Blooming Irises, The Last Reminder of a Village That Was
Updated: Jul 5
July 20, 2021 New Orleans, La.
A project of the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI) now has an important historical aspect to it. Here's the story:
The Battle of New Orleans took place on January 8, 1815 as the last event in the War of 1812 between the British and the new American nation. The battle was fought between a professional British army and a rag-tag, thrown together, US military force that resulted in a victory for the young United States over what was then a world power.
The Battle of New Orleans took place on January 8, 1815. Unbeknownst to the participates of the battle, a treaty had been signed eighteen days before by the United States and Britain,
ending the war of 1812.
In 1855 there were plans for a monument to be built near the location of the earthworks that the Americans, lead by Andrew Jackson, stood behind to successfully repulse the British. It was not completed until the land was transferred to the federal government in 1907 because funding was in short supply.
In 1864 the Union Army established a cemetery to bury its Civil War dead near the site of this famous battleground. Over the years soldiers from nearly all of America’s wars have been buried in this hallowed ground called the Chalmette National Cemetery.
On August 10, 1939, Congress established Chalmette Battlefield as a National Historical Park. The two historic parcels of property have been separated from one another since the early 1800’s by a tract of land that was purchased by a “free man of color” by the name of Pierre Fazende. In 1856 he turned the land over to his son who divided the property into 33 lots and sold them to other free people of color. After the civil war some of the lots were sold to freed slaves, which would have given them ownership of property for the first time.
A recent painting of what the village of Fazendeville would have looked like in its prime.
A one-room school house, Baptist church, dance hall, grocery store and two barrooms appeared over the years as the single street slowly developed into a village. It became known as Fazendeville. It was home to thirty families living in thirty homes.
Life in Fazendeville remained tranquil and undisturbed for more than 100 years. But in 1962 a chain of events began, beyond the control of the families, that would forever change their lives. In that year area civic boosters began efforts to unite the Chalmette Battlefield with the Chalmette National Cemetery by taking possession of the field that laid between the two, which was the land that British soldiers marched across in their attack on the American lines. There was only one problem; the homes and buildings of Fazendeville sat on that land.
The idea was to create single large tract of land for the newly named Chalmette National Historic Park. The timing was to coincide with the sesquicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans on its 150th anniversary in 1965.
The village of Fazendeville was located right in the middle of the historic Chalmette battlefield.
The residents of Fazendeville were soon overwhelmed by the drive to combine these federal properties. In the “Can Do” age of the 1950’s and 1960’s many huge projects across the country moved forward using the accepted wisdom that even if whole communities needed to be displaced that wasn't enough of a reason to stop progress, so the legal process to expropriate their property began.
At the time, a typical new home in the area appraised for $16,500. The residents of Fazendeville were paid $6,000 for their old homes, making it financially impossible for many of them to find homes to replace the ones they had lost.
Some of the buildings in Fazendeville are shown in this photo. It was taken as planning was underway to expropriate the properties.
In early 1965 the last building in Fazendeville was bulldozed down and the debris hauled off. Within a year the ground was scraped clear so that if you looked very carefully only a slight indention could be seen of what was the old roadbed.
The photo shows the 1965 sesquicentennial event for the battlefield as it was underway.
Fast-forward to 2020.
Until the 1930’s the battlefield was bordered by a cypress swamp on the north with the river batture (wetland) along the Mississippi River on its south side. The site is in St. Bernard parish where Louisiana irises grew in vast numbers within its swamps and marshes throughout history. Because of this, the US Park Service approved a Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative proposed planting of native Louisiana irises in a bog that is located along the south side of the battlefield. It was only the second permit issued at the battlefield in the last ten years because of the rigorous criteria that is used to consider a proposed project on US National Park Service property. It was approved in part because it was thought by the park staff that there were no irises growing on the property.
This is what was found when the LICI volunteer walked out into the field for the first time in February, 2021.
On February 10, 2021, almost a year after the iris planting project was proposed, four LICI volunteers planted the first batch of test irises. When they were finished, one of them noticed a clump of what looked like Louisiana irises growing out in the field that was across the paved road from where they had worked. A few days later LICI received permission to walk the field and in the process it was discovered that there were multiple patches of Louisiana irises that included anywhere from one hundred to multiple hundreds of irises in each. It was just assumed these were wild, light blue I. giganticaerulea species of the Louisiana iris that’s native to the area that somehow had been overlooked by the park staff because the largest patches were a long way out from the road. Since the field is never cut in March or April there would be no reason for any of the park staff to be out in the field during the iris bloom.
LICI decided that they would gather up a group to walk the field during the iris bloom consisting of LICI’s supporters and some of the park staff that had become interested in the mystery of Louisiana irises growing in the middle of the battlefield, especially since it looked like the irises had been there for many years, if not decades.
Photo: Friends of LICI and staff of the US Park Service find the first patch of blooming Louisiana irises on the trip out into the field on March 29th. They estimated that there were a total of a few thousand Louisiana irises if all of the iris patches were combined.
On March 29th the group met in a small parking area on the paved road and started walking into the field. They quickly discovered that the irises were not the light blue I. giganticaerulea irises, but were lavender-purple, making them most likely the I. vinicolor iris. It’s what results from the first cross between the I. giganticaerulea and the I. fulva Louisiana irises. Every iris spread out over a long and narrow section of the field was the same-colored iris, with some slight variations in color found in just a few clumps.
I. vinicolor irises in one of the irises patches on the Chalmette Battlefield.
(Photo by Paul Christiansen)
Then the group came across a few clumps of plants in bloom that made them all stop in their tracks. It was a non-native plant, originally from Africa, called the crinum lily. Seeds of the crinum lily are known to have been brought to the Americas by slaves. It’s been grown in the home gardens of some black families since then, passed down from one generation to another, as a reminder of their heritage.
Some of the crinum lilies are seen blooming on the edge of one of the patches of irises.
(Photo by Paul Christiansen)
They then located the faint outline of the old Fazendeville roadbed. By following the roadbed through the field they figured out that all of the irises and crinum lilies were growing on only one side of the road, the side where the houses once stood. The clumps of irises also ended about where the rear line of the lots would have been.
Everyone later said they just stood there thinking what turned out being the same thought; that they had likely found the remnants and offspring of two species of plants that once grew in the gardens of homes in Fazendeville. Somehow, they have survived since the 1960's when the homes were moved or torn down and are now growing and spreading in the field right there in the middle of the Chalmette Battlefield as a silent reminder of the village and the people that once lived there.
Photo: One of only three small clumps of irises that were a little off colored. They appeared to have more of the red I. fulva color.
It makes sense that the I. vinicolor would have been the iris of choice for people in Fazendeville to grow. If there are tens of thousands of light blue colored I. giganticaerulea irises blooming along the roads in Chalmette and the red I. fulva along the Mississippi River batture nearby, you would have collected the more challenging to find wine-colored I. vinicolor iris to plant into your garden back in the first half of the 20th century. Fazendeville was located in a section of Chalmette where the distance separating the cypress swamps to the north holding the I. giganticaerulea iris and the Mississippi River batture holding I. fulva is the narrowest. There were likely at least a few I. vinicolor irises growing in the area as a result of the two cross-pollinating.
LICI is excited that what started off as a simple iris restoration project now has an important historical aspect to it. Plans are underway by LICI volunteers and the park staff to move some of the irises and crinum lilies to a location near the parking area and to install a written display to create a living memorial for the residents of Fazendeville.