History in Louisiana

In 1682, Robert de La Salle claimed the area between the Great Lakes and the Gulf Coast for France, hoping to stop the British from colonizing land west of the Appalachian Mountains. In 1718, the city of New Orleans was founded at the mouth of the Mississippi, giving the French control of traffic on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. A significant moment when it comes to history in Louisiana.

Farmers were needed to provide food for the new colony, and as a buffer against the British.  In 1720, German settlers sponsored by the French government began arriving in New Orleans and were given consignments 25 miles upriver between what is now Hahnville, in St. Charles Parish and Lucy, in St. John the Baptist Parish. The area became known as the German Coast, or La Côté de Les Allemands.

Their French sponsors provided tools and seeds, and friendly Indians taught them to cultivate native plants. The combination of rich alluvial soil and a long growing season produced abundant crops, but natural forces often worked against the farmers. Despite many hardships, they harvested enough rice, vegetables and fruit for themselves, and to sell in New Orleans.

Under French rule the Germans adopted the French language, culture and Catholic faith.

In 1764, Louisiana came under active Spanish rule, and Spain supported colonization on both sides of the Mississippi River spreading towards Baton Rouge.

In the 1750s descendants of French emigrants living in Nova Scotia – Acadians -- were expelled by the British. More than 5,000 Acadians came to Louisiana from 1764-1765. They were given provisions and land in Vacherie. The area became the Acadian Coast, or La Côté de Les Acadiens.  Descendants of the Acadians are popularly known as Cajuns.

With each landing of immigrants, the Indians were pushed farther southeast. The various tribes had different languages and customs and were often at war with each other. As their numbers dwindled, they banded together and eventually all Indians in the area became the Houma tribe. Early Europeans in Louisiana tried to enslave the Indians, but were unsuccessful. A source of free labor was necessary to make the territory profitable, and the first enslaved Africans appear in the German Coast census of 1731.

From 1721 until 1797, worldwide demand made indigo, a plant used for blue dye, the area’s premier commercial crop. After a major crop loss from insect infestation, most farmers stopped growing indigo. Corn, a staple in all three parishes, was used to feed livestock and slaves. Rice had been a popular commercial crop, but soon was eclipsed by sugarcane. At the turn of the 19th century, sugarcane was the main crop on St. Charles Parish plantations. Cotton was the primary crop in St. John Parish where farms were smaller, with fewer slaves. Because cotton needed good drainage and was susceptible to disease, St. John planters eventually turned to sugarcane. The Houma Indians introduced early Acadians to native tobacco, and in St. James Parish Perique tobacco became second only to sugarcane as a cash crop.

By the 1790s, the German and Acadian coasts contained a rich mixture of French, Indian, German, enslaved Africans, Acadians and Spanish.  Free men of color also lived in Louisiana—some came as free men and others were released from slavery or purchased their freedom. Both whites and free people of color owned slaves.

Their homes often started as modest abodes, but as the planters’ wealth grew, their houses were enlarged or replaced with new, more impressive homes. Simple Creole houses, with the addition of massive Greek Revival columns, curved stairs, semi-detached wings, and other architectural elements popular at the time, reflected the owner’s wealth. 

In 1800, Louisiana reverted to French ownership before being sold by Napoleon to the United States in 1803. The Territory of Orleans was created, and in 1807 divided into nineteen districts. The new civic parishes kept the names of their church parishes—the German Coast became St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes, and the First Acadian Coast became St. James Parish.

In 1812, Louisiana became a state of the United States. By 1860 New Orleans was the country’s fourth-largest city and, by far, the largest city in the South. On January 26, 1861 Louisiana seceded from the United States, but did not join the Confederacy until March 1861. Thousands of local men fought battles in other states, but there were no major battles here. Skirmishes occurred in all three parishes.

After World War II, the sugar industry became more mechanized, and with better roads and more railroad lines, it was faster and easier to transport the product.  The lumber industry began early in New Orleans Plantation Country, but in the late 1900s, large lumber companies came to the area. They brought machinery and built railroads to more efficiently harvest and transport timber they cut in the swamps.

In 1914, Mexican Petroleum purchased land in Destrehan. Within a few years, several oil refineries operated along the Mississippi River beside commercial vegetable crops and sugarcane fields.   The chemical industry came to the area in the 1950s. National and international companies built plants and brought workers. As the population grew, so did the need for housing, commercial buildings, highways, schools and services.

New Orleans plantation history includes the loss of some of these homes with each move from agriculture to industry. Many of the grand homes in New Orleans Plantation Country are gone, but some remain to remind us of our heritage. The antebellum houses came from humble beginnings, and have been saved by the grace of caring people—some working with industry, others through historical preservation organizations, and a few homes have been owned and maintained by the same families for generations.