Imagine seeing a primitive Louisiana for the first time. You find new varieties of plants and encounter wild animals different from anything you have ever seen. Drawings show off those fascinating discoveries.
Exhibit curator Gilles-Antoine Langlois says, "It was for many purposes. One for example was to enlarge the knowledge of the new country recently colonized. Another was to enlarge the collections of the king's garden itself."
Langlois has been uncovering a variety of old documents and artifacts in the museums of France, and piecing together those historical clues to show what Louisiana was like when the first colonists arrived.
Langlois says, "We can learn how life was difficult in that time. Difficult because rivalry between the French and the Indian nations, problems with slavery, problems with the flooding of the Mississippi River, and problems to find treatments appropriate to yellow fever, to dysentery."
The French artifacts have been combined with items in the Historic New Orleans Collection in an exhibition called "Seeking the Unknown". The items on display show what Louisiana was like up to 300 years ago -- manuscripts and drawings, plant and animal specimens that were collected here and sent back to France.
There is an herbal cure for the poisonous bite of the diamondback rattlesnake. Also, a large alligator snapping turtle – captured in Louisiana and sent to Paris, where it has survived for nearly 200 years. Curator John Lawrence calls it "an extraordinary animal… largest freshwater turtle in North America. But this of course was unknown in Europe."
You can see the curiosities collected by French botanists and explorers, including several jars of preserved reptiles, salamanders, and ribbon snakes. Also, there are actual plants that were carefully transported to Paris, where they found a home in the king's garden. Pieces of the two-century-old plants were stored in French museums.
Lawrence says, "Especially throughout the 18th century there were great strides being made in the understanding of the natural world. It's when the Latin classification systems were developed, some with strong input from French scientists."
You can see a drawing of Native Americans encountered by early colonists, and a very detailed colonial map.
Langlois says, "There is all of the villages of the Indians and there is all of the paths used by the people."
There is a fascination with birds, exhibited in a sketch of the skeleton of a Louisiana brown pelican drawn in the year 1690. There is an excitement that is preserved in these old manuscripts written about a new and exotic world.
Lawrence says, "And then to put yourself in the place of the people writing these letters, talking about every little thing that they have seen, that they have witnessed, that they are excited about."
These treasures are a link to a time when Louisiana was new, and different, and people were seeking the unknown.
You can view the exhibit "Seeking the Unknown - Natural History Observations in Louisiana" at the Historic New Orleans Collection now through June 2. For more information, go online to http://www.hnoc.org/naturalhistory.