The Iowa Connection

When I was a child, I often wondered how the Sutherlands ended up in Louisiana. How did Charles and Ellen hear of Calcasieu Parish? Why did they decide to bring their children here and start all over?

Well, there was a land rush in southwest Louisiana in the late 1800’s.

Shortly after the first rail line was completed in southwest Louisiana, entrepreneurs arrived to purchase cheap land at auction. Jabez B. Watkins was one of the first developers in the area.

Jabez B. Watkins, from Lawrence, Kansas, backed by English capital in 1883, “purchased most of the prairie and marsh land available from the Sabine River east to the Vermilion Parish line, and from the Gulf up to the timberline. The purchase contained nearly one and one-half million acres.” Originally intended as a timber-buying enterprise, the company reclaimed as much of the marshes as was feasible for the growing of rice. In 1884 Watkins’ brother-in-law, Alexander Thomson, professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State College, joined in the enterprise, along with Seaman A. Knapp, former president of Iowa State College and a former resident of Vinton, Iowa, “to investigate the agricultural resources of Southwest Louisiana…and help bring in settlers.”  As it turned out Knapp’s greatest contribution to the enterprise, to be discussed later, was in the development of the rice industry in southwest Louisiana. Economic Development of Southwest Louisiana 1865-1900

Another Iowan, Sylvester L. Cary, worked as stationmaster for the Southern Pacific in Jennings

 He reached Jennings on March 31, 1883, “when there were only four buildings…and about twenty people.”  Economic Development of Southwest Louisiana 1865-1900

S.L. Cary became a one man marketing department for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Thirty thousand copies of his booklet, Southwest Louisiana , were distributed by the railroad. In 1886, Cary was transferred to Manchester, IA with the job of “Northern Emigration Agent”. Thanks to his efforts, by the early 1890’s, an article in a New Orleans paper estimated that over 10,000 men, women, and children had settled in the southwestern portion of the State “in the past five years.” The modern rice industry in south Louisiana was created by midwestern farmers. Many of them from Iowa.

Iowa newspapers regularly ran articles about southwest Louisiana. Most of this “news” was actually thinly veiled marketing provided by S.L. Cary and other agents of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Lake Charles, LA is mentioned in over 800 newspaper articles in Iowa papers between 1885 and 1900. “A Far-Away Investment” was a typical example of the stories that appeared in midwest newspapers.

Quad-City Times (Davenport, Iowa) · 19 Feb 1888

A Far-Away Investment.
That of Two Davenporters in Louisiana – Their Surprise When They Got There – More Iowans There Than You Can Count – What the Hawk-eyes are There For – A Region of Pine, Cypress, Cotton, Rice, and Fruit – Northern Invasion

When Hon. J. H. Murphy and Dr. W. W. Grant went down into southwest Louisiana on their land inspection tour, they found that a multitude of Iowans had spied out the land before their arrival. They were astonished. There was a country of which little was known here, into which emigration from the north was multitudinous- and it didn’t take the Davenporters long to decidens to investment. It is in the Calcasieu parish, fifty miles from the gulf, on the line of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and near Lake Charles, a beautiful town.

Quad City Times (Davenport Iowa), February 19, 1888

Note the date on the Davenport newspaper. February. Iowa farmers were half starved and freezing to death as they struggled to keep their stock alive through the winter. In the evenings, they would settle down for a few minutes and read about a place where crops practically sprang out of the ground. A place where herds grazed on abundant grasslands. A warm place. It seemed that the entire state of Iowa was ready to move south.

Including Charles and Ellen Sutherland.

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