Louisiana History

The history of Louisiana is long and rich. From its earliest settlement by Native Americans to its status as linchpin of an empire to its incorporation as a U.S. state, it has been successively bathed in the cultural influences of American Indians, France, Spain, the Caribbean, Africa, and the United States, and has subsequently developed a rich and unique creolization of cultures.

Early settlement

Louisiana was inhabited by Native Americans when European explorers arrived in the 17th century. Many current place names in the state, including Atchafalaya, Natchitouches (now spelled Natchitoches), Caddo, Houma, Tangipahoa, and Avoyel (as Avoyelles), are transliterations of those used in various Native American dialects. Two archaeological sites showing thousands of years of Native American settlement are Watson Brake and Poverty Point.

Many native tribes inhabited the region, using current parish boundaries to describe approximate locations:

The Atakapa in southwestern Louisiana in Vermilion, Cameron, Lafayette, Acadia, Jefferson Davis, and Calcasieu parishes. They were allied with the Appalousa in St. Landry parish.
The Acolapissa in St. Tammany parish. They were allied with the Tangipahoa in Tangipahoa parish.
The Chitimacha in the southeastern parishes of Iberia, Assumption, St. Mary, lower St. Martin, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Charles, Jefferson, Orleans, St. Bernard, and Plaquemines. They were allied with the Washa in Assumption parish, the Chawasha in Terrebonne parish, and the Yagenechito to the east.
The Bayougoula, part of the Choctaw nation, in areas directly north of the Chitimachas in the parishes of St. Helena, Tangipahoa, Washington, East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Livingston, and St. Tammany. They were allied with the Quinipissa-Mougoulacha in St. Tammany parish.
The Houma, also part of the Choctaw nation, in East and West Feliciana, and Pointe Coupee parishes (about 100 miles (160 km) north of the town named for them).
The Okelousa in Pointe Coupee parish.
The Avoyel, part of the Natchez nation, in parts of Avoyelles and Concordia parishes along the Mississippi River.
The Taensa, also part of the Natchez nation, in northeastern Louisiana particularly Tensas parish.
The Tunica in northeastern parishes of Tensas, Madison, East Carroll and West Carroll.
The Koroa in East Carroll parish.
The remainder of central, west central, and northwest Louisiana was home to a substantial portion of the Caddo nation, the Adai in Natchitoches parish, and Natchitoches confederacy consisting of the Natchitoches in Natchitoches parish, Yatasi and Nakasa in the Caddo and Bossier parishes, Doustioni in Natchitoches parish, and Quachita in the Caldwell parish.

French exploration and colonization (1528–1756)

The first European explorers to visit Louisiana came in 1528. The Spanish expedition (led by Panfilo de Narváez) located the head of the Mississippi River. In 1541, Hernando de Soto’s expedition crossed the region. Then Spanish interest in Louisiana lay dormant. In the late 17th century, French expeditions, which included sovereign, religious and commercial aims, established a foothold on the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast. With its first settlements, France lay claim to a vast region of North America and set out to establish a commercial empire and French nation stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada.

The French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle named the region Louisiana to honor France’s King Louis XIV in 1682. The first permanent settlement, Fort Maurepas (at what is now Ocean Springs, Mississippi, near Biloxi), was founded by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, a French military officer from Canada, in 1699.

The French colony of Louisiana originally claimed all the land on both sides of the Mississippi River and north to French territory in Canada. The following present day states were part of the then vast tract of Louisiana: Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

The settlement of Natchitoches (along the Red River in present-day northwest Louisiana) was established in 1714 by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, making it the oldest permanent settlement in the territory that then composed the Louisiana colony. The French settlement had two purposes: to establish trade with the Spanish in Texas, and to deter Spanish advances into Louisiana. Also, the northern terminus of the Old San Antonio Road (sometimes called El Camino Real, or Kings Highway) was at Nachitoches. The settlement soon became a flourishing river port and crossroads, giving rise to vast cotton kingdoms along the river. Over time, planters developed large plantations and built fine homes in a growing town, a pattern repeated in New Orleans and other places.

Louisiana’s French settlements contributed to further exploration and outposts. They were concentrated along the banks of the Mississippi and its major tributaries, from Louisiana to as far north as the region called the Illinois Country, near Peoria, Illinois and present-day St. Louis, Missouri.

Initially Mobile, Alabama and Biloxi, Mississippi functioned in succession as the capital of the colony. In 1722, recognizing the importance of the Mississippi River to trade and military interests, France made New Orleans the seat of civilian and military authority.

Settlement in the Louisiana colony was not exclusively French; in the 1720s, German immigrants settled along the Mississippi River in a region referred to as the German Coast.

Africans and early slavery

In 1719, two ships arrived in New Orleans, the Duc du Maine and the Aurore, carrying the first African slaves to Louisiana. From 1718 to 1750, thousands of Africans were transported to Louisiana from the Senegambian coast, the west African region of the interior of modern Benin, and from the coast of modern Angola. According to French shipping records, approximately 2000 individuals originated from the upper West African slave ports from Saint-Louis, Senegal to Cap Appolonia (present-day Ébrié Lagoon, Côte d’Ivoire) several hundred kilometers to the south, a further 2000 were exported from the port of Whydah (modern Ouidah, Benin) and roughly 300 departed from Cabinda. It has been argued, though it is by no means universally accepted, that due to historical and administrative ties between France and Senegal, “Two-thirds of the slaves brought to Louisiana by the French slave trade came from Senegambia.” This region between the Senegal and Gambia rivers had peoples who were closely related through history: three of the principal languages, Sereer, Wolof and Pulaar were related, and Malinke, spoken by the Mande people to the east, was “mutually intelligible” with them. This concentration of peoples from one region of Africa strongly shaped Louisiana Creole culture.

The geographic and perhaps linguistic similarities of many African captives, can be easily exaggerated and did not necessarily imply a common heritage in Louisiana. Religion was one significant difference among many of the Africans who were sold to the Americas from Senegal. The creation of a common culture as some have argued, is an assertion still debated by historians. It is historically difficult to determine the religious beliefs of slaves, but it is likely that some, if not many, slaves from Senegal were Muslims. Many were certainly captives taken in the religious wars that engulfed the region from Futa Djallon to Futa Toro and Futa Bundu (modern Upper Niger River) in the early 1700s. Indeed, the inland territories of the African continent from which slaves were captured, were enormous. Contemporary and modern observers may have attributed more similarities to slaves taken from among these areas that enslaved Africans recognized among themselves at the time of transportation and sale in Louisiana.

Spanish interregnum (1763–1800)

Most of the territory to the east of the Mississippi was lost to the Kingdom of Great Britain in the French and Indian War, except for the area around New Orleans and the parishes around Lake Pontchartrain. The rest of Louisiana became a possession of Spain after the Seven Years’ War by the Treaty of Paris of 1763.

Despite the fact that it was the Spanish government that now ruled Louisiana, the pace of francophone immigration to the territory increased swiftly, due to another significant aftereffect of the French and Indian War. Several thousand French-speaking refugees from the region of Acadia (now Nova Scotia, Canada) made their way to Louisiana after being expelled from their home territory by the newly ascendant British. The first group of around 200 arrived in 1765, lead by Joseph Broussard dit “Beausoleil”. They settled chiefly in the southwestern Louisiana region now called Acadiana. The Acadian refugees were welcomed by the Spanish, and their descendants came to be called Cajuns.

Some Spanish-speaking immigrants arrived also, Canary Islanders, called Isleños. They immigrated to Louisiana between 1778 and 1783.

Both free and enslaved populations increased rapidly during the years of Spanish rule, as new settlers and Creoles imported large numbers of slaves to work on plantations. Although some American settlers brought slaves with them who were native to Virginia or North Carolina, the Pointe Coupee inventories showed that most slaves brought by traders came directly from Africa. In 1763 settlements from New Orleans to Pointe Coupee (north of Baton Rouge) included 3,654 free persons and 4,598 slaves. By the 1800 census, which included West Florida, there were 19,852 free persons and 24,264 slaves in Lower Louisiana. Although the censuses do not always cover the same territory, they show a majority of slaves in the population throughout these years. Records during Spanish rule were not as well documented as with the French slave trade, so it is difficult to trace more specific origins of African slaves. The overall numbers, though, resulted in what historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall called “the re-Africanization” of Lower Louisiana, which strongly influenced the culture.

In 1800, France’s Napoleon Bonaparte reacquired Louisiana from Spain in the Treaty of San Ildefonso, an arrangement kept secret for some two years. Documents have revealed that he harbored secret ambitions to reconstruct a large colonial empire in the Americas. This notion faltered, however, after the French attempt to reconquer Haiti after its revolution ended in failure.

Incorporation into the United States and antebellum years (1803–1860)

As a result of his setbacks in Haiti, Bonaparte gave up his dreams of American empire and sold the Louisiana to the United States, which subsequently divided it into two territories: the Territory of Orleans, which became the state of Louisiana in 1812, and the District of Louisiana, which consisted of all the land not included in Orleans Territory. The Florida Parishes were annexed from the short-lived and strategically important West Florida Republic by proclamation of President James Madison in 1810.

Another result of the Haitian Revolution of 1804 was a major emigration of refugees to Louisiana, where they settled chiefly in New Orleans. The thousands of Haitian immigrants included many free people of color, whites and enslaved Africans. Some refugees had earlier gone to Cuba, and some Cuban immigrants also arrived in the major immigration of 1809. The free people of color added substantially to the Creoles of color community in New Orleans, and the immigrants enlarged the French-speaking community.

In 1811, the largest slave revolt in American history, the 1811 German Coast Uprising took place just outside of New Orleans. Between 64 and 500 slaves rose up on the German Coast forty miles outside of New Orleans, and marched to within 20 miles (32 km) of the city gates. The revolt took the entire military might of the Orleans Territory to suppress and was the greatest threat to American sovereignty in New Orleans.

Louisiana became a U.S. State on 30 April, 1812.

The western boundary of Louisiana with Spanish Texas remained in dispute until the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1819, with the Sabine Free State serving as a neutral buffer zone as well as a haven for criminals. Also called “No Man’s Land,” this part of central and southwestern Louisiana was settled in part by a mixed-race people known as Redbones, whose origins are the subject of ongoing debate.

With the growth of settlement in the Midwest (formerly the Northwest Territory) and Deep South during the early decades of the 19th century, trade and shipping increased markedly in New Orleans. Produce and products moved out of the Midwest down the Mississippi for shipment overseas, and international ships docked at New Orleans with imports to send into the interior. The port was crowded with steamboats, flatboats and sailing ships, and workers speaking languages from many nations. The New Orleans was the major port for the export of cotton and sugar. The city’s population grew and the region became quite wealthy. More than the rest of the Deep South, it attracted immigrants for the many jobs in the city. The richest citizens imported fine goods of wine, furnishings and fabrics.

By 1840 New Orleans had the biggest slave market in the United States. It had become one of the wealthiest cities and the third largest city in the nation. The ban on importation of slaves had increased demand for the internal market. During these decades after the American Revolutionary War, more than one million enslaved African Americans underwent forced migration from the Upper South to the Deep South, two thirds of them in the slave trade. Others were transported by their masters as slaveholders moved west for new lands.

With changing agriculture in the Upper South as planters shifted from tobacco to less labor-intensive mixed agriculture, planters had excess laborers. Many ended up selling slaves to traders to take to the new frontiers. Slaves were driven by traders overland from the Upper South or transported to New Orleans by ship. After sales in New Orleans, steamboats operating on the Mississippi transported slaves upstream to markets or plantation destinations at Natchez and Memphis.

Secession and the Civil War (1860–1865)

With its plantation economy, Louisiana was a state that generated wealth from the labor of and trade in enslaved African Americans. It also had one of the largest free black populations in the United States, totaling 18,647 people in 1860. Most of the free blacks (or free people of color, as they were called in the French tradition) lived in the New Orleans region and southern part of the state. More than in other areas of the South, most of the free people of color were of mixed race. Many free blacks in New Orleans were middle class and well-educated; many were property owners. By contrast, according to the 1860 census, 331,726 people were enslaved, nearly 47% of the state’s total population of 708,002.

Construction and elaboration of the levee system was critical to the state’s ability to cultivate export crops, especially cotton and sugar cane. Enslaved Africans built the first levees under planter direction. Later levees were expanded, heightened and added to mostly by Irish immigrant laborers, whom contractors hired when doing work for the state. As the 19th century progressed, the state had an interest in ensuring levee construction. By 1860, Louisiana had built 740 miles (1,190 km) of levees on the Mississippi River and another 450 miles (720 km) of levees on its outlets. These immense earthworks were built mostly by hand. They averaged six feet in height, and up to twenty feet in some areas.

Enfranchised elite whites’ strong economic interest in maintaining the slave system contributed to Louisiana’s decision to secede from the union. It followed other Southern states in seceding after the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States. Louisiana’s secession was announced on January 26, 1861, and it became part of the Confederate States of America.

The state was quickly defeated in the Civil War, a result of Union strategy to cut the Confederacy in two by seizing the Mississippi. Federal troops captured New Orleans on April 25, 1862. Because a large part of the population had Union sympathies (or compatible commercial interests), the Federal government took the unusual step of designating the areas of Louisiana under Federal control as a state within the Union, with its own elected representatives to the U.S. Congress.

Reconstruction, disenfranchisement and segregation

Following the Civil War, much of the South, including Louisiana, was placed under the supervision of military governors under northern command. Louisiana was grouped with Texas in what was administered as the Fifth Military District. Under this period of Reconstruction, the slaves were freed and male former slaves were given suffrage. African-Americans began to live as citizens with some measure of equality before the law. Both freedmen and people of color who had been free before the war began to make more advances in education, family stability and jobs. At the same time there was tremendous social volatility in the aftermath of war, with many whites actively resisting defeat.

In the 1870s, whites who opposed the outcome of the war accelerated their insurgency to regain control of political power in the state. White paramilitary groups such as the White League, formed in 1874, used violence and outright assassination to turn Republicans out of office, and intimidate African-Americans, discourage them from voting, control their work, and limit movement. Among violent acts attributed to the White League in 1874 was the Coushatta Massacre, where they killed six Republican officeholders, including four family members of the local state senator, and twenty freedmen as witnesses.

Later, 5000 White Leaguers battled 3500 members of the Metropolitan Police and state militia in New Orleans after demanding the resignation of Governor William Pitt Kellogg. They hoped to replace him with the Democratic candidate of the disputed 1872 elections, McEnery. The White League briefly took over the statehouse and city hall before Federal troops arrived. In 1876, the white Democrats regained control of Louisiana.

Through the 1880s, white Democrats began to reduce voter registration of blacks and poor whites by making registration and elections more complicated. They imposed institutionalized forms of racial discrimination.

In 1898, the white Democratic, elite-dominated legislature passed a new disenfranchising constitution, with provisions for voter registration, such as poll taxes, residency requirements and literacy tests, whose implementation was directed at reducing black voter registration. The impact was immediate and long lasting. In 1896, there were 130,334 black voters on the rolls and about the same number of white voters, in proportion to the state population, which was evenly divided.

The state population in 1900 was 47% African-American: 652,013 citizens, of whom many in New Orleans were descendants of Creoles of color, the sizeable population of blacks free before the Civil War. By 1900, two years after the new constitution, there were only 5,320 black voters registered in the state. Because of disenfranchisement, by 1910 there were only 730 black voters (less than 0.5 percent of eligible African-American men), despite advances in education and literacy among blacks and people of color. White Democrats had established one-party rule which they maintained in the state for decades deep into the twentieth century.

The notable 19th-century Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson, which determined that segregation could be legal so long as it did not (purportedly) result in inequality, was the result of a lawsuit brought from Louisiana.

As a result of disenfranchisement, African-Americans in Louisiana essentially had no representation, and suffered inadequate funding for schools and services, lack of representation on juries; no representation in local, state or Federal government; lack of attention to their interests and worse in the segregated state. Nonetheless, they continued to build their own lives and institutions.

In 1915, the Supreme Court struck down the grandfather clause in its ruling in Guinn v. United States. Although the case originated in Oklahoma, Louisiana and other Southern states had used similar clauses to exempt white voters from literacy tests. State legislators then passed new requirements for potential voters to demonstrate “understanding” to official registrars. In practice, this device was effective in keeping most black voters off the rolls. By 1923, Louisiana established the all-white primary, which effectively shut out black voters from the only competitive part of elections in the one-party state.

In the early decades of the 20th century, thousands of African-Americans left Louisiana in the Great Migration north to industrial cities. The boll weevil infestation and agricultural problems had cost sharecroppers and farmers their jobs. The mechanization of agriculture had dropped the need for laborers. They sought skilled jobs in the defense industry in California, better education for their children, and living opportunities in communities where they could vote, as well as an escape from southern violence.

Opelousas, Louisiana was a stop for at least three of the Orphan Trains which were arranged by New York social services agencies to provide for resettlement of orphans out of the city from 1854–1929. It was the heart of a traditional Catholic region of French, Spanish, Acadian, African and French West Indian heritage and traditions. Families in Louisiana took in more than 2,000 mostly Catholic orphans to live in rural farming communities. The city of Opelousas is constructing an Orphan Train Museum (second in the nation) in an old train depot located in Le Vieux Village in Opelousas. The first museum dedicated to the Orphan Train children is located in Kansas.

The Great Depression and WWII (1929–1940s)

During some of the Great Depression, Louisiana was led by Governor Huey Long. He was elected to office on populist appeal. Though popular for his public works projects, which provided thousands of jobs to people in need, and for his programs in education and increased suffrage for poor whites, Long was criticized for his allegedly demogogic and autocratic style. He extended patronage control through every branch of Louisiana’s state government. Especially controversial were his plans for wealth redistribution in the state. Long’s rule ended abruptly with his assassination in the state capitol in 1935.

Mobilization for World War II created some jobs in the state. Thousands of other workers, black and white alike, migrated to California for better jobs in its burgeoning defense industry. From the 1940s through the 1960s was when most African Americans left the state in the Second Great Migration. The mechanization of agriculture in the 1930s had sharply cut the need for laborers. They sought skilled jobs in the defense industry in California, better education for their children, and living opportunities in communities where they could vote.

Although Long removed the poll tax associated with voting, the all-white primaries were maintained through 1944, until the Supreme Court struck them down in Smith v. Allwright. Through 1948 black people in Louisiana continued to be essentially disfranchised, with only 1% of those eligible managing to vote. Schools and public facilities continued to be segregated.

The battle for Civil Rights (1950–1970)

State legislators created other ways to suppress black voting, which crept up to 5% of those eligible from 1948–1952. Civil rights organizations in New Orleans and southern parishes, where there had been a long tradition of free people of color before the Civil War, worked hard to register black voters.

In the 1950s the state created new requirements for a citizenship test for voter registration. Despite opposition by the States Rights Party, downstate black voters began to increase their rate of registration, which also reflected the growth of their middle classes. Gradually black voter registration and turnout increased to 20% and more, but it was still only 32% by 1964. The percentage of black voters ranged widely in the state during these years, from 93.8% in Evangeline Parish to only 1.7% in Tensas Parish, for instance.

Patterns of Jim Crow segregation against African Americans still ruled in Louisiana in the 1960s. Because of the Great Migration of blacks to the north and especially the later migration to the west, and growth of other groups in the state, by 1960 the proportion of African Americans in Louisiana had dropped to 32%. That still meant that 1,039,207 citizens were adversely affected by segregation and efforts at disfranchisement. African Americans continued to suffer disproportionate discriminatory application of the state’s voter registration rules. Because of better opportunities elsewhere, from 1965-1970, blacks continued to migrate out of Louisiana, for a net loss of African Americans of more than 37,000 people. During the latter period, some people began to migrate to cities of the New South for opportunties.

The disfranchisement of African Americans did not end until their leadership and activism throughout the South during the Civil Rights Movement gained national attention and Congressional action. This led to securing passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, with President Lyndon Johnson’s leadership as well. By 1968 almost 59% of eligible-age African Americans had registered to vote in Louisiana. Contemporary rates for African-American voter registration and turnout in the state are above 70%, demonstrating the value they give it, higher than for African-American voters outside the South.

Katrina and its aftermath (2005–present)

In August, 2005 New Orleans and many other low-lying parts of the state along the Gulf of Mexico were hit by the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina, which caused widespread damage due to large-scale flooding of more than 80% of the city and nearby parishes when levees were breached. Warnings of the hurricane prompted the evacuation of New Orleans and other areas, but tens of thousands of people, mostly African Americans, were left behind and stranded by the floodwaters.

Cut off in many cases from healthy food, medicine or water, or assembled in public spaces without functioning emergency services, more than 1500 people in New Orleans died in the aftermath. Government at all levels had failed to prepare adequately despite severe hurricane warnings, and emergency responses were slow. The state faced a humanitarian crisis stemming from conditions in many locations and the large tide of refugees, especially the city of New Orleans. Subsequent reconstruction and repatriation has been slow and generally limited to the state’s wealthier citizens.