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Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville provided Baton Rouge as well as Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas their current names

The history of Baton Rouge, Louisiana dates to 1699.


French period (1699-1763)

Baton Rouge dates back to 1699, when French explorer Sieur d'Iberville leading an exploration party up the Mississippi River saw a reddish cypress pole festooned with bloody animals and fish that marked the boundary between Houma and Bayou Goula tribal hunting grounds. They called the tree "le bâton rouge," or red stick. The native name for the site had been Istrouma. From evidence found along the Mississippi, Comite, and Amite rivers, and in three native mounds remaining in the city, archaeologists have been able to date habitation of the Baton Rouge area to 8000 B.C. The French city of Baton Rouge became one of the more prominent settlements of [[New France].

Acadian settlement (1755)

In the Great Expulsion of 1755, around 11,000 Acadians were deported from Acadia under the direction of British colonial officers and New England legislators and militia; many settled in an area near Baton Rouge that would come to be known as Louisiana. Eventually these settlers began calling themselves Cajuns, a name descending from a mis-pronunciation of the original name Acadians. (French: Acadiens) maintained a separate culture, encompassing distinct clothing, music, food, and dedication to catholic faith, that has since immeasurably enriched the Baton Rouge area.

British period (1763-1779)

On February 10, 1763, the Treaty of Paris was signed, whereby France gave all its territory in North America to Britain and Spain. Spain ended up with New Orleans and all land west of the Mississippi. Britain ended up with all land east of the Mississippi, except for New Orleans. Baton Rouge, now part of the newly-created British colony of West Florida, suddenly had strategic significance as the southwest-most corner of British North America.

The British built Fort New Richmond just south of the eventual site of the LSU campus Pentagon Barracks (in downtown Baton Rouge), and began plans for the development of a town. Land grants were given, resulting in an influx of the first settlers.

When the older British colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America rebelled in 1776, the newer colony of West Florida, lacking a history of local government and distrustful of the potentially hostile Spanish nearby, remained loyal to the British crown.

Spanish statesman and soldier Bernardo de Galvez defeated the British colonial forces at Manchac, Baton Rouge, and Natchez in 1779.

In 1778, France declared war on Britain, and in 1779, Spain followed suit. That same year, Spanish Governor Don Bernardo de Galvez led a militia of nearly 1,400 Spanish soldiers and a small contingent of rebellious British colonials from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, capturing Fort New Richmond. The Battle of Baton Rouge would stand as the only land-based military battle of the American Revolution to be fought outside of the original thirteen colonies. The fort was renamed Fort San Carlos, and the Spanish gained control of Baton Rouge. Galvez subsequently captured Mobile in 1780 and Pensacola in 1781, thus ending the British presence on the Gulf Coast.

Spanish period (1779-1810)

A colony of Pennsylvania German farmers settled to the south of town, having moved north to high ground from their original settlement on Bayou Manchac after a series of floods in the 1780s. Known locally as "Dutch Highlanders" ("Dutch" being a corruption of the German "Deutsch"), they settled along a line of bluffs that served as barrier to the Mississippi River flood plain. Historic Highland Road, located in the heart of present day Baton Rouge, was originally established as a supply road for the indigo and cotton plantations of these early settlers. Two major roads in the area Essen Lane and Siegen Lane were both named after cities in Germany. The Kleinpeter and Staring families were amongst the most prominent of the early German families in the area, and have remained active in local business affairs ever since.

In 1800, the Tessier-Lafayette buildings were built on what is now Lafayette Street. The buildings are still standing today.

In 1805, the Spanish administrator, Don Carlos Louis Boucher de Grand Pré, commissioned a layout for what is today know as Spanish Town.

In 1806, Elias Beauregard led a planning commission for what is today known as Beauregard Town.

Republic of West Florida (1810)

The Bonnie Blue Flag of West Florida

As a result of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, Spanish West Florida found itself almost entirely surrounded by the United States and its possessions. The Spanish Fort at Baton Rouge became the only non-American post on the Mississippi River.

Several of the inhabitants of West Florida began to have conventions to plan a rebellion, among them Fulwar Skipwith, a Baton Rouge native. At least one of these conventions was held in a house on a street in the city that has since been renamed Convention St. (in honor of the rebel conventions). On September 23, 1810, the rebels overcame the Spanish garrison at Baton Rouge, and unfurled the flag of the new Republic of West Florida, known as the Bonnie Blue Flag. The flag had a single white star on a blue field. The Bonnie Blue Flag also inspired the Lone Star flag of Texas.

The West Florida Republic existed for only ninety days, during which St. Francisville served as its capital.

Seizing upon the opportunity, President James Madison ordered W.C.C. Claiborne to move north and seize the fledgling republic for incorporation into the Territory of Orleans. Madison used the premise that the territory had always been a part of the U.S., citing the terms of the Louisiana Purchase, an explanation largely believed to be a deliberate error. The rebels were largely composed of American settlers, and they provided no resistance. With minor resentment, the stars and stripes were raised on December 10, 1810.

For the first time, all of the land that would become the State of Louisiana now lay within U.S. borders.

Early Louisiana statehood and incorporation as Capital (1812-1860)

In 1812, Louisiana was admitted to the Union as a State. Baton Rouge's location continued to be a strategic military outpost. Between 1819 and 1822, the U.S. Army built the Pentagon Barracks, which became a major command post up through the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Lieutenant Colonel Zachary Taylor, supervised construction of the Pentagon Barracks and served as its commander. In the 1830s, what is known today as the "Old Arsenal" was built. The unique structure originally served as a powder magazine for the U.S. Army Post.

In 1825, Baton Rouge was visited by the Marquis de Lafayette as part of his triumphal tour of the United States, and he was the guest of honor at a town ball and banquet. To celebrate the occasion, the city changed the name of second Second Street to Lafayette Street.

The old Louisiana State Capitol Castle.

In 1846, the Louisiana state legislature in New Orleans decided to move the seat of government to Baton Rouge. As in many states, representatives from other parts of Louisiana feared a concentration of power in the state's largest city. In 1840, New Orleans' population was around 102,000, fourth largest in the U.S. The 1840 population of Baton Rouge, on the other hand, was only 2,269.

New York architect James Dakin was hired to design the new Capitol building in Baton Rouge, and rather than mimic the federal Capitol Building in Washington, as so many other states had done, he conceived a Neo-Gothic medieval castle overlooking the Mississippi, complete with turrets and crenelations. In 1859, the Capitol was featured and favorably described in DeBow's Review, the most prestigious periodical in the antebellum South.[1] Mark Twain, however, as a steamboat pilot in the 1850s, loathed the sight of it, "It is pathetic ... that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things ... should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place." (Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 40)[2]

Despite his view of the Capitol, Twain was fond of Baton Rouge, "Baton Rouge was clothed in flowers, like a bride — no, much more so; like a greenhouse. For we were in the absolute South now — no modifications, no compromises, no half-way measures. The magnolia trees in the Capitol grounds were lovely and fragrant, with their dense rich foliage and huge snowball blossoms....We were certainly in the South at last; for here the sugar region begins, and the plantations — vast green levels, with sugar-mill and negro quarters clustered together in the middle distance — were in view." (Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 40)[3]

During the first half of the nineteenth century the city grew steadily as the result of steamboat trade and transportation; at the outbreak of the American Civil War the population was 5,500 people. The Civil War halted economic progress, but did not physically impact the city until it was occupied by Union forces in 1862.

Civil War (1860-1865)

Map of Baton Rouge in 1863

Southern secession was triggered by the 1860 election of Republican Abraham Lincoln because slave states feared that he would make good on his promise to stop the expansion of slavery and would thus put it on a course toward extinction. Many Southerners thought that even if Lincoln did not abolish slavery, sooner or later another Northerner would do so, and that it was thus time to leave the Union.

In January 1861, Louisiana elected delegates to a state convention to decide the state's course of action. The convention voted for secession 112 to 17. Baton Rouge raised a number of volunteer companies for Confederate service, including the Pelican Rifles, the Delta Rifles, the Creole Guards, and the Baton Rouge Fencibles (about one-third of the town's male population) eventually volunteered.

The Confederates gave up Baton Rouge (which only had a population of 5,429 in 1860) with little resistance, deciding to consolidate their forces elsewhere. In May 1862, Union troops entered the city and began the occupation of Baton Rouge. The Confederates only made one attempt to retake Baton Rouge. The Confederates lost the battle and the town was severely damaged. However, Baton Rouge escaped the level of devastation faced by cities that were major conflict points during the Civil War, and the city still has many structures that predate it.

In 1886, a statue of a Confederate soldier was dedicated to the memory of those who fought in the Civil War on the corner of Third Street and North Blvd.

Reconstruction to twentieth century (1863-1900)

The mass migration of ex-slaves into urban areas in the South also affected Baton Rouge. It has been estimated that in 1860, blacks made up just under one-third of the town's population. By the 1880 U.S. census, however, Baton Rouge was 60 percent black. Not until the 1920 census would the white population of Baton Rouge again exceed 50 percent. After the end of Reconstruction the white population regained control of the state's and the city's institutions, and segregation and "Jim Crow" laws were enforced, though leavened with a dose of paternalism (Radical Republican control in Louisiana had never been strong outside of New Orleans in any case).

By 1880, Baton Rouge was recovering economically and psychologically, though the population that year still was only 7,197 and its boundaries had remained the same. The carpetbaggers and scalawags of Reconstruction politics were replaced by middle-class white Democrats who loathed the Republicans, eulogized the Confederacy, and preached white supremacy. This "Bourbon" era was short-lived in Baton Rouge, however, replaced by a more management-oriented local style of conservatism in the 1890s and on into the early 20th century. Increased civic-mindedness and the arrival of the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railway led to the development of more forward-looking leadership, which included the construction of a new waterworks, widespread electrification of homes and businesses, and the passage of several large bond issues for the construction of public buildings, new schools, paving of streets, drainage and sewer improvements, and the establishment of a scientific municipal public health department.

Post-reconstruction period (1900-1953)

Increased civic-mindedness and the arrival of a north-south railroad led to the development of more forward-looking leadership, which included the construction of a new waterworks, widespread electrification of homes and businesses, and the passage of several large bond issues for the construction of public buildings, new schools, paving of streets, drainage and sewer improvements, and the establishment of a scientific municipal public health department.By the beginning of the twentieth century, the town had undergone significant industrial development as a result of its strategic location for the production of petroleum, natural gas, and salt. In 1909 the Standard Oil Company (predecessor of present-day ExxonMobil) built a facility that proved to be a lure for other petrochemical firms. The New Louisiana State Capitol, built in 1932 under the leadership of Governor Huey P. Long, signaled the beginning of a period of modernization and eventual growth for the city.

Baton Rouge waterfront during the record high water of the Mississippi River Flood of 1912

Near the same time, Baton Rouge saw the construction of both the Louisiana Institute for the Blind and the School for the Deaf and Dumb.

Capitol Building.

Throughout World War II, military demand for increased production efforts at local chemical plants contributed to the growth of the city.

In the late 1940s, Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish became a consolidated city/parish with a mayor/president in its government. It was also one of the first cities in the nation to consolidate, and the parish surrounds three incorporated cities: Baker, Zachary, and Central.

Civil rights era (1953-1968)

Baton Rouge was the site of the first bus boycott of the civil rights movement. On June 20, 1953 black citizens of Baton Rouge began an organized boycott of the municipal bus system that would last for eight days, and serve as the model for the more famous Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956.[4]

The boycott was led by the newly formed United Defense League (UDL), under the direction of Reverend T. J. Jemison and Raymond Scott. A volunteer "free ride" system, coordinated through churches, supported the efforts. In response to the boycott, the Baton Rouge city council adopted an ordinance that changed segregated seating so that blacks patron would be enabled to fill up seats from the rear forward and whites would fill seats from front to back, both on a first-come-first-served basis. Counter protests would eventually lead to an overturning of the new ordinance by the Louisiana Attorney General, but in the view of many historians the success it represented led the way for larger organized efforts within the civil rights movement.[5]

The wave of student sit-ins that started in Greensboro NC on February 1, 1960 reached Baton Rouge on March 28 when seven Southern University (SU) students were arrested for sitting-in at a Kress lunch counter. The following day, nine more students were arrested for sitting-in at the Greyhound bus terminal, and the day after that SU student and CORE member Major Johns led more than 3,000 students on a march to the state capitol to protest segregation and the arrests. Major Johns and the 16 students arrested for sitting-in were expelled from SU and barred from all public colleges and universities in the state. SU students organized a class boycott to win reinstatement of the expelled students. Fearing for the safety of their children, many parents withdrew their sons and daughters from the school. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions of the arrested students, and in 2004 they were awarded honorary degrees by S.U. and the state legislature passed a resolution in their honor.[6]

In October 1961, SU students Ronnie Moore, Weldon Rougeau and Patricia Tate revived the Baton Rouge CORE chapter. After negotiations with downtown merchants failed to end segregation, they called for a consumer boycott in early December at the start of the busy holiday shopping season. Fourteen CORE pickets supporting the boycott were arrested in mid-December and held in jail for a month. More than a thousand SU students marched to the state capitol on December 15 to protest. Police attacked them with dogs and tear-gas, and arrested more than 50 of them. Thousands rallied on the SU campus against segregation and in support of all the arrested students. To prevent further disturbances, SU closed for Christmas vacation four days early.

In January of 1962, U.S. Federal Judge Gordon West issued an injunction against CORE that banned all forms of protest of any kind at SU. Many students were expelled and state police troopers occupied the campus to quell further protests. Judge West's order was overturned by a higher court in 1964, but during the intervening years civil rights activity was effectively suppressed.[7]

In February 1962, Freedom Rider and SNCC field secretary Dion Diamond was arrested for entering the SU campus to meet with students. He is charged with "Criminal Anarchy" — attempting to overthrow the government of the State of Louisiana. SNCC Chairman Chuck McDew and white field secretary Bob Zellner are also arrested and charged with "Criminal Anarchy" when they visit Diamond in jail. Zellner was put in a cell with white prisoners who attacked him as a "race-mixer" while the guards look on. Eventually, after years of legal proceedings, the "Criminal Anarchy" charges were dropped, but Diamond was forced to serve 60 days for other charges.[8]

Modern era (1968-2005)

In the 1970s, Baton Rouge experienced a boom in the petrochemical industry, causing the city to expand away from the original center, resulting in the modern suburban sprawl. In recent years, however, government and business have begun a move back to the central district. A building boom that began in the 1990s continues today, with multi million dollar projects for quality of life improvements and new construction happening all over the city. At the turn of the 21st century, Baton Rouge maintained steady population growth, as well as becoming a technological leader amongst cities in the South. Earning a rank of #19 on the list of America's most wired cities (more wired than New Orleans, and most of the 25 largest cities in the United States), Baton Rouge integrated advanced traffic camera systems, an extensive municipal broadband wireless network, and an advanced cellular telecommunications network into the city infrastructure. Increasing at a steady pace, Baton Rouge's 2000 Census population surpassed 225,000, exceeding that of regionally comparable cities including Mobile, Alabama, Montgomery, Alabama, and Corpus Christi, Texas.

Hurricane Katrina (2005)

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast with failed levees flooding much of New Orleans and areas of Mississippi. Although the damage was relatively minor compared to New Orleans (generally light to moderate except for fallen trees), Baton Rouge experienced power outages and service disruptions due to the hurricane. In addition, the city provided refuge for residents from New Orleans. Baton Rouge served as a headquarters for Federal (on site) and State emergency coordination and disaster relief in Louisiana.

The city executed massive rescue efforts, as residents from the New Orleans metropolitan area moved northward following the devastation. LSU's basketball arena, the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, and the adjacent LSU Field House were converted into emergency hospitals. Victims were flown in by helicopter (landing in the LSU Track Stadium) and brought by the hundreds in buses to be treated. Here patients were triaged and, depending on their status, were either treated immediately or transported further west to Lafayette, Louisiana. Estimates in late 2005 put the number of displaced evacuees having relocated to Baton Rouge at about 200,000.

As a result, by August 31, TV station WAFB had reported that the city's population had more than doubled from about 228,000 to at least 450,000 and East Baton Rouge Parish's population shot up to almost 600,000 since the mandatory evacuation had been issued. In the period since, extensive city planning efforts have led to both completed and projected infrastructure improvements.

Today (2005-present)

The flag of Baton Rouge flies on a cloudy day.

Today, Baton Rouge is one of the largest mid-sized business cities in the United States. It is also one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas with a population under 1 million, with 633,261 residents in 2000 and an estimated 2008 population 750,000. Baton Rouge's city population exploded after Hurricane Katrina as residents from the New Orleans metropolitan area moved northward following the devastation, estimates in late 2005 put the displaced population at about 200,000 in the Baton Rouge area however despite claims from mayor-president Kip Holden of permanent growth in the region the growth proved to be only temporary as displaced citizens returned to their home regions. Due to the hurricane victims returning home and native Baton Rouge residents fleeing to outlying parishes such as Livingston Parish and Ascension Parish, the U.S. Census Bureau has designated Baton Rouge the second fastest declining city in its 2007-2008 estimate. Like many metropolitan centers, Baton Rouge has recently created a Downtown Development District, and embarked on a process of urban growth and renewal. Aside from the presence of Louisiana State University and capital city politics, Baton Rouge is home to a vibrant mix of cultures from around Louisiana, thus forming the basis of the city motto: "Authentic Louisiana at every turn".




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