The air was thick and sultry around the plantation on this hot August day — usual weather for a south Louisiana summer. And this day in 1856 was no different. Aspasie Frere, a youthful lady of society, had just given birth, three months earlier, to her seventh child. At 34, she was feeling weak and feeble since Marie Felicite was born and thought that finding a respite from the oppressive heat would help win back her strength. Her physician believed that “salt water air” would be amenable to her condition.
Using her doctor’s advice, she convinced her husband, Adrien, that it would be best for her to spend time down at the luxurious resort on Isle Derniere, a long slender island off the coast of Louisiana. She wanted to bring along her seven-year-old son, Joseph Adrien, since he was at the perfect age to enjoy the sand and the waves. He would also have a chance to spend some playful time with his father. Her other children were in good hands staying behind with the servants at the plantation in Charenton. After all, she wanted to be able to rest during her stay on the island.
Adrien, Aspasie, Joseph and a servant boarded a steam vessel on Bayou Teche in St. Mary Parish. As the boat made its way down the bayou and then into the meandering passages of the marsh, the air from the Gulf was noticeably lighter and breezier.
As they crossed Caillou Bay and came nearer to the island, the shape of the hotel was beginning to form on the horizon. It was quite a spectacle! She could not wait to take in all that the resort had to offer.
Built several years earlier, the hotel on the island had become the playground of wealthy, aristocratic southerners. And this was the height of the season. The hotel would be packed with other socialites, like herself. With the anticipation of cooler weather and the prospect of stimulating conversation with friends, this week would certainly be the perfect medicine for her weakened condition.
The boat arrived at the hotel dock late in the evening. The Frere’s saw the hotel teeming with hundreds of friends and acquaintances from Louisiana’s southern parishes’ society and New Orleans’ social elite.
The following day the family went out to enjoy the white sandy beaches. The waves were rolling onto the shore as Joseph and Adrien swam out in the blue-green water of the Gulf. The breezes were cool — blowing out of the northeast. It was a beautiful day! As she watched them play in the water, Aspasie was thinking about how grateful she was that the weather was so nice while they were there. She was feeling much better already.
Each day was full of activity. They went to the beach each morning and then again, later in the evening, when the heat was not as intense. But some of her friends had been chatting about how high and rough the surf had been getting for the past few days and that it was getting harder and harder to stand out in the pounding waves. The clouds in the once clear sky were now passing overhead in rows as if in a panic. By the next morning, the partly cloudy skies had turned grey and raining and the surf was too tumultuous to allow even the most adventurous bathers to enter.
As the morning wore on, the rain came with bursts of intensity. The wind grew more and more strange. It drove the back bay waters up onto the north shore of the island. As the water rose higher and higher pushing up onto the island, the wind became more and more intense. Adrien, Aspasie, their son and servant gathered with everyone else into the hotel as the day grew darker and louder. The wind was now ripping at roofs and tearing at shutters, but the hotel stood firm.
In fact, music was heard coming from the hotel dance hall. Every night there was a dance in the Great Hall of the hotel and this evening was no exception. Adrien and Asapasie decided to distract themselves from the storm by going to pass away the time with their friends. When they got to the dance hall, nearly everyone from the island was there — trying to distract their minds that were filled with nervous excitement.
The wind roared outside and seeped through every crack and crevice in the hotel walls with howls that blended with the harmonies being played inside. Then Aspasie shrieked. Water began swirling around her ankles! Then suddenly the wind shifted and the building began to rock and sway. For a moment everyone hushed. In the midst of the roar came an unfamiliar sound like that of cannons booming. People grabbed doors, tables, sofas, billiard tables — anything they could hold onto. And then it came. The enormous tidal surge washed up the beach and crashed into the packed hotel, lifting her up, spinning her around and crumbling her to pieces.
Most of the 400 vacationers and island inhabitants were washed out to sea. A few survivors floated to land or marsh on logs or they survived by miraculously holding on to trees or poles buried deep in the ground. But Adrien, Aspasie, Joseph, and their servant were not among the survivors. A body believed to have been Aspasie’s was found near Bayou Du Large several miles inland. Adrien, Joseph, nor Aspasie’s servant were ever found.
Back at the Charenton plantation their six surviving children, Alexandre Gabriel, 15, Marie Louise Christine, 13, Philomene Aimee, 9, Euphemie Marie, 8, Elizabeth Aspasie, 3 and Marie Felicite, 3 months, were left with a tremendous physical and emotional void — both parents and a brother lost in one day. But also the children faced an uncertain future alone as the dark days of civil war loomed on the horizon.
A monument to the Freres stands in the Charenton Cemetery in Charenton, LA. The Last Island Hurricane was one of the top ten hurricanes ever to hit the coast of the United States.
Adrien and Aspasie Frere are my great, great, great grandparents. Their surviving daughter, Marie Louise Christine Frere, my great, great grandmother married Charles Matthew Strong.
© 2011 Melinda Holloway All Rights Reserved