ARTICLES & ESSAYS
Bringing Food and Buying Fish: The Significance of the Fishboat to Isolated Communities in the Atchafalaya Basin
By Jim Delahoussaye
They called it a fishboat, or a trade boat, or maybe sometimes a grocery boat.1 Whatever name it went by, it was a very important part of the lives of Atchafalaya Basin people from around 1900 to about 1950.2 Why was it important? What did it do? Primarily the fishboats served as a vital link in the chain of commerce between the people who lived in the Basin and outlets for the things those people could harvest and sell. Fishboats made it possible for Basin families to convert the energy it took to gather Basin resources into food, clothing, and shelter. No alternative means to do this existed at that time.3
Because these boats traveled long distances on regular, predictable schedules, they served other functions as well. Most of the people who lived deep inside the Basin still felt the need to remain connected to the larger world that surrounded them. And because the fishboat brought news from that larger world, residents looked forward eagerly to each visit and the news it might bring. The "outside world" did not need to be a foreign country; New Orleans would suffice, or even Morgan City. Word from those places would provide the topics for conversation on the houseboats for days.
Until 1950, almost all transportation in the Basin was slow, at least by today's standards. In the first part of that century the main means of movement was by non-motorized craft . . . what we call push skiffs, pulling skiffs (with oars), and pirogues.4 Two or three miles in an hour was a very good rate of travel for these craft, and totally at the expense of manpower. By 1920 the first motorized small craft were becoming popular in the Basin, but these remained expensive (by the fishermen's scale of economics) and were still relatively slow, requiring six to eight hours to get to Morgan City from upper Grand Lake. The fishboat came earlier, and with its use of larger automotive engines, it was faster and more reliable in the large waters of Grand Lake. Consequently, when people deep in the swamp, at Hog Island or Bayou Pigeon for instance, needed a ride to Morgan City for shopping or visiting, they could get a ride on the fishboat. They would travel to Morgan City one day, remain overnight, and ride back home the next time the fishboat went up the lake . . . usually one or two days later. People also made shorter trips from one community to the next on the fishboats. Many a courtship that led to marriage was facilitated in this way, and a fishboat serving as a wedding limousine was not unheard of.
Most Basin dwellers were self-sufficient about medical matters, but once in a while a medical emergency would present itself with such serious potential that only a visit to a "town doctor" would suffice. When this was needed the fishboats (if available) acted as ambulances. Only the fishboats had the ability to rapidly travel, in any weather, the thirty miles or so to Morgan City and the doctors there. I never heard of anyone being charged for this transport service.
There were two main commercial functions performed by these boats: buying and selling. They sold almost everything people living in the deep swamp needed, from fuel for motors, kerosene for lamps, all manner of dry foods, beer and whiskey, to sewing supplies, ammunition, and patent medicines. All these and more were carried on every trip the boats made. Things not routinely inventoried, such as guns and particular bolts of cloth, were ordered and picked up in Morgan City for delivery on the next trip up the lake. Perhaps gambling could be considered a commercial enterprise, and it was available on the boats in the form of slot machines. There is no word about what a jackpot winning might have amounted to. With fish prices at three to five cents a pound, even the nickel slots would have been a serious gamble.
But perhaps the main purpose of the fishboat was to purchase the natural resources the swamp people could harvest. The boat operator would pay fishermen a certain amount for their catch, and then sell the fish to a dock in Morgan City for a little bit more than they paid. The fact that the fish were perishable was the reason for the frequent trips; only the fishboat had ice, supplied by the dock, and the fishermen had to keep fish alive until the boat came. This could only be done for a few days before the fish began to die in the submerged boxes (fishcars) they were kept in. This is one reason the fishboat and the fishermen developed such a strong reliance on each other.
Spanish moss was the other dependable product that Basin people relied on for income. The fishboats bought the moss after it had been processed (dried and stripped of its outer coat) and baled. Compared to fishing, this was a more labor-intensive way of earning income, but when the fish didn't bite, it was the fallback income producer.
According to the people interviewed about this topic, fishboats would not only buy fish and moss, but anything else that they could resell. In the early twentieth century, this would have been furs and wild waterfowl in the winter, and frogs and alligators in the spring and summer. The fishboats followed a scheduled route that began in Morgan City and travelled up Grand Lake for about thirty miles to terminate at Hog Island, more or less at the head of Grand Lake. They did this in one long day of stopping, selling, and buying. Most of the time the boats stopped at six places, the areas where houseboats collected into semi-permanent communities, or where bank-living families produced enough fish to make the stop worthwhile. These stops usually were Bayou Boutté, Blue Point, Big Bayou Pigeon, Little Bayou Pigeon, Bayou Catfish, and Hog Island (Keelboat Pass).
The last stop was usually just before dark, or shortly thereafter. The operator would tie up his boat near the houseboats and usually join the fishing families for dinner and conversation, but he always slept on his boat. Casual and social interactions between the operator and the fishermen could and did create lasting memories that remain today. One operator who serviced the route that ended in Keelboat Pass near Hog Island, on each trip would make some of his ice, along with some salt, available to a family there so they could make hand-cranked ice cream. Everyone looked forward to this treat, and that relationship still brings comments from the descendents of those families. Edward Couvillier, now 81, was a boy at the time and he remembers it well:
When the fishboat stopped at a house with children, there was always a scramble, as the children tried to go out to it and get some candy, paid for or not. Albert "Putt" Couvillier (1938–1994) was a participant in this weekly event. In a 1974 interview, he said:
The fishboat trip back to Morgan City would be nonstop unless provisions had been made otherwise. The iced fish would not stay fresh very long.
Places other than Morgan City served as hubs of this commercial activity, places that had fishdocks that could receive, process, and distribute the fish delivered by the fishboats. These places included Plaquemine, Bayou Sorrel, Charenton, and even Houma. In some informal dividing up of the territory, the boats coming from the north (Plaquemine and Bayou Sorrel) would come down about as far as the boats from Morgan City would come up.
There were three general categories of fishboats. Many were built in the bateau style, with large, flat-bottomed hulls. Another common type was the lugger, more familiar today as a shrimp and oyster boat. The third category included miscellaneous, more unusual styles such as long, narrow, stern-wheeled boats. Perhaps the only common feature was sufficient size to hold a large quantity of fish and sufficient power to get to the end of the route and return in the minimum required time.
Other aspects of the relationship between the fishboats and the people they served are best described by the people themselves. Their interdependence was such that a great deal of trust had to exist between them. It was necessary for the fishermen to trust that the fishboat would come before the fish died, and before they ran out of rice or beans, or kerosene. The fishboat operator needed to trust that the Basin people would catch the fish and harvest the moss that made his trip profitable. Together they formed a commercial, social, and personal unit. Such things as timeliness, dependability, and loyalty to a mutually interdependent way of life were the things people emphasized in interviews. When such things as timeliness varied, even a little bit, it was a cause for comment. Edward Couvillier notes how the promptness of the boats varied with the operator.
Fishermen also expected fishboat operators to be dependable. The perishable nature of the iced fish dictated that the fishboat not stop on the return trip. But sometimes the boat operators did stop if they had arranged to on the upriver trip. Heaven help them if they made arrangements to stop and then forgot. Albert "Myon" Bailey (1905-1993) told a story of this happening to him with the fishboat operated by Pinkerman Mendoza:
The fishermen and the fishboats always had a certain apprehension about their commercial relationship–the fishboat never paid enough according to the fishermen, and the boat operator always thought he paid too much. But an alliance developed between the fishboats and the people in the swamp, because they relied on each other so much. When it came to a situation involving some swamp people and the law (which happened very seldom during these times), fishboat operators would be suspected of siding with the swamp people. Edward Couvillier experienced this himself. He recalled:
But as times and conditions in the Basin changed, the integrity of the cooperative system became less and less secure. The benefits to the two parties degraded, until there were too few people living permanently in the Basin to produce enough fish to make the fishboat operation profitable. This was partly because of the building of flood-control levees in the 1930s, beginning a series of changes to conditions in the Basin that resulted in seasonally higher water, and prevented any residence on the bayou bans. Increased currents from the higher water made houseboat living more and more difficult, and sometimes more dangerous. Governmental regulation of school attendance for children became a factor, too. Eventually, the people in the Basin moved out and the fishboats gradually became fewer, until there were none left by about 1950.
Most Basin residents moved to existing communities like Morgan City, Bayou Sorrel, and Plaquemine, but some did not. Instead, they formed their own, new community adjacent to the west levee, at a place called Myette Point. By establishing themselves in that location, they attempted to remain within the environment that they had occupied for four generations, but on land instead of in houseboats on the water. They succeeded in making this transition and lived along the levee for twenty-five years, fishing and pursuing other means of making a living that had been newly opened up by land access. Cleo "Neg" Sauce was one of those who brought his family into this new environment. Almost everything in their lives changed when they did this, from how they sold fish to how they bought groceries. Medric Martin's store, about four miles away, was the first land-based general store they became associated with. In 1997, after being asked why the fishboats stopped running and why people moved to places where the boats couldn't go, he said:
I guess some people moved, them days, moved different places, like. When we moved over here [Myette Point] that's when all that just about stopped. Oh, we had fishcars over here too, because fishboats used to pass here too. But after a while, you know, everything changed. They started buying fish [from land-based docks] like Oscar Lange used to have that fishdock over there in Calumet . . . used to come up here in a truck and get our fish. [. . .] We go get our groceries at Medric's. Yeah. It was harder.
There are still fishdocks in Morgan City, but fish are delivered to them either by refrigerated trucks or by individual fishermen using high speed outboard motors. There is no longer a market for dried Spanish moss or furs in any quantity. Fishboat operators like Mertile Theriot, Dieu "Jew" Robert Vuillemont, and Pinkerman Mendoza have all passed away, but they still live on in the memories of descendents of those who relied on them to come and bring the groceries and buy the fish all those years ago.5
1. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2010 meeting of the Louisiana Folklore Society in Edgard, Louisiana.
2. For more information on folklife in the Atchafalaya Basin, see Comeaux's Atchafalaya Swamp Life (1972), Brassieur's "The Atchafalaya Basin" (1979), and Guirard and Brassieur's Inherit the Atchafalaya (2007).
3. This information was derived by interviewing people from the Myette Point community, St. Mary Parish, Louisiana. Because they clearly remember their parents and grandparents, the individual memories of several of those who contributed their time to the many recording sessions spans more than a hundred years of Atchafalaya Basin life.
4, A push skiff, sometimes called a pulling skiff, is a sleek, pointed boat with a narrow stern. It is traditionally used by standing in it and pushing forward with a pair of oars loosely mounted on the side of the boat. For more information on traditional boat types in the Atchafalaya Basin, see Comeaux's "Folk Boats of Louisiana" (1979).
5. Photographs of the boats are courtesy of the Darlene Soulé Collection and the late Artie Buck.
Bailey, Albert "Myon." 1974. Interview by author.
Brassieur, C. Ray. 1979. The Atchafalaya Basin, in Mississippi Delta Ethnographic Overview, ed. Nicholas R. Spitzer. New Orleans: Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.
Comeaux, Malcolm. 1972. Atchafalaya Swamp Life: Settlement and Folk Occupations. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Geoscience Publications 2.
_____. 1985. Folk Boats of Louisiana. In Louisiana Folklife: A Guide to the State, ed. Nicholas R. Spitzer. Baton Rouge: Louisiana Folklife Program.
Couvillier, Albert "Putt." 1974. Interview by author.
Couvillier, Edward. 10 Dec. 1995. Interview by author.
_____. 28 Dec. 1995. Interview by author.
_____. 2 Jan. 1997. Interview by author.
Guirard, Greg and C. Ray Brassieur. 2007. Inherit the Atchafalaya. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Sauce, Cleo "Neg." January 1997. Interview by author.