Explorers tell alligator tales in early Louisiana

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

Louisiana has long captured America's imagination with its beautiful bayous, delicious cuisine, and abundant wildlife. Television shows such as "Swamp People" have only increased that interest particularly in Louisiana's famous alligators.

Stories about the alligator (or "crocodile," as the French called them) began to appear in print soon after the Sieur d'Iberville established the Louisiana colony in 1699. In fact, one of the first mentionings of our alligator can be found in Iberville's diary. While exploring Bayou Manchac, he wrote, "We see a large quantity of crocodiles. I killed a small one, eight feet long. They are very good to eat."

Andre Penicaut accompanied Iberville on the expedition, and he claimed that one of the first places in Louisiana the French named was the Riviere-aux-Chiens "because a crocodile ate up one of our dogs there." This stream is probably modern-day Riviere aux Chenes that forms the western boundary of St. Bernard Parish.

Le Page DuPratz, another early explorer, frequently mentioned the alligator in his memoirs. According to DuPratz, they were not only widespread but downright huge. "Among other things I cannot omit to give an account of a monstrous large alligator I killed with a musquet ball. . . .We measured it, and found it to be nineteen feet long, its head three feet and a half long . . . at the belly it was two feet two inches thick . . . M. Mehane told me, he had killed one that was twenty-two feet long." If Mehane's gator was measured accurately, it would have broken the current world record of 19' 2".

The author of an 1854 article in Harper's New Monthly Magazine also commented on the large size of the gators. He claimed a skull was found with jaws that opened up five feet and that a man once killed an alligator in Pascagoula Bay that measured twenty-one feet long. The writer also mentioned that the famous painter James J. Audubon killed one in the Three Rivers area that measured seventeen feet.

This same author claimed the alligator's ability to survive long periods of time without food "almost exceeds belief." While living in Concordia Parish, he received a letter from a European scientist requesting a live alligator to study. The author put the word out, and gators soon started arriving at his doorstep literally. In the dead of night, a neighbor tied to his porch an alligator "whose huge jaws . . . opened wide enough to swallow any philosopher who would dare to interfere with his habits or dental fixtures."

He finally acquired two alligators he thought would fit the scientist's needs and simply put them in a crate with air holes and shipped them to Europe. Traveling by steamboat and train, it took the critters nearly five months to reach their destination. They arrived in good condition even though "in all that time, lived on else than faith, sunshine, and the dews of heaven."

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, alligators seemed to have flourished all over Louisiana, but writers frequently mentioned their abundance in Red River. One author quoted Audubon as saying the number of gators there was "almost beyond conception. He says he has seen hundreds at once, the smaller riding on the backs of the larger, groaning and bellowing like so many mad bulls about to meet in fight. . . ."

In 1876, manufacturers in New York and New Jersey began purchasing Louisiana alligator skins to make boots, shoes, and purses, and other companies bought alligator oil for use in machinery. As a result, professional hunters started killing large numbers of the reptiles. On June 3, 1882, the Lafayette Advertiser reported, "Three persons residing in the parish of Assumption, last year killed 9000 alligators, saved the oil and sold the hides. The price of the hides is seventy-five cents apiece."

The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries estimates that from 1880 to 1933 approximately 3.5 million Louisiana alligators were killed for their skins (or an average of 64,815 per year). The number dropped significantly to 414,126 (or 18,005 per year) between 1939 and 1960. A growing concern that the Louisiana gator might be killed to extinction led officials to initiate a state-wide ban on hunting alligators in 1962.

Ten years later, the gator population had rebounded enough that a commercial season was reopened. Today, thanks to conservation efforts, there are probably more alligators in Louisiana than there were one hundred years ago.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe who has received numerous awards for his books and outdoor articles.