Eyes of an Eagle

Eyes of an Eagle: Jean-Pierre Cenac, Patriarch: An Illustrated History of Early Houma-Terrebonne

Christopher Everette Cenac
with Claire Domangue Joller
Foreword by Carl A. Brasseaux
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 305
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  • Book Info
    Eyes of an Eagle
    Book Description:

    In the year 1860, Jean-Pierre Cenac sailed from the sophisticated French city of Bordeaux to begin his new life in the city with the second busiest port of debarkation in the U.S. Two years before, he had descended the Pyrenees to Bordeaux from his home village of Barbazan-Debat, a terrain in direct contrast to the flatlands of Louisiana. He arrived in 1860, just when the U.S. Civil War began with the secession of the Southern states, and in New Orleans, just where there would be placed a prime military target as the war developed.

    Neither Creole nor Acadian, Pierre took his chances in the rural parish of Terrebonne on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Pierre's resolute nature, unflagging work ethic, steadfast determination, and farsighted vision earned him a place of respect he could never have imagined when he left his native country. How he forged his place in this new landscape echoes the life journeys of countless immigrants--yet remains uniquely his own. His story and his family's story exemplify the experiences of many nineteenth century immigrants to Louisiana and the experiences of their twentieth century descendants.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-336-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-11)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 13-14)
    (pp. 15-15)
    Carl A. Brasseaux

    During the decades immediately preceding the American Civil War, New Orleans was a boomtown and the Francophone civil parishes in the city’s economic orbit were among the nation’s most prosperous counties. This unbridled prosperity served as a magnet for Europe’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Indeed, for much of the antebellum period, the Crescent City was the nation’s second-leading port of entry. As one would expect, Gallic immigrants—popularly known as the Foreign French to distinguish them from native French-speakers—constituted a large percentage of south Louisiana’s swelling multitude of European transplants.

    After initially gathering in the great port...

    (pp. 16-17)
    (pp. 19-21)

    Every summer during part of my childhood in the fifties, Uncle Bill Cenac took me out trawling on his lugger, theFlossie. Those vacation days began when I was nine or ten, and they are among my life’s fondest memories. Those times also helped to form within me a profound sense of family.

    We would leave from behind the oyster shop on the bayouside of Park Avenue across from his father’s home at what is now 8039 Park Avenue in Houma, Louisiana. Then we would make our way just a little stretch upstream to East Park Grocery to buy whatever...

  6. CHAPTER 1 1858: Barbazan-Debat
    (pp. 23-27)

    “Where are you in that head of yours, Pierre? You sit at this table, drinking coffee with us. But your eyes always go to the window. And you haven’t heard a word of what I’ve said for the last five minutes.”

    Pierre Cenac turned to his older brother Jean, and focused his eyes in the relative dimness of the rustic kitchen. “Sorry, Jean.” Pierre tweaked the cheek of the infant that Jean’s wife Magdeleine was swaying in her arms. “She’s thriving finally, eh?”

    Jean looked over and made a cooing sound toward his baby. While his brother’s attention was diverted,...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Descending the Mountains
    (pp. 29-37)

    Jean-Pierre Cenac left his ancestral French village of Barbazan-Debat in thepays Basque(Basque country) of the High Pyrenees sometime before February 1860, and made his way to the port city of Bordeaux. In this southwestern French metropolis wrapped around a crescent section of the Garonne River, he had his first taste of life in a large city.

    In Bordeaux, he was surrounded by a planned classical cityscape. There he saw the first stone bridge built over the Garonne, completed in 1822. He also encountered cultures other than the rural French Basque who lived in his native mountainous region near...

  8. CHAPTER 3 November 1860: Determination
    (pp. 39-41)

    Clinging to his carpetbag satchel, Pierre hunkered down in a corner of the deck where he could brace himself against the jostling caused by high seas, wind, and rain. Only a few weeks out, and he had already learned that anyplace was better than the passenger hold below deck during a storm. Frightened women would be crying there, and children always took their cue from them. Even here above deck he could hear the children below screaming every time the barque slammed down into a violent wave. Most of the men tried to remain stoic, but he had seen the...

  9. CHAPTER 4 The Crossing
    (pp. 43-57)

    When Pierre left Bordeaux aboard the shipTexason October 30, 1860, his passport’s physical description gave a picture of the 22-year-old man as “one meter 68 centimeters” tall (5 feet 6.14 inches), with brown hair and eyebrows, round forehead, auburn eyes, large nose, medium mouth, nascent beard, round chin, oval face, and dark complexion. One “particular mark” was a scar on the left side of his forehead.¹

    The passport was issued on October 25au nom de l’empereur—in the name of the emperor—Napoleon III, and cost Pierre ten francs (about two U.S. dollars). The document was valid...

  10. CHAPTER 5 March 21, 1861: The Decision
    (pp. 59-63)

    Dim gaslight lanterns on the narrow street helped Pierre to pick his steps over the curbside’s reeking open gutter. He was headed toward the sound of commotion he estimated to be a few streets over. From that direction a brass band’s loud oompahs mingled with loud voices and hurrahs. The fireworks that had first caught his attention from his boarding room window repeated themselves every now and then, pointing him in the right direction.

    He knew that the Confederate constitution had been up for debate, and this celebration probably meant something, one way or the other. He was curious to...

  11. CHAPTER 6 The Call of the Good Earth
    (pp. 65-75)

    When Louisiana seceded from the Union on January 26, 1861, the state became for two months an independent nation with its own flag, army, and government. Louisiana joined the Confederacy on March 21, almost exactly three months after Pierre Cenac stepped off the ship in New Orleans. It was the sixth state to secede and subsequently join the Confederacy.

    When Confederate and Union sides began saber rattling, Pierre already had good reason to consider leaving the city proper. New Orleans’ status as the Confederacy’s largest port and, indeed, its largest city, made it a prime target for Union attack. Pierre’s...

  12. CHAPTER 7 1862: First Encounter
    (pp. 77-79)

    Jacques Benoit and several other young men stood in a conversational huddle on the woodenbanquetteoutside, on the corner of Main and Barrow. Jacques caught sight of Pierre using his wooden paddle to remove golden mounds of bread from the open-air oven behind Jean-Marie Dupont’s bakery shop.

    Pierre wiped the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief, smiled, and called out to Jacques and the others, “War talk again, orles femmes?” They all chuckled because those two topics had indeed been the subjects of their short talk. Soon they had to rush off to their own jobs in...

  13. CHAPTER 8 A Lush Paradise
    (pp. 81-91)

    Pierre Cenac’s Terrebonne Parish consisted of a lush combination of vast cultivated lands, thick stands of timber, and undeveloped wilderness. Louisiana’s bayou country was not an “Eden…as Longfellow and his successors have claimed, but a dense and forbidding semi-tropical jungle.”¹ One directory of the late 1800s described Terrebonne’s topography:

    “Less than one eighteenth of the parish [approximately 1,808 square miles total] is high land; the balance is marshes, swamps, low prairies, bayous and lakes.

    “The cultivable land is composed of the ridges along the banks of the different bayous, rich alluvial soil that is highly productive and easily cultivated. The...

  14. CHAPTER 9 February 14, 1862: The Baker’s Plans
    (pp. 93-95)

    St. Valentine’s Day is much more important here than in the Old Country, Pierre decided as he put the finishing touches on special pastries he and Jean-Marie had made for the day’s customers.Many ofles Americainsplaced their orders as long as a week ago. Even in the middle of a war, some of them still have enough to spend on a few treats for their sweethearts and children. After two years in this country, I can still be surprised by these people.

    Since he had a few minutes before beginning a batch of bread, Pierre stepped out the...

  15. CHAPTER 10 Tangled Roots
    (pp. 97-109)

    When Pierre Cenac and other immigrants arrived in southeast Louisiana in the early 1860s, they found the dominant economic group in the rural landscape of southeast Louisiana to be Anglo-Americans. This was not because of their numbers, but by virtue of their being by far the largest landowners in the mid-nineteenth century.

    Les Americainsbegan to arrive after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and came in ever greater numbers after the War of 1812, but they were by no means the first non-native Americans, nor those of the greatest numbers, to settle here.

    According to a local historian, “The first...

  16. CHAPTER 11 Early May, 1862: Witness to War
    (pp. 111-113)

    “Union soldiers.” Pierre said it in a low voice to Jacques Benoit, whose neck was craning out the boarding house window next to Pierre’s. Both their nightshirts billowed in the early May breeze. They stayed in place at their windows, stretching their necks around the sweet olive trees just outside, and above a low house across the street. Both young men focused their eyes in the dim moonlight toward the oblique view of their street’s intersection with Main Street a block away. Yes, those were indeed blue uniforms, and then they heard marching orders shouted out in unfamiliar accents.


  17. CHAPTER 12 The War Comes to Town
    (pp. 115-121)

    As national political strife became more heated in the late 1850s and early 1860s, Louisianans in all geographical regions became alert to the potential need for military readiness on their home ground. Terrebonne Parish residents were no exception to this heightened level of watchfulness.

    During the late 1850s Terrebonne responded to the rising levels of dissent in the nation by organizing a Brigade of the Second Division of the state militia. By 1859 locals organized the Terrebonne Rifle Company in response to threats of war. “To further safeguard the residents of the parish the Grivot Guards and the Terrebonne Rangers...

  18. CHAPTER 13 August 9, 1865: The Future Smiles
    (pp. 122-123)

    Father Jean-Marie Joseph Denece turned toward the little church’s tabernacle and genuflected, his long vestments skimming the altar’s raw wood floors. He began to intone the Latin marriage rites that Pierre had heard so often at his brothers’ and cousins’ weddings in the old stone church of Barbazan-Debat. Pierre pictured the worn stones the priest in Barbazan trod upon there, stones that had seen generations of country couples wed.

    Pierre stood stiff and tall in his dark suit. His starched white collar scratched his neck as he made the slightest movement to glance at Victorine beside him. She was wearing...

  19. CHAPTER 14 From Artisan to Entrepreneur
    (pp. 125-143)

    Jean Baptiste Cenac was born on August 30, 1865, at the Cenac home in Dulac, or possibly at the home of Pierre’s father-in-law. It was common practice at the time for young couples to move in with one set of parents before becoming established themselves. The Charles Fanguy house may have been a temporary residence for the newlyweds.

    Sometime between 1862 and the time of his marriage, probably in 1864, Pierre relocated to lower Terrebonne near the confluence of bayous Grand Caillou and Dulac, after living for a time in Houma. This decision to move there probably took primary impetus...

  20. CHAPTER 15 1883: The Cradle Falls
    (pp. 144-145)

    Steady, solemn murmurs filled Pierre and Victorine’s living room in Dulac. Black muslin covered the walls from the chair rail to the baseboards, fastened there by the older girls in solemn preparation for tonight’s wake. All the chairs the boys could fit in had been arranged along the walls.

    Whenever one of the Cenac children approached the small coffin on one side of the room, sniffles interrupted the murmurs, and a collective intake of breath was audible.

    Pierre and Victorine stood near the head of the homemade wooden casket. Every now and then, Victorine leaned over to adjust the netting-and-lace...

  21. CHAPTER 16 Progress and Heartbreak
    (pp. 147-159)

    From the time they were married until the early 1880s, Pierre and Victorine with their ever-growing brood lived a boom time of family well-being and business growth. Of their 11 children born by the beginning of that decade, their daughter Josephine was the youngest, born in 1880. That year, the population of Terrebonne Parish was 17,957 and the City of Houma’s was 1,084.

    However, Pierre and Victorine were bringing children into a world that had no medical answers to many sicknesses and diseases. They must have heard with fear, for example, about thefièvre jaune(yellow fever) epidemic that began...

  22. CHAPTER 17 December 24, 1898: La Tristesse
    (pp. 160-161)

    Christmas Eve, and all Pierre could do was to sit by the fire and stare at the silent flames consuming logs until they split and folded over on themselves.It would be easy to do that myself, but I have to be stronger.

    He re-crossed his legs and adjusted his frame in the rocking chair. Glancing over at William across the room playing a game of checkers with Dennis, he cringed a little when he saw the boy’s left shirtsleeve flattened, folded, and pinned up onto his shoulder. It had been a whole year since William lost his arm, but...

  23. CHAPTER 18 A Place of Substance
    (pp. 163-185)

    In the years coinciding with the oldest of the Cenac children marrying and leaving home, Pierre became more community-minded and politically involved. One newspaper of the time records that Pierre and Victorine’s house in Dulac was the polling place for the Third Precinct of Terrebonne Parish’s Fourth Ward. Pierre was the commissioner of election for November 3, 1890; his son Jean Charles was the clerk for the Fourth Ward. Jean Baptiste served as commissioner of election for the Cenac voting place on April 19, 1892.

    The Houma Courierof March 15, 1890, described Terrebonne’s Fourth Ward: First Precinct—“From upper...

  24. CHAPTER 19 May 30, 1899: Expanding Visions
    (pp. 187-189)

    Fannie Gatewood Cenac stood on the kitchen steps of her inlaws’ Dulac house. Her oldest daughter was pouting. “Maman, Adenise keeps telling me that I have to call herTanteAdenise. I’m 10 and she’s just eight. Why should I call her that?” Fannie giggled at the long-standing argument.

    “Edna, you don’t have to call hertante, just so you agree that sheisyour aunt.” Fannie adjusted the woven clover crown Edna had let slip over one ear. “Now go out and play with all the other children.”

    She walked back into the kitchen where the rest of the...

  25. CHAPTER 20 Houma’s Golden Age
    (pp. 191-199)

    As the turn of the twentieth century approached, Pierre had already made plans for a momentous change in his and Victorine’s day-to-day lives. In a number of purchases from January through the end of the year 1899, Pierre had amassed property opposite the town of Houma on the north side of Bayou Terrebonne. Most of Pierre’s purchases were from former Houma mayor Felix Daspit’s family and heirs. The Daspit house he acquired on September 5, 1904, was a comfortablebousillageentre-poteaux(mud-moss walls between timbers) structure. On the south side of Houma’s “water main street” were located its business district and...

  26. CHAPTER 21 September 1913: Looking Back
    (pp. 201-203)

    “Of course I’m not comfortable. I feel terrible. How can I feel comfortable?” Pierre snapped at Jean Charles. The younger man turned to look out of the train window and gripped the seat divider a little more firmly. He took a deep breath.

    His father softened his voice a bit and brushed Charles’ shoulder with his own. “I always enjoyed going back tola Nouvelle Orleans, but not this time. Not to go to the hospital, because I feel somisérable.

    Jean Charles nodded. “Je comprends, Papa.Maybe we’ll get good news.”

    Pierre shook his head after his son turned...

  27. CHAPTER 22 The Oyster is King
    (pp. 205-231)

    Oyster harvesting, packing, and shipping in Terrebonne Parish had its early origins in oystermen’s working the natural reefs in coastal waters. The industry in later years accounted for a full 50 percent employment of the population in Houma. However, no local packing (canning) and little to no shipping was performed in Houma until the advent of the availability of ice in the final decade of the 1800s.

    After the Civil War, Baltimore, Maryland, became the pivotal city to oyster shipping. It was the first city to can oysters on a large scale (and the first to can corn). The number...

  28. CHAPTER 23 April 5, 1914: Here to Stay
    (pp. 233-239)

    Pierre pulled aside the curtains and looked out a front window of his house, across Park Street toward Bayou Terrebonne. It was lined with sailboats, gasoline-powered oyster luggers, and towboats, in some places docked two deep.

    He winced and let the curtains fall while he held his lower abdomen and breathed hard. Shuffling toward the screen door, he focused on the luggers. He inched open the screen door, stepped out onto the front porch, and straightened up. After a couple of halting steps, Pierre stopped to shield his eyes from the morning sun. He searched out the back of the...

  29. CHAPTER 24 Passing the Torch
    (pp. 241-245)

    Pierre probably looked on with pride as his sons established themselves as industry leaders. But as the boys had been building and acquiring in the early years of the 1900s, their father had been divesting himself of some of his former properties and businesses. In January of 1912, 73-year-old Pierre sold 240 acres in Dulac to one of his brothers-in-law, William Fanguy. The next year, on November 21, 1913, he sold some of his sugar mill machinery and equipment from his plantation in Dulac to Fayport Planting Company. Only a month later, Pierre sold more than 1,000 acres of his...

    (pp. 247-259)

    One indication of the extent of Pierre’s holdings is that the Cenac estate sold 1,047 acres in Dulac on May 1, 1914, to Adriel S. McCord soon after Pierre died.¹

    Victorine continued to live in the family home on Park Avenue with her youngest daughter Adenise. Adenise married in 1921, and for a time she and her husband and first child Marion lived with her. Her oldest daughter, Marie, lived nearby on Carlos Street. Marie tended to her mother on a daily basis through Victorine’s last years.

    Her children remained in close touch. They took their own children to visit...

    (pp. 261-261)

    A longtime interest in the history of his family and south Louisiana in general prompted initial research by Christopher E. Cenac, Sr. for this book. His primary influence in honoring family ties came from his father Philip Louis Cenac, who had great respect and affection for his relatives. His father’s attitude instilled in Chris, even as a child, an appreciation for the stories of older relatives, and encouraged his own frequent interaction with extended family members.

    In his teens, he began collecting memorabilia and artifacts. As a younger adult, his interest in historic places resulted in restoration of Orange Grove...

  32. APPENDIX I: Named Terrebonne Parish Sugar Estates c. 1900
    (pp. 262-265)
  33. APPENDIX II: Terrebonne Parish Canals
    (pp. 266-270)
  34. APPENDIX III: Genealogy
    (pp. 272-287)
    (pp. 288-289)
  36. APPENDIX V: Glossary of French Words and Terms
    (pp. 290-293)
  37. MORE TO COME...
    (pp. 294-295)
  38. INDEX
    (pp. 296-300)
    (pp. 301-303)
  40. Back Matter
    (pp. 304-304)