The Sallier Oak is an ancient giant, an old oak tree that has been battered and bruised over the centuries. But the large tree in downtown Lake Charles, Louisiana has become a symbol of the community’s survival and resilience.
As I exit I-10 at Lake Charles, I see the patchwork of faded blue tarps that cover the roofs of many homes. Other heavily-damaged homes appear abandoned. It’s summer of 2022, nearly two full years after Lake Charles had the misfortune of being slammed by two catastrophic hurricanes. First, there was the powerful punch of Hurricane Laura in August, 2020, a category 4 hurricane with 150-mile-per-hour winds that shredded homes, businesses and trees. And six weeks later, Hurricane Delta flooded those same structures with torrential rains. I was here to visit a survivor, the Sallier Oak.
history of the sallier oak
Southwestern Louisiana was mostly flat prairie with few trees when the first European settlers arrived in the late 1700’s. But one tree, a live oak, may have caught the eye of Frenchman Charles Sallier. “He fought on the wrong side of the French Revolution and had to make a speedy escape from Europe,” Adley Cormier tells me. Cormier is a Lake Charles author and historian. We sit in the shade of the Sallier Oak, a tree so large that some of its branches bend to the ground to help support it. Cormier has collected stories from Sallier’s descendants, and he weaves a tale of adventure and survival. Privateer Jean Lafitte guided Sallier to this isolated location, according to family lore. Lafitte, who helped defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans, traded with settlers from Louisiana to Galveston, Texas.
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A gunshot and the amethyst broach
The wildest tale involves a jealous encounter between Charles Sallier and Lafitte. Sallier returns from a hunting trip and sees his new bride Catherine standing under the oak tree. “He sees what he thinks is a passionate embrace by Jean Lafitte,” Cormier says. “He aims his gun at the couple and shoots and Catherine falls down seemingly dead.” But according to the tale passed down by generations of family members, Catherine is not dead. Cormier recounts how, “the bullet is caught by her newly installed amethyst broach.”
The old oak tree has withstood some of the strongest hurricane winds to ever pound coastal Louisiana. The winds stripped much of the foliage from the oak’s branches. And years earlier, a lightning strike nearly split the tree in half. A large rusted chain hangs from the tree trunk. “The Salliers tried to wench it back together to bring it back to life,” Cormier explains.
a symbol of survival
This old lonely tree on the prairie has proven that it is a true survivor. And that means something to the community of Lake Charles as residents continue their struggle to recover from the devastation of recent hurricanes. Cormier tells me, “Despite the ups and downs of the economy, the weather change, whatever it is, this tree has been a symbol of Southwest Louisiana in terms of the resiliency.”
The giant oak tree is located on the grounds of the Imperial Calcasieu Museum. The address is 204 W. Sallier Street, Lake Charles, LA 70601. Phone: (337) 439-3797.