easy to romanticize. But harsh realities struck from time to time. In 1905, a yellow fever epidemic broke out in New Orleans and spread across Bayou Lafourche. At the time, no one knew to blame the mosquitos, and there was no remedy for the viral disease. There was little that could be done for those infected. “We never knew what a doctor was,” Ellender said. “And if they had a doctor you didn’t have a car to get to him. And even if you had a car, you didn’t have money to pay the doctor.”
Before it was over, hundreds of people had perished. “People were doing whatever they could do to put the bodies in the ground,” Chiquet said. If people owned land, “they’d just go make a hole and bury them,” Ellender said. But most had little money and owned no land, so Julian Lefort opened his family’s plot to the public. “They gave it to them for free,” Ellender said. Her grandfather’s gift is a great source of pride for her.
With the passing decades, the cemetery’s prominent location on the bayou became a local landmark, clearly marking the turn from Bayou Lafourche to the Southwestern Canal for boat traffic headed to New Orleans and beyond. But with time, the intersection would bear the brunt of the worst of what man and nature can bestow upon a coastal environment.
* * *
The first threat to the bayou came as a result of good intentions. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the inflow to Bayou Lafourche from the Mississippi River at Donaldsonville in 1904. The goal was to reduce silt in the bayou, which was causing navigation and flooding problems for communities such as Lockport. But the project, much like the leveeing of the river all across Southeast Louisiana, shut off the flow of sediment that nourished and created land, slowly starving wetlands.
In the 1930s, oil men came exploring for riches, or “doodle bugging” as Ellender put it. Only a decade later, the landscape was transformed with hundreds of oil derricks crowding the horizon. With the new industry came barges, boats and heavy equipment. Since everything had to travel by water, more and larger canals were dug.
Ellender remembers the small trappers’ canals from her childhood, what she called a “trainasse” the Cajuns carved to navigate to their trapping, fishing and hunting grounds. They cut those canals by hand with shovles, and no wider than their small pirogues, “because (otherwise) it was too much work,” she said. “When the oil company came, they were so greedy, to get all that oil that they came with their big machines and made it a little wider. And the first thing you know it got bigger and bigger and bigger as they grew. But when they got ready to leave,” she said, slamming her hand on the table, “after the well was dried up, or whatever they abandoned it for, they wouldn’t’ close those big, big (canals)” as was prescribed by law. “They just leave it,” she said. “Bye-bye, Irene.”
Those oil and gas canals, carved by the thousands through South Louisiana, have allowed salt-water intrusion and erosion that has greatly contributed to wetlands loss.
“The outsiders came here and screwed up the Cajuns, and screwed up their land. They didn’t give a damn, just so they could get oil out of it, to live rich on the hog. ‘To Hell with your life,’” Ellender said.
Transporting sulphur to New Orleans from mines in Galliano added even more stress along those canals. “They had the big barges that would travel down Bayou Lafourche,” she continued. Turning where the cemetery stood, those barges created powerful prop wash. The shoreline couldn’t stand the strain.
“They didn’t give a damn about eroding the land and it kept eroding and eating up and eating up until it ate up…” she paused, thinking somberly of the cemetery. “To you, it might not mean nothing, but to me, it means plenty.”
By the 60’s the cemetery was damaged beyond hope. Families with money began looking for ways to relocate their relative’s caskets.
Sea level rise now seems to be the last straw. “There is little protection left,” said Janet Rhodus, of Launch Leeville, a local advocacy group. With her love for the town, Rhodus has developed a special interest in the Lefort Cemetery and in Ellender. “There is little marsh to prevent the higher tides to come in, so what was once just impacted from tropical storms, now if there’s a strong southwest or southeast wind, Leeville is being inundated with flooding.”
A quick glance of most maps of the Louisiana coast can leave even seasoned locals with a wrong impression, showing land that’s not really there. A satellite overlay reveals bare bones of old shorelines and slivers of canal banks crisscrossing a destroyed landscape, resembling disintegrated lace.
“There should be an outcry,” Rhodus said of Leeville and the cemetery. “No one has ever spoken up for Leeville. Leeville has always been crapped on.” In 2015, she organized a movement to protect the cemetery’s legacy. She thought a protective bulkhead would help stabilize what remained and that a historical marker should honor the contribution of the Lefort family and the dead who are buried there.
But the Lafourche Parish Council would not even approve her request of $1,500 for an archeological study. A parish council administrator, she recalled, said that the people of Leeville had always been people of the water, and that they would be happy to return there – essentially saying that washing away would be OK.
“I really don’t believe their families that buried them there would agree with that,” Rhodus said. “I can’t think of anything more disrespectful.”
On a recent afternoon, Ellender’s daughter Jessica Theriot and her two children arrived in Houma to pack up her things and close up housekeeping. It was time for Ellender to face facts.
“All my friends are gone,” she said.
She would be moving to live with her daughter west of Houston. Packing up and driving away on would be filled with nostalgia and sadness.
But on this day, Ellender was giddy with anticipation as she was driven to the boat launch in Leeville, so she could go pay her final respects to her family’s tombs and her childhood home. Her walker rattled as she shuffled across the parking lot, overlaid with clam and oyster shells, as is typical for the area’s unpaved roads. Her movements were calculated and slow, but efficient. She wears her age well, but moves to her own rhythm.
“I can do this,” she protested as her grandson Jordan Theriot and friends helped her get settled in the johnboat. Her friend Polly Glover brought a bouquet of flowers.
With Ellender tucked in an orange life vest, the little boat meandered through roseau cane. Glover’s 19-year-old son, Joe handled the outboard. “There’s shrimp running right there,” he said pointing out every attraction along the way. Brown pelicans glided gracefully above the surface and seagulls darted about for a meal. “Did your family ever duck hunt out here?” Joe asked without thinking it through. “Of course, we did. We lived out here,” Ellender said.
A pod of dolphin surfaced nearby. “When I was a child there were none of them here,” she said. “Why are they here now?”
“Do you know why they’re here now?” said Glover.
“Well, the water’s deeper, do they like deeper water?”
“And the water’s saltier now,” Glover explained.
The boat turned a bend and the massive Leeville bridge came into view. Ellender retold the story about the pontoons and the chains, cleaning tombs, cane knives and congos. As the boat slowed and turned toward the old home site, Ellender strained her eyes in disbelief. “That’s not one of the tombs right there, huh?”
Glover pointed and nodded her head. “Un huh,” she said, barely audible.
“That’s it?” Ellender looked closer. “My, God.... It could be my little brother.”
Everyone fell silent as the engine dropped to an idle. Ellender looked away, quietly reached a finger beneath her sunglasses and wiped a tear.
“It could be my grandma, my grandpa. That’s what I take hard,” she said. “No respect.”
Another dolphin jumped to the left of the boat. “They’re coming to see you,” Glover said. “They’re happy to see you.”