History is more than the acquisition of dates, names, places, and events. History is the study of periods of continuity, change, and transition—more precisely, it is the study of what caused shifts in social, cultural, economic, and political behaviors. Since eyewitnesses from the past are not available to report on what they saw, historians must study the evidence that people have left behind in order to understand what they believed and thought, how they governed and entertained themselves, how they lived together in communities or fought each other in war. And the many players in Louisiana’s history generated a great variety of evidence.

One important form of evidence is the diplomatic charters, agreements, and treaties that mark significant events in the state’s history. Courts, political administrations, meetings, and surveys constitute yet another type of written record. Fortunately for historians, the French and Spanish colonial administrators of Louisiana were excellent record keepers. French Superior Council records and the Spanish Judicial Records of the Illustrious Cabildo dating back to the eighteenth century are available for study, as are land records and other contracts recorded in Orleans Parish. Under French and Spanish control, when civil law was in effect, notaries were required to archive their own records. As a result, documents dating back to 1733 are still available. (Unfortunately for historians, the Louisiana climate is especially destructive to paper; other sorts of documents and ephemera that might yield a more complete picture of everyday life in the territory have been lost.)

Historians may study other types of evidence in addition to written documents. Archaeological artifacts, such as bones, stone tools, or ceramic vessels, reveal a great deal about the prehistoric inhabitants of Louisiana. Other clues to the past may be found in the physical objects that people have created (baskets, pirogues, Mardi Gras costumes, Cajun quilts, etc.), as well as in the products of arts and crafts (furniture, for example) and of technology (tools, equipment). Historians may examine fine buildings and interior decorations as displays of prosperity in past decades.

Oral histories offer audio or video recordings of the memories of everyday people, not just important government officials or businessmen. Such recordings may include eyewitness accounts of significant events or firsthand knowledge of a particular community or family during a specific time. Oral histories may also provide recordings of songs, folktales, or explanations of traditional crafts.

The evidence available to scholars of Louisiana’s past has helped historians recognize specific time periods within the continuum of the state’s history, beginning with the prehistoric era up until the present day. Evidence has also helped historians identify those individuals and groups who have been a part of Louisiana since the first prehistoric peoples moved into the region.

 

Time Periods

Archaeological evidence indicates that the first peoples entered the Lower Mississippi Valley and Gulf Coast regions around 10,000 BC. These prehistoric ancestors to Native Americans left traces of their culture in artifacts and in the mounds they built for their ceremonies, such as those at Poverty Point. The oldest group of these prehistoric people was the Paleo-Indian (10,000–6000 BC), nomadic hunter-gatherers who left no signs of pottery making or metal working. The next oldest group, the Meso-Indian (6000–2000 BC), was also nomadic, but these people developed new hunting and fishing techniques and tools. During the Neo-Indian period (2000 BC–AD 1600), groups of prehistoric people became more sedentary and established permanent villages, and while they continued the tool-making practices of the former periods, they began to make pottery and other types of artifacts. They also evolved from a hunter-gatherer society to a community based on agriculture. This is the period of the mound builders, who constructed earthen mounds that archaeologists believe were used in burial and ceremonial practices. Such mounds can be found throughout the Great Lakes, Ohio River, and Mississippi River regions—and some of the oldest are in Louisiana.

 

The mound builders constructed earthen mounds that archaeologists believe were used in burial and ceremonial practices. Such mounds can be found throughout the Great Lakes, Ohio River, and Mississippi River regions—and some of the oldest are in Louisiana.

The significant groups that lived during the Neo-Indian period are the Poverty Point Culture, 2000–600 BC; the Tchefuncte Culture, 600 BC–AD 200; the Marksville Culture, A.D. 200–400; the Troyville-Coles Creek Culture, 400–1100; the Caddo Culture of northwestern Louisiana, AD 800–1600; and the Plaquemine-Mississippian Culture in the rest of the state, AD 1000–1600. Archaeologists use the term culture to define the behavior of a prehistoric society within a specific time frame and geographical area. By studying the remaining earthworks, burial sites, pottery fragments—and even prehistoric trash pits—archaeologists can tell much about the shared beliefs and values of these societies.

The period of early exploration (pre-1682) included not only the people of the Plaquemine-Mississippian and Caddo cultures, but also the first European explorers who came to explore the New World and its great rivers and natural resources. The French colonial period began when Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, took possession of the Louisiana territory in the name of Louis XIV, king of France, in 1682. France ceded the territory to Spain in 1763, and the Spanish colonial government established the cabildo, the traditional form of Spanish municipal government. French immigrants continued to settle in Spanish Louisiana, and toward the end of the eighteenth century, Spanish officials also had to deal with an influx of Anglo-American immigrants. The Spanish colonial period ended in 1800, when Spain ceded the territory back to France.

With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 (at the price of 3 cents an acre), the United States doubled in size almost overnight, and that negotiation set a precedent for the manner in which the United States continued to gain territory in the nineteenth century. The period referred to as Territory/Early Statehood (1803–1812) follows the acquisition of the Louisiana territory, and this time is dominated by the challenges of determining the boundaries of the new territory, administering the former French/Spanish colony, and transitioning from European legal systems to American legal practices.

The following time spans—Antebellum (1812–1860), the Civil War (1860–1865), and Reconstruction (1862–1877)—are periods in U.S. history distinguished by national and regional developments in politics, economics, and social structures, and by war and recovery. In antebellum Louisiana (after statehood and before the Civil War), ongoing tensions between Anglo-Americans and those of French and Spanish descent coalesced into political partisanship, with followers of Jacksonian democracy and members of the Whig Party often in conflict. This tension contributed greatly to solidifying support for as well as against the state’s eventual secession from the Union. During the Civil War, many Louisiana men served in the Confederate army and fought in battles outside the state, while events and conditions on the home front (such as severe deprivation and guerilla warfare) profoundly impacted all Louisianans. The Reconstruction era followed directly after the war in other former Confederate states; in Louisiana, however, wartime Reconstruction began with the federal occupation of New Orleans in April 1862. Most historians mark the end of Reconstruction with the Compromise of 1877.

The Bourbon period (1877–1924) was a time when conservative Democrats known as Bourbons dominated state politics. Bourbons were typically members of the white elite (cotton and sugar planters, businessmen, and others) who had enjoyed prosperity before the Civil War and who regained power after Reconstruction. Bourbon policies worked to establish and maintain white supremacy and financial conservatism. The Long era began with Huey P. Long’s unsuccessful run for governor in 1924 on a platform that countered Bourbon politics and continued with his election to that office in 1928. Long established a powerful statewide political organization, advocated for populist programs, and engaged in blatant political corruption. Although Long was assassinated in 1935, his influence was so pervasive that the four governors who succeeded him continued his policies. The Long era ended with the death in 1960 of Long’s brother, Earl K. Long, who also served as governor.

Huey Long established a powerful statewide political organization, advocated for populist programs, and engaged in blatant political corruption.

 

With World War II, the state’s economy improved as workers in Louisiana agriculture and manufacturing strove to meet the demands of the wartime economy. In addition, there was a significant migration of people from the state’s rural areas to the larger cities. Events in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrate that the divisive issues of racial segregation and states’ rights were still pervasive throughout the state. For the remainder of the late twentieth century, important movements such as the fight for civil rights dominated the political and social scene, as demonstrated by marches, boycotts, and sit-ins in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Bogalusa, and Shreveport.

Since 2001, the contemporary period of Louisiana history, there have been great improvements in the overall standard of living for Louisianians, but the state remains far behind the rest of the United States in terms of economic productivity. That status, together with failures at the federal level, left the state ill-prepared for one of the most defining events in Louisiana history—hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the ensuing floods and destruction of 2005.

 

Peoples of Louisiana

By the end of the seventeenth century, French and Canadian colonists were settling into the Louisiana territory, where they encountered both Native Americans and traders and settlers from nearly Spanish colonies. Around 1716, trading ships with human cargoes, some coming directly from Africa, others by way of the French Caribbean, began to arrive in the territory. The Africans who were brought here early in the eighteenth century were taken primarily from the Senegambia and Bambara peoples of present-day Mali. Because of their shared languages and social practices, the rich culture of these early slaves had a powerful impact on Louisiana society. In addition, under French and Spanish colonial rule, slaves were allowed to purchase their own manumission or that of family members. These freed slaves cohered into a distinct community, so that in antebellum Louisiana, and particularly New Orleans, free people of color—or gens de couleur libres—made up a third social class, higher than enslaved African Americans but lower than white Louisianans.

 

Freed slaves cohered into a distinct community, so that in antebellum Louisiana, and particularly New Orleans, free people of color—or gens de couleur libres—made up a third social class, higher than enslaved African Americans but lower than white Louisianans.

The climate and terrain of Louisiana proved to be inhospitable to early French traders, and proprietors of the colony had difficulty in luring more French citizens to immigrate here. In the 1720s, fearing that the colony would be a failure if there were not enough people to sustain trade, the Company of the Indies lured many poverty-stricken Germans here with the promise of a better life. The German immigrants to Louisiana settled along the Mississippi River in a region now known as the German Coast and made many remarkable contributions to Louisiana culture, especially in music and printing.

Thus, by the mid-eighteenth century, the French colony included Native Americans, French, Canadians, Africans, and Germans, as well as Spanish and Caribbean people. Because these communities worked together in a harsh environment and in isolation from other colonial settlements, languages and traditions intermingled, as did men and women from the different cultures. This melting pot gave rise to the Louisiana Creole—a black, white, or mixed-race individual born in Louisiana, generally with some degree of French, Spanish, or possibly German ancestry. After the Louisiana Purchase, the term was often used to distinguish southern Louisianans, who often have a French Catholic heritage, from the Protestant Anglo-American settlers who arrived in large numbers after the purchase.

Later in the eighteenth century, an influx of French Canadians came to Louisiana when the Acadians (from Acadia, part of French Canada that fell to British control) were forced out of their homeland and sought refuge with similar French-speaking communities elsewhere in North America. Some of these exiles settled in the bayous of southern Louisiana, where they absorbed other cultural influences and often intermarried with members of other ethnic groups. A Cajun is a descendant of the Acadians.

For most of its early history, the Louisiana territory was populated by men. There were relatively few women, because the colony was primarily a military establishment. However, women have played an important role in Louisiana history. The Ursulines who came to New Orleans in the 1720s and the Sisters of the Holy Family (founded by Henriette Delille, a free woman of color) in the early nineteenth century made significant contributions to education. While the history of women in Louisiana has only recently received much attention, these individuals and their communities also made remarkable contributions to the heritage of this state.


By Cathy Corder, Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities