Old Custom House; Preparing tortillas.
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American Latino Heritage

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area


Atchafalaya Swamp

Atchafalaya Swamp
Courtesy of Keith Survell, Flickr’s Creative Commons


Established in 2006, the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area spans 14 parishes in south central Louisiana. Encompassing the nation’s largest river swamp, this 10,400 square mile heritage area is historically and culturally rich and ecologically varied. The heritage area begins at the junction of the Atchafalaya River (Atchafalaya is an American Indian word that means long river and that is pronounced ah-CHA-fa-LIE-ah) and the Mississippi River and extends south to the Gulf of Mexico. For hundreds of years, people of American Indian, African, Caribbean, French, Latino, European, and American descent have lived in and interacted with one another throughout this region. Around each bend of the long Atchafalaya River, visitors to the heritage area will hear, smell, and see evidence of this diverse cultural heritage and history.

Visitors are invited to explore the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area’s diverse cultural heritage in its historic sites, museums, and natural parks. Please click here for information on visiting these places and refer to the National Park Service’s Explore the History and Culture of Southeastern Louisiana Travel Itinerary for additional historic places to explore. Visitors can experience the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area’s Latino heritage at a number of historic sites.

The Atchafalaya swamp is the largest river swamp in the United States- larger than the Everglades and Okefenokee Swamps. The Atchafalaya swamp’s maze of streams and bayous sustains a diverse array of flora and fauna including alligators, deer, squirrel, beaver, more than 85 species of fish, and over 270 species of birds. The area’s hunting, fishing, trapping, logging, Spanish moss gathering, oil extraction, and commercial catfish and crawfish farming activities are made possible by the richness of the natural bounty.

Discovery of the Mississippi by William H. Powell (1823–1879) is a Romantic depiction of de Soto seeing the Mississippi River for the first time. It hangs in the United States Capitol rotunda.

Discovery of the Mississippi by William H. Powell (1823–1879) is a Romantic depiction of de Soto seeing the Mississippi River for the first time. It hangs in the United States Capitol rotunda.
Courtesy of William H. Powell (photograph courtesy Architect of the Capitol)

The abundant natural resources have always influenced the lifestyles and the social and economic development of the people residing in the area. As far back as 2,500 years ago, American Indians lived in the region, which has American Indian mound sites and villages throughout the area dating from AD 700 to AD 1700. American Indians concentrated their villages on the high natural levees of the river and throughout the large bayous, living off the plentiful selection of fish, reptiles, and mammals. The Chitimacha tribe has the longest historical association with the area. The tribe lived in more than 15 villages that clustered around places like Bayou Teche, Grand Lake, Grand River, Bayou Plaquemine, and Butte La Rose. In 1650, the Chitimacha had a population of around 4,000 people.

By the late 1500s, Europeans began discovering the region. Spaniard Hernando De Soto explored what would become Louisiana in 1543, while Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle claimed the Mississippi River and the lands that it drained for France in 1682. Over the next century, France, Spain, and then France again, controlled Louisiana. Over the course of the 18th century, French, Spanish, African, Acadian, Caribbean, and American settlers would all call this region their home. During this time, Louisiana’s well-known Cajun and Creole cultures developed from the amalgamation of the different nations’ cultural influences. The United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, and Louisiana became a State in 1812.

Hispanic Heritage Sites in the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area

Described below are a handful of sites throughout the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area where visitors can experience the Spanish heritage of the region.

Ascension Parish: Galveztown and Donaldsonville

Bernardo de Galvez

Bernardo de Galvez
Public Domain

In 1778, Bernardo de Galvez, who was the governor of Spanish Louisiana, was searching for places to strengthen Spanish defenses against British West Florida when he encountered a small community of British squatters. The squatters were refugees from the community of Canewood, near the confluence of the Bayou Manchac and the Amite River. Galvez decided to let them stay. In gratitude, they named their community, Villa de Galvez.

Galvez liked the high elevation and easy water access of this location and decided it was perfect for establishing a settlement and fort. Galvez, an American ally in the American Revolution, prevented the further development of a British stronghold in the Mississippi Valley by capturing British forts at Manchac and Baton Rouge in 1779.

In 1779, a mix of Spanish soldiers and Spanish Canary Islanders joined the British squatters at Villa de Galvez swelling the town’s population to nearly 400. The layout of the town was in the traditional Spanish style with a central plaza, a Catholic church, and residential lots around the plaza. In 1779, Galveztown had 20 homes, a coffee shop, and a single room jail. Over the following two decades, disease, floods, and hurricanes challenged the community’s survival. By 1788, the population was down to 268 residents, with many of the town’s homes completely empty, collapsed, or only sheltering animals.

Map of Villa de Galvez, Louisiana, 1778.

Map of Villa de Galvez, Louisiana, 1778.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In 1803, the Spanish ceded the Louisiana Territory to France, which quickly sold it to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Galveztown became part of the United States. In 1804, Dr. John Watkins, representing the new American government of Louisiana, arrived in Galveztown and informed residents that they were permitted to stay in their town if they so desired. The town was in utter disrepair. Most of the Spaniards and Canary Islanders decided to leave, and many moved across Bayou Manchac to Baton Rouge because they preferred to stay on Spanish soil. Baton Rouge welcomed them by laying out residential lots for them in a settlement that became known as Spanish Town.

While no buildings remain at the site of Galveztown today, archeologists have found pottery and brick fragments, pieces of bottle glass, shards of a smoking pipe, and other artifacts. A historical marker locates the Galveztown site a little more than four miles from the intersection of Hwy. 42 and Hwy. 73, in an area known as Oak Grove. The current Galvez, LA is about two miles from the 18th century Galveztown site.

Visitors to Assumption Parish should stop in historic Donaldsonville to see La Iglesia de la Ascension de Nostro Senor Jesu Cristo da Lafourche de los Chetimaches, known today as the Church of the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ. King Charles III of Spain ordered the establishment of the church, and Spanish militia began building a small mission chapel on this site in 1770. Construction of the current church building began in 1875.

Donaldsonville’s history dates back to 1699 when Pierre Le Moyne Sieur de Iberville, a French explorer, founded the community. The Acadians settled in Donaldsonville, which was then called Lafourche, in 1758. Under the Spanish, Louisiana welcomed the exiled Acadians to settle the bayous and wetlands of the Louisiana Territory. In 1806, William Donaldson, a wealthy Englishman, acquired the land and changed the name of the town to Donaldsonville.

Assumption Parish: Belle Alliance Plantation

About five miles from Donaldsonville on the east bank of Bayou Lafourche is Belle Alliance Plantation. Successful sugar planter Charles Anton Kock built the plantation’s massive Greek Revival mansion in 1846. The land on which the house sits was originally a part of the 7,000-acre Bayou Lafourche plot granted to Don Juan Vives, a physician and military officer of the Spanish government.

In 1779, Vives participated in Galvez’s expedition against the British in Baton Rouge. Vives was successful in helping Galvez prevent the further development of a British stronghold in the Mississippi Valley, and the Spanish king knighted him. The area around Vives’ grant became known as Valenzuela and served as a Spanish military outpost. Today, Belle Alliance Plantation House and Grounds, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is accessible to the public for lectures, special occasions, executive retreats, and photo shoots.

East Baton Rouge Parish: Spanish Town

In September of 1779, the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Galvez, defeated the British at Fort Butte on Bayou Manchac and then captured Baton Rouge. By 1781, West Florida, including East Baton Rouge, was under Spanish influence. After the United States gained control of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, Spanish Baton Rouge became the only non-American settlement along the Mississippi River. Around this time, residents from nearby Galveztown, which the United States controlled, decided to resettle in Baton Rouge so they could stay on Spanish soil.

In 1805, V.S. Pintao, the official Spanish surveyor of West Florida, at the instruction of Don Carlos de Grendpre, the Governor of West Florida, designed an area in Baton Rouge with 18 long and narrow lots, with a public road 40 feet wide running east to west through the settlement. The area became Spanish Town, which today is the oldest neighborhood in the City of Baton Rouge. Pintao designed the lots so that each family would have enough space for a house, a garden, and a stable. As Spanish Town grew, the original layout extended to include 20 more lots to the east. The 40 feet wide public road running through the middle of Spanish Town became the “Spanish Town Road.”

Spanish Lake

Spanish Lake
Courtesy of John Melanchon, Flickr’s Creative Commons

While buildings from the original 1805 settlement no longer remain, Spanish Town Road still runs through Baton Rouge today. Visitors to Spanish Town Road today will see the original 18 lots of Spanish Town, many of which have been irregularly divided, that are located between Capitol Lake and North Street, between 5th and 12th Streets. Spanish Town is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Iberia Parish: New Iberia and Spanish Lake

In 1779, a group of Spaniards from Malaga settled near the banks of the Bayou Teche and a small lake that took the name Spanish Lake. These early settlers named their town “Nueva Iberia” in honor of their homeland, the Iberian Peninsula. The Spanish settlers found that much of the land surrounding Bayou Teche had already been granted to other settlers. Since they needed land, many of them dispersed to neighboring prairies, including the area around Spanish Lake, where they became planters and ranchers. Today, visitors can drive around Spanish Lake on Spanish Lake Road to view the lake that once supported a Spanish colonial settlement.

The many historic sites scattered throughout the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area provide visitors with tangible evidence of the Spanish roots and the diverse cultural heritage found throughout this region.

Plan your visit

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area is located throughout 14 parishes in south central Louisiana. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places files for Spanish Town: text and photos; Belle Alliance Plantation: text and photos.  For more information about visiting the heritage area, visit the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area website or call 225-219-0768.

Many of the sites found throughout the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area are featured in the National Park Service’s Explore the History and Culture of Southeastern Louisiana Travel Itinerary.

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