Early Exploration and French Control
It was the Spaniards who first discovered Louisiana for Europe. The first was the expedition led by Hernando de Soto in 1542. de Soto's expedition brought European diseases to the area, and these diseases spread to the Native Americans. After the Spaniards left, the population of the Native Americans drastically declined.
For 150 years, nothing happened in Louisiana until a French explorer named René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle explored the Mississippi River and claimed all regions drained by the Mississippi for France. Since the current French monarch was Louis XIV, La Salle named the new territory Louisiane in his honor.
Several French settlements and forts were built in the Mississippi Valley and along the Gulf Coast. The first white settlement in the current-day state was Natchitoches, which was founded in 1714. Four years later, the French founded the city of Nouvelle-Orléans, or New Orleans, in order to protect the lower Mississippi River from Great Britain and Spain. New Orleans became the capital of Louisiana in 1722.
Life was not easy for the Louisianans. Due to the fighting between Great Britain and France during the War of Spanish Succession, France was cut off from its colony for several years at a time. In 1712, a wealthy Frenchman named Antoine Crozat was given control of Louisiana. Under Crozat's leadership, the population of the colony remained very small.
Antoine Crozat lost control of Louisiana five years later to the Compagnie d'Occident, or Company of the West. The head of this company was a Scotsman named John Law. Law had established the French national bank, and the bank invested quite heavily in the Company of the West. Since Louisiana was the largest asset the Company of the West controlled, Law had to quickly develop Louisiana in order to keep the French public confident in the new bank. John Law headed a promotional campaign that attracted thousands of settlers to the area. Many of these settlers were convicts forced to move to Louisiana. Others were indentured servants who had been promised freedom if they lived in Louisiana for a specified amount of time. It is estimated that 7,100 Europeans arrived in Louisiana between 1717 and 1721. In addition to the European settlers, 3000 African slaves were brought to the colony, thanks to the Campagnie du Senegal, which held a monopoly on the French slave trade.
The settlers who arrived in Louisiana had been promised quick, easy profits requiring little-to-no effort or investment. Much to their dismay, however, life in Louisiana was not easy at all. The colonial government quickly became overwhelmed, and many people died due to lack of food, shelter, and clothing. The only reason many of the settlers remained in Louisiana was they simply could not afford to sail back to Europe. Most immigrants became farmers, growing only enough food to sustain their families. Occasionally, indigo or tobacco would be grown for export.
In the end, the Mississippi Bubble created by John Law burst, as French citizens heard about the abysmal conditions in Louisiana in 1720. However, the Company of the West was still allowed to run the colony. In 1731, Louisiana was returned to the control of the French Monarchy due to the fighting with the Natchez tribe, who lived along the east bank of the Mississippi.
Spain Gains Possession
Although Louisiana was a French colony, the monarchy found Louisiana to be nothing more than a burden economically. Also, the British had conquered the French Canadian colonies during the French and Indian War, so any strategic value Louisiana once had was gone. Near the end of the war in 1762, France and Spain signed a secret treaty known as the Treaty of Fontainebleau. Under the terms of this treaty, Spain would enter the war as an ally of the French. In exchange, Spain would gain ownership of Louisiana. However, Great Britain won the war in 1763, and Britain gained control of nearly all portions of Louisiana east of the Mississippi River. The western portion remained under Spanish control, as did the Ile d'Orléans (Isle of Orleans), which was the region surrounding New Orleans.
The primarily French population was not happy being ruled by the Spanish. The first Spanish governor, Antonio de Ulloa, arrived in New Orleans in 1766. Ulloa tried to rule the colony in a harsher way than had been done before. This really angered the colonists, and they rebelled in 1768, driving Ulloa from Louisiana. Spanish control was restored in 1769 when General Alejandro O'Reilly became the colonial governor.
With the government established by O'Reilly, Spain ruled Louisiana for the next 34 years. However, the population remained primarily French. Spain tried to bring more Spanish colonists in, but most of the immigrants during this time period were French-speaking refugees from the conflicts in the West Indies, France, and Canada. The two most important waves of immigrants were the refugees from the black uprising in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and the Acadians from eastern Canada. The Acadians settled primarily in the wilderness west of New Orleans, where they became know as the Cajuns. The Cajuns quickly became the main cultural group in rural south Louisiana.
During the American Revolution, Louisiana played a small role. Since Great Britain was Spain's biggest competitor in the New World, the Spanish colonists in New Orleans supplied the American colonies with weapons, ammunition, and other supplies. Spain officially declared war on Britain in 1779, and Spain sent a militia from Louisiana to capture all of the British settlements in West Florida. When the 1783 Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, Spain gained control of both West and East Florida.
New Owners and Statehood
After the American Revolution, Louisiana began to prosper. The location of New Orleans along the Mississippi made it the gateway to the interior of the North American continent. However, Spain gave Louisiana back to France in yet another secret treaty in 1800. Spain still kept control of West Florida. Three years later, France sold Louisiana, along with quite a bit of other territory, to the United States in what became known as the Louisiana Purchase.
After acquiring the new territory, the United States split the Louisiana Purchase in two. The first division, which included the land north of the 33rd parallel, became known as the Territory of Louisiana. The southern section, which included all of the land in modern Louisiana minus the West Florida Territory, was called the Territory of Orleans. The first territorial governor of the Territory of Orleans was William C. C. Claiborne. Claiborne had the difficult task of bringing the concept of democracy, which was foreign to the Louisianans, to the territory. Claiborne also presided over a second wave of refugees from Saint-Domingue in 1809. In six months, new immigrants doubled the population of New Orleans. Most historians believe that it was this wave of immigrants that helped preserve the French character of the city.
Americans had been settling in West Florida, and in 1810, they declared independence from Spain. Claiborne was given control of West Florida, and soon all the land east of the Pearl River was annexed to the Territory of Orleans. The Territory of Orleans entered the Union on April 30, 1812, as the 18th state. The capital remained at New Orleans, and Claiborne continued as governor.
Soon after achieving statehood, the United States entered the War of 1812. Near the end of the war, the British planned to seize several key points along the Gulf Coast and the lower Mississippi. On January 8, 1815, British troops attacked New Orleans. However, Major General Andrew Jackson led the defense, and the United States won a decisive victory- two months after a peace treaty had ended the war! However, the Battle of New Orleans was not pointless; Great Britain most likely would not have ratified the treaty had Jackson failed.
Agriculture and the Population Take Off
By 1820, the population of Louisiana had risen to 153,400 settlers, most of whom were whites from other parts of the South. However, the upper Red River Valley remained mostly unsettled, due to the gigantic logjam known as the Great Raft made the river unnavigable. By the 1830's, the Great Raft was cleared, and settlement got under way. By 1860, the population had shot up to 708,000 people, about half of whom were African slaves.
In the early-to-mid 1800's, the two main crops grown by Louisiana farmers were sugarcane and cotton. Sugar was more profitable, but cotton required less labor. Soon, cotton was the choice crop of both plantation owners and small farmers, particularly those in the Mississippi Valley. The third major crop in Louisiana was rice, which had originally been grown to feed slaves. The rice market expanded as irrigation did, and rice became a very popular crop for immigrants from the Midwest.
Thanks to the success of agriculture in Louisiana, New Orleans became one of the largest commercial cities in the United States. Immigrants also came to New Orleans in droves; it ranked second among arrival ports for immigrants from 1830 to 1860. In 1820, New Orleans became the largest city in the South, with its population of 27,180 citizens edging out Charleston, South Carolina. Forty years later, the official population had swelled to 168,675. Had it not been for the large number of yellow fever outbreaks, this number would have been much higher.
By the 1840's, the rest of Louisiana felt that New Orleans had too much economic and political power. In 1849, pressured politicians moved the state capital from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, where it remains today.
Slavery, Secession, and the Civil War
One of the biggest political issues in the United States at this time was the slavery debate. Northerners pressed for abolition, both on moral grounds and economic grounds; white men could not compete with the free labor provided by slaves. Meanwhile, the Southern states, particularly the Deep South states, believed that the agriculture of the South needed slavery and that the abolitionist movement was nothing more than an attempt for the North to control the national economy. With the abolitionist movement rising and the South's congressional power waning, many Southerners began to talk of secession as the only way to protect what they dubbed "Southern Rights."
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election despite not being on the ballots of some southern states. This triggered a wave of states seceding, and Louisiana was the sixth. Almost immediately, the Southern states formed the Confederate States of America, and after attacking Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, started the American Civil War.
Due to Louisiana's location in the southwestern corner of the Confederacy, Louisiana missed most of the fighting in the early parts of the war. In order to defend New Orleans, which was the South's main supply center, the Confederates built forts along the Mississippi River. In 1862, David Farragut led a fleet of Union ships up the river. Farragut was able to slip past the forts and sail into New Orleans without a fight.
After taking New Orleans, Farragut continued up the river and captured Baton Rouge. This forced the state government to flee to Opelousas. When Opelousas fell, Shreveport became the new capital. The government did not return to Baton Rouge until the end of Reconstruction, seventeen years after the war had ended.
As soon as the Union captured New Orleans, the city was made the capital of all Louisianan territory that was held by the North. Martial law was declared, and Major General Benjamin F. Butler was placed in charge. Butler was corrupt, however, and he earned the nickname of Beast Butler before the Union dismissed him as governor.
In 1864, a civil government was established under the terms of the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. It was under this government that the first Louisianan state constitution banning slavery was drafted and adopted. At the end of the war, ex-Confederates controlled the government. This led to the passing of the Black Codes and the disenfranchisement of black citizens. In these ways, the blacks found their freedoms and liberties severely limited.
The federal government soon took a hand in reconstructing Louisiana, thanks to a race riot in 1866. In 1867, despite President Andrew Johnson's veto, Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts. These acts restored military rule over ten of the eleven states to secede, and required Congressional approval of a new state constitution before they could be readmitted to the Union. In 1868, a new state constitution was drafted. Voting rights were promised to all adult males, and full civil rights were promised to blacks. Also, many ex-Confederates found themselves unable to vote. Although whites were the majority in the state, many whites neglected to register or vote, so the constitution was approved on June 25 by a mostly black population.
Republicans controlled Louisiana, just as they controlled all the Confederate states. These Republicans running the state were mostly either white Southerners who had supported the Union, who became known as scalawags, and white immigrants from the North, who became known as carpetbaggers. Many blacks also achieved political power. The list of blacks in government included U.S. Senator Blanche K. Bruce, U.S. Congressmen Jefferson Long and Joseph H. Rainey, governor P. B. S. Pinchback, lieutenant governor Oscar J. Dunn, and state treasurer Antoine Dubuclet.
During Reconstruction, Republican rule was challenged by many of the white Louisianans. Groups like the White League, the Knights of the White Camella, and the Ku Klux Klan sprung up, burning down black houses and lynching any blacks thought to be "dangerous." The worst of these three groups was the White League, which routinely assassinated Republican officials and force black workers out of their homes in droves. The activities of the White League finally led up to the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874. In this event, 3,500 members of the White League took over the New Orleans arsenal, statehouse, and city hall. The leaguesmen were only forced out by the arrival of federal troops. This resulted in a federal army occupying Louisiana until the end of Reconstruction.
By the early 1870's, Republican control of Louisiana politics was slipping; the white supremacy organizations were becoming very effective at intimidating Republicans, particularly blacks, into not voting. In addition, many ex-Confederates were re-enfranchised, thanks to pardons from both Congress and the presidency. The Louisiana gubernatorial election in 1876 resulted in a virtual tie between Democratic candidate Francis R. T. Nicholls and Republican Stephen B. Packard. Both men claimed victory, refusing to allow the other man the office. To make matters more dramatic, 1876 was also a federal election year, and the Louisianan electoral votes were also contested between the Democratic Samuel J. Tilden and the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes needed Louisiana's votes to win, along with the electoral votes of South Carolina and Florida.
Although there are no official records of an agreement between the parties, many historians agree that there must have been some sort of bargain between the Southern Democrats and the Republicans. As it turned out, the Democrats did not contest Hayes' claim on the electoral votes, and the Republicans gave the governorship of Louisiana to Nicholls. Rutherford B. Hayes became president the following year, and upon being instated, Hayes removed the federal troops from Louisiana and officially ended Reconstruction.
With Nicholls in office, Louisiana became a one-party state, with the Democrats ruling until 1980, 103 years after the end of Reconstruction. The Democrats were aided in maintaining their power by a new state constitution, which disenfranchised many blacks by requiring literacy tests, property requirements, and poll taxes in order to vote.
The Economy Turns Sour
Since most of the freed slaves did not have the means to purchase their own land, they were forced to farm land owned by others. When the Civil War had ended, most of the prewar owners still controlled their land. However, many Louisiana farmers and plantation owners lost their land due to economic depressions and labor disputes. Much of this farmland was purchased by Northerners at public auctions, who then proceeded to set up the sharecropping system. This entailed loaning tenants the money to start farming the owner's land, in exchange for a share of the tenant's profits, after repaying the initial loan. Sharecroppers were equally black and white, and they usually were unable to earn enough money to get out of the sharecropping cycle.
Agricultural yield had not been hurt by sharecropping, but the prices had. Although Louisiana was producing as much sugar, rice, and cotton as it had during the antebellum era, prices were horribly low for decades to come. It was not uncommon for a farmer to be unable to repay debts to his landlord or the bank. Also, farming methods could not be improved due to the lack of money to purchase better equipment. Soon, most of Louisiana's farmers were struck by poverty, particularly the sharecroppers.
It was not just Louisiana where things were tough for farmers. Nationwide, farmers were being hurt by a combination of low prices for crops, high railroad fees for shipping, and debts to banks. By the 1880's, groups such as the Grange and Farmer's Alliance had sprung up in the Midwest. When these groups expanded into a political party, known as the People's Party, white Democrats in Louisiana began to feel threatened. The populist movement was especially unnerving for Democrats, because the Populists were willing to reach out to black farmers. Populism in Louisiana was at it's strongest in 1896, when the People's Party candidate for governor, John Pharr, lost the governorship because of the rampant vote fraud ran by the Democrats. Twenty percent of the nation's lynchings that year occurred in Louisiana, mostly on supporters of the populists. By the turn of the century, the populist movement had been demoralized to the point that the People's Party just died off.
Although the Civil War had virtually stopped all traffic along the Mississippi River, New Orleans gradually became one of the top ports in the nation. At the mouth of the Mississippi, jetties were constructed in order to deepen the mouth and allow easier access for large oceangoing ships. Railroads were constructed, improving New Orleans' connection with the rest of the U.S. Commerce in New Orleans was improved even more in 1914, when the Panama Canal opened and allowed an increase in trade with Latin America.
In 1900, approximately one-fifth of Louisiana's population lived in New Orleans. The rest of the state was mostly rural. The economy of Louisiana improved in the next decade, as deposits of first oil, and then natural gas, were found throughout the state. Soon, industry in northern Louisiana took off, with Shreveport leading the way. In the late 30's, more oil was found offshore, and Louisiana became an important producer of oil to the rest of the nation. The economy was also improved when salt and sulfur mines were discovered in southern Louisiana.
Although the mineral industry in Louisiana was flourishing, the farmers still suffered. Some improvement occurred during World War I, as cotton was in high demand to make military uniforms, but after the armistice, cotton prices fell as quickly as they had rose. The effects of this recession lasted well into the 20's.
The Kingfish and Politics
Thanks to the discontent among farmers, the political machine of Huey P. Long was able to come into being. Long, known as the Kingfish, had a blunt manner about him that appealed to the poor farmers in rural parishes. Huey Long claimed to stand for laborers and farmers, and he denounced large companies like the Standard Oil Company. In 1928, Long was elected governor of Louisiana. Two years later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. However, after winning the Senate seat, Long did not go to Washington for another two years, when Long's hand-picked successor was able to replace Long as governor. Up until his assassination in 1935, the Kingfish controlled the Louisiana government with an iron fist.
Part of Long's appeal was due to the large number of public works projects that started in Louisiana. Most of these were designed to soften the blow of the Great Depression which had struck the country. However, it turned out that Huey Long had been blocking federal relief in order to further his own interests. Upon his death, the depression was significantly helped by the increased flow of federal money.
Huey Long managed to control Louisianan politics well after his death, thanks to his brother, Earl K. Long, and his son, Russell Long. Up until 1960, the race for governor in Louisiana was decided in the Democratic primaries between candidate chosen by the Long machine and the anti-Long faction. Candidates supported by the Longs were frequently corrupt populist who were in favor of state spending. Their opponents were progressives who often ran under a platform of fiscal conservatism and integrity.
Louisianan industry boomed during World War II, thanks to the demand for the minerals found in the state. Also, many chemical and petrochemical plants were built along the Gulf Coast. Farmers gave up on farming and took jobs in industrial centers such as Lake Charles and Baton Rouge. Other farmers left the state, migrating to large cities, particularly Oakland, California, and Chicago, Illinois. Other farmers, primarily Cajuns, left for Texas, where they found jobs in the refineries and shipyards of Port Arthur, Orange, and Beaumont.
Civil Rights and the Present Day
Since 1898, racial segregation was mandated by law in all Louisiana public schools. However, in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that the "Separate but Equal" doctrine had no place in education, and required integration of all schools. The Louisiana state legislature quickly passed a series of measures intended to keep de facto segregation, but the federal courts quickly declared these laws unconstitutional. By 1960, all Louisiana elementary schools had been desegregated. Two years later, the archbishop of New Orleans, after excommunicating several opponents, demanded the desegregation of Roman Catholic schools. Public high schools in large cities began in 1963, and in the next two years, practically all of Louisiana's public schools had been integrated. The civil rights issue remained the political hot topic for the rest of the decade.
By the beginning of the 1970's, the commotion over the civil rights movement had died down. Supporters of white supremacy were outnumbered by young people looking for improvement of Louisiana's economy, less corruption in the government, and harmony between the races. The gubernatorial election of 1971 looked like a return of the Democratic primaries of the Long era: the winning Democratic populist, Edwin W. Edwards, and the reform-minded Republican opponent, David C. Treen. Practically all of the elections until 1995 had this flavor.
Louisiana had an enormous economic boom during the first two terms of Edwards' governorship due to the prosperity of the oil industry. Soon, the Louisiana government had put nearly all of the state's future towards oil. Taxes on the oil industry and oil royalties became the two largest sources of government income. Revenues from oil briefly exceeded government spending. Edwards used the surplus to create one of the largest state bureaucracies in the nation. In 1979, Edwards lost the governorship to David C. Treen, who had once again ran on a reform platform. However, much of the state legislature was pro-Edwards, and Treen found it impossible to get cooperation. Four years later, Treen lost the election to Edwards again. However, in 1985, Edwards was arrested for racketeering in a hospital construction scandal and fraud. The first trial resulted in a hung jury. At the second, a jury acquitted Edwards.
Along with the Edwards trial, Louisiana was dealing with a major economic crisis. The price of oil had gradually been declining, but in December 1985, the petroleum-based economy of southern Louisiana collapsed. With the voters fed up with Edwards, Edwards lost the Democratic nomination to Charles E. Roemer in 1987.
The Roemer administration was unable to get its programs past the legislature, which was still dominated by pro-Edwardsists. Roemer called for a special session of the Louisiana legislature in 1988 in order to enact a large fiscal reform. Despite the support of the state's television stations, newspapers, and businesses, and a billion-dollar debt, Roemer's program was defeated by a large margin. The next year, the state legislature rejected a similar bill.
According to the Edwards faction, gambling was the way to recover the Louisiana economy. Although there was massive resistance in grassroots movements, gambling advocates won anyway. This led to a statewide feeling of resentment among Louisiana's voters. This discontentment only rose with the increase in taxes. In 1990, the bad feelings of the voters was evident in the surprisingly strong senatorial campaign of former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke. Strength was added to the so-called voter's rebellion when Edwin Edwards defeated Duke in the 1991 gubernatorial race.
In 1995, Edwards chose not to run for governor again. The FBI accused the Louisiana legislature of corruption, and the voters saw state politicians as indifferent to the state's problems. These things, coupled with the rampant growth of the gambling industry, enabled the Republican candidate, Mike Foster, to win the election. Foster denounced gambling often, and worked to remove the corrupt members to the Edwards faction from the state legislature. Foster apparently struck a chord with the Louisiana voters, because he was reelected by a wide margin in 1999.
In 2000, former governor Edwin Edwards was convicted along with his son Stephen and three other associates of extortion, racketeering, and conspiracy in the awarding of casino licenses. Edwards has announced plans to appeal.