COLLAGE INCLUDES: USGS map from 1939 Baton Rouge; Henry Mitchell, State Arms of the Union, 1876; M. Le Page du Pratz, Bringing the Pipe of Peace, illustration in The History of Louisiana, or Of the Western Parts of Virginia and Carolina (New Orleans: J. S. W. Harmanson, n.d.), 351; Chandler Seaver Jr., Gordon, a Runaway Mississippi Slave, or “The Scourged Back,” 1863, attributed to McPherson and Oliver, reproduced and sold as a carte-de-visite by Chandler Seaver Jr., International Center of Photography.
The legacy of extraction has always been tied to the ability to move product to market, making the river the most valuable collaborator of enterprise. In the early years of colonialism, from the late seventeenth century through the 1920s, the fur trade fueled such a get-rich-quick furor that beavers, minks, muskrats, and other furry creatures nearly went extinct. Our modern era has no need for fur anymore, however the quest for comfort remains and is now inextricably tied to petrochemical products brought to us by multinational corporations.
Plaquemine is one of three Mississippi River islands, including Bayougoula and Bonnet Carré, all found between Istrouma and Bvlbancha. Bvlbancha (“place of many languages” in Choctaw) is the original name of the lower Mississippi River that was successfully rebranded “Nouvelle Orleans” by French colonizers. Plaquemine means persimmon in Mobilian, a pantribal pidgin language and the predominant trade jargon spoken in the territory when the colonizers arrived. Downstream from Baton Rouge, the river turns sharply at Manchac Point, beginning a series of tight twists as it curves south to find its mouth and the Gulf of Mexico. Archeologists believe the two mounds and causeway found on this point near Bayou Bourbeaux were inhabited by Indigenous people of the Plaquemine culture between 1300 and 1600. This sacred site was a strategic place of convergence, connecting communities to the watershed and its resources.3
Commercial industries disrespected and disconnected Native settlements and ceremonial grounds, corrupting historical and cultural ties to ancestral lands. In 1957, Dow Chemical purchased former plantation land along the west bank of the river, just south of Manchac Point, across the main channel from Plaquemine Island. It has since grown to become one of the largest petrochemical facilities in Louisiana. Over time, families were forced to leave Manchac Point, first for the Army Corps of Engineers levee infrastructure after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and later, in the late 1990s, for Dow Chemical to create a natural buffer or “green zone” around its facility. Dow’s Plaquemine plant produces chlorine and polyethylene, which are found in “cosmetics, detergents, solvents, pharmaceuticals, adhesives, plastics for a variety of packaging, automotive parts, electronics components, and more.” Dow Chemical’s Louisiana Operations site is just one of more than two hundred chemical plants located between Istrouma and Bvlbancha.4