Facts and Demographics
St. Martin Parish is located in south-central Louisiana; its parish seat is St. Martinville. It has a population of 52,160 (2010 US Census Bureau) and is 739.9 square miles in size.
St. Martin Parish is the only parish to have non-contiguous parts. There are three major geographical areas dividing the 739.9 square mile parish, including the Atchafalaya Basin, the prairie, and the Bayou Teche area, on which several major cities, including the parish seat, are located.
Over one third of St. Martin Parish’s 52,000 inhabitants are Cajun, and the area certainly boasts large African-American, white Creole, and Creole of Color communities.
From the Bayou Teche to the Atchafalaya Basin, St. Martin Parish is a picturesque and bountiful region. Rich in agricultural, visitors are taken through sugar cane fields, low-lying swamp land, and rolling lands of beauty. Majestic live oaks, draped with moss, are scattered along roadways. Bald cypress trees and their unique stumps abound.
Who can forget the stories of Evangeline sitting on the banks of the Bayou Teche. Believed to be of Indian origin, the word Teche is said to mean “winding snake”. The Chitimatcha legend says that “it was a mean and deadly snake that terrorized the tribe. But finally Indian bowmen overcame it, and as it turned and coiled and twisted in death throes, it broadened and deepened and carved out the place where it died.” Nearly 123 miles of flowing water beginning at Bayou Courtableau in St. Landry Parish and joining the the Atchafalaya in lower St. Mary Parish, the Bayou Teche winds its way through St. Martin Parish, from Breaux Bridge to St. Martinville and beyond.
Then, imagine flowing gently through a maze of darkness and being enveloped by the mysterious and murky water of an endless winding watercourse of rivers and lakes. You’ve just entered the Atchafalaya Basin Swamp.
The Atchafalaya Basin comprises an area of 860,000 acres of swamps, lakes, and water prairies. Cutting a 15-mile-wide path along South Louisiana, it is the largest and last great river-basin swamp. But to fully comprehend and appreciate the magnificence of the Atchafalaya, you must journey back when the Atchafalaya was as nomadic as its people.
The Atchafalaya River Basin first began forming around 900 AD when the might Mississippi River abandoned its easternmost channel and flowed in that direction for approximately 1,000 years to occupy the present course of Bayou Lafourche. Over time, natural levees formed along the river to trap yearly overflow thus forming a lake within the middle bounded by a densely forested area.
The Basin has been an essential source of food, timber, and fur for Native Americans and for settlers of European and African descent. It served as a refuge for escaped slaves, and its resources attracted a number of Cajuns in the hard times that followed the Civil War.
Early development of the Atchafalaya Basin hinged on the Bayou Teche. Before roads, the little Teche, not the Atchafalaya, was the highway from the Gulf of Mexico into the heart of Louisiana. Amazingly the Teche was navigable over 100 miles, yet it was no wider than the length of a war canoe, no deeper than a man and no swifter than mud turtles that swam it.
The removal of timber is the oldest economic activity practiced in the Atchafalaya Basin. Cypress was the most important lumber product. Tupelo gum and various other trees were also exploited. The French soon found the value of cypress as a building material. They used the lumber for homes, out-buildings, fences, boats, and most wooden implements.
The Great Flood of 1927 drastically changed the life of the Basin from Simmesport in the upper Basin to Morgan City in the South. The flood triggered a mass exodus from communities like Bayou Chene, Sherburne, Atchafalaya, and Pelba where people once made their living from the swamp.
In an effort to control Mother Nature’s plans of shortening the route of the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico via the Atchafalaya River, the US Army Corps of Engineers erected huge flood gates at the intersection of the two rivers. The five- mile-wide West Atchafalaya Floodway was created by the Corps of Engineers as an outlet for the raging water of the Red, Atchaflaya, and Mississippi rivers during the next great flood.
An abundance of wildlife can be found in the Basin. At least 300 species of birds, including thousands of wintering ducks and coots and the largest wintering population of American woodcock in North America. Over 50,000 egrets, ibises, and herons nest in the Floodway. The largest nesting concentration of bald eagles in the south central United States is found in the Atchafalaya Basin. The American alligator along with 54 other species of reptiles and amphibians can also be found. Over 90 species of fish, crawfish, crabs, and shrimp support an extremely active seafood industry.
With each new season, the Atchafalaya Swamp changes it face. Winter blows in isolation and despair as the frigid morning fog rolls across the basin swamp. Spring signals a rebirth as lush greens and vibrant purples reach forward to embrace its new season. Sunrise is the basin awakens its creatures as snakes slither and alligators and turtles bask in the sunlight. As the sun descends on another day, an eerie silence hangs on until the haunting cry of the egret penetrates the morning.