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Washed Away? The Invisible People of Louisiana's Wetlands: A talk by Don Davis


Date: 12/01/2010

Time: 4:00 PM - 5:30 PM

Location: 125 Nolte Center for Continuing Education

Cost: Free and open to the public


Washed Away? The Invisible Peoples of Louisiana’s Wetlands and the Deepwater Horizon Tragedy

Dr. Don Davis is Emeritus Director and Director of Oral History in the Sea Grant College Program at Louisiana State University, and is former administrator for the Louisiana Applied and Educational Oil Spill Research and Development Program.  Don Davis has been involved in Louisiana coastal-related research for more than forty years. Davis relocated from California to South Louisiana in 1967 to attend Nicholl's State (Ph.D., 1973). Davis served as a Professor of Geography at Nicholls State University for many years before returning to LSU in 1990. Davis also administered the Governor’s Applied Coastal Research and Development Program. Davis’ research has resulted in over one-hundred publications in books, journals, monographs, proceedings, and contract surveys. In all of his work, he has emphasized the importance of humankind in landscape evolution and change. Davis is currently administering a Louisiana Sea Grant project to develop an extensive oral history of the Louisiana Wetlands.

From the earliest historical times, Louisiana’s marshes have appealed to a broad cross-section of ethnic groups. Still the coastal lowlands are a landscape in which humans seem tiny and inconsequential. Even so, the diverse assemblage of peoples (Acadian/Cajun, Creole, Chinese, Spanish, German, Filipino, Italian, Vietnamese, Serbian/Croatian, Portuguese, Norwegian, Swedes Poles, Lebanonese, Scots, Malay, Isleños, Irish, Greek, American Indian, Black, and Latin Americans) that moved onto near sea-level marsh sites made a good living off the land. Most of these individuals were “boat-minded” people who were a census taker’s nightmare. Their communities—St. Malo, Ostrica, Cheniere au Tigre, Grand Prairie, Camp Dewey, Fort boulaye, Filipino, oyster Bayou, Mauvais, Balize, and many others—are part of the marshlands’ human story.

Most of the marshdwellers’ settlements were temporary, since they could be washed away in the blink of an eye. In many instances, they were indeed lost just that quickly to unannounced hurricanes that destroyed them completely. In the process, these hamlets vanished from the historical record, for the marshlands gave no quarter. It was a place that humankind avoided, the government considered worthless, and many proclaimed the land was unfit for human habitation. It seemed the marsh and swamp were landscape types that could not be mastered and were at the “edge” of human existence.

In this geographic province risk was a way of life, and marshdwellers were willing to take a chance. If their homes were destroyed, the occupation site was abandoned, and a new one was settled. In some cases, marshdwellers were constantly on the move. In others, they settled the “high ground,” and their communities were more permanent, but always vulnerable. As a result, these wetland inhabitants were aware of, and playing by, Nature’s rules. They did not want, or seek, government assistance. They did not want any form of subsidy; they just wanted to “fish” oysters, trap, hunt, and pull trawl. As a result, they were never unemployed. As long as their boat was seaworthy, had plenty of gas or diesel, and their equipment and nets were in good conditions, these individuals defined a working coast. They operated according to the rhythm of the seasons and made a good living, supported their families and enjoyed the camaraderie of their immediate and extended families. They were happy as long as they were on the water.

With time the region’s economic drivers and associated communities could be distinguished and divided into eight categories: agriculture; fishing, trapping; commercial hunting; industrial activity; government service; recreation; and a combination of these elements. Each of these elements were the bases for permanent or transient settlements and will serve as the backbone for this talk on the wetlands and on how these individuals have survived and prospered for at least 250 years.


  • Name: Institute for Advanced Study
  • E-mail: ias@umn.edu
  • Phone: 612-626-5054
  • Sponsored by: Institute for Advanced Study


Reservation Information:  

More information: http://www.ias.umn.edu/symposiumcal.php

Disability Options:

To request disability accommodations, please contact [name, department, e-mail address, phone number].

Event Recording: http://www.ias.umn.edu/media/DonDavis.php

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