by Hope Johns Norman
The pecan, while one of the youngest agricultural crops in commercial production, is one of the oldest native crops. Early North American explorers found pecan trees growing on alluvial river bottoms in the area roughly following the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Archaeological evidence reveals that pecans played a major role in prehistoric American Indians' diets.
First recorded pecan history was in the 1540s diary of Spanish explorers shipwrecked on Galveston Island. Survivor Cabaca de Vaca wrote of Indians congregating in wintertime along river valleys to subsist on ground pecan meal, pointing out that "the nuts do not have every season as the tree produces in alternate years."
Hernando de Soto, in his wanderings, also observed the abundance of the wild nut. French explorers began mentioning pecans in the early 1700s. A ship's carpenter, visiting Natchez with d'Iberville in 1704, is credited with the first recorded use of the Indian name "pacane," meaning "nut to be cracked with a rock." (Indians from tribes throughout the Mississippi Valley had practically the same term.)
Eighteenth century historian Le Page du Pratz praised the pecan and its use in "the pralaine... sugar cakes or candies filled with ... pecan kernels ... and one of the delicacies of New Orleans."
From nuts sent back east, George Washington planted trees at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson added pecans to Monticello's gardens. (The first known shipment from Louisiana was a box of "paccan nuts" sent to Jefferson March 12, 1779, by New Orleanian Daniel Clark.)
Pecans were valued in Texas as well. In "Recollections of Old Texas Days," published in 1900 by then nonagenarian Noah Smithwick, the author wrote of friendly relations with Indians in his area: "The only cause of dissension ... (was) the pecan crop, from which the Indians derived quite a revenue, but with reckless prodigality they persisted in killing the goose that laid the gold egg in chopping off the limbs of trees to facilitate the gathering. This the owners of lands on which the trees grew objected to."
Smithwick's memoirs also included a colorful description of a pre-Alamo expedition led by Jim Bowie against Mexicans below San Antonio. Surrounded by the enemy, the Texans "lay low" under a grove of pecan trees. As cannon shots crashed through the branches "raining a shower of nuts down on us ... I saw men picking them up and eating them with as little apparent concern as if they were being shaken down by a norther."
The grafting of pecan trees was suggested as early as 1810, but the pecan resisted efforts even though other fruits and nuts were easily propagated. A Louisiana slave gardener at Oak Alley Plantation, remembered now only as "Antoine," is credited with the first successful pecan grafting in 1847. Antoine had the reputation of being a great gardener. A neighboring plantation owner, Dr. A. E. Colomb, brought the wood to the Oak Alley slave. He probably used the cleft graft method, which would have involved cutting off a limb, splitting it - possibly using a butcher knife and hammer - chiseling in two grafts, one a bit thicker than the other, and sealing the inserts, probably with paraffin.
Antoine succeeded where others had failed, somehow getting sixteen plants to live. His trees - the first propagated orchard anywhere - were destroyed during the Civil War by Federal troops. The Yankees tethered horses to the trees and cut some for firewood. After the war, Colomb's nursery in St. James Parish was the first recorded in the United States and the first to sell pecans commercially.
Another pecan-related tale was of the late James Hogg - the first native-born Texan to be governor. As his family gathered around his deathbed in 1906, Hogg told them, "When I die I want no monument of marble or stone. Plant at the head of my grave a pecan tree and distribute its nuts to the plain people of Texas." Texas-style, two trees were planted at Hogg's Austin grave. Their nuts, distributed for years, gave a start to many a Texas pecan grower.
[excerpted from The Alexandria Daily Town Talk, October 1987, with permission from the author]
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