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. Today visitors can find evidence of their life ways throughout the Jean Lafitte Historical Park and Preserve. In the Barataria Preserve, for example, the “Bayou Coquille Trail” starts at the site of a pre-contact American Indian village and continues for .5 miles through undisturbed wilderness. Throughout the Barataria Preserve middens, mounds, and shell beaches date to this early period of tribal habitation. The middens contain remnant piles of ancient meals that often include 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. Today the main 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 66-block neighborhood is among the oldest protected historic districts in the nation and French, Spanish and American architectural styles are all represented along its streets. At the heart of the district is St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States. Grand Spanish colonial public buildings flank the cathedral and have since housed French, Spanish, and American government offices. 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.
Beyond the establishment of New Orleans, proper, 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 life ways and traditions eventually expanded further westward onto the prairies of Southwest Louisiana where the land was well suited to raising cattle and farming rice and other cash crops.
Acadians, for example, began filtering into the region as early as the 1750’s. These settlers originated from French Acadie (today Canadian Nova Scotia). When the British took control of the Acadie colony in the early 1700’s, many Acadians were not cooperative British subjects, preferring to maintain their independence and freedom. By 1755, the British government began dispersing their disloyal Acadian subjects to other colonies along the East Coast, the Caribbean, Britain, and France. Many of these people eventually found themselves in southern Louisiana where they began settling the rural areas. By 1800, nearly 4,000 Acadians were in Louisiana. Their unique traditions, styles, foods and music are largely cited as the early beginnings of the “Cajun” culture Louisiana is famous for today.
Visitors to Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve can explore the Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette , the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center in Eunice, and the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux to learn about the Acadian or “Cajun” culture of Louisiana’s Mississippi Delta region.
Like “Cajun,” the term “Creole” is a popular name used to describe cultures in the southern Louisiana area. “Creole” can be roughly defined as “native to a region,” but its precise meaning varies according to the geographic area in which it is used. Generally, however, Creoles felt the need to distinguish themselves from the influx of American and European immigrants coming into the area after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. “Creole” is still used to describe the heritage and customs of the various people who settled Louisiana during early, French colonial times. In addition to the French Canadians, the amalgamated Creole culture in southern Louisiana includes influences from the Chitimacha, Houma, and other native tribes, enslaved West Africans, Spanish-speaking Islenos (Canary Islanders), and French-speaking free people of color from the Caribbean.
Despite the cultural diversity burgeoning in the region, the people of Louisiana found a common cause at the Battle of New Orleans, 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 over 15,000 troops from the War of 1812 through the Vietnam War.
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is as diverse as the land, history, and culture in the Mississippi Delta region. Visit this Park and Preserve to experience hundreds of years of American history in a unique setting unlike any other in the United States.
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, a unit of the National Park System, is located in southern Louisiana. The Park and Preserve has six units including, Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center in Eunice, the 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. Please click here for the detailed hours of operation for each center. For more information, visit the National Park Service Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve website or call 504-589-3882.
The French Quarter Unit of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is the subject of an online lesson plan, Vieux Carré: A Creole Neighborhood in New Orleans. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places home page. Two examples of French and Creole architecture in the Vieux Carréhave been documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey, the Fouche House and Laurel Valley Sugar Plantation.