Much of Louisiana lies in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, flat lands that stretch from each side of the Mississippi River.

History of Louisiana

Much of Louisiana lies in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, flat lands that stretch from each side of the Mississippi River. As the river moves south to the Gulf of Mexico, the elevation of the land becomes progressively lower, and most of it is damp and swampy. Far western and northwestern Louisiana is part of the West Gulf Coastal Plain. In the northern area of this region, the land is hilly, and it becomes prairie further south. On the eastern side, near Mississippi, lies the East Gulf Coastal Plain, which is similar to the territory in the west. These three regions correspond roughly to the historical and cultural divisions of Louisiana. The swampy south central and southwestern areas have corresponded to French Roman Catholic Louisiana. The western region and the eastern region have been home to mostly Protestant, English-speaking people.

Early History

During prehistoric times, Louisiana was populated by people who lived in highly organized farming societies. These societies are often known as the Mound Builders, after the great ceremonial earth mounds they constructed. The Mound Builders may be divided into the people of the Hopewell culture, who flourished from about the first century until about 800 c.e., and the people of the Mississippian culture, who were present from about 800 c.e. until about 1500.

When the Europeans arrived, Louisiana was inhabited by Native Americans of three language groups. Those of the Caddoan language group lived in the northwestern area. Those who spoke Muskogean languages lived in east central Louisiana near the Mississippi River. Speakers of the Tunican languages generally lived near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana’s Native American population declined as a result of warfare, diseases introduced by the Europeans, and intermarriages with Americans of European and African descent. Some, such as the majority of the Choctaw nation, were forced westward into Indian Territory in modern Oklahoma by the U.S. government in the 1830’s. Contemporary Louisiana is home to communities of the Chitimacha, Houma, Tunica-Biloxi, Coushatta, and Choctaw.

European Exploration and Colonization

The Spanish and the French were the first Europeans to explore the territory of the lower Mississippi River. In 1542 a Spanish expedition led by Hernando de Soto crossed through Louisiana. At the end of the 1600’s, the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, journeyed down the Mississippi River to its mouth and claimed all of the land drained by the Mississippi in the name of France. La Salle named this huge expanse of territory Louisiana, in honor of King Louis XIV of France.

In 1718 the French explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, founded a settlement at a strategic location near the mouth of the Mississippi on the shores of the lake that the French had named Lake Pontchartrain. Bienville named his settlement Nouvelle-Orléans (New Orleans) in honor of the regent of France, the duke of Orleans. In 1722 New Orleans would become the capital of Louisiana.

The Acadians, or Cajuns, one of Louisiana’s best-known population groups, arrived in the region between 1763 and 1788. These were French-speaking people from the former French colony of Acadia in Canada expelled by British troops in the French and Indian Wars (1754-1763). The Acadians settled in the swampy areas of southwestern Louisiana and on the Mississippi just north of New Orleans. Isolation enabled them to keep the French language. Although the use of French largely disappeared in other parts of Louisiana after World War I, it would continue to be spoken in the Acadian region.

The British conquest of Canada also greatly reduced the strategic value of Louisiana for France. In order to entice the Spanish into entering the war against Britain, France transferred ownership of Louisiana to Spain in 1762. The following year, France and Spain lost the war. The Louisiana territories east of the Mississippi River became the property of Britain, and Spain was allowed to keep the lands west of the Mississippi, including New Orleans. Many of the French Louisianians had been born in America–Creoles–but they retained a devotion to France. The French Creoles revolted against Spanish rule, but Spanish troops quickly put down the rebellion. Spain, under the influence of French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte, returned the Louisiana territories to France in 1800. Bonaparte then sold the colony to the United States in 1803 in order to fund his own wars.

The American Period

The year after the United States purchased the huge Louisiana Territory, which extended the length of the Mississippi River, the United States split the region into the Territory of Louisiana and the Territory of Orleans. The Territory of Orleans became modern Louisiana. In 1810 American settlers in Spanish West Florida declared their independence from Spain and asked to join the United States. The American governor of Louisiana, William C. C. Claiborne, incorporated West Florida, as far as the Pearl River, into Orleans Territory. In 1812 the Territory of Orleans entered the United States as the state of Louisiana.

English-speaking settlers from other areas of the United States moved into Louisiana in large numbers. Most white Louisianians, both French-speaking and English-speaking, were small farmers. The most prosperous crops, however, were cotton and sugarcane. Both of these were plantation crops, which required intensive labor. As a result, slavery became a prominent part of the economic and social life of the state, especially in the southwestern bayou country, where the sugarcane flourished. Slave markets also became important to the economy of New Orleans.

One of the unique racial characteristics of Louisiana was the existence of a large group of free people of mixed race, known as the gens de couleur libres, or free people of color. Free people of color were sometimes quite prosperous and even owned slaves. According to historian John Hope Franklin, 3,000 of the 10,689 free people of color in New Orleans were slaveowners.

Civil War and Reconstruction

By the 1850’s, the southern states, which were dependent on agriculture and slavery, were losing control of the U.S. Congress and presidency to the industrialized North. Many southerners believed that the southern way of life, including the institution of slavery, could only be preserved by seceding from the United States. In 1861, after the election of President Abraham Lincoln, southern states began declaring their independence. Louisiana withdrew from the Union on April 12, 1861. One year later, though, the U.S. Navy captured New Orleans and soon afterward captured Baton Rouge.

Louisiana still had a large number of people of mixed race after the Civil War, and many of them were well educated. They made up the core of Louisiana’s black political leadership during Reconstruction (1866-1877), when about one-third of the state’s governmental leaders were black. In 1872 Louisiana’s P. B. S. Pinchback became the first black governor in the United States.

After the withdrawal of Union troops, whites in the state reacted against Reconstruction violently. Taking control of the government, whites systematically excluded African Americans from many areas of public life. Legal segregation and the prevention of voting and political organization by African Americans continued until the 1960’s, when Louisiana became a focal point of the Civil Rights movement.

The Legacy of Huey Long

Louisiana continued to be a rural and agricultural state after the Civil War. During the 1920’s, prices of agricultural goods, especially cotton, dropped. The charismatic politician Huey Long rose to power by championing the interests of workers and small farmers. One of Long’s chief targets was Standard Oil Company, which had begun operating in Louisiana after the discovery of oil and gas deposits in the early twentieth century. Brilliant and ruthless, Long became governor in 1928. In 1930 he was elected U.S. senator, but he waited until 1932 to take his seat in the Senate, placing a handpicked successor in the governor’s position.

By the time Long was assassinated in 1935, he had almost total control over the Louisiana government. He helped to improve the lives of many Louisianians, but he also raised the level of corruption in state government. The Long political machine continued to operate under Huey’s brother Earl Long through the 1950’s, and the good and bad legacies of Huey Long would long remain with Louisiana politics.

Social and Economic Change

Although historically Louisiana has been a rural and agricultural state, the period after World War II saw substantial movement to cities. By 1990, 68 percent of Louisiana’s people lived in urban areas. Sugarcane and rice farming continued to be economically important, but these agricultural activities became heavily mechanized and use only a small amount of human labor, mostly at planting and harvest times. Oil mining became increasingly important in the late twentieth century, and among the states Louisiana is second only to Texas in oil production.

Louisiana has one of the largest African American populations in the United States. About one out of every three Louisianians was African American in 1997. Despite the state’s history of slavery and racial segregation, black Louisianians have made substantial progress toward political equality. During the 1990’s, the state legislature was 16 percent black, and by 1992 there were two black Louisianians in the U.S. House of Representatives. One of these representatives, Cleo Fields, made it into the runoffs for governor in 1996. Despite these advances, incomes and living conditions of African Americans in Louisiana lagged far behind those of whites. It also appeared that racism was still prevalent. David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, won a majority of white votes in the 1991 election for governor. Duke was defeated only because black voters turned out in record numbers.