Avery Island (historically French: Île Petite Anse) is a salt dome best known as the source of Tabasco sauce. Located in Iberia Parish, Louisiana, United States, it is about three miles (5 km) inland from Vermilion Bay, which in turn opens onto the Gulf of Mexico. A small human population lives on the island.
The island was named after the Avery family, who settled there in the 1830s, but long before that, Native Americans had found that Avery Island’s verdant flora covered a precious natural resource—a massive salt dome. There, the Indians boiled the Island’s briny spring water to extract salt, which they traded to other tribes as far away as central Texas, Arkansas, and Ohio.
According to records maintained prior to 1999 in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Petite Anse Island, renamed Avery Island in the late 19th century, was purchased by John Craig Marsh of New Jersey in 1818. Marsh operated a sugar plantation on the island’s fertile soil. His daughter, Sarah Craig Marsh, married Daniel Dudley Avery in 1837, thus uniting the Marsh and Avery families. Daniel Dudley Avery hailed from Baton Rouge, and was a jurist. In 1849, Daniel became co-owner of his in-law’s sugar plantation, and in 1855 he became sole owner.
During the American Civil War, a mine of pure rock salt was founded on Avery Island in May 1861, which subsequently produced more than 22 million pounds (10,000 metric tons) of salt for the Confederacy. According to the historian John D. Winters in his The Civil War in Louisiana (1963), the rock salt mine had been well-protected, until Union General Nathaniel P. Banks began a push up Bayou Teche. After an all-night march, Union Colonel W.K. Kimball, in Winters’ words, “advanced to the beautiful little island and, without opposition, burned eighteen buildings, smashed the steam engines and mining equipment, scattered six hundred barrels of salt awaiting shipping, and brought away a ton of gunpowder left behind by [Confederate General] Taylor’s men.
Before the Civil War, Edmund McIlhenny joined the Avery family, by wedding Mary Eliza Avery, daughter of Daniel Dudley Avery and Sarah Marsh Avery. In 1868, McIlhenny founded McIlhenny Company, and began manufacturing Tabasco brand pepper sauce. In 1870, he received letters patent for his sauce processing formula. That same basic process is still used today.
Avery Island was hit hard in September 2005 by Hurricane Rita. According to The New York Times, the family spent $5 million on constructing a 17-foot (5.2 m)-high levee, pumps, and back-up generators to ensure that future hurricanes will not disrupt Tabasco sauce production.
Under the Avery/McIlhenny family’s management, Avery Island has remained a natural paradise, inhabited by many animal species, as well as by exotic plants from throughout the world. Edward Avery McIlhenny, or “Mr. Ned” as he was affectionately known, founded this bird colony—later called Bird City—around 1895 after plume hunters had slaughtered egrets by the thousands to provide feathers for ladies’ hats. Edward gathered eight young egrets, raised them in captivity on the Island, and released them in the fall to migrate across the Gulf of Mexico. The following spring the birds returned to the Island with others of their species, a migration that continues today.
Edward McIlhenny introduced numerous varieties of azaleas, Japanese camellias, Egyptian papyrus sedge, and other rare plants to the Island’s natural landscape. When oil was discovered on the Island in 1942, he ensured that production crews bypassed live oak trees and buried pipelines (or painted them green) to preserve the Island’s beauty, wildlife, and utility as a wildlife refuge.
Avery Island is surrounded on all sides by bayous (slow-moving, muddy rivers), salt marsh, and swampland; it sits about 130 miles (225 km) west of New Orleans. The island was a sugar plantation formerly known as Petite Anse Island. (Petite Anse means “Little Cove” in Cajun French.) Access to the island is via toll road (technically, a very low toll bridge, which charges only on inbound traffic).
Avery Island is actually a huge dome of rock salt, three miles (5 km) long and two and a half miles (4 km) wide. It was created by the upwelling of ancient evaporite (salt) deposits that exist beneath the Mississippi River Delta region. These upwellings are known as “salt domes.” Avery Island is one of five salt dome islands that rise above the flat Louisiana Gulf coast.
At its highest point, the island is 163 feet (50 m) above mean sea level. It covers about 2,200 acres (8.9 km2) and is about 2.5 miles (4.0 km) across at its widest point.