By Merrilyn Williams
Long before Europeans arrived on Louisiana soil and named it for a French king, the Choctaw and Atakapa plied the waters of the rivers and bayous in cypress dugouts. The earliest record of the Amerindians in their dugouts was written in De Soto’s journal in 1540. The French and Spanish colonists adopted this efficient mode of transport, calling the flat-bottomed boat a pirogue (from the Spanish word piragua meaning by water).
The Native Americans crafted their dugouts by using fire to hollow out felled cypress trees and scraping out the insides to the desired thickness. These dugouts were the basic form of transportation along the bayous and swamps. The Europeans, with superior metal axes to chop down the trees and razor-sharp adzes for carving and shaping the logs into the flat-bottomed boats they called pirogues, soon mastered the skill. The bayous were the roads of the early settlers.
Cypress was the preferred wood for boats because it is waterproof and rot resistant, but it is no longer readily available. Over the years, designs and materials have changed, but the use of the watercraft that allows access to areas that would otherwise be impassible has not declined. Plywood, fiberglass, and even aluminum is used in constructing modern pirogues. Traditionally propelled by a pole or a single bladed paddle, some are now equipped with outboard motors for use in very shallow water.
Pirogues are synonymous with the Cajun culture of southern Louisiana. Hank Williams crooned “me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou” in his classic 1952 song “Jambalaya”. Johnny Horton sang “I gotta hole in my pirogue” in 1956 before Doug Kershaw’s 1961 hit, “Louisiana Man”.
In the movie “Louisiana Story”, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1949, Director Robert Flaherty used a pirogue made by Ebdon Allemon, a Cajun craftsman from Pierre Point. Recognizing that pirogue making was a disappearing art, filmmaker and photographer, Arnold Eagle, made the film “The Pirogue Maker”, documenting in his short fourteen minute film, the construction of perhaps the last pirogue made in the traditional manner, beginning with selecting a cypress tree to saw down and using the old methods and tools. The film is available for viewing on Folkstreams.
The pirogue built by Allemon for “Louisiana Story” was exhibited at the World’s Fair in New Orleans in 1984. It is now on display at the Smithsonian. An exhibit in Houma at the Southdown Plantation House celebrated Cajun artisans, including Ebdon Allemon. His tools including a homemade wooden mallet, an adze, and a plane used for shaping the wood are on display museum.
As you look out over the bayous, imagine gliding along on the waterways in a pirogue. You may be fishing for a meal, or running your traps and trot lines. Listen to the sounds of the bayou all around you. Can you hear Tibedeaux tuning up his fiddle? Or Breax on his accordion? Perhaps it’s only the mosquitoes singing.