Family, Culture and History in the Crossroads of Northeastern Louisiana
article by Michael DeVault | photography by Joli Livaudais
Pick up a phone book or a map of the region and look at the names. There, you’ll find names like McHenry, MacDonald and McManus. Fitzgerald and Donaldson also appear. Flip through a newspaper and you can read about the latest political volleys of the Mayos or the McAllisters. One of the major thoroughfares—Forsythe Avenue—belongs in this club, too.
These names underscore a common thread shared by many residents of the region—a thread that one individual described as an “almost mystical bond” with her ancestors. For these names are all common Celtic ancestors. And for local pub owner and proud Irish-American Enoch Doyle Jeter, how these names came here is part of a grand story.
“It’s one of the biggest misconceptions about how this region was settled,” says Jeter, who has spent a fair amount of time researching various migrations into this region from Ireland, Scotland and England.
That misconception: that all of the Irish and Scottish settlement in northern Louisiana came via the port in New Orleans. That isn’t necessarily the case, according to Jeter.
“The majority of people who settled this area came through North and South Carolina, Georgia—Savannah in particular,” Jeter says. All told, more than 50 percent of Celtic settlers to the region came via overland routes from the eastern seaboard.
Even a cursory examination of family trees on Ancestry.com will confirm Jeter’s point. Over the centuries, three great migrations of Celts—people of Scots-Irish or English descent—made their way into the area and settled permanently.
The first great overland migration began in the late 1700s, shortly after the American Revolution. A second migration in the mid-1840s followed the El Camino Real, a 1,700 mile path connecting Savannah, GA, to San Antonio, TX. A third and final migration occurred post-Civil War and, like the previous migrations, followed more of an overland route than a path from the port of New Orleans.
Just as Tom McCandlish, whose ancestors travelled the El Camino to arrive in the New World in the late 1700s. McCandlish has done some research to determine who and where the first of his family arrived and was surprised to find his roots stretched back that far.
“I don’t think it was as early as the Pilgrims, but we think probably around the time of the Revolution or maybe a little after, our family arrived here,” McCandlish says. The McCandlish tribe didn’t waste much time making their way to Louisiana, either. By 1814, they were living in Louisiana.
Once the first McCandlish clan arrived, other members of the family continued to follow—a pattern that is seen repeated time and again in countless families. Such was the nature of immigration in the 1800s. An immigrant went to where they had relatives, support, and usually, a job waiting.
Those earliest settlers appear to have plied trades in the hunting and trapping field. In fact, according to Ouachita Parish Public Library genealogy associate Lora Peppers, the earliest founders of Monroe frequently complained about the Irish and Scots settlers in the region.
“That’s one of the things Filhiol fussed about,” Peppers says. “They wouldn’t settle down and be farmers.” Drawn by relative freedom and an abundance of fertile land, the earliest settlers came in, trapped and hunted, some farmed, but they all made northeastern Louisiana home.
“It doesn’t surprise me this is the area they’d want to come, especially for the Irish,” Peppers says. “Louisiana was pretty much wide open at that time. Even Monroe was barely a town. It didn’t boom until after the Civil War, really.”
By the mid-1800s, Irish and Scottish settlers had a significant foothold in the region. Though trapping was still a lucrative business, farming had begun to take over. For men in McCandlish’s family, that meant work—and work with family.
“The lower income folks who had to work for a living tended to follow agricultural seasons or the hunter-gatherer paths of fishing and trapping, being self-employed,” McCandlish said. Migrant farming is what drew much of his family to the region.
Still, it’s hard to dismiss the impact New Orleans shipping routes had on Celtic migration. McCandlish notes that there isn’t a lot of farming going on in Ireland, which is mostly rock, or Scotland, where sheep are a major staple. Fishing and sailing were then, as they are today, significant trades in Ireland and Scotland. For men of those days, that meant steady jobs.
“If they were any kind of decent fisherman or sailor, they were put to work on boats,” McCandlish said.
Today, New Orleans still bears the marks of the Irish wave that came in the late 1800s. One area of the French Quarter is known as the Irish Channel and has historically been home to a number of Irish pubs and businesses. McCandlish likens it to “Little China” in New York or San Francisco, calling it “Little Ireland.”
And still, the migration continues. Just look at the Simpson clan, who came to the region in the 1970s. Or, just ask Sheila Hoh.
Hoh is a member of the Scottish Society of the Louisiana Highlands and also serves as director of the Scottish Tartan Festival, a celebration of Scottish roots held each April in Minden. Though Hoh is married to a man of “solid, solid German” descent, don’t let the name fool you. She’s Scottish through and through.
“I am, in a convoluted way, a 23rd great granddaughter of King James IV of Scotland,” Hoh says. “That’s the furthest connection I have.”
Hoh lives in Louisiana now, but her ancestors settled near Magnolia, AR, after making their way across the continent from the Jamestown colony, where her first immigrant ancestor landed.
“He was in that first group of soldiers, ended up meeting someone, and then ended up staying instead of returning to England,” Hoh says. The family made its way through North Carolina, spent some time in Alabama, but by the mid-1800s, had arrived in Louisiana.
Jeter points out that Irish and Scottish roots run deep. Towns such as Delhi, Kelley, Tullos and Jena (formerly Hemp’s Creek) are all named for places in Ireland.
“All of those towns were settled by Irish settlers who came from County Cork or County Mayo,” Jeter says. He points out they came to the region because they were awarded land grants by the Spaniards, who then controlled the area.
Returning to those names in the phone book, Jeter points out that more than 70 percent of the names are Scottish or Irish. Also, three quarters of all Native American mound sites in the region have Irish or Scottish names. Galloway, Kilbourne, and Balmoral are just a few examples.
Names aren’t all these individuals left behind, either. In the cases of Jeter, McCandlish, and Hoh, Celtic roots run deep. Jeter visits Ireland yearly, where he spends time with family and friends. Hoh has made the trip to Scotland and Ireland, and McCandlish has visited his family’s old tromping grounds, as well.
“There was something about touching Scottish soil, about being there, that told me I was home somehow,” McCandlish says. “It’s not something I can really describe. You just have to feel it to understand it.”
While he was in Scotland, McCandlish met distant relatives and formed instant, deep bonds. “We still have kin there, so we’ve made some good connections with them, actually been there and stayed with them.”
During one of the trips, McCandlish traced his roots all the way back to the Norman Conquest. Those deep Scottish roots have also had an effect on the present McCandlish clan, he says with a chuckle.
“It’s strange because almost all of the male children in our line, all the way back into the mid-1800s, have all married Scots. It’s been a Mac marrying a Mac since 1814,” McCandlish says.
Hoh puts this mystical connection another way. She points out she’s always loved plaid, loved Celtic music and enjoyed those parts of history. Yet, she didn’t know she was of Scottish ancestry until she was 40 years old.
“It’s almost an intrinsic thing,” she says. “I don’t know where it comes from.”