For more than 100 years, Chinese and Filipino immigrants and their descendants harvested and processed shrimp along the Louisiana coast. Their story does not appear in the pages of any history book — yet. But because UL scholar Dr. Carl Brasseaux is helping document the details of their day-to-day existence, their story will not be lost.

In the late 1800s, families of Chinese immigrants brought their method of drying shrimp to the Louisiana coast. They lived and worked in the wetlands, building houses on stilts with walkways connected to massive wooden platforms, equivalent in size to one to three acres of land. The plat- forms had corrugated, undulating surfaces, with furrows and ridges, somewhat like a washboard. The men harvested shrimp from nearby estuaries, spreading their catch on the drying platforms. Then community members came together to "dance the shrimp," Brasseaux said. "The people would come along and shuffle their feet over the shrimp to remove the shells." Coastal winds carried the papery shells away on the breeze, then the dried shrimp were cleaned, packaged and sent to market.

Chinese shrimpers established the trade; Filipino families came to Louisiana in the 1900s. "They have been a neglected footnote to history, even though they were a very important part of the economic development and the industrialization of the coastal wetlands."

The story of the shrimpers and their drying platforms was available to researchers, but has mostly been ignored, said Brasseaux. "It was mentioned in a couple of obscure publications, but nobody has ever really tried to put flesh on the bones."

Brasseaux and collaborator Dr. Don Davis, a coastal geographer, are learning more about the dried-shrimp industry by talking to people who know the coastal region best, those who have made their living along the coast for decades. Brasseaux said they are learning more about the daily lives of the shrimping families and about the dried-shrimp industry as a whole.

In researching the history of the dried shrimp industry, Brasseaux and Davis are also combing public and private records to corroborate and supplement information gleaned in interviews. They said they have gained a wider perspective of the industry’s impact.

"Dried shrimp was a major export of the 1900s," said Brasseaux. Although local customers bought some packaged shrimp, the bulk of the dried-shrimp business relied on Chinese contacts. Producers supplied dried shrimp to Chinatowns in major cities throughout North America. A Louisiana dried-shrimp distributor, Blum and Bergeron, based in Houma, La., "had a monopoly on American dried shrimp exports to China," Brasseaux said. The company, which remains in operation, has allowed the two researchers access to many of its records.

Davis noted that "the largest single loan made by a bank in Terrebonne Parish was associated with a shrimp-drying platform. The loan was the entire capitalization of the bank."

Those facts don’t match up with written accounts of the 19th and early 20th century, which often described the wetlands as "a no-man’s land, a region not fit for human habitation. … That’s simply not the case," Davis added.

Over the past three years, Brasseaux and Davis have traveled along the entire Louisiana coast, on backroads and water- ways stretching from the Pearl River to the Sabine, collecting oral histories. In addition to sharing their stories, people are sharing photographs and other materials.

Their work is supported by Sea Grant, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Its mission is to promote steward- ship of national wetlands.

This year, Davis and Brasseaux received $10,000 in federal, state-administered funds. The money covers the cost of fuel for field interviews and preparation of materials collected in the field.

"The dollar amount of the grant is less important than the fact that Sea Grant recognizes the importance of this work. It shows a commitment to on-the-ground research," Davis said.

The researchers are trying to interview as many people as possible. Brasseaux noted that "reconstructing history is like creating a mosaic. The more bits of information you have, the more complete the picture. We’re talking to people who worked in offices related to the wetlands, those who ran businesses in the wetlands, as well as people who rolled up their sleeves and went into the marshes to trap muskrat and nutria."

There is a sense of urgency in their work. "Radical changes have taken place in the coastal wetlands over the last few decades. And those changes are not necessarily for the best, at least in the eyes of many of the coastal residents. If someone doesn’t move quickly to document those changes, then this knowledge will be lost," Brasseaux said.

Some of their interview subjects are in their 80s and 90s. "They are living encyclopedias. You just can’t get this kind of information anywhere else," Brasseaux observed.

Because the two men understand the importance of the work they share, they began collecting interviews and images on their own, before funding arrived. They have collected tens of thousands of images documenting the past 150 years of the Louisiana wetlands.

They plan to use the knowledge they glean in two ways: by creating materials such as books and museum-quality exhibits for the public and by adding to the body of knowledge available to scholars and researchers.

Their ultimate goal is to create a digital database that would include diaries, photography and periodicals, as well as stories. "We are trying to preserve elements that will have meaning in the future, when perhaps our wetlands are significantly different," Davis said.

The digital records will be preserved in three places: at UL’s Center for Louisiana Studies, at Hill Memorial Library at LSU and at the national headquarters of Sea Grant, in Maryland.

The researchers are exploring trapping, cypress harvesting and the coastal cattle industry. "You don’t know what you’ll learn until you sit down and talk with someone. It is difficult, if not impossible, to write that intangible value into a grant. You can’t identify a measurable outcome, because you don’t necessarily know what you’ll find – but there is a wealth of knowledge out there," Brasseaux said.

Davis agrees. "The wetlands is a people place. It’s always been a people place," he said. "But that aspect of the wetlands has not been well documented. It seems as though contemporary people have been almost forgotten.

"We’re going to correct that."


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