By Trent Gremillion
The shorelines of Lake Charles and the banks of the Calcasieu River were once a gathering place for Native Americans. The earliest historical accounts described them as “fierce savages” or “man-eaters,” hence the name Attakapas meaning hetak (man), apas (eaters), from the old Choctaw language.
Long before any European settlers arrived, the Attakapas called Southwest Louisiana their home. Thanks to the plentiful wildlife and the abundance of shellfish, roaming tribes thrived for many years. Villages were scattered throughout the area, normally located near areas where fresh water could be found.
European contact with the Indians was first recorded in 1802, when a French military force under the command of General Milfort camped at an inland lake believed by many to be Lake Charles. At this time, the village consisted of about 180 people and was led by a former Jesuit priest.
The shell mounds, or middens of Calcasieu Parish are a reminder to all that this area had been claimed many years before the “white man” arrived. Since most of these sites were located on private land, and early settlers didn’t see their importance, the majority was lost due to farming, construction, and/or the erosion of time. Archaeological work here hasn’t been extensive, but what has been done gives us a small glimpse into Attakapa lives.
Indian Village at ‘The Bel Site’
In the summer of 1974, the SWLA Archaeological Society Inc. secured permission from the Bel Estate to excavate the location know as “The Bel Site,” once a gathering spot for local Indians. Colonel Hall visited the village in 1817, at which time it had 40 huts located on the northeast corner of “Charles’s Lake.” Later ,the site became an American military post (c. 1829-1832) know as Cantonment Atkinson and named for Major General Henry Atkinson. The fort eventually became the home of Thomas Bilbo’s family. The cemetery was first utilized on April 8, 1848 when one of the Bilbo’s nine children, eight-year-old Margaret, died tragically. The Bel Lumber Mill was located on the site for a number of years.
During the early stages of excavation, it became apparent that the site was a city trash dump at one point, and its surface had been recently disturbed with the expansion of the Interstate. Even with the recent disturbance, many aboriginal artifacts were found including 225 Native American ceramic shreds. Also found were a number of stone flakes and three stone tools. Parts of an old gunlock and trigger were found dating back to the late 17th-mid-18th century. Further excavation work was suggested but never carried out.
Green Acres Burial Mounds
North of Lake Charles on an old strip of the Calcasieu River, W. B. Logan purchased a large plot of land in 1928. The area would become know as “Green Acres” and the beauty of the 18-room, 18k gold-leaf-wallpapered home Logan would build on the property would become famous in these parts. A skull was found when one of the two mounds found on the property was displaced. The circular mound was described as three feet in height and 40 feet in diameter. The local paper later reports that Logan objected to the Smithsonian Institute further examining the site.
Original members of the Logan family say that when the cellar was first dug, an Indian burial ground was discovered with a large number of skeletons found in sitting positions. Archaeologists from Tulane and Louisiana State University removed the bones for further research.
Indian Artifacts Found at Mathieson Alkali Works
In June of 2006, a Mrs. Barbara Lindell of New York reached out to the Division of Archaeology about some artifacts her father had collected in1942 while working for the Mathieson Alkali Works, Inc. located on an old branch of the Calcasieu River. The collection included five artifacts believed to be found during the demolition of a shell mound in the Lake Charles area. The artifacts included one shell necklace consisting of 21 large Olivia Sayanna Ravanel (sea snail) beads; one string set of 580 Crinoid stem beads; one large ground stone axe; one adult male human mandible and one bone from a white tailed deer. The collection was given to a local archaeologist for proper analysis and eventually turned over to the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana.
Indian Village Mound at Prien Lake
Professor George E. Beyer of Tulane University arrived in Lake Charles in August of 1899 to conduct the area’s first archaeological endeavor based on accounts of a large shell mound being destroyed on the southwest end of Lake Prien, 10 miles south of the city. By the time Beyer arrived, only the outer edge of the mound remained. It had been 300-400 feet long, 10-15 feet high and more than 60 feet wide at the base. Over 30 separate human skeletons were discovered about a foot below the surface when a large tree was removed from the center of the mound. A railroad official who supervised the removal of the mound picked up a number of stone objects along with an almost complete clay pot, before eventually discarding his finds. One of the skulls was sent to Tulane University,
Barbe Pier Shell Middens
After examining the mounds at Prien Lake, Professor Beyer returned to Lake Charles. At the south end of the city, two other large mounds were located near the Barbe family property. A total of 400 feet in length, running close to and parallel with each other, the south end of one mound had already been hauled away and part of the east side was gradually being washed into the lake. Beyer’s excavations produced three human skeletons, all found at the base of the mound in close proximity to fire pits containing fish and turtle bones. All of the human remains were in such a state of decay that safe removal was impossible. Rumors of fever and the talk of quarantine caused further research to be suspended.
Dugout Canoe Recovered From Coulee
There were two great finds in the summer of 1958. A three-foot square safe, dating back to the fire of 1910, was found several feet below the ground of the City Hall lawn by city workers expanding the drainage lines on Kirby Street. The second find was made at the mouth of Pithon Coulee. During the construction of the pumping station, a Native American dugout canoe was recovered from the mouth of the Coulee in a remarkable state of preservation. Clay pottery resembling rollers and reels still lined the inside.
The Great Alligator Mound of Cameron
Know throughout the South, the Alligator Mound located in Chenier du Ford on the banks of Grand Lake might have been the largest and grandest of them all. More than half of the giant gator had washed away by 1935 and the mound was totally obliterated by road-metal construction in the late 1930s. In its entirety, the mound would have been some 400 yards in length and over 20 feet tall. It has been estimated that the mound was built around 1300-1400 A.D.