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  • Opelousas (Prairie des Coteaux)
    – Towards the Cajun Prairie

Opelousas’ Post was one of the first French colonies in Louisiana. It was founded around 1720 as a military base and trading post among the native Appalousa nation which occupied the region. In 1765 when about forty Acadians arrived from Fausse Pointe where a bad epidemic had decimated several of their compatriots, Jacques Guillaume Courtableau, born at Pointe Coupée Post in Louisiana, was then captain of the militia and one of the greatest landowners of Opelousas’ Post. According to the census of the first Acadian settlers in Louisiana published on April 25, 1766, nine families made up this group of refugees, namely the families of Charles Comeaux, Michel Comeau, Joseph Cormier, Timothée Guénard, Jean-Baptiste Hébert said Cobit, Pierre Pitre (the oldest of the group at age 66), Pierre Richard, Pierre Thibodeaux, and Charles-Jean Sonnier. They came from Annapolis Royal, Chignectou, Cobequid, Port-Royal and Rivière-des-Hébert in Nova Scotia, from Chipoudy and Petitcodiac in New Brunswick, from Malpeque on Prince Edward Island (formerly Isle St. Jean), as well as Maryland. The youngest, Louis Comeaux, baptized in New Orleans on May 16, 1765, was born at sea or in New Orleans. The other five children aged five and under were all born on Georges Island in Halifax Harbor, a place of incarceration for hundreds of Acadians before being deported.

Towards the Cajun Prairie

With the help of Courtableau, this group of 41 Acadians including 18 women and girls, anxious not to be noticed, decided to settle along the western shores of Bayou Del Puent in Prairie des Coteaux as well as on the banks of Bayou Sandy and Bayou. Callahan in the northern part of Prairie Bellevue. Today, these three neighbouring bayous cross the southern end of the city of Opelousas, St. Landry Parish’s seat.

Ten years later, some major adjoining property issues with regard to certain woodlots involving Courtableau’s succession forced most Acadians to sell their piece of land to Creole migrants (people of different ethnic origins) and to move westwards in Prairie Bellevue. Their new colony was located between Bayou Sylvain to the north and Bayou Bourbeux to the south in the actual municipality of Sunset near Arnaudville.

Then from Prairie Bellevue, the second Acadian generation went even further west, settling in small numbers over time in what would later become the “Cajun Prairie”. From generation to generation, the old Cajun houses gradually evolved into a better way to live.

Old Cajun house
Old Cajun house in the Cajun Prairie (photo credit: Judy Vincent, source Pinterest, without modification)

In Acadiana, the “Prairie” stretches from Lake Charles in the west to the eastern limit of Opelousas. It is made up of numerous grasslands such as Grande Prairie, Prairie des Femmes between Grand Coteau and Arnaudville, Prairie Gros Chevreuil in Pecanière’s territory, Prairie Au Large near New Iberia, and Plateau Petit Bois in Calcasieu Parish on the Louisiana-Texas border. These vast isolated spaces, far from New Orleans, attracted Acadians for several reasons. Foremost, deforestation and heavy land clearing were not a chore. In addition, the nearby woodlands provided all the wood needed for heating as well as the construction of houses, furniture, barns, plows and small boats.

Mardi Gras in the Cajun Prairie
Mardi Gras in the Cajun Prairie is a community affair (photo credit: DVal Designs, source Pinterest, without modification)

Above all, it is important to know that family ties are of the utmost importance to the Acadian people. This is why their gradual migration from one end of the Cajun Prairie to the other generally involved family units. With each displacement, new and larger lands were acquired from the Spanish authorities. The Acadians were methodical, only venturing into the closest coulee or bayou so as not to become too dispersed. The lure of the grasslands and the desired isolation ensured that the rich Acadian culture of the Cajuns was preserved from full assimilation while ensuring a highly sought-after community cohesion. Moreover, the economic independence of their descendants was ensured through the successive ownership of ancestral lands.