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Sweeneys were among first settlers of Grand Chenier

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Cameron Parish Pilot, Cameron, La., July 22, 1999

John William Sweeney was born at Pikesville, near Baltimore, MD, in 1807, the son of John W. Sweeney and Mary Owen. It is believed he was orphaned at an early age and may have been reared by grandparents. By 1830 he apparently was living at Roanoke, VA., where on June 14, 1832, he married Sarah Jane Hickok, daughter of John Hickok and Hannah Murray. Their oldest daughter, Mary Elizabeth, was born in Roanoke on Aug. 14, 1833.

Soon afterward, the Sweeney couple moved to Hinds County, MS., where son Henry Sidney was born on Feb. 29, 1836, and Syrenah Jane died in infancy. In late 1839 or early 1840, the Sweeney family followed their friends, the Milledge McCalls, to Grand Chenier, where they became the third or fourth white family to live there. It is difficult to understand why either family left Mississippi since the Federal government had just opened up one million acres of former Choctaw lands for settlement.

Sweeney family traditions believed that Sarah Jane traded a gold watch and other items to an Attakapas chief for the lands that they would farm cotton on for the next 50 years.

During the next 20 years, several other Sweeney children were born, namely, Harriet, born June 14, 1841; Sarah Ellen, born 1844; John W., born March 6, 1846; James Hill, born Sept. 25, 1849; George Carter, born Oct. 6, 1851; Andrew, born Aug. 18, 1856; Frank N., born May 5, 1859; and Virginia, born Feb. 25, 1854.

During the antebellum years, the Sweeney family raised 25-30 bales of cotton annually, which they shipped to Galveston.

The Civil War dealt harshly with the Sweeney siblings. Isaac Bonsall, Sr., the husband of Mary Elizabeth Sweeney, was killed at the Battle of Mansfield, and William McCall, husband of Harriet Sweeney, also died in the Confederate service. ‘Lizzie’ Bonsall’s son, Isaac, Jr., was a pioneer physician at Cameron.

One story about John W. Sweeney occurred about 1870. He badly mangled his wrist in a cotton gin, and it had to be amputated "Grand Chenier style." John McCall, Harriet’s brother-in-law, had amputated several limbs as a surgeon’s assistant at the siege of Vickburg. At first Sweeney had to be "anesthetized" with a quart of more of whiskey to kill the pain. Afterward McCall used a razor, hacksaw, needle and thread to remove and sew up the mangled forearm. Sweeney lived on for about 16 years more until his death on Aug. 17, 1886.

After her husband was killed, Lizzie Bonsall married again and died at Grand Chenier in 1916. Henry S. lived out most of his life at Sulphur. Harriet also married again and lived out her life at Grand Chenier. Sarah Ellen married Jules Bouquet and died in Texas in 1889. After serving as Cameron Parish sheriff, John W. Jr. died at Sugarland, Texas in 1931. James Hill (the writer’s grandfather) raised cotton at Grand Chenier until he died in 1891. Dr. Carter Sweeney practiced medicine at Grand Chenier from 1875 until 1910, and died there in 1922. Rev. Frank Sweeney held several Methodist pastorates in South Louisiana until he died in 1936. Virginia married Jim Logan and died in Port Arthur in 1936.

The Sweeneys had one more tragedy to endure. Son Andrew ginned 15 bales of cotton in Oct., 1881, when he was engaged to marry Margaret Doland. He loaded his cotton aboard the schooner Two Sisters, bound for Galveston, where Andrew planned to buy his wedding suit, furniture and kitchen utensils. During the night the Two Sisters filled with water and sank, and the 5 men aboard floated away on cotton bales. During the night Andrew drowned, but his body was never found.

After her husband’s death, Sarah Jane Sweeney lived out her life in the household of her son James Hill, and she died at Grand Chenier on June 30, 1893. Most of the old Sweeneys are buried in McCall Cemetery, but tombstones don’t survive for many of them.

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