Yugoslavs in Louisiana

Below is an excerpt from a book detailing an experience of the Yugoslavian people in Louisiana back in 1893 during the Chenière Caminada hurricane (also called the Great October Storm). It mentions one of my wife Casey’s relatives, Matthew Kuluz, whose sons (one of which was her grandfather) eventually moved to Biloxi. The book appears to be Yugoslavs in Louisiana by Milos M. Vujnovich (Amazon.com Book Link). The version on Google Books contains different text than what is on the pages I was given and have transcribed so I’m guessing I have text from an earlier version (searching the Google Books page for Kuluz yields and index showing him on pages 141, 142, and 143). I wanted to go ahead and post it here in digital form for posterity since it does detail her family’s history. I have fixed simple grammar and spelling issues in the text, but otherwise left it intact and added a couple of hyperlinks.

Yugoslavs in Louisiana

The hurricane of October 1-2, 1893, came from the Antilles unrecorded by the Cuban or the Miami weather station so that no warnings were given to the Louisiana residents. It came upon them like a thief in the night, robbing them of their homes, their belongings, their dear ones, and in many cases their own lives. It came with winds averaging 140 miles per hour and a tidal wave estimated at 20 feet, leveling everything in its path.

October 1 was a Sunday, a day of rest and get together for the folks of Bayou Cook and vicinity. They spent the day socializing, and some remembering that it was the Sabbath, said a prayer. Toward evening menacing black clouds darkened the skies, followed by gusty rain, increased winds, and rising tides. By the time darkness fell, the experienced oystermen realized that a hurricane was blowing somewhere in the Gulf, and, without alarming their families, they hoped and prayed that it would pass them by as many storms had done before or that it would blow itself out during the night, without doing heavy damage to their homes and luggers. But it struck the Bayou Cook area at about eleven o’clock that night. The tidal wave flooded the marshes, crushed the camps, smashed the luggers, and destroyed everything in its path. Many were drowned by the wave; others were killed or injured by the falling and flying timbers. In the confusion of the onslaught of wind and water, all in complete darkness, families were torn apart, children separated from their parents, and parents from each other. The hysterical cries of desperate mothers and fathers and frightened children calling out for each other mingled with the howling wind, rain, and rushing waters. The storm raged through the night, and when daylight came it revealed a sight of destruction, desolation, and death. The timber from the wrecked camps was mixed with logs, torn trees, smashed boats, boats’ rigging, furniture, and other debris floating on the surface of the murky water. The strong wooden pilings remained fast, pointing above the water the locations of camps and happy homes which they supported a few hours before. Here and there human forms could be distinguished, some dead, others dying, and some clinging to the pilings and the debris, hoping and praying to be rescued. Most of the living were rescued before nightfall and, with the dead, were taken to higher ground. Not all the bodies were recovered, however, and not all the living and the injured were saved. Many, before the rescue parties could reach them, were swept away into the Gulf by receding waters.

All of the oystermen were seasoned sailors, and many, before settling in Louisiana to fish oysters, had navigated the oceans of the world and experienced storms on the high seas. Unhesitatingly many of them credited their survival on this night to a miracle. As they narrated later, they prayed fervently – reciting prayers they learned from their village priests – to St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, and to the Almighty; they made promises of sacrifices and became “believers.”

Many near miraculous escapes and many hardships were experienced by the sturdy oystermen during this hurricane, and one of the most outstanding was the survival of two immigrants from Sucuraj, Matthew Kumarich and Matthew Kuluz. They had a lugger named St. Nicolo and a camp on Razor Island in Grand Lake and worked as partners. That Sunday evening they retired to their camp to weather the storm but soon realized that this was not a mere storm but a hurricane. As the water rose they tore up some floorboards to let the water rise into the camp without severing the camp from its foundation. But the water rose so rapidly, and they climbed to the rafters hoping that it would rise no higher and that the camp would withstand the wind and waves. About midnight the camp was torn to pieces, and they were thrown amid the debris, some of which each managed to grab onto. As they were carried from the campsite they spotted an overturned submerged skiff and caught hold of it. When the morning came they realized that they had drifted out into the Gulf, miles from Razor Island. They held on to the sides of the skiff hoping a rescue boat would save them. They drifted with the skiff in open Gulf waters for four days, the hot sun beating down on their peeling skin, which was further irritated by the salty waves washing over their sore bodies. They encouraged each other as best as they could under the circumstances. Thursday passed, and sometime during the night Kumarich exclaimed: “Hvala Bogu, no svijetlo” (“Thank God, there is a light”). They recognized the Southwest Pass lighthouse. As they drifted nearer, expecting to touch the bottom at any moment, the wind suddenly shifted, and they were once more driven out to the sea.

Alternating between complete despair and faint hope, they knew that neither could hold on much longer, but as experienced sailors they also knew that their only hope lay in staying with the submerged skiff. Drifting thus for the fifth day, early Friday morning their feet touched the bottom and soon after, exhausted, and half dead, they pulled themselves ashore. Some distance away they saw a light on a boat and Kuluz, weak as he was, managed to swim to the boat and explain their situation. The lugger took them to the rescue vessel Louisiana by which they were taken to the Grand Isle railroad which took them to New Orleans. The rescue committee of the Slavonian Association took charge of them and supplied them with shelter, food, clothing and medical care. The Times-Democrat reporter interviewed them at Michael Baccich’s store on Decatur Street. Bewildered and unsure of their future, the oystermen were glad to see their compatriots Kuluz and Kumarich whom they lost. Kumarich, the larger and sturdier of the two, survived the ordeal without noticeable change, but Kuluz was not recognized by his own friends, so much had he suffered. His weight had decreased from 165 pounds to 132 pounds in six days. Kumarich later returned to his native Sucuraj and died at a very old age. Kuluz continued fishing oysters in Louisiana waters. Later, his sons moved to nearby Biloxi where they established an oyster canning factory.

After the storm passed and the waters abated completely, most of the oystermen returned to the sites of their homes. They constructed new camps and larger, safer, swifter boats, and they rebuilt and restocked their reefs.

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6 Responses to Yugoslavs in Louisiana

  1. David Starr says:

    Hello from Sydney!
    I am married to the granddaughter of Matthew Kumarich, one of the survivors from your story, re the great storm of 1893! “Yugoslavs in Louisiana”
    Matthew’s youngest son is alive and well – aged 94 , living in Sydney .
    Dinko Kumarich.
    Dinko is the only surviving child- Matthew had 12.

    Thanks for a great access to this part of our family history!!

    David Starr
    (Married to Adriana Kumarich)

  2. Doug Porter says:

    Wow, thanks for writing. We bought the book for my Father-in-law so he could read the whole thing and he really enjoyed it. I’m wondering what other tales he’ll have for us after he takes it to the Slavonian Lodge in Biloxi and talks with his friends.

  3. Casey Kuluz says:

    Matthew was my great grandfather. My dad said that Matthew had enough of the boats after this experience, and preferred to stay on land. =)

    His sons (Tony, Nick, & Vincent {my grandfather}) later moved to Biloxi, and established a canning factory. Most of the Kuluz’s are still in Biloxi.

  4. katarina kumarich says:

    Thank you SO much for this detailed account of this story of survival. I have been looking for the past year into my family history and particularly details about this story.
    Matthew Kumarich was my great grandfather.
    It was an emotional experience reading about this as it confirmed things that I had only heard in fragments through passed down stories. I was particularly touched to read about the men praying to St. Nikolas. Matthew made a deal with God that if he survived, he would name a son Nikolas. This was my grandfather and now my brother also carries this name! I would love to hear from Casey Kuluz (or others) to find out about these men receiving a ‘key to the city’, or something to do with formal recognition from the mayor or city authorities of their survival? This has been passed down as part of this story. Any more information about my great grandfather would be wonderful. We are also distantly related to Kuluz. Matthew Kumarich’s wife Ana’s grandmother was Ana Kuluz married to Grgo Bulat (b. c.1820s). Dalmatians always hang out with family!
    I am so grateful for the gift of this story. My great grandfather Matthew Kumarich was indeed an adventurous and resilient man.
    In appreciation,
    Katarina Kumarich, Melbourne, Australia.

  5. Casey Kuluz says:

    That’s fascinating to know that both families were tied together by marriage! I’ll have to ask my dad if he knows of any other stories. I’m heading to Biloxi next Tuesday for Mardi Gras, and will see several Kuluz family members. Biloxi has a large population of Yugoslavs. My dad’s brother is also involved in events with Yugoslavs in New Orleans, LA, so he might have some stories to tell. I’ll see what I can find out from them.

    In the meantime, my email address is jusbnkc @ aol.com, if you’d like to chat in the future.

    Casey

  6. Nadia Aivazian says:

    I was reading the Manly Daily earlier today (Tue 9 Oct) and read a notice regarding the passing of Dinko Kumarich. It is indeed a small world. As a child in the 1960′s, I lived on Warriewood Road, Warriewood in Sydney and I can vaguely recall the Kumarich family with 2 daughters, especially Diane. My late father George (Jure) Vrandich migrated to Australia in 1936 at the age of 20 from Pucisce, Brac and was also from that generation of strong, resilient Dalmatians.

    I pass on my condolences to the family of Mr Kumarich.

    Nadia (Vrandich) Aivazian

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