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Schooner Story

 

Note: retyped from original written by Alonzo Kling

Verbatim and updates from further research.

From a close friend of Al Kling: In 1933, my sister was 10 years old and was taken on a class trip in a Model “A” school bus that crossed the Mississippi River on a ferry. Her mother and father became worried as they were late in returning. The reason for being late was they toured various old plantations along the Mississippi River. They visited “Oak Alley” Plantation owned by Valcour Aime This is an old plantation where that now includes the Magnolia School and the Valcour Aime Gardens. The old Plantation House has since been destroyed which was there at the time of Jean Laffite. The caretaker told the story that Jean Laffite and his men stayed there in caves hiding from the fledging US Government and Louisiana Governor C.C. Claiborne.

            I later found out that Jean Laffite supplied Valcour Aime with goods and stolen slaves. Of course all the goods that the plantations received from Jean Lafitte were contraband as no import duties or taxes were ever collected by the State or Federal Government. Because of this, the Federal local Revenue Service Office hired Walker Gilbert a man who was an engineer surveying the area, as a Revenue Agent whose main duty was to capture Laffite and/or his men with the contraband goods. In 1812, the Laffite Brothers had jumped bail and were wanted by the US Government. Because of this they seldom used the Mississippi River and seldom used the main bayous to distribute contraband goods to the farmers.

            In order to service these farmers on the southern bayous and the West Bank of the Mississippi River, the pirates came through south east Louisiana  where they had a storage base called the Temple, and then they proceeded through a number of waterways (there are/were hundreds of navigable small waterways) and on to the southwestern part of this area of Louisiana to gain access to plantations.

In late 1813 or early 1814, (there were 2 serious encounters) Walker Gilbert and his crew were surveying in Lac De Allemands and came upon Laffite and his crew. Thinking they were farmers, he approached them and realizing who they were, a small battle took place where Laffite critically wounded one of his men and Laffite and crew took off and proceeded through the main Bayou and on to the west (details of this encounter were passed on to Governor C.C. Claiborne in a  letter described further in this writing). ( It is possible Laffite had a number of slaves on his boat at that time as the pirates had brought a number into Louisiana from a captured slave ship). On his return, Laffite realized that the southern bayou and or the route through Lac Des Allemands would be blocked by Walker Gilbert and crew, so he proceeded to scuttle his ship in a nearby bay and cut down the mast. They then walked/waded out and North to Valcour Aimes plantation. (The plantation built in 1806, was later given to his daughter). The pirates then proceeded back to Barataria where they also had a base.

            As a chap of 5 or 6 years old, these stories always intrigued me.

            In 1947, while building levees for Rathborne Land in Lake Beof area in the marsh, the oiler on the dragline told me if we would digging in a nearby bay, we would be digging up Laffite’s schooner. That rang a bell from my sisters story. I told him he didn’t know what he was talking about. (to induce him to say more) and he commenced to say “ask Uncle Pierre our dynamite man, which I proceeded to do. Uncle Pierre said he would not tell me about it but would bring me to a man that saw the schooner a thousand times. I got off early one day and Uncle Pierre brought me to his Uncle (John Tabor) who was near 100 at the time and he related this story. ( He was probably born around 1845) . He and his father trapped in the winter and hunted turtles and gators in summer and had a camp on an oak ridge near where the schooner was sunk. As a youngster, he saw it a thousand times. The bow was exposed with a brass figurine of a woman with wings facing the east.  Also exposed was a hexagon shaped mast within 100 ft  of the schooner. An old trapper “snap” said he nailed traps to the exposed gunnel for years and still not realizing the historic value of the vessel. “snap” came with us on our first journey in search of the wreckage and stood on the same ridge and gave us an approximate location of the ship.

            In the mean time, we  found the flat barge Walker Gilbert used to survey the area. It was sunk a hundred feet  from the edge of the woods where one side was still visible. (barge was 18 by 52 ft.)  We took some wood samples and had them authenticated to that time period.

Al Kling:  After I was told this story, I immediately replied “we’ve been broke most of our lives and finally made a few dollars (on a land development project on Lac Des Allemands) and you want to squander it on a “pie in the sky” deal. Yet my friend insisted it was of significant importance and of great historical value.  Finally I agreed I would in my spare time, research the project and we would proceed from there. As time passed I managed to go to New Orleans and began to research in the archives. (Certain documents there attested that the story was true and the schooner was Geollette La Dilligence).

            About this time, our Congressman the late Gillis Long came to visit our development on Lac Des Allemands in St John the Baptist parish. We commenced to tell him about the Laffite schooner and he thought it was quite interesting. He agreed to help and proceeded to do research for us.

            I became convinced that the schooner was in the bay and we started making preparations for our search. We had a 50 ft boat and would take 5 to 8 men with us once a week. It would us 3 hours to get to the location. We cooked jambalaya etc on our way to the site. After traveling as far as we could by boat, we had to walk approximately one mile through the swamp infested with snakes, gators etc to reach the bay. At the mouth of the bay, I strung a line approximately ¼  to ½ mile across the bay. To more clearly define the bay, my partner flew his small seaplane around the edge of the bay(a faint outline of the bay could be seen from the air), and he dropped toilet tissue to mark what we could tell were the edges of the bay. A few times I chastised my partner as our floats touched the willow trees a few times. After the line was stretched across the bay, each man had a length of rebar and walking 5 to 6 ft apart proceeded across the bay probing as we moved across I being on the right side just walked along the line, and when we reached th other side, I would move  the line forward and we would continue the process. After much time we finally located the wreck not far from the ridge which was previously described.

            When we finally found the schooner, I made the remark that Howard Hughes did not have enough money to buy it.

Carl Helwig (my first involvement in the project)

            A few years ago, Al’s partner came to me and asked me to go to the project site and look it over. He had rented an airboat and we traveled thru old pipeline canals, heavy marsh and waterways. When we finally arrived, I was not very impressed as there was no waterway leading to his location of the wreck. Had I known what kind of terrain we would be going to, I would have at least brought a probe or two. After we returned home, I got a quadrangle chart (google didn’t exist let alone google maps). I asked him to put a mark on the chart as to where we had been. He did so and again I wasn’t very impressed as it was in the middle of nowhere. Later he asked me to check with a friend who did analyzing of aerial maps for the Government and have him look over the area as this fellow had the ability to detect minerals and objects under the water in certain areas. I sent him an aerial photo I had downloaded from the Louisiana Dept of Natural Resources that covered over 50 square miles of marsh and waterways.  He found nothing that would indicate buried minerals but said “there is a wreck sunk in the area” (I had very carefully made no mention of any shipwreck) and gave me the lat/lon. I plotted it and the spot was exactly in the middle of the small circle the partner had placed on the quadrangle. (I had not made any marks or writing  on the arial photo) Needless to say, I then got VERY interested and ordered the oldest quadrangle chart of the area from the archives in Washington. It was dated in the late twenties to early thirties and SHOWED the old position of the main waterway and the Bay area as a HUGE open water swamp. The old  Bayou went right next to the entrance to the Bay.  Probably needless to say I am sure we have a sunken ship and the location within a few feet. The only access to the area is by tramping thru the marsh.           

Some important geological data:  The entire area of southern Louisiana has changed dramatically with the advent of the channeling of the Mississippi and other waterways by the building of levies. The area previously was inundated with fresh water nearly every year which kept the waterways like the main Bayou and many many others open. Now they either are totally filled in with marsh or just a tiny ditch.

            There is no question we have the site of a wreck that is very historic and well perserved. Being in shallow fresh water, covered with organic sediment in an area that sees no water movement is ideal for preservation. It should be near intact as the crew was in a hurry to removed themselves from the area and they probably had plans to float it at the right time which we know now never happened.

When you venture into the marshes in search of historical landmarks in Louisiana now keep the above in mind.

Update 6/10/2015

After much preliminary work, we now have the necessary equipment, personel, and the knowledge to move the very thick gumbo material that encompuses most of this marsh area. We are proceeding to further delineate the area in question with some sofisticated electronic equipment. Even entering the area requires perserverance and a strong will to see this project thru which we have.

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