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Prehistoric Fishing

Bayou-Diversity (2 February 2020) Native Americans were masters at exploiting the natural resources of their environment whether in southwestern deserts or southern swamps. Fish were highly desirable sources of protein as evidenced by their remains in hundreds of archaeological sites. Techniques for obtaining fish ran the gamut from hook and line, woven seines, and poisons from wild plant materials such as green walnut hulls. Especially in the eastern half of the U.S., Indians devised another method to trap fish on shallow, flowing streams by building V-shaped, rock dams or weirs. The structures funneled fish into a small opening at the point of the V where a box trap often made of cane or hickory laths secured the fish. People would sometimes splash and drive their prey into the trap. Remains of these sites are scattered across many eastern states. A 1705 account from Virginia describes the process:

“At the falls of the Rivers, where the Water is shallow, and the Current strong, the Indians use another kind of Weir thus made. They make a Dam of loose stone where of there is plenty on hand, quite across the River, leaving One, Two or more Spaces or Tunnels, for the water to pass thro': at the Mouth of which they set a Pot of Reeds, Wove in form of a Cone, whose Base is about Three Foot, and in Perpendicular Ten, into which the Swiftness of the Current carries the Fish, and wedges them in fast, that they cannot possibly return.”

A key element for building fish weirs was the presence of stones near a flowing stream, scarce items indeed in Louisiana’s alluvial deposits of sand and clay. Until recently, the closest I have been able to sift from the literature was a weir discovered in south Mississippi in association with remains of split-cane netting thirty to forty feet long. The site was dated to AD 1460. Then, my magnifying glass examination of an old map led to evidence of such structures in Louisiana barely three miles as the fish crow flies from my house on the edge of the swamp.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers’ first presence of substance on Bayou D’Arbonne occurred when congress authorized a survey of the stream to determine the scope of “improvements” needed to enhance steamboat navigation. The work resulted in the first comprehensive survey with accompanying maps titled Map of Bayous D’Arbonne and Corney, Louisiana, dated September, 1883. The maps are remarkable in detail, but some of the labels are so tiny as to be almost illegible without magnification. My closer look revealed a V-shaped mark pointed downstream identified as “Fish-trap Dam” in a shoal just below the mouth of Francis Creek. Farther up below Crawford’s Bluff, another was labeled “Old Fish Dam.” The official report of Assistant Engineer F.S. Burrowes is even more revealing:

“Twenty-two and a half miles above the mouth [of the bayou] Francis Creek enters the right bank . . . and one-half mile farther down the channel is . . . obstructed by a stone dam 5 feet in height, built [to] hold a fish trap.”

It is notable that both dams were in very shallow parts of the bayou, one foot deep according to the survey soundings. Both were also located where uncommon outcrops of hematite surface and provide stones for construction. Although it is likely that settlers refurbished and re-used the fish traps as documented in other areas, they were almost certainly first built by people with hundreds of generations of expertise in such matters. Imagine the scene on a hot summer day as a dozen Indians young and old splashed, shouted, and laughed as they beat the water with canes to drive catfish, freshwater drum, and smallmouth buffalo into the trap on Bayou D’Arbonne. The joy of fishing is ageless. ©KO


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