Alligator Tales: Stories from Louisiana’s alligator-filled past
Louisiana’s most-famous reptile has a long and colorful history.
|Terry L. Jones|
Louisiana Sportsman contributing writer John Flores with a gator he harvested during the 2009 season.
Stories about the alligator (or “crocodile,” as the French called them) began to appear in print soon after the Sieurd’Iberville established the Louisiana colony in 1699.
In fact, one of the first mentions of our alligator can be found in Iberville’s diary.
“We see a large quantity of crocodiles,” he wrote while exploring Bayou Manchac. “I killed a small one, 8 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 (Oak River) in 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 (sic) ball …," he wrote. "We measured it, and found it to be 19 feet long, its head 3 feet and a half long … at the belly it was 2 feet, 2 inches thick…. M. Mehane told me, he had killed one that was 22 feet long."
If Mehane’s gator was measured accurately, it would have broken the current world record of 19 feet, 2 inches.
The author of an 1854 article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine also commented on the large sizes of the gators. He claimed a skull was found with jaws that opened up 5 feet, and that a man once killed a gator in Pascagoula Bay that measured 21 feet long. The writer also mentioned that the famous painter James J. Audubon killed an alligator in the Three Rivers area that measured 17 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 soon gators 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 (the alligators) lived on else than faith, sunshine and the dews of heaven."
In the 18th and 19th 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 1873, the Lafayette Advertiser printed a humorous story related by a Yankee newspaper reporter who was traveling on a Red River steamboat. The river, he reported, was "famous for the size and beauty of its alligators …. We had a man on our boat leaving Shreveport who was a little fresh in alligator history. He had not been born in this beautiful country, and what he knew about alligators would not fill a large volume.
"This is the way a naughty Louisianian instructed him: ‘Do you see that bayou down there?’ ‘Yes; it looks gloomy.’ ‘Well, if we could stay here half an hour we would see a steamboat borne out.’ ‘Would we?’ ‘Yes, boats navigate that bayou but they are towed by alligators.’ ‘Towed by alligators! How you talk!’ ‘Yes, they can’t use steam in that bayou; they employ alligator power altogether. The alligators are very large, and they hitch them in front with cables and they walk right off with it. They are trained to the work, and are as gentle as oxen. They know when the boat is coming and put themselves in position to be hitched in.’"
Several writers explained in great detail how Louisiana alligators were a menace to other animals. One author wrote that between the "deer and bear hunters and the alligator there is confirmed war" because the gators often ate the hunters’ prized dogs when they swam a stream.
"An interesting and well-authenticated anecdote," he continued, "is told illustrative of the hound in avoiding its enemy. A gentleman living in the ‘Opelousas country,’ and remarkably fond of hunting, kept a choice pack of dogs, which, in going from the house to the woods, had to cross a stream celebrated for its innumerable alligators. They soon discovered where lay the danger, and when they desired to cross the stream, they would come together on the banks and utter the most unearthly yells. The alligators in the vicinity would pop up their heads above the water in all directions, and then simultaneously rush to the point of entering the stream. The hounds, having satisfied themselves that their enemies had come well together, would then suddenly start up the bank, run a few hundred yards and cross, making their ferry before the fooled reptiles could reach them."
The same writer claimed that, next to dogs, alligators preferred pork.
"We were very much amused on an occasion to witness a rash and terrible fight between an alligator of good size and a miserable old hog …," he wrote. "[A] pitch battle of some moments ensued, when, to my surprise, the alligator quit his hold and seemed satisfied to make off with a whole hide. The extraordinary part was, that the venerable and old porker never left the place, but, crowned with its victorious wreaths, quietly disposed of itself in the soft mud, and soon grunted itself into a sound sleep."
According to this writer, Louisiana alligators would even take on a full-grown bear. He related the story of a man who was fishing on a western Louisiana stream when he "was startled by the roaring of some animal in the cane-break near by, apparently getting ready for action."
The fisherman thought two bulls were fighting and went to investigate. Instead of bulls, however, he found "a large black bear raised upon his hind legs, his face besmeared with white foam, sprinkled with blood, which, dropping from his mouth, rolled down his shaggy breast. Frantic from the smarting of his wounds he stood gnashing his teeth and growling at his enemy. On a bank of snow-white shells, in battle array, was Bruin’s foe — a monster alligator."
The gator "was standing on tiptoe, his back curved upward …displaying his wide jaws, two large tusks and rows of teeth. His tail, 6 feet long, raised from the ground, was constantly waving like a boxer’s arm to gather force."
Three times in rapid succession the bear charged, but each time the alligator hit him with his tail with such force that it knocked the bear to the ground. On his fourth charge, the bear managed to avoid the tail, roll the gator on its back and bite down on a foreleg. As the alligator struggled to get free, both tumbled off the steep bank into the creek.
"The tranquil stream received the combatants with a loud splash, then closed over them in silence," the story continued. "A volley of ascending bubbles announced their arrival at the bottom, where the battle ended. Presently Bruin rose again, scrambled up the bank, cast a glance back at the river and, all dripping, made off to the cane-brake."
Several writers refuted the popularly held belief that alligators posed a danger to humans and declared that they were usually quite docile.
The author of the 1854 Harper’s Monthly article related how a Dr. Livingston and some companions rode into a den of alligators while tracking a wounded deer near Baton Rouge.
The trio decided to shoot the gators, although the author did not explain why. The men dismounted, divided their 450 buckshot between them and agreed to load only three buckshot at a time so that each man could fire 50 shots.
"The hunters standing very near the reptiles, caused every shot to be fatal. The wounded all died in from three to four minutes after being shot; they jerked, bumbled, turned on one side, held up their quivering hands and died. When the last shot was fired the survivors lay quietly, unterrified and unconcerned."
Other writers echoed the claim that human activity rarely excited the gators.
The above-mentioned author claimed the only time he had encountered a threatening alligator was when he and some hunting companions camped out under a large tree near the water.
That night an "immense alligator" entered the circle of firelight "evidently with hostile intentions." One man fired a load of buckshot into the gator’s head, and they listened to it thrash and bellow all night.
It was not until morning that the hunters discovered that they had camped right next to the alligator’s nest, and that several of her eggs had already hatched.
While most writers discounted the notion that alligators were man-eaters, a few did recount horrifying tales of narrow escapes.
An entertaining 1853 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine article was written by a man who claimed to have been attacked by alligators while hunting ibis in Louisiana.
Leaving a small Creole village in a row boat, he went far back into the swamp and immediately began shooting game, including "a fine white-headed eagle which came soaring over my boat, unconscious of danger."
He then entered a mile-long lake that was "full of alligators" and killed an ibis on a small island. When he walked over to pick it up, the current dislodged the boat and took it out into the lake.
The man quickly realized that he was in a dangerous predicament. He was stuck on a small island miles from civilization, unable to swim and surrounded by alligators.
Exhausted, the hunter lay down to sleep, but woke suddenly at sundown.
"I was surrounded by dark objects of hideous shape and hue …. [T]hey were alligators. A hundred at least were crawling over the islet, before, behind and on all sides around me."
When he jumped to his feet, the gators scurried into the water, but if he lay still for even a few minutes, "the dark reptiles came crawling round me — so close that I could have put forth my hand and touched them."
After awhile the alligators became more bold, and he had to fire his shotgun to force them back.
Morning found him in bad shape.
"[T]he sun burned down upon me and my skin blistered. I was already speckled by the bites of a thousand swamp-flies and musquitoes (sic), that all night long had preyed upon me."
The sun was fierce, and he stayed hydrated by drinking the lake’s hot water. Hunger gnawed at him until he finally ate the dead ibris raw.
The hunter fought the alligators for two more nights ,but he was getting weak from hunger. He had refused to eat the rancid carcass of a gator he had killed, but "two more days’ fasting conquered my squeamishness."
The stink from the rotting alligator finally became so bad that he pushed it into the lake. As the man watched the current carry it away, he had an epiphany: The dead gator was floating because it was bloated with gas.
"An idea shot suddenly through my mind …. I thought of the floating alligator, of its intestines — what if I inflated them?"
He quickly shot another large gator and took out the intestines.
"A plume-quill from the wing of the ibis served me for a blow-pipe. I saw the bladder-like skin expand, until I was surrounded by objects like great sausages. These were tied together and fastened to my body, and then, with a plunge, I entered the waters of the lake, and floated downward."
The ingenious life vest allowed him to sit upright in the water, and he held his shotgun ready to use as a club if the alligators came after him. The hunter drifted down to the end of the lake, found his beached boat and eventually made his way back to civilization.
One of the more-sensational stories of alligators threatening people was published in the Lafayette Advertiser on May 19, 1894.
Under the heading "A Night of Horror," the reporter related a conversation he had with a friend who had lived on a Mississippi plantation before the Civil War.
One morning the friend and six other boys crossed the Mississippi River in a flat boat to hunt turkeys in Louisiana.
"After landing on the other side, we rode about 30 or 40 miles into the interior of Louisiana, passing through long stretches of dense jungle and canebrake," the story related.
The boys found a canoe on a lake and positioned it on a grassy island to shoot at flocks of turkeys as they flew overhead from one feeding area to another. As darkness fell, they gathered up the 50 to 60 birds they had killed and rowed ashore to make camp, "making a huge bonfire to keep off the bears, panthers and wildcats that then infested the swamps and jungles of the interior of Louisiana …."
As a bright moon rose above the treeline, the boy convinced his friends to paddle him out to a large cypress tree in the middle of the lake because he wanted to climb up in it and take in the grandiose beauty of the full moon rising over the water.
Once he was in the tree, however, his friends pulled a practical joke by leaving him stranded and paddling back to shore to cook their turkeys.
As they gathered wood for a camp fire, the boy in the tree heard a "shrill scream" and saw a bobcat jump into the canoe to get the turkeys. The canoe overturned, dumping the turkeys into the lake, and the wildcat swam toward shore.
According to the narrator, what occurred next "stopped my heart from beating and froze the very blood in my veins. A fearful scream from the wild cat and the next instant a long black snout thrust itself above the water, opened and shut once its ponderous jaws; there was a gleam of double rows of cruel-looking teeth and in another second the wildcat had disappeared under the water.
"The next minute the whole lake seemed alive with the horrible black snouts and cruel, glittering eyes of innumerable alligators, all swimming and struggling with each other for possession of the dead bodies of the turkeys."
It quickly dawned on him that he was trapped in the tree because the canoe had drifted out into the lake. His friends had no way to rescue him, and he couldn’t swim; even if he could he knew the gators would devour him before he could reach shore. Looking down, the boy saw a half dozen alligators had already gathered beneath him.
The youngster yelled for his friends, but when no one answered he figured they had gone for help. The nearest house belonged to a family of alligator hunters but it was 15 miles away.
Hours later, exhausted from the long horse ride and hunt, the boy finally lost his grip and instinctively let out a loud scream. Just before he hit the water he heard someone yell back.
"A fearful pain shot through my heart and lungs as the great jaws opened and shut. I felt a grinding and crunching of all the bones in my body, while a horrible din sounded in my ears, as if all creation were being ground to atoms around me, then a long, drawn-out feeling of unspeakable pain, and I knew no more."
The boy woke up three weeks later in the New Orleans Charity Hospital. His friends happened to meet the alligator hunter on the way to his house, and they made it back to the lake right when the boy fell into the water.
The hunter’s son killed the alligator with one shot just as it grabbed him. It was the gator’s death convulsion "that had almost crushed me to jelly."
The narrator claimed he never fully recovered from the numerous crushed ribs and punctured lung suffered in the ordeal.
Truthfully, one should take the above two tales with a grain of salt because of their sensational nature and the fact that there is no way to verify their authenticity.
But it’s interesting to note that Louisiana newspapers carried a story in June 2012 about a couple who also took to a cypress tree to escape threatening alligators after their boat sank in Lake Verret.
A more-reliable account of a Louisiana alligator actually killing someone occurred in 1734 when a man was found dead on the bank of the Red River (now Cane River) at Natchitoches.
The body was nude, and was lying half in the water.
"We found near the ear, three wounds equally distant from (a part of his body that is now unreadable in the report)," the coroner reported. "In addition to this, we found the eyes bulging and unusually swollen. We did not notice any other wound on the rest of the body, which led us to believe an alligator had attacked him while he was bathing …."
If that’s what really happened, it is the only recorded case in Louisiana of an alligator killing a person.
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 began killing large numbers of the reptiles.
"Three persons residing in the parish of Assumption, last year killed 9,000 alligators, saved the oil and sold the hides," the Lafayette Advertiser reported on June 3, 1882. "The price of the hides is 75 cents apiece."
In some areas, alligators were hunted nearly to extinction, and many people became concerned.
In 1905, the Lafayette Advertiser warned of an unexpected consequence of killing out the gators. According to the paper, alligators helped guard against flooding by eating muskrats that dug holes into the levees.
Some areas of the state had even made it a misdemeanor to kill alligators, and a reporter declared, "[I]t is to be hoped that the action has come in time to preserve the species to the State."
This reporter also wrote that a man living in the Attakapas district had observed how alligators benefited navigation on Bayou Teche and other streams.
"He called attention to the fact that the beds of these streams were gradually and surely rising, and … held that the primary cause of the shallowing of the bayous was the destruction of the alligators which inhabited them …. They live on the bottom of the streams and continually stir up the mud,which the current carries out to the Gulf, and hence the streams are being perpetually dredged by alligator power …. [T]he old resident of the Attakapas may have advanced a plea for the ‘gator which will cause an extension of the laws for his preservation over the entire State."
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.
There was growing concern that the Louisiana gator might be killed to extinction, so officials initiated 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 100 years ago.
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