Geography & Transportation
Travel along roads was difficult and unreliable due to the swampland and lack of bridges. The majority of people in Louisiana lived along the Mississippi River and the larger bayous, and used these waterways for most travel and exchange. Throughout the Antebellum Period, smaller towns developed farther away from the urban centers of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The small towns served as social and commercial gathering places for rural farmers and small plantation owners. Local general stores, plantation stores, and peddlers provided access to finished dry goods and supplies.
In 1853, there was great celebration when a plank road was constructed from the village of Grosse Tete (now in Iberville Parish) to the settlement at present day Port Allen. Although there had been a boom in the construction of railroads throughout Louisiana in the 1830s, West Baton Rouge Parish didn’t see any such progress until the early 1850’s, when the Baton Rouge, Grosse Tete, and Opelousas Railroad began construction on a depot just a few hundred yards north of the ferry landing in the Town of West Baton Rouge. The Railroad issued stock certificates to local shareholders which helped pay for its construction. In 1857, a single locomotive began its daily run from Grosse Tete to “The Port,” later renamed Port Allen. This rail line eventually ceased operation in 1883.
The Sinking of the Monmouth
In 1830, the United States government began forcibly displacing Native Americans of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw tribes from their ancestral homes in the Southeastern U.S. to the newly-designated “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi River. Much of this journey of relocation was done on foot, with some Native groups being forced to walk as much as 5,000 miles. During this horrific trek, the people suffered from exposure, exhaustion, thirst, starvation, violence, and disease, and thousands died. This act of ethnic cleansing became known as the “Trail of Tears.”
The removal of the Muscogee (Creek) began in 1836. In the summer of 1837, a group of around 1,600 Muscogee were forced to leave their homes in the states of Alabama and Georgia; they were made to march down the Alabama River to the Gulf of Mexico, then brought to New Orleans. The U.S. Army had contracted three steamboats to carry Native Americans up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Indian Territory. One of these was the steamboat Monmouth.
On October 27th, 1837, around 700 Muscogee boarded the Monmouth in New Orleans and began heading upriver. It was noted by observers that the boat was severely overloaded, with no consideration for the safety or comfort of the passengers. Despite traveling during the night, the Monmouth made good time, and passed present-day Baton Rouge with no trouble. As the steamer neared Prophet Island (now called Profit Island), an island in the Mississippi River towards the northern part of West Baton Rouge Parish, the Monmouth collided with another boat. Hundreds of unsuspecting Muscogee were hurled into the river in the initial shock; hundreds more were trapped in the cabin of the Monmouth when it broke off from the rest of the boat and began floating downstream. In between 300 and 400 Muscogee perished, and the wreck of the Monmouth went down in history as the worst pre-Civil War disaster on the Mississippi River.