Grand Chenier, La. is located in extreme eastern Cameron Parish on the Mermentau River, and it was at first home to the Attakapas Indians. Probably the first Western Europeans to visit there were French fur traders, but unfortunately history leaves little or no record of them. The first known Western European to live there for two years was Charles Cronea of Marseilles, France, who jumped ship there from the Hotspur in Nov., 1820. The Hotspur was one of Lafitte's prize schooners, captained by James Campbell; the ship was loaded with doubloons and booty when it took refuge at Grand Chenier to replenish water tanks and repair sails. Cronea is credited with being the "last of Lafitte's pirates to be keelhauled into eternity," when he died at High Island, Tx. in March, 1893.
The next known white settler there was Placide LaBove, who arrived there in 1831, but later moved away. LaBove served with with the 16th Louisiana Regiment at the Battle of New Orleans, and he died at Johnson's Bayou in 1892 at age 102. The next settlers were the John M. Smith family. An Attakapas Indian tried to explain to Smith how to survive in a storm by attaching family members to big branches high in a live oak tree, and wrapping them with grape vines. Smith, however, refused to believe him, and all of Smith's family drowned in the hurricane of 1831.
The first permanent settler was Milledge McCall (1803-1880), who came from Mississippi in 1839, followed by John Armstrong and John W. Sweeney in 1840. William Doxey (1816-1912) and Pierre Grand Miller both arrived about 1848, the latter residing in the last house on the the Grand Chenier ridge, 20 miles from Mermentau River. Two others, Laurents (Lorenzo) Sturlese and Paul Jones also arrived during the late 1840s. Sturlese was an Italian ship captain, whereas Jones was the first merchant in Grand Chenier. He also was captain of the Jubilee, the first ship known by name to trade in Southwest Louisiana Jones bought the cotton, furs, hides and other commodities of the setters and traded them in New Orleans for the staples needed to sustain the frontier economy.
In addition to Sturlese and Jones, the following early Grand Chenier residents were enumerated in the 1850 Vermillion Parish census, namely: Isaac Bonsall, John W. Sweeney, Milledge McCall Sr.; Albert Stafford, Edmond Vaughan, Alladin Vincent, Valsin Vincent, John Weatherill, and Lucien Bertrand.
All of the residences between 377 and 410 of 1860 Vermilion Parish census resided on the Chenier. They included Paul Jones, merchant; Abel Alexander, John Armstrong, James Hill, James Hickok, Geo. Root, William Doxey, Benj. Root, Albert Stafford, John Weatherill; John Dick, whose real and personal estate equaled $25,000; Alex. McDonald, Geo. Moyne, Archie Gordy, M. McCall, Charles Hulten, M. D.; John W. Sweeney, James Vaughan, M. Hill, Henry Sweeney, John Miller, Michel Miller, Sr.; Michel Miller, Jr.; Valsin Montie, Lucien Bertrand, John Miller, Jr.; Edmond Vaughan, Belisare LaSye, J. Sturlese, Pierre Valcour Miller, and Isaac Bonsall. It appears likely that at the Grand Chenier population numbered about 200 by 1860.
The month of April, 1861 altered all affairs with the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1863 the Confederate Army sent "conscripting vessels" to Leesburg and Grand Chenier, which one writer likened to the "British press gangs" of 1812, whereby one "volunteered at gun point." Very quickly most younger Chenier men volunteered or were conscripted into the Calcasieu Regiment and sent to Camp Pratt. John Dick became hated because of efforts to enforce the conscription laws, and eventually he moved away. Of the writers great uncles who became Confederate soldiers, they included Hugh W. Hickok, John W. Sweeney, Jr.; William H. McCall, and Isaac Bonsai], the latter two having been slain at the Battle of Mansfield. (McCall died of pneumonia the day before the battle.)
While the Chenier men were away in service, the 200-men band of Mermentau Jayhawkers rode up and down the Grand Chenier ridge, often at night, plundering corn and hogs at will. My grandmother Sweeney told me that her family barred all window shutters at night to keep out both the panthers, which frequented the front marsh, and also the Jayhawkers. Milledge Byrd McCall, Jr. was killed during a fight with the bushwhackers.
In Oct. 1863, Capt. Matt Nolan wrote that: "...There are two blockade-runners docked at Grand Chenier, each loaded with gunpowder. It is feared that the Mermentau Jayhawkers might seize them, for they can muster 200 men..." In March, 1864, Capt. Howerton wrote that: "...Dr. McCall is dawn from the Chenier. He reports that Col. Vincent's and Louisiana Cavalry are attacking the Mermentau Jayhawkers. So far, 9 have been killed, many more captured, and they are still fighting in Tousand's Cove..."
Near the end of the war, an African slave ship, unaware that all slaves had been freed, abandoned its cargo of 20o slaves, and left them shackled to starve and await death on Negro Island in Mermentau River.
After the war, bands of armed men called Regulators ran rampant over the Chenier ridge, also killing and pillaging. They executed Ralph Stewart for some unknown reason. They captured Each Yokum and hanged him to a hackberry tree. When they came after "Doc" Addison, he was waiting for them with 2 double-barreled shotgun muskets, and he had some one to reload them for him. When the smoke lifted, 4 Regulators lay dead in his yard and 3 were mortally-wounded.
After the Regulators were destroyed, life returned somewhat to normal at Grand Chenier. One mystery still survives to this writer concerning the 7 native-born Italians. Capt. Lorenzo Sturlese arrived first about 1850. The others included Joe Sturlese, J. Cimio, Raphael Barbi, Frank DeMarco; Emmanuel Sturlese, who was captain of the schooner Two Brothers; and Capt. Charlie Sturlese, whose schooner Two Sisters sank near Galveston with a load of cotton in Oct. 1881. My Uncle Andrew Sweeney drowned on that trip. According to a descendent, Bartolomeo Baccigalopi jumped ship in Lake Arthur and later made his way to Grand Chenier. The writer has often pondered if an Italian ship wrecked on the front beach, leaving its castaways to seek refuge in the nearest settlement; I suppose I will never know for certain.