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KNOWLouisiana: Avery Island

As we take our last vacations of the summer, this month's partner post from KnowLA, the Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana, looks at Avery Island, a favorite destination for generations of Louisiana families.

Avery Island landscape in Iberia Parish. Photo: Knowla

Avery Island landscape in Iberia Parish. Photo: Knowla

Located in Iberia Parish, Avery Island is the largest of five salt domes along the Louisiana coast. It is the home of the interrelated Avery and McIlhenny families; Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre semitropical estate open to the public since 1935; and the McIlhenny Company, maker of Tabasco brand products for more than 140 years.

Geography and Industry
A geologic oddity, Avery Island rises dramatically from low, flat wetlands to a height of 163 feet above mean sea level—making it the highest point on the entire Gulf Coast. The island is approximately 2,200 acres in area and about three miles in diameter at its widest point. Avery Island is not an island in the traditional sense. Located a few miles inland from the nearest body of open water, it appears insular because of its conspicuous height and encirclement by wetlands. These wetlands include a coastal salt marsh, a cypress swamp, and several bayous, including Stumpy Bayou, Saline Bayou, Bayou Leleu, and, most notably, Bayou Petite Anse.

The island’s primary industries are oil production (since 1942); salt mining (since 1862); the manufacture of Tabasco brand products; and tourism, driven by public access to the Tabasco factory and Jungle Gardens. At various times during the early twentieth century the island produced sand, gravel, and lumber, as well as canned shrimp, oysters, fruit, and vegetables. Fur trapping in the nearby salt marsh once played a vital role in the local economy. Sugarcane production remained a major industry on the island until around 1925, when the Averys no longer found the crop commercially viable.

Prehistory
Avery Island formed over millions of years as a buoyant subterranean plume of solid rock salt pushed up the earth’s surface. Fossil records indicate that about ten thousand years ago the island’s briny spring water attracted a variety of now-extinct animal species. These “megafauna” included mastodons, dire wolves, and giant sloths, among others. Although humans may have first visited the island at that time—attracted not only by its salty springs, but by the ample game—radiocarbon dating suggests that Native Americans lived on the island by 2500 BC. Other “pre-tribal” Native Americans subsequently came to the island to extract salt from its springs through boiling. Thousands of pottery shards collected around the island reflect the scope of this industry.

History and Ownership
Europeans encountered Avery Island as early as 1779, when French explorers employed by Louisiana’s Spanish administrators described a “so-called isle” near Bayou Petite Anse (meaning “Little Cove” in Louisiana French). The island itself soon became known as Île Petite Anse or Petite Anse Island, though for a short time around 1800 it bore the names Isla Cuarin and Côte de Coiron. The latter two names alluded to the island’s earliest known owner, a Dr. Cuarin or Coiron, who claimed the island in the late 1700s. By the early 1800s, however, several pioneer settlers owned parts of the island. These settlers included Elizabeth Hayes, Jacques Fontenette, Alexandre Devince Bienvenu, Boyd Smith, and Jesse McCall.
In 1818, New Jersey native John Craig Marsh purchased a share of the island and began to plant sugarcane on it. In the early 1850s, Marsh sold his plantation to his son, George Marsh, and to his two sons-in-law, Ashbel Burnham Henshaw and Baton Rouge jurist D. D. Avery, the latter of whom soon came into possession of the other’s shares.

During the Civil War (1861–1865), Confederate troops under General Richard Taylor defended the island’s mines, which provided salt to several states in the lower South. In November 1862, the Union unsuccessfully attacked the island by water using two gunboats and a transport ship. Federal troops finally captured the island by land in April 1863, destroying some mining equipment and outbuildings. Except for two Avery sons who served as Confederate army officers, the Avery and McIlhenny families fled to Texas for the remainder of the conflict.

After the war the Averys and McIlhennys returned to the island, and in 1869, D. D. Avery bought out the last of the early landholders—making Avery the island’s sole owner. On his death in 1879, ownership passed to Avery’s five children: state militia leader Dudley Avery, Louisiana legislator John Marsh Avery, Sarah Marsh Avery Leeds (wife of Paul B. Leeds, whose family ran the Leeds Foundry in New Orleans), Marguerite Henshaw Avery Johnston (whose husband, soldier and poet William Preston Johnston, served as president of Louisiana State University and first president of Tulane University), and Mary Eliza Avery McIlhenny (wife of Tabasco sauce inventor E. McIlhenny).

In 1903, the surviving Avery siblings organized their plantation into a modern corporation, dubbed the Avery Planting and Improvement Company. In 1924 this entity became the Petit Anse [sic] Company, which in turn became Avery Island, Inc., in 1948. Avid conservationists, the McIlhenny branch of the Avery family adopted the motto “Man and Environment in Balance” in 1971. Their environmental efforts, however, actually extend back to around 1895, when E. A. McIlhenny founded a private wildfowl refuge on the island. This refuge still exists in Jungle Gardens and annually attracts tens of thousands of birds (primarily egrets).
Avery Island, Inc., continues to control the island’s surface and mineral rights. Present-day shareholders are required by corporate charter to be direct descendants of D. D. Avery, the man in whose honor Petite Anse Island was renamed in the late nineteenth century.

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and NolaVie present this series that spotlight entries from Knowla.org – the Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana, including unique events and people in our state’s history.