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Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve protects an array of natural and cultural resources in the historically diverse Louisiana Mississippi River Delta. The region, first settled 2,500 years ago, has become a melting pot of ethnicities, nationalities, traditions and cultures. Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve highlights the area at its Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, Prairie Acadian Cultural Center in Eunice, Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux, the Barataria Preserve in Marrero, Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery in Chalmette, and the French Quarter Visitor Center in New Orleans. Together they tell a complex story of the diverse peoples who played a role in the region’s history and development, among them the Spanish who gained control of the area in 1763, at the end of the Seven Years’ War.
Pre-Contact: Evidence of Louisiana’s American Indian Past
Nearly 2,500 years ago, Chitimacha, Houma, and other American Indian tribes populated the Mississippi Delta. These peoples had broad-based economies, permanent settlements, and seasonal camps that utilized the full range of environments and resources of the diverse and fertile region. Visitors can find evidence of their ways of life throughout the Jean Lafitte Historical Park and Preserve. For example, in the Barataria Preserve the “Bayou Coquille Trail” starts at the site of a prehistoric Indian village and continues for 0.5 miles through undisturbed wilderness. French settlers, who obtained the area through land grants in 1726, named the bayou for the mound of clam shells (coquilles) visible here. Later, hundreds of immigrants from Spain’s Canary Islands settled in the Indian village. Middens, mounds, and shell beaches that date to the early period of tribal habitation are still evident throughout the Barataria Preserve. The middens contain remnant piles of ancient meals such as discarded shells and bones. Burial mounds and foundation mounds (used to elevate housing structures above flood level) are also interpreted features of sites.
European Contact: A Melting Pot of Cultures
By the late 17th century, Europeans began to explore and settle the area. The new arrivals and their enslaved African servants changed the delta landscape with the insertion of plantation fields, artificial levees, logging canals, trappers’ ditches and an array of new building styles. By 1699, France declared this region the Louisiana colony. This powerful, new European presence had a great impact on the area’s religion, art, music, food, law, architecture, and language. In 1718, the French established New Orleans on the Mississippi River. Nouvelle Orleans was laid out in a neat grid, which is still reflected in the current city. The downtown core is filled with a vast array of historic buildings reflecting a variety of cultural influences.
Visitors can experience this best by walking through the Vieux Carré (or French Quarter.) The neighborhood is among the oldest protected historic districts in the nation and French, Spanish and American architectural styles are represented along its streets.
The Spanish gained control from France of New Orleans and the area west of the Mississippi River at the end of the Seven Years War making it part of New Spain in 1764. A Spanish governor arrived in 1766. The Spanish are responsible for much of the character and flavor of the Vieux Carré. Many of the 18th century buildings in New Orleans are in the Spanish style made of brick with courtyards and iron balconies.
Three of the most impressive buildings-- St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, and the Presbytere-- date from the 18th century when the Spanish controlled the city. At the heart of the Vieux Carre on Jackson Square, St. Louis Cathedral is the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States. Flanking the cathedral on one side, the Cabildo, once the seat of the Spanish colonial government, is now part of the Louisiana State Museum. The matching Presbytere on the other side of the cathedral is also part of the museum. Both buildings are largely Spanish in design but have added French mansard roofs. The ceremonies transferring the Louisiana Purchase to the United States took place in the Cabildo in 1803. Visitors can follow the New Orleans Visitor and Convention Bureau’s self-guided walking tour and stop in the National Park Service’s French Quarter Visitor Center to learn more about the cultural heritage of the French Quarter.
In 1795, Spain granted the United States "Right of Deposit" in New Orleans, allowing Americans to use the city's port facilities. In 1800, Spain and France signed the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso stipulating that Spain give Louisiana back to France, though it had to remain under Spanish control as long as France wished to postpone the transfer of power. Napolean delayed taking possession of Louisiana for he wanted time to build a military force strong enough to protect the territory from the Americans and the British. France did not take formal possession of Louisiana until November 30, 1803, but only for a short time. The United States took control of the colony on December 20, 1803 through the Louisiana Purchase.
Beyond New Orleans, other peoples settled along the bayous and wetlands of the Louisiana Mississippi Delta and adapted to water-based lifestyles. They pioneered new ways to live off the natural bounty by fishing, hunting, and trapping in the rich swamps, marshes, and coastal waters. Their lifeways and traditions spread westward onto the prairies of Southwest Louisiana where the land was well suited to raising cattle and farming rice and other cash crops.
Acadians from French Acadie (today Canadian Nova Scotia) began filtering into the region as early as the 1750s. When the British took control of the Acadie colony in the early 1700s, many Acadians were not cooperative and preferred to maintain their independence and freedom. By 1755, the British government began dispersing disloyal Acadian subjects to other colonies along the East Coast, the Caribbean, Britain, and France. By 1800, nearly 4,000 Acadians were in Louisiana. Over time, Acadians have intermarried with other groups including Spanish and American Indian peoples. Their unique traditions, styles, foods and music are reflected in the “Cajun” culture Louisiana is famous for today.
Despite the cultural diversity in the region, the people of Louisiana found a common cause at the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. Under General Andrew Jackson, they joined in driving back the British in the last battle of the War of 1812. This victory secured the Louisiana Territory for the United States, promoted westward expansion, and encouraged national pride. Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery commemorates this battle and is the final resting place of more thanr 15,000 troops who fought in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War.