Western Louisiana's Neutral Strip: Its History, People, And Legends

By Keagan LeJeune

Page 3

Local Legends


Though the region's geographic and population features have colored its cultural traditions, its role as a neutral buffer occupies the central role in the residents' sense of place. As a result, while the Neutral Strip's narrative tradition is as rich and varied as any portion of Louisiana's, due to its history the region does boast a considerable amount of stories concerning outlaws, buried treasure, and the Neutral Strip's status as an unregulated place. For instance, like "Gone to Texas" stories found in that state, family sagas in the Neutral Strip often describe an ancestor's settlement in the region, and like those, many Neutral Strip stories emphasize a particular pioneer's ruggedness and ability to withstand the hazards of the region and some even detail how an ancestor fled to the region in order to avoid punishment or persecution in his or her native region. As in Texas, these details may be pure fabrication, but as Mody Boatright explains, they have "a relation to social context and reflect a social value" (Boatright 1973: 124).

Often, these legends about the region's settlement extend beyond individual families and characterize the region as a whole. Many stories explain that several early residents of the region were ex-members of Jean Lafitte's crews (Watson 2002). Legend says these men settled in the region once Lafitte was removed from New Orleans and established a series of contact points within the region. Cast in legend as they are, these local residents—ex-pirates and in effect employed by the notorious smuggler and his contacts like the Bowie brothers—possessed noteworthy tenacity, toughness, and a dangerous reputation.

Legends also circulate that claim many local settlers were either members or supporters of a large outlaw gang run by John Murrell who legend says roamed throughout the region. In fact, many of the outlaw legends in the Neutral Strip connect to this famous southern outlaw. John Murrell goes by many names—The Great Western Land Pirate, The Reverend Devil, The Terror of the Natchez Trace, The Leader of the Mystic Clan—and many spellings—Murrell, Murel, Murrel. Local lore says that Murrell used a network of fellow bandits collectively known as the Mystic Clan to rob people along the Natchez Trace and the El Camino Real, and legends claim that this network of outlaws extended into the Neutral Strip. According to Neutral Strip lore, members of the Murrell Clan or Mystic Clan knew each other by signs and secret handshakes and marked their sites of safe haven by planting black locust trees and Spanish Dagger plants, also called Yucca, in some conspicuous location outside a hideout. Settlers who were friendly to the clan planted white locust trees in order for traveling clansmen to know where to get help (Kadlecek and Bullard 1994: 517-524). Place names in the region, like Black Locust Hill, connect to these enduring legends.

Other stories about specific places in the Neutral Strip connect to Murrell's activities in The Neutral Strip. One of the most enduring is the outlaw's use of the caves in the region. Murrell and his gang reportedly used the Neutral Strip's Kisatchie caves as a hideout. From there, the gang robbed the travelers on the El Camino Real and Natchez Trace. The extensive caves, often connected by excavated passages, actually stood as a complex network in the hills of Kisatchie. The rooms swelled to different sizes and served as sleeping quarters, store rooms, and even as stables for horses and mules. Directions to caves and maps of their interior were communicated through waybills—specific carvings on trees and rocks that conveyed directions in a code. The broadest point of a star, the thickest spoke of a wheel, a horse's head pointed south, a turtle's head aimed north—all of these signs told an outlaw schooled in the codes how to navigate to and through the caves. As a result, locals say carvings lined the walls of the caves. Famous and legendary, the caves became a constant lure for treasure hunters who searched them thoroughly time and time again. For this reason, many believed the caves posed a danger and should be destroyed. Around 1942 the U.S. Forest Service dynamited the caves for the public good.

Beyond the caves, the region's dense thickets and isolated woods offered several other places to hide, and many places throughout the region hold localized outlaw legends. The Florien and Fisher communities tell stories about Hiram Midkiff, a former member of Murrell's gang who was believed to be a brazen horse thief and one of Murrell's boldest lieutenants. Legend says Midkiff's main camp was just north of Fisher and before his capture, the outlaw buried his stash of gold along a nearby creek.

The Yocum gang, led by Doc Yocum, was comprised of former members of Murrell's Clan and members of the Yocum family. One story says that Doc Yocum gained a sizable chunk of land in No Man's Land when in exchange for care and a place to stay, an old veteran from the American Revolution signed over his bounty land grants to Yocum. It wasn't long after the papers were signed that Doc Yocum murdered the veteran. Legend says many met their end by Doc Yocum and though constantly on the run, Yocum kept ahead of pursers by crossing the Sabine over and over again whenever pursuers got too close. In fact, some legends link the Yocum gang to the ferry near Niblett's Bluff. There, they waited for cowboys returning from New Orleans after selling their herd. Legend says the gang even ran a boarding house called Yocum's Inn near the ferry and used the place to rob unsuspecting travelers (Block 1978). Since the Sabine acted as a border of the Neutral Strip, places along the Sabine often earned reputations as dangerous locations frequented by outlaws. One of these locations was Waterloo, near Logansport. Like the lore surrounding Niblett's Bluff, legends surrounding the Waterloo community in Desoto Parish recall a tumultuous past and describe the place as a haven of outlaws and smugglers.

Smuggling, in fact, was a long-standing employ of residents in the Neutral Strip. During the colonial period, a thriving smuggling trade existed between the Spanish troops stationed at Nacogdoches and the French troops stationed at Natchitoches. During the Neutral Strip period, smuggling only intensified. Many legends circulate about smugglers and thieves using the Neutral Strip as home for their operations. Since the region is close to Natchitoches, several stories relate smugglers moving goods in and out of the region to and from Natchitoches. Slaves, too, were smuggled, and many stories describe slaves escaping into the Neutral Strip or smugglers using the Neutral Strip for their clandestine operation of moving slaves. Legend has it that using a "Judas" slave to interact with other slaves in Natchitoches, smugglers often convinced slaves to escape into the Neutral Strip and head to specified location where they believed they would be safe. Of course, once the escaping slaves arrived, the smugglers simply chained them and sold them to some other owner (Sandel 1982: 35-42).

Smugglers also relied on counterfeiters and forgers. Stolen military-stamped rifles and ornate swords required a metallurgist to disguise the contraband. Stolen saddles, boots, and whips required the skill of a master craftsman of leather goods to become unrecognized. Evidently, some of these counterfeiters became renowned for their ability to conceal goods and facilitate the smuggler's trade. Moving contraband goods back and forth across the Sabine also stands as the subject of many stories about bootlegging activities during prohibition. Moreover, all of these legends about smugglers and outlaws spawn a great number of buried treasure stories that can be found throughout the region.

Buried Treasures

The Neutral Strip region contains a substantial amount of lore related to buried treasure, most of which connects to the region's significant historical moments and reaffirms the region's sense of place. Residents along the Sabine River and along the historical route of the El Camino Real share many stories about Spanish gold and silver lost as it was transported along these routes. Stories of lost Spanish silver mines can also be heard there. Since the remote and sparsely populated region was also home to several bands of deserters during the Civil War, the Neutral Strip also has many buried treasure stories relating to gold hidden in various locations by jayhawkers. However, money hidden because of the outlaws inhabiting the region is by far the most common subject of buried treasure stories in the Neutral Strip.

Without the presence of banks or safes, early farmers needed to find other ways of protecting their important documents and treasures. Faced with such danger, pioneers and farmers often relied on post hole banks to protect against being robbed by outlaws (Schwartz 2005). To do this, resourceful farmers chose a fence post (among the hundreds of posts that ran along their property), pulled it up, and placed their treasures in the hole. They slid the post back into its position, discreetly marked the post, and committed the location to memory. Some stories claim that a great many of these post hole banks went unclaimed and remain in the Neutral Strip. While perhaps not containing the vivid imagery of a post hole bank, many other family stories recount a family's savings being buried in the face of danger, and on several occasions, as one might expect, a twist of fate causes the buried fortune to go un-recovered. For example, the only person knowing the location of the hidden treasure dies suddenly, or a terrible storm arrives and washes away the chosen creek bank or destroys a key geographic reference point, and the loot is lost forever.

Second, a great many legends circulate in the region about treasures buried by specific outlaws. For instance, at the key crossing points along the Sabine where outlaws frequented, buried treasure stories are also numerous. Legends claim that outlaws crossing the river with loot were often swept away and the money rests somewhere at the bottom of the river. In Vernon Parish, legend says a lone sassafras tree marked the main ferry crossing and over the years treasure hunters dug hole after hole around it looking for outlaw gold (qtd. in Smith 1999: 64). Even Jean Lafitte buried treasure stories persist in the Neutral Strip. For instance, locals say a former captain of his lived near the ferry at Niblett's Bluff and buried a great treasure—the treasure of the forty gums—near there.

However, the most widespread and complex buried treasure story in the region involves the treasure buried by Murrell in the caves. Not only did the caves draw a score of treasure hunters, but they engendered a vast and enduring treasure story that involves not only the outlaws who buried the gold but the most persistent and extravagant treasure hunters who devoted their lives and sunk their own money into finding the gold (Kadlecek and Bullard 1994: 507-592). This web of stories involves hidden codes, complex maps, unearthed artifacts and clues, as well as the more mundane subject of local farmers dealing with trespassers sneaking onto their property to dig holes and hunt for treasure.

As many buried treasure stories do, these not only evoke the region's specific history and keep the region's past in the forefront of the residents' minds, they also emphasize the uniqueness and importance of specific locations in the area. For instance, travelers crossing the Sabine River, due to the marshes and bluffs along it, had only a handful of suitable choices to make the crossing. Most of these had ferries and witnessed a great deal of traffic. Not only did the traffic draw outlaws, but it also made these locations key in the region's makeup. Buried treasure stories about them maintain this legacy.


While buried treasure stories and outlaw legends have drawn the most attention from those interested in the lore and culture of the Neutral Strip, the area's rich body of lore extends beyond these stories. In fact, the cultural traditions of the entire region warrant more attention. Compared to other regions of Louisiana, the Neutral Strip has been understudied. This is unfortunate, for the residents of the Neutral Strip possess a degree of self-awareness and a historical consciousness that are significant. People of the Neutral Strip often self-identify as locals who live in Louisiana's No Man's Land and know the stories and reputation of the region. Like their stories of outlaws or buried treasure, their other traditions—legends of circuit riders, running deer with dogs in the woods, and so on—express not only their knowledge that their people found a way to inhabitant and thrive in a region known to be sparsely populated, set apart, and perhaps even a little dangerous, but also their pride in having done so.


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Keagan LeJeune, Ph.D., is a professor of English and Folklore at McNeese State University. This essay was written as part of the Neutral Strip Folklife Survey in 2015.