By Cayden Stump, staff writer
Although Grand Isle was discovered in 1528 by French explorers, ownership of the island alternated between the French and the Spanish for a while. According to Tiffany Kleynhans, former resident of Grand Isle, the French ultimately took control in the 1720s due to the island’s proximity to New Orleans.
Before these explorers discovered Grand Isle, the Chitimacha Tribe hunted, fished and planted oak trees at the center of the island. These oak trees provided settlers with protection from the elements.
Kleynhans, a Thibodaux resident, has ties to Grand Isle from her great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather Jacques Rigaud, who was one of four people who received a land grant and was ordered to make the land usable.
In 1781, Spanish Governor Bernardo Vicente de Gálvez y Madrid gave the first land grant to Jacques Rigaud and his brother with a promise to make something of the land. The Galvez brothers decided to raise cattle and plant orange groves, which marked the start of the land’s development. Additional crops like sugarcane and cotton were also harvested, according to the Town of Grand Isle.
Grand Isle became a part of the United States in 1803 after the Louisiana Purchase. At this time, crops were shipped to New Orleans, plantations appeared on the island and slaves tended to the land.
“There were a lot of free African Americans on the island as well that worked on the farms and plantations,” says Kleynhans.
During this time, pirates came from all over to raid Spanish ships, including slave ships. Pirates made most of their money by kidnapping slaves from Spanish ships and selling them to plantation owners in New Orleans.
Kleynhans says, “The whole pirate thing is romanticized, and it seems so cool, but the sad thing is they would raid Spanish slave ships and steal the slaves and sell in New Orleans.”
— Tiffany Kleynhans
The people of Grand Isle farmed, fished and exported their products to New Orleans during this time.
In the late 1800s, wealthy people from New Orleans built a resort hotel on Grand Isle’s beach, and according to Kleyhans, people came to the island because they believed its water could heal them.
“Business was booming ‘till the 1893 hurricane came and destroyed and washed it all away,” says Kleynhans.
Following the Cheniere Caminada Hurricane, the community was able to rebuild what was destroyed on the island. After this, the prohibition era began, and members of the mafia owned and used a local marina as a cover for shipping out alcohol.
In 1930, a lawyer named Danziger pushed for a bridge to be built so that people would no longer have to use a push barge to access Grand Isle from the mainland. Once the bridge was built, oil companies and tourists began to arrive, eventually making Grand Isle what it is today – a tourist destination and oil-industry hub.
The Town of Grand Isle’s website states, “Today, the island is home to around 1,500 locals, who make a living from the seafood and oil industries. More than 12,000 tourists visit the island annually to participate in fishing rodeos and enjoy the wide open beaches and countless bird sightings.”
While the current state of Grand Isle is vastly different from its origins, the things that have taken place since its discovery have shaped it into what it is today.