From the first days of settlement, le maringouin has been the stuff of legend here. Bug experts tell us that there are more than 50 distinct species in Louisiana. Some of them leave humans alone, but not enough of them; some varieties will bite you in the morning, others specialize in biting at night – which sounds like a conspiracy to me.
Simon le Page du Pratz, probably the first man to record the natural history of south Louisiana, said our mosquitoes were already famous in early colonial days “for their multitude, the troublesomeness of their buzzing, and the venom of their stings, which occasion an insupportable itching.”
He said the best way to drive them out of a house is to burn a little brimstone in the mornings and the evenings. He claimed the smell keeps them away for days.
He didn’t say how long the people who lived in the house might want to stay away.
Mark Twain said two Louisiana mosquitoes could whip a dog, and that four of them could hold a man down. Some of them could bite through an alligator’s hide, he said.
Twain also claimed he’d seen them try to vote, but I don’t think that was true. If they voted the right way, there wouldn’t have been any “trying” to it. Our good Louisiana politicians would have long ago found a way to put them on the voter rolls and keep them there.
Lawrence Van Alystene, a Union soldier from New York who camped at Brashear City (as Morgan City was known then) during the spring of 1863, wrote: “If I had a brigade of men as determined as these Brashear City mosquitoes, I believe I could sweep the Rebellion off its feet in a month’s time.”
Our marshes have always been prime breeding grounds for mosquitoes. I vividly remember summer nights when we were driving home from a weekend at the camp in Cameron Parish. We all prayed fervently that we wouldn’t have to wait for the old cable-driven ferry at the Intracoastal Canal; people trapped in a car stopped in the marsh provided a feast for swarms of mosquitoes. Cars didn’t come with air conditioning then and the options were to roll up the windows and swelter or leave the windows down and slap as many critters as you could.
Father William Teurlngs (for whom the high school is named) spent a part of his early priesthood in Cameron Parish and wrote about the mosquitoes in his little biography, “One Mile an Hour,” which was so named because that is the speed of a horse moving through the marsh.
“I remember going out one night to check the church,” he wrote. “As I walked around the house I saw something that made me rub my eyes in disbelief. … There appeared to be a whole grove of oak trees. But I had no trees in my back yard. Close inspection revealed the illusion to be swarms of millions of mosquitoes.”
He said that when he rode through the swamps, he always carried a branch with leaves on it to brush the mosquitoes off of his horse – usually a futile battle.
“At times … I would wave it across my own face and in the next second the persistent little pests would be so thick that I couldn’t see the color of my trousers,” he wrote.
We don’t use branches anymore. We’ve invented all sorts of sprays and chemicals to keep mosquitoes at bay, but I’m not sure that all of them work.
My dad, who was an honest and truthful man, claimed he once saw a swarm of mosquitoes attack the driver of a spray truck, pull him from the cab, beat him up, and fly off laughing.
The Attakapas Indians claimed the best way to fight off the pests was to liberally coat yourself with bear fat. It might work, but bear fat is hard to come by these days, and even if I found some I think I might prefer the burning brimstone.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.