The Randall Oak, New Roads, Louisiana

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Randall Oak, north view, near New Roads, Louisiana

Along Louisiana state Highway 1 traveling toward New Roads, not far from the west bank of False River, the alert driver can spot one of the largest and most beautiful live oaks in the state—the Randall Oak. Located in the front yard of the home of David and Madeline Breidenbach, this massive species of Quercus virginiana has a circumference of approximately 35 feet, eight inches, a height of 68 feet, and a crown spread of 156 feet.

I’ve seen and photographed many large and beautiful oaks in the past 30 years, but this oak was, to me, stunning in its size and scale on the landscape. The best word to describe my reaction was simply—awe.  It’s not just the size but also the graceful flourishing shape of the Randall Oak that enhances its beauty. (For an idea of the scale of this tree, the split of the two main limbs seen in the photo below is about 5 to 6 ft. off the ground.)

There are no accurate estimates of this oak’s age, but from my experience, oaks that are more than 30 feet in circumference (and there are less than 10 that I know of sprinkled across the state) were growing long before Europeans explored this area and therefore deserve some protection and recognition as cultural and historic landmarks. How old is that you ask? Some 30-foot-plus oaks (like the Seven Sisters oak in Mandeville, La., the Seven Brothers Oak in Washington, La., the Lagarde Oak in Luling, La., the Etienne de Bore Oak in New Orleans, and the Josephine Oak at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie) are estimated to be anywhere between 400 and 1,000 years old (though probably closer to 400–500; I’ll address this in another blog).

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Randall Oak, west view (composite photo)

The iconic mushroom shape of the Randall Oak is seen in live oaks that mature without competition from neighboring trees for sunlight and water. Its limbs were able to spread and curve elegantly toward the ground as it grew over several hundred years. Considering the density of the live oak’s wood and the weight of its limbs, this is a remarkable feat of both design and endurance.

The oak was already a notable presence on the landscape in 1861 when its current namesake, James Ryder Randall, wrote one of the Civil War’s most famous anti-Union songs titled “Maryland, My Maryland.” He supposedly wrote the verses while sitting under the tree’s sheltering limbs. The oak’s role in local history is noted on a stone monument placed next to the tree by the Pointe Coupee Book Club.

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Memorial stone erected by the Book Club of Pointe Coupee Parish.

Previously, the old oak was known as the Poydras Oak, after Julien Poydras, a wealthy area planter who also served as a delegate from the Territory of Orleans to the U.S. House of Representatives and was instrumental in Louisiana becoming a state. After his death in 1824, Poydras provided in his will an endowment for a public academy for higher education that was named Poydras College.

The college was opened in 1836 and was built behind the ancient live oak. In 1860, James Randall—a 22-year-old Baltimore, Maryland, native, was hired as a professor of literature and the classics at the College.

On Apr. 12, 1861, the Civil War began with the battle at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. A week later, Union troops passing through Randall’s hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, clashed violently with local citizens, resulting in the war’s first civilian casualties. According to one source, Randall was so greatly disturbed by the rumored death of a dear friend, that he was moved to write a poem that focused on the themes of oppression, secession of the Confederacy and slavery.

The poem was published in a New Orleans newspaper and quickly was turned into a song (to the tune of “Oh Tannebaum” or “Oh Christmas Tree”). It immediately became popular in Maryland and throughout the South.

It’s ironic to me that every reference I’ve found to this remarkable and peaceful oak tree connects it to James Randall and his poem. Even though this beautiful tree predates the founding of America and any written history of this region, it will likely always be associated with Randall’s nine stanzas—a poem filled with the passions and hostility that fueled the South’s secession from the United States and our country’s bloodiest war.

The Evangeline and Gabriel Oaks

Each year thousands of tourists visit St. Martinville, Louisiana, in search of the roots of Cajun culture—to experience the food, music, and to visit the places associated with the story of Evangeline. The Evangeline oak is undoubtedly the most famous oak in Louisiana, though oddly it’s not a very old or exceptionally large tree. And according to some sources, it’s the third oak in the St. Martinville area that has been designated as the “oak under which the Cajun lovers Emmeline and Louis were reunited” after their long separation when the Acadians were exiled from Canada. (Emmeline and Louis are reported to be the real life characters upon which Longfellow’s fictitious Evangeline and Gabriel were modeled.)

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The Evangeline Oak is located on the edge of Bayou Teche at the foot of East Port St., next to the Old Castillo Bed and Breakfast (which I can personally state is very haunted—but that’s another story!).

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Evangeline Oak with B&B in background

The Gabriel Oak, a lesser known and larger tree, is located in the Longfellow Evangeline State Historic Site, a wonderful historic park well worth visiting, just a mile or so north of St. Martinville on Hwy. 31. The park showcases several historic buildings and gives a broader realistic view of the historic period of the Cajun settlement of Louisiana.

Gabriel Oak, panoramic view

Gabriel Oak, panoramic view

Gabriel Oak, view toward Maison Olivier Creole cottage

Gabriel Oak, view toward Maison Olivier Creole cottage

In the St. Martinville graveyard next to the Catholic Church of St. Martin de Tours, you can find a tomb for Evangeline, topped with a bronze metal statue. The grave bears both the name Evangeline and Emmeline Labiche, but in actuality, the tomb is empty. The statue is modeled after Dolores Del Rio, the Hispanic movie star, who played Evangeline in the 1929 silent movie adapted from Longfellow’s poem. The statue was a gift from the movie cast and crew to the people of St. Martinville after filming was completed.

So what’s true and what’s fiction about the Evangeline story?

The details of this “folk tale” of Evangeline are extracted from two sources—the epic poem by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published in 1847, and a subsequent story written in 1907 by Judge Felix Voorheis. The judge, a St. Martinville resident, recounts a story by his grandmother in which she claimed to be the adoptive mother of a girl named Emmeline Labiche. Voorheis claims that it was Emmeiline’s life story that Longfellow had heard and reshaped into the poem of Evangeline.

Longfellow’s poem, published under the title, Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, describes the betrothal of the fictional Cajun girl named Evangeline Bellefontaine and her beloved Gabriel Lajeunesse. The poem recounts their separation when the British forcibly removed the Acadian people from the present day Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and part of the state of Maine—an area also know as Acadie or Acadia.

In Longfellow’s poem, the Acadians were resettled in small numbers in cities across the Eastern seaboard, and Evangeline searches from city to city for her Gabriel. She eventually gives up, settles in Philadelphia, becomes a nun and works at a hospital. Years later, she finally encounters Gabriel again—though he’s now a sick old man. In the poem, he dies in her arms and within a short time, she follows him to the afterlife. In the mid-1800s it was the perfect Romeo and Juliet tale, and was hugely popular.

In Judge Voorheis’ account of Emmeline Labiche, the separated lovers reunite not in Philadelphia but in St. Martinville, under a live oak tree whose branches stretched over the dark waters of Bayou Teche. The reunited lovers embrace passionately but then Gabriel (whose actual name was Louis) remembers that he is already married. Eventually Emmeline (Evangeline) goes insane and dies.

The “Great Expulsion” or Le Grand Derangement (1755–1764) as it was known historically, occurred during the French and Indian War as part of the British military campaign against New France. The British deported approximately 11,500 French Acadians to weaken the resistance to their rule. In the first wave, Acadians were deported to the British colonies (the original 13 colonies of the U.S.). During the second wave, they were deported to Britain and France, from where many migrated to Louisiana. (source: Wikipedia)

A good reference for a more factual history of this area and its settlement by the Acadians can be found on the St. Martinville web site.