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There is an air about us that cannot be explained. I am sure that it is our scattered culture and general easy way of life that makes us this way. How did we get to this, “Laissez les bons temps rouler” lifestyle? I think it can only be discovered by starting from the beginning. Louisiana Native Americans, Frenchman, Africans, Acadians, Germans, and the Spanish founded Louisiana in the eighteenth century. The frontier where they settled gradually dissolved the distinctiveness of each culture. The frontier operated with efficacy and opportunity led to generations of mixed heritage. Even though European laws sought to preserve old world class and ethnic distinctions, in Louisiana’s frontier environment they were a complete failure. Louis XIV reigned in France when the Europeans first settled in Louisiana. As the seventeenth (17th) century came to a close, England, France, and Spain simultaneously realized that opportunity knocked. All three powers outfitted expeditions to colonize the northern shores of what is now the Gulf of Mexico. All arrived in early 1699, with Spain headed for the best harbor near Florida. France set their sights on the mouth of the Mississippi River. France’s enterprising leaders Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and his younger brother Jean-Baptist Le Moyne de Bienville made contact with the Native Americans (Wall 32). With their help they explored the natural connections between the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River. They traveled through lakes and bayous of present day Orleans, Jefferson, St. Charles, and St. John the Baptist parishes (Dehart). In late 1699, Bienville penetrated Bayou St. John to the Mississippi River; he embarked in Native American Pirogues to explore downstream. Just twelve miles below New Orleans, he met the first English explorers. England had hesitated exploring this new wilderness. Bienville convinced the English ship crew the French had already settled the area. The English ship turned around and departed. The turn remains a memorable moment in Louisiana history. I can only imagine the magnitude of change this would of brought to our history. The sudden “burst of interest” in new frontiers is a characteristic of natural and human history. The discoveries and changes are not steady, nor predictable. Such was the exploration and settling of Louisiana’s gulf coast. Native Americans flowed into the developing Louisiana. The Mississippi River gradually pushed soil southward, extending the coastline by 1700, when the Europeans came to settle, the Native Americans had broken into numerous distinct groups. Before the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth (16th) century, Louisiana only had one inhabitant which was the Native Americans. There were over twenty-five (25) different tribal groups across the wooded areas of the state. I am saddened by the fact that today there are only four recognized tribes in the whole
state of Louisiana. Chitimachas were south of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River; Muskhogeans were north of Lake Pontchartrain. Their most famous tribe was the Houma, who spoke a Choctaw dialect. Bayougoula clustered at single village in the site of modern day Bayou Goula. Atakapas occupied southwest Louisiana. The Natchez were astride the Mississippi. The western groups were the Avoyel people, they were know to be excellent traders. Tunicas were in the northern region, and Caddo’s were in the northwest (Redish). Numerous additional groups moved into Louisiana during the course of the eighteenth (18th) century. The Native American presence facilitated European settlement. Native Americans explored the best lands to form villages and they knew the best waterways. These were the most important Louisiana settlements and attracted the Europeans. Though the Native Americans brought many advantages to the Europeans, it is hard to find reciprocal benefits for the Native Americans. The meeting of the Europeans and Native Americans in the 18th century was disastrous for the Natives (Redish). Disease, slavery, and warfare tragically decimated the tribes. While the Native American population plummeted in the 18th century, the European and African population increased only haltingly. By 1731 the population of Louisiana stood at about 3,000 slaves and 2,000 Caucasians. It doubled by the 1750’s and in 1769, 4,000 blacks and whites farmed along the Mississippi river between New Orleans and Pointe Coupee (Dehart). Of the thousands who arrived in Louisiana over the next two centuries, many died from epidemic diseases that came on the same ships carried by the immigrants. Because Louis XIV successfully claimed Louisiana, Frenchman were the first Europeans to settle within Louisiana boundaries (Wall 32). By 1730, New Orleans was a real town, while other Natchitoches and Pointe Coupee villages were still unrecognizable. By this year New Orleans has a school, convent, goldsmith, locksmith, gunsmith, bakers, carpenters, and the first St. Louis Church. The governor of Louisiana, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville and his superior council were firmly settled in New Orleans. Bienville served three terms as governor and departed Louisiana in 1741. He succeeded in making his personal fortune through land grants and trade. Pierre de Rigaud, marquis de Vasudreuil, followed Bienville in the 1740s and France’s Louisiana colony achieved its brightest prospects during his tenure. His depature and replacement in 1753 by Louis Billouart de Kerlerec led to administrative failure that determined the French Crown to donate Louisiana to Spain in 1763. Louisiana, like all the English, Dutch, and French colonies of the 18th century, commenced with African American slavery. In Louisiana however, the frontier rather than slavery, shaped the lifestyle of the people. The frontier made the Louisiana slave society fluid. Within a few years of arriving in Louisiana, a few slaves made the transition to freedom. The French had come to Louisiana with riches on their minds. They were all capitalist or, as they would say, bourgeois. The French settlers of Louisiana quickly learned that land was cheap and slavery was a tool to achieve wealth. First the Company of the Indies granted promising French families concessions or grants of land. Then to those who seemed to the the hardest working, the company sold
groups of slaves on terms. Those who received the slaves became the successful French planters. Three later groups were anti-slavery in their lifestyle, the Germans, the Acadians, and the Islenos. But they were essentially refugees seeking not wealth but a better way of life. One of the strongest foundations of Louisiana was the German settlement. The census taken in 1722 found a total German population of 330 men, women and children. The German’s specialized in vegetables which they sold in New Orleans markets. They grew corn in order to feed their livestock and rice for the New Orleans market soon became a major product. Between 1755 and 1785 a fourth major population entered Louisiana, the Acadians. French residents of Nova Scotia evicted them, sending them fleeing. They settled in St. Martinville in May 1765. Approximately five thousand Acadians moved to Louisiana by 1785. The Acadians brought to Louisiana a culture that could and would flourish. The Creole transition began in the 1770s. One of the achievements of the Creole transition was the creation of the unique Louisiana system of civil law. Based on Spanish and French precedents, in the nineteenth century it made Louisiana the most progressive state in the Union for Family law. In the rest if the country the husband was head of the house and free to sell and dispose of all of the private estate withough consulting anyone, especially his wife. In Louisiana the ancient clauses of the cival law insisted that at marriage a community property was formed. Another gift of the Creole era is Creole architecture, exemplified by the Creole cottage, the Creole countryhouse, and the Creole townhouse. One of my favorite aspects of Louisiana is the architecture of the dated homes. American’s brought the Greek Revival Style to Louisiana. But it never became as dominant here simply because of the competition from the France and the Creole types. In the writing of New Orleans in 1800, James Pitit describes many qualities of the state that have survived right to the present. One of the more remarkable is the great power of the governor. In Pitot’s view the governor kept all supervisory duties in his own hands. All licenses and permissions had to be specifically approved by him. A gratuity was a necessary condition. Of gambling and thievery Pitit wrote, “The government is aware of and permits all of that; and woe unto the minor official who would want to stop it. The governor general reserves the right to decide when gambling causes abuses…”(Reeves). The most popular social activity thoughout Louisiana was dancing, and balls were anticipated, planned, and participated in everywhere during none months of the year. To make an unforgettable appearance at the balls was the principal goal of every Creole. The festivities were for every age, even young children “where the parent’s infatuation brings them each week into a show of luxury and affection” as future mayor James Pitot write in 1802. In 1803, the United States purchased an unwilling Louisiana. Louisiana was of the first to be forced into the Union. The only evidence of discontent came from the African Americans. At
the time of Napolean, people were more resigned to their fate then they are today. For the next ten years Louisiana remained a territory, virtually a colony, of the young republic. A wave of American officeholders a invaded the territory setting off a scramble for position between the French, the Creoles, and the new American. President Thomas Jefferson appointed Willaim Charles Cole Claiborne governor of the new territory (Reeves). Since the dominant Jefferson political party wanted new western states, Congress admitted Louisiana to the Union in 1812. Most of this century is spent visiting some of the most famous battles in history. There was the battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. This was the final thrust of England’s three-pronged offense against the United States concluded the War of 1812. By the Civil War, Alexandria was an important center for Confederate supplies (Nystrom 24-29). The confederacy even operated a major packing plant that pickled meat to be shipped to their eastern armies here. Louisiana’s relations with the United States perfectly exemplify the complexity of human relations. Twice an unwilling partner, Louisiana has reveled in her Americanisms. She has profited from wealth of sugar, timber, and oil. United as a state we have forged ahead threw turbulent growth, catastrophic natural disasters and even shaken political infrastructures. There are only two things that Louisiana has held back- The sense of self and the sense of place.
Works Cited Dehart, Jess. Louisiana's Historic Towns. New Orleans: Hamlet House, 1983. Print.
Nystrom, Justin A. New Orleans after the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2009. Print. Redish, Laura. "Louisiana Indian Tribes and Languages." Native American Language Net: Preserving and Promoting Indigenous American Indian Languages. Native Languages of the Americas. Web. 01 Oct. 2011. <http://www.native-languages.org/louisiana.htm>. Reeves, Miriam G. The Governors of Louisiana. Gretna: Pelican, 1998. Print. Wall, Cummins, Schafer, Haas, Kurtz, Rodrigue. "Chapters 1 - 5." Louisiana A History. 5th ed. Wheeling: Harlan Davidson, 2008. 1+. Print.