Right: Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi John Swanton, pub. 1911. The Chitimacha continued to be pushed farther southwest, away from the Mississippi River.
When Jacques Étienne Roman began claiming land in St. James Parish in the late 18th century, including what would be Oak Alley, he was far from the first person to occupy this stretch of the lower Mississippi River. Prehistoric societies, often termed Neo-Indian, were active throughout Louisiana. Marksville, a particularly interesting culture, occupied lower Louisiana from approximately 100-400 B.C.E. leaving evidence of civilization in the form of pottery work, ornamentation and burial mounds. Their settlements were organized by leaders, and were usually established along water sources such as rivers and streams.
By the 1700s the Choctaw nation occupied the east bank of St. James Parish, while the Chitimacha occupied the west bank, including what would become Oak Alley. The Chitimacha were a strong society, consisting of upwards of 20,000 people and divided into four sub communities defined by the areas in which they lived. They established large villages, raised crops and hunted. However, with the arrival of colonialists, the Chitimacha’s existence became increasingly jeopardized. Initial exposure to European diseases resulted in epidemics, and this decrease in numbers was compounded by their unsuccessful fight against French resettlement from 1706-1718. Pressured by the Acadians looking for land, and weakened by conflict, smallpox, measles and alcoholism, the Chitimacha were all but obliterated. By the time Jacques Étienne Roman was scouting the area for property, they had been reduced to a staggering 180 people, and some were being absorbed by the Houma, leaving little trace of their life in St. James.
Note: those surviving Chitmacha sued the US in 1846 for recognition of their tribal land. They were granted 1093.43 acres, a loss of 4347 acres.