Jennifer Stierman Edwards
Eyes of an Eagle: Jean-Pierre Cenac, Patriarch
An Illustrated History of Early Houma-Terrebonne
By Christopher Everette Cenac, Sr., M.D., F.A.C.S, with Claire Domangue Joller
Published by JPC, L.L.C. Copyright @2011
In South Louisiana, we know about the Acadians, who were deported by the British from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island in Canada, beginning in 1755, and who settled in southwest Louisiana, becoming the “Cajuns.” We also know about the proud “French Creoles” in New Orleans. Both of these groups contributed to the “laissez le temp rouler” culture that we associate with the great state of Louisiana – and its food! But there were other groups of French immigrants who came to Louisiana and had a profound effect on the state’s cultural and economic development; they bore names now common in South Louisiana, like Chaisson, Aucoin, and Leroux.
The patriarch of the extensive Cenac family in Houma and Terrebonne Parish, Jean-Pierre Cenac, was one of them. His great-grandson, Dr. Christopher Cenac, has chronicled the story of his ancestor’s immigration and eventual economic success in real estate and the oyster business in the swampy bayou country of Terrebonne Parish. Through that story, he has given us a fascinating history of an entire region’s development to become a dominant force in the Louisiana state economy, first in sugar, then in oyster harvesting, production and distribution, and most recently in oil.
A native of the High Pyrenees region of France on the border with Spain, Pierre Cenac was a Basque who left his small town, with its dying crops and poverty, in 1860 to come to New Orleans, at the time the second busiest immigrant port of debarkation in the United States. It absorbed many Francophone immigrants. Cenac, at the time 20 years old and a baker by trade, was a member of the group known as “the Foreign French.”
The book is profusely and beautifully illustrated with photographs, maps and illustrations of all the Cenacs and their world, first in the village of Barbazan-Debat in the Pyrenees and later in the tiny town of Houma (population 429 when Pierre arrived) and the lush farmland on the bayous around Houma. We learn about Pierre’s wise decision to leave New Orleans shortly after his arrival on Christmas Day 1860, on the brink of the Civil War, to settle in an area further removed from the ravages of the yellow fever epidemic that decimated the New Orleans population around that time—and also safe from the economic disaster that lay in store for New Orleans when the Union forces blockaded the thriving port.
Through Dr. Cenac’s technique of alternating history chapters with fictionalized accounts of Pierre’s imagined (but well-documented) life, a whole lost world comes to life for us. We cannot help but admire Pierre’s courage, wit and fortitude in establishing himself in a terrain totally different from the mountains of home. He married, raised a family of 14 children (two died), and amassed wealth through astute land purchases and business deals, including an early acquisition of oyster water bottoms ultimately leading to a family oyster empire encompassing packing plants, oyster leases, and shipping facilities (made possible through a very important commercial development in 1910 — ice). Houma is still the country’s largest supplier of oysters.
Along the way, we find Houma growing from a village smaller than Thibodaux in the 1860s into a modern city, with a population of 5,160, at the time of Pierre’s death in 1914. Terrebonne Parish’s population in 1920 had ballooned to 26,974. Pierre Cenac and his children were responsible for numerous businesses in the area; they had their hands at some point not only in oyster operations, but also in banks, livery stables, butcher shops, bakeries, undertaking establishments, and newspapers. Dr. Cenac’s book effectively makes the case that the history of Terrebonne Parish is, in many ways, the history of the Cenac family, and vice versa.
Pierre Cenac’s life in Louisiana began with the Civil War, and moved through Reconstruction, the rise of the Industrial Age, the invention of telephones and automobiles, the annihilation caused by various hurricanes, the growth of a local maritime industry, and the construction of roads, churches, schools, and hospitals. It ended as the United States was about to enter World War I. His story, although unique, is the story of many settlers in Louisiana. They forged a new identities through assimilation into a new culture, bringing their folkways from the Old Country into the new. Even the Houmas Indians became totally absorbed into the Terrebonne Parish population, and the “Foreign French” intermarried with the Acadians. It all adds up to what exists today in the area: a rich, vibrant community, with a strong sense of family and faith and a visceral relation to the watery lands that comprise this swampy coastal area. With an inherited healthy dose of optimism, pragmatism, courage, and industry, the descendants of Pierre Cenac and all his immigrant brethren continue to thrive.