History of the Vermilion
As early as 1713, Spanish missionaries reported scattered settlements of colonists in the region. By 1740, early settlers had fur and deerskin trading businesses along the Vermilion. The Old Spanish Trail reached the Vermilion where the current Pinhook Bridge is located — a landmark has been the epicenter of the Vermilion for centuries. In the midst of traders, ranchers and smugglers, the area around the Pinhook Bridge was the hub of what commerce and activity happened along the Vermilion. The small settlement there, Petit Manchac served as trading center for Native Americans, trappers and colonists.
Petit Manchac, later called Pinhook, was the farthest inland up the river that smugglers could deliver goods up — making the Pinhook Bridge point the traditional head of navigation for the waterway.
Above Pinhook Bridge, it was called Bayou Vermilion. Below, it was called the Vermilion River.
In 1760, Gabriel Fuselier de la Claire, originally from France, bought all land between the Vermilion and Bayou Teche from the Eastern Attakapas Chief Kinemo. Some believe the sale brought on the slaughter of the Attakapas.
By 1762, when France ceded Louisiana to Spain, the hardy pioneers along the Vermilion were primarily trappers, ranchers and smugglers. Some built "stores" on barges that carried gunpowder, traps, tea and other goods to scattered settlers, who offered furs, hides and farm products in exchange.
The Acadians began arriving in 1765.
During the Spanish period, the river was known as a smugglers' "highway." In 1809, Reason Bowie bought 640 acres of land along the lower Vermilion. According to John Bowie, son of Reason and brother of Jim Bowie, of Alamo fame, and Rezin P. (who gave Jim a knife the original Bowie knife, which was probably made in a blacksmith shop somewhere near Abbeville), the Bowie brothers made a fortune working with Jean Lafitte.
The brothers earned $65,000 by purchasing Lafitte’s over-taken slave ships and turning them, bringing the slaves up the Vermilion to Pinhook, then overland to Opelousas, where slaves were sold.
In 1823, a commission selected the Pinhook site as the seat of the Lafayette Parish government. John and William Reeves donated land for public buildings. The parish built a jail and rented a room as a courthouse. In the meantime, Jean Mouton formed a faction to rival the Reeves. Mouton donated land for a Catholic church and offered to donate land for public buildings. In 1824, voters chose the Mouton site — making downtown Vermilionville (eventually Lafayette).
Back then, Pinhook Bridge was a low wooden structure with a draw that could be opened to allow boats’ passage. Travelers heading to Vermilionville crossed the Bridge to find Jim Higginbotham’s businesses on the right — a large warehouse with storage space, a wheelwright shop and a lumberyard. John Baumgartner, a woodworker, assembled cypress cisterns, hogsheads (for sugar cane) and molasses barrels in a shop next to Higginbotham. Across the road, patrons enjoyed William Butcher's Saloon and Billiard Parlor on the right side. Louis Grange had a restaurant nearby which served popular chicken pies.
Periodic low waters and obstacles made steam travel an uphill battle on the Vermilion, but steamboats changed life along the river. They exported livestock and leather goods, cattle horns, cotton, moss, sugar, eggs, live poultry, hemp, lumber and variety of fruits and vegetable. Occasionally, steamboats carried barrels of rum and cotton items produced by Acadian weavers. (Rice didn’t become popular until after the Civil War.)
After the reality of the Civil war sank in, commerce came to a near standstill, but the river played a role in war too.
On April 17, 1863, Confederate troops, coming from battle in New Iberia, burned Pinhook Bridge and positioned infantry/artillery to engage advancing Federal forces. The two armies struggled for about four hours, with few casualties.
The next day as Union troops built a pontoon bridge, about half of the soldiers decided to take a dip in the water. They stripped off clothes and jumped into Vermilion — just as the Confederate cavalry doubled back and opened fire on the bathers. Madness ensued, as naked and half-dressed Union soldiers scrambled amidst shots firing.
Six months later, on October 9, 1863, Union troops approached Pinhook Bridge again. Again, Confederate soldiers set the rebuilt bridge afire. Again, Union soldiers built another temporary bridge.
In 1865, after the war, the region struggled. Because of extensive wartime damage along the Vermilion — crops were burned, livestock was killed, homes were destroyed — the region’s farmers had little to nothing to send to market.
Eventually, agriculture recovered as the growing rail presence began to affect the importance of steamboats throughout the region. In the 1860s and 1870s, some steamboat captains and steamboat lines partnered with railways to offer lower prices — thereby undercutting the competition. The practice led to the eventual demise of steamboats. However, for a period in the 1870s and 1880s, smaller steamboats left busier rivers and ports and came to the less served regions — especially the Vermilion.
But the problems with low water and snags continued. By the turn of the century, federal efforts had done what they could to make the river navigable, working through the Army Corps of Engineers.
In February 1913, the Corps of Army Engineers announced further plans to improve the Vermilion River and connect it with the Intercoastal Canal.
In response to the great flood of 1927, levees constructed around the Atchafalaya Basin cut off the flow of fresh water to the Vermilion. This isolation led to better flood control and navigation, but came at a great price to the river. The lack of fresh water led to continued pollution, leading the river to gain the infamous title of “Most Polluted River in America” in the 1970s and the eventual creation of the Bayou Vermilion District.
Bowie on the Bayou
The Seat of Justice
The Steamboat Era
Plantation Life Along the Vermilion
Antebellum and Post-Bellum Vermilion
Effect of the Railroad and Congressional help
Ecological threats of 1911
Connecting with the Intercoastal Canal
No good deed goes unpunished: The consequences of the 1927 flood