Bon Secour History



Picture of Bon Secour
Drawing by Hazel and Richard Brough
from the book “Food, Fun, and Fable.”

     It is traditionally held that Bon Secour received its name which, roughly translated, means "Safe Harbor" from Jacques Cook who came from Montreal. He named the town for the church, which stands on a hill near the Canadian city and is called Notre Dame de Bon Secours. Voyageurs saw it last as they left land, and it greeted them first upon, their return.

     By a most unusual coincidence the Baltic Germans, who were the second group of settlers at Bon Secour, in Baldwin County, Alabama, built their church, St. Peters, at the mouth of Bon Secour River. This was the point from which it was visible from Oyster Bay and Shell Banks as well as Bon Secour, and the Parish was summoned upon the arrival of the Anglican priest by hoisting a red flag with a white cross in the center. Thus, the first landfall of Bon Secour in the Southern Country also became a church.


     The pleasant village of Bon Secour has been a settled area with permanent residents for a long, long time. Land titles can be traced in existing record books as far back as 1793 when John Ward purchased a house and tract of land there. Older grants from earlier times can be traced although definite records are not always found. There are houses in Bon Secour today well over one hundred years old which should have the year of their building proudly painted over their front doorways as is done in Virginia and Massachusetts. Most remains of older buildings have disappeared since in this sub-tropical climate no ruins of any sort last long. Hot suns and heavy rains combined with the terrific winds of hurricanes cause masonry to crumble and wood to rot. There is the outline of some ancient building where the masonry is composed of tabby, which means a mortar of burnt oyster shells built up with regular oyster shells. This ruin occupies a point of high land where deep water runs close to shore. It is now undergoing serious archeological study. However, it is safe to say that it is definitely older than colonial times.

     There are old tales that great men of past eras knew the Bon Secour area well. The oldest of these is the tradition that Prince Madoc of Wales landed at Fort Morgan peninsula in 1170 and visited the Bon Secour River also. His efforts at colonizing failed but fraternizing with the Indians was apparently successful. It is believed that the tribe of blue-eyed Mandan Indians may have been descendants of this group. This is not entirely legendary for at least one serious book has been written on this subject. Amerigo Vespucci roughly indicated this whole locality on the map, which he made from his alleged voyage to the New World in 1497.

     The great Spanish missionaries and explorers Pineda and Father Juan Juarez, the latter with Narvaez, certainly passed this way in 1519 and 1528. They very probably visited the Bon Secour River since the area was rich in game and fish, ample fresh water was available and there were beaches where sailing ships could be careened, the bottoms scraped and then recaulked and tarred with pitch made from resin from the abundant pine forests.

     There were, of course, large settlements of Indians along the banks of the river. This is shown by the huge shell mounds which abound in this locality, the many Indian artifacts still to be found and, more specifically, by the British map of 1775 which shows a busy portage route from the headwaters of Wolf Bay to the headwaters of Bon Secour River. The portage route continues down the river a few miles and then by portage again to a point on Bon Secour Bay somewhere in what is now called Bayou Coura swamp. (Map on file in Library of Emory University, Atlanta, Ga.) The Indians even had a "Public Works" project in this area as is shown by the traces of the old canal dug by them from Bon Secour Bay to the Gulf by way of Oyster Bay and the Lagoon.

     In modern times records and legends are more detailed. Beautiful Bon Secour continued to attract great men here for rest and relaxation. It is traditionally held that in 1702 Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville, with his brothers, Iberville and Serigny, built a hunting and fishing lodge at Bon Secour. In 1763 the French ceded all this area to the British who held it until 1783. It is evident that the British knew the Bon Secour area well for they left many maps, which show it in fine detail. It is generally supposed that the British had at least one blockhouse here. At any rate, in 1783 the Spanish again took possession of the whole area. Now definite records begin for many land titles in the area, in fact most of the land titles go back to Spanish times. After the Florida Purchase this area finally became United States territory, and all the old Spanish grants were confirmed and the provisions of the old treaties were honored. This called for land courts and records were kept of that and many other things. An eminent historian mentions specifically the claims of N. Cook, J. Cook, and Augustin LaCoste on the north side of Bon Secour River. On the south bank it names Johnson, F. Lany and Buck, while lower down on Bon Secour Bay itself was named W. E. Kennedy.

     While the name Bon Secour River appears on both French and English maps and the name Rio del Buen Socorro on Spanish maps all of much earlier date, it is traditionally held in Bon Secour that the name of the town originated with Jacques Cook who named it for the Cathedral de Bon Secours in Montreal. The name is undoubtedly of French origin and is most probably from the Montreal cathedral and quite possibly was first used by the couriers de bois who traveled with Bienville. It is certain that it was later popularized as the name of the district by Jacques Cook. The lovely name fit the beautiful river to perfection. "Bon" in French means good while "Secours" means chapel of ease. The English meaning is "Safe Harbor". It has been that to people seeking rest and relaxation — and to boats, for it is one of the safest harbors along the Gulf Coast for small pleasure and fishing boats during squalls and stormy weather.

     Nichlos Cook, the father, and Jacques Cook, the son, have many descendants who live in and around Bon Secour today. One of these is Mrs. Edna Bertrand Laurendine who lives in the original Cook homestead started by Jacques Cook and completed by Jerome, his son. She knows a great deal about her great, great grandfather and the little town of 1840 — one hundred and twenty five years ago. Near their homes the Cook's built a small school for their children and their neighbors' children. The Cook family also gave land for a cemetery across the road from their homes. This cemetery was started in 1835 and was originally planned as a private burial ground for the Cook family and their heirs. It was consecrated for the use of Roman Catholics. Though it was put into use early in the nineteenth century, the first graves were marked with wooden crosses, long since decayed. The earliest decipherable date on a stone now is 1868.

     The first Roman Catholic Church in the Bon Secour area was built on the south side of the river on land near the LaCoste home. It is generally thought the church site was a gift of the LaCoste family. This church, Our Lady of Good Health, was dedicated about 1890 by Bishop O'Sullivan according to his diary. Before that Mass had been said in either the Cook or the LaCoste home. This church served its congregation well for many years. It was damaged in the storm of 1917. After that it was carefully dismantled and carried across the river piece by piece and reassembled on land given by Mrs. Odile Cook Bertrand. It is built on the spot on which the Nichlos Cook house stood. Only the name was changed, for Mrs. Bertrand requested upon giving the property that the church henceforth be called Our Lady of Bon Secour.

     An account of St. Peter's Episcopal Church and the school, which stood beside it, is given elsewhere. A Baptist congregation was founded in Bon Secour by Thomas Nelson as early as 1849 or 1850. The church stood on Plash's Island on the south side of the river. Today this denomination is served by the Friendship Baptist Church, founded in 1925. The church building is seen from the road to Swift's Landing.

     One of the earliest settlements on Bon Secour River, and one which antedates the Civil War, was Steele's Landing on the upper river. Almost all signs of a busy year-round commerce at this landing have disappeared. In years past the watermelons raised in the summer were shipped out on schooners sailing to the landing. Then after the sugar cane was cut and ground in the fall, the schooners carried a fine syrup to Mobile. In winter many of the people oystered and fished. The freight boat BON SECOUR later replaced the schooners.

     This settlement was dependent on water transportation and many of Bon Secour's oldest families—Coopers, Goulds, Wintzells, Steeles and others—lived there in comfortable homesteads. Now only a few cedar posts remain of the once busy wharves, but the memory of the name Steele and the watermelons and friendly hospitality linger like a pleasant perfume.

     Written in 1965 by Charley and Meme Wakeford for their book “Food, Fun, and Fable.”