Louisiana (French: La Louisiane; by 1879, La Louisiane française) or French Louisiana was the name of an administrative district of New France. Under French control from 1682-1763 and 1800-03, the area was named in honor of Louis XIV of France, by French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle. It originally covered an expansive territory that included most of the drainage basin of the Mississippi River and stretched from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Appalachian Mountains to the Rocky Mountains. Louisiana was divided into two regions, known as Upper Louisiana (French: Haute-Louisiane), which began north of the Arkansas River, and Lower Louisiana (French: Basse-Louisiane). The present-day U.S. state of Louisiana is named for the historical region, although it occupies only a small portion of the territory claimed by the French.
French exploration of the area began during the reign of Louis XIV of France, while French Louisiana was not greatly developed, due to a lack of human and financial resources. The French defeat, in the Seven Years' War, ended with France being forced to cede the eastern part of the territory in 1763 to the victorious British, and the western part to Spain as compensation for that country's loss of Florida. France regained sovereignty of the western territory in the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso of 1800. However, Napoleon Bonaparte decided to sell the territory to the United States in 1803, ending France's presence in Louisiana.
In the 18th century, Louisiana included most of what is now the Midwestern United States. Demarcating the exact territory is difficult as it did not have formal, defined borders in the modern sense; the only fortified areas with any major population centers were the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes region, with the other areas dominated by Native American tribes. Generally speaking, Louisiana bordered the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Michigan and Lake Erie towards the north. On the east, the French colony was separated by the Appalachian Mountains from the Thirteen British Colonies. The Rocky Mountains region marked the western extent of the French claim. Louisiana's southern border was formed by the Gulf of Mexico, which served as the port for the colony.
The colony was mostly flat, which aided European movement through the territory. Its average elevation is less than 1,000 metres. The territory becomes more mountainous towards the west, with the notable exception of the Ozark Mountains, which are located in the mid-south.
The upper part of Louisiana (French: Haute-Louisiane), consists mostly of large, fertile plains. The climate is hot during the summer, while influenced by polar airflow in the winter. In the 17th century, large parts of the area were covered with forests, which were useful for sheltering animals bred for the fur trade. The forests were mostly cleared in the following 150 years.
In 1660, France started a policy of expansion into the interior of North America from what is now eastern Canada. The objectives were to locate a Northwest passage to China, to exploit the territory's natural resources such as fur and mineral ores, and to convert the native population to Christianity. Fur traders began exploring the pays d'en haut (upper country around the Great Lakes) at the time. In 1659, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers reached the western end of Lake Superior. Priests founded missions, such as the Mission of Sault Sainte Marie, in 1668. On May 17, 1673, Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette began the exploration of the Mississippi River, which they called the Sioux Tongo (the large river) or Michissipi. They reached the mouth of the Arkansas River, and then went upstream, having learned that it ran towards the Gulf of Mexico and not towards the Pacific Ocean as they had presumed. In 1675, Marquette founded a mission in the village of Kaskaskias, on the Illinois River, which became permanent in 1690.
In 1682, Cavelier de La Salle and the Italian Henri de Tonti descended to the Mississippi delta. They left Fort Crèvecoeur on the Illinois River, accompanied by 23 Frenchmen and 18 Indians. They built Fort Prud'homme, which later became the city of Memphis and asserted French sovereignty on the whole of the valley which they called Louisiane in honor of the Louis XIV of France. They also sealed alliances with the Quapaw Indians. In April 1682, they arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi. La Salle eventually returned to Versailles where he convinced the Minister of the Marine to grant the command of Louisiana to him. He claimed that Louisiana was close to New Spain by drawing a map indicating the Mississippi much further west than it really was. With four ships and 320 emigrants, La Salle set sail for Louisiana. Unfortunately, La Salle was not able to find the Mississippi delta and attempted to establish a colony on the Texas coast. La Salle was assassinated by members of his own exploration party, reportedly near what is now Navasota, Texas in 1687.
It was not easy for an absolute monarchy to administer Louisiana, a territory several times larger than Metropolitan France. Louis XIV and his successors tried to impose their absolutist ambitions on the colony, often without giving the colonial administration enough financial means to do its work.
The reign of Henry IV gave an important impetus to the colonisation of New France. Henry IV, the first Bourbon king, was personally interested in foreign affairs. In the 17th century, the ministers Richelieu and later Colbert advanced colonial politics. Louis XIV and his ministers were worried about the size of the kingdom, over which they constantly competed with other European nations. European rivalry and a game of political alliances greatly marked the history of Louisiana, in direct and indirect ways. The desire to limit British influence in the New World, however, was a constant in royal politics.
The Sun King took care to limit the appearance of intermediary bodies and countervailing powers in North America. He did not want an assembly of notables or parliament. In 1685, he banned all publishing in New France. In the 1660s, the colony was royal property. Between 1712 and 1731, the French possession came under the control of Antoine Crozat, a rich businessman, then under that of the Mississippi Company (created by John Law), which had to recruit immigrants to populate the colony. In 1731, Louisiana reverted to royal rule. Contrary to Metropolitan France, the same laws, based on Parisian legislation (rather egalitarian for the time), were used all over the colony. This served as an equaliser for a while; riots and revolts against authority were rare. However, the centralised government was not good at covering the distance which separated France from Louisiana. Towards the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th, the colonists on the Gulf of Mexico were almost completely left to fend for themselves and counted far more on the assistance of the Native Americans than on France. But the distance also had its advantages: the colonists smuggled with impunity. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's Minister of the Navy and Trade, was eager to stuff the coffers of the Crown. He dissolved the trading companies and took care to increase the production of the country and the colonies. Being a mercantilist, he believed it was necessary to sell as much as possible and to reduce reliance on imports. He imposed a French monopoly on trade. Colbert wanted to reduce the expenditure of the monarchy. It was, however, necessary to invest much money and to mobilize important human resources retain the American colony. Much work was done on the economic infrastructure (factories, ports) in metropolitan France, but the investment was insufficient in Louisiana. No plan to facilitate the movement of goods or men was ever carried out. Whereas the French budget was exhausted because of the wars, the colonists in Louisiana did not have to pay royal taxes and were free of the hated gabelle.
Under the Ancien Régime, Louisiana formed part of a larger colonial unit, the French empire in America: New France (Nouvelle France), which included a part of what is now Canada. New France was initially ruled by a viceroy: this post was occupied by the Duke of Ventadour (1625). It was then equipped with a government like the other possessions of the Bourbons. Its seat was in the city of Québec until 1759. One Governor general, assisted by one intendant, was charged with ruling this vast empire. In theory, Louisiana was thus subordinate to Canada. Additionally, it was explored and populated largely by Canadian colonists, rather than Metropolitan French settlers. Given the enormous distance between New Orleans and Quebec, communications were limited outside of the cities and forts.
French settlements were widely dispersed, giving them a relative autonomy in fact, if not in law. It was decided to divide rule of the vast, diverse colony of New France into five governments, including Louisiana. The Country of Illinois, located at the south of the Great Lakes, was added to Louisiana in 1717. The first "capital" of French Louisiana was Mobile. The seat of government was transferred to Biloxi in 1720, then to New Orleans in 1722, where the governor resided. This individual was the most eminent character, but not the most powerful. He commanded troops and was responsible for diplomatic relations. The second authority was the police chief-director. His functions were similar with those of the intendants in France: administrators and representatives of the king, their prerogatives extending to justice, the police force and finances. They managed the budget, set prices, chaired the higher council (the Court of Justice) and organized the census. Named by the king, the ordnance officer of Louisiana had broad capacities which sometimes came into conflict with those of the governor. The military stations of the interior were directed by commanders.
The French possessions of North America were under the authority of a single diocese, whose seat was in Quebec. The archbishop, named and remunerated by the king, was spiritual head of all New France. With loose religious supervision, the fervor of the population was very weak; Louisianans tended to practice their faith much less than their counterparts in France and Canada. The tithe, a tax by the clergy on the faithful, produced less revenue than in France. The Church nevertheless played an important part in the exploration of French Louisiana; it sent missions, primarily carried out by Jesuits, to convert Native Americans. It also founded schools and hospitals: by 1720, the Ursulines were operating a hospital in New Orleans. The church and its missionaries established contact with the Amerindian tribes. Certain priests, such as Father Marquette in the 17th century, took part in exploratory missions. The Jesuits translated collections of prayers into numerous Amerindian languages for the purpose of converting the Native Americans. Sometimes living with the tribes, they could not prevent some syncretism of ther practices and beliefs. Sincere and permanent conversions were limited in number; many who received missionary instruction tended to assimilate the Holy Trinity into their belief of "spirits", or rejected it outright.
It is difficult to evaluate the total population of France's colonies in North America. While historians have relatively precise sources regarding the colonists and the slaves, it is on the other hand much more difficult to count the Native Americans. During the 18th century, the society of Louisiana became quite creolized.
According to the demographer Russel Thornton, North America contained approximately seven million native inhabitants in 1500. The population plummeted from the 16th century onward, primarily because of the diseases introduced by Europeans, against which the Native Americans were not immunized. At the end of the 17th century, there were likely no more than 100,000 to 200,000 Native Americans in Lower Louisiana. A small number of Native Americans were employed as slaves from the very start of the 18th century—in spite of official prohibition. These slaves were captured by rival tribes during raids and in battle. Sold to French colonists, they were then often sent to Saint Domingue in the West Indies or, at times, to Canada. In Louisiana, planters generally preferred using African slaves, though some had Native American servants.
In 1717, John Law, the French minister of finance, decided to import black slaves into Louisiana. His objective was then to develop the plantation economy of Lower Louisiana. The Company of the Indies held a monopoly of the slave trade in the area. It imported approximately 6,000 slaves from Africa between 1719 and 1743. A portion of these were sent to the Illinois Territory to cultivate the fields or to work the mines. The economy of Lower Louisiana consequently became slave-dominated. As in other French colonies, the condition of the slaves was regulated by the Code Noir. However, these were actually not extensively applied, and the slaves often had a certain degree of autonomy. Initially, during public holidays, slaves were permitted to sell a portion of the crops they had cultivated. Some would hunt, cut wood or keep livestock far from the plantation. Lastly, if interracial marriages and regroupings of slaves were prohibited, cohabitation and the keeping of mistresses was often practiced. The life and work of the slaves was difficult, with harvest season undoubtedly the hardest. The maintenance of the canals also involved much drudgery.
Slave residences were modest; they slept on simple straw pallets. They typically had some trunks and kitchen utensils. The condition of the slaves depended on the treatment they received from their masters. When it was excessively cruel, the slaves often fled and hid in the marshes or in New Orleans. But the Maroon societies runaway slaves founded were often short-lived; Louisiana would not know Maroon villages to the same degree as the West Indies. Meanwhile, slave revolts were not as frequent in this area as they were in the Caribbean. The possibility of being set free was rather low; the slaves could not purchase their freedom. Some freed slaves (notably women and former soldiers) formed small communities, which suffered from segregation; justice was more severe against them, and they did not have right to possess weapons. Slaves contributed to the creolization of Louisianan society. They brought okra from Africa, a plant which is used in the preparation of gumbo. While the Code Noir required that the slaves receive a Christian education, many secretly practiced animism and often combined elements of the two faiths.
The commonly accepted definition today is for the community whose members are a mixture of mainly French, Spanish, African, and Native-American heritage. Some may not have each ethnic heritage, and some may have additional ancestries. It is estimated that 7,000 European immigrants settled in Louisiana during the 18th century - a number 100 times lower than the number of British colonists on the Atlantic coast. Louisiana attracted considerably fewer French colonists than its West Indian colonies did. After the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, which lasted several months, the colonists had several challenges ahead of them. Their living conditions were difficult: uprooted, they had to face a new, often hostile, environment. Many of these travellers died during the maritime crossing or soon after their arrival. Hurricanes, unknown in France, periodically struck the coast, destroying whole villages. The insalubrity of the Mississippi Delta, with periodic yellow fever epidemics, represented another strong brake on colonisation. Moreover, French villages and forts were not necessarily safe from enemy offensives. Attacks by Native Americans represented a real threat to the groups of isolated colonists; in 1729, the attacks on Natchez killed 250 in Lower Louisiana. Forces of the Native American Natchez tribe took Fort Rosalie (now Natchez, Mississippi) by surprise, killing, among others, pregnant women. The French response ensued in the following two years, causing the Natchez to flee or be deported as slaves to Saint Domingue.
Colonists were often young men, volunteers recruited in French ports or in Paris. Many served as indentured servants; they were required to remain in Louisiana for a length of time fixed by the contract of service. During this time, they were "temporary semi-slaves". To increase the colonial population, filles de la cassette, young Frenchwomen, were sent to the colony to marry soldiers there, and given a dowry financed by the king. Women "of easy virtue," vagrants or outlaws, and those without family arriving with a lettre de cachet were sent by force to Louisiana, especially during the Régence period early in the reign of Louis XV. Their stories inspired the novel Story of the Knight Of Grieux and Manon Lescaut, written by Abbé Prévost in 1731. French Louisiana included communities of Swiss and German settlers; however, royal authorities never spoke of "Louisianans" but always of "French" to designate the population. After the Seven Years' War, the settlement became a more mixed affair, with the population enriched with the arrival of various groups: Spanish settlers, refugees from Saint Domingue (particularly after 1791), opponents of the French Revolution, and Cajuns. In 1785, 1,633 people of Acadian origin were brought from France to New Orleans, 30 years after having been expelled from their homeland by the British. Other Acadians made it to the colony on their own; altogether, about 4,000 are thought to have settled in Louisiana.
Social mobility was easier in America than in France at the time. The seigneurial system was not imposed on the banks of the Mississippi, although the long lot land division scheme of the seigneurial system was adapted to some of the meandering rivers and bayous there. There were few corporations treated on a hierarchical basis and strictly regulated. Certain tradesmen managed to build fortunes rather quickly. The large planters of Louisiana were attached to the French way of life: they imported wigs and clothing fashionable in Paris. In the Country of Illinois, the wealthiest constructed stone-built houses and had several slaves. The largest traders mostly wound up settling in New Orleans.
The King sent the army in the event of conflict with the other colonial powers; in 1717, the colony of Mississippi counted 300 soldiers out of 550 people (Havard G, Vidal C, History of French America, p. 225.). However, the colonial army, like that of France, suffered from desertions. Certain soldiers fled to become coureurs de bois. There were few mutinies because repression was severe. The army held a fundamental place in the control of the territory. Soldiers built forts and frequently negotiated with the Native Americans.
The coureurs de bois (literally "runners of the woods") played an important part, though not well-documented, in the expansion of French influence in North America. By the end of the 17th century, these adventurers had journeyed the length of the Mississippi River. They were motivated by the hope of finding gold or of carrying out a profitable fur trade with the Indians. The fur trade, often practiced without authorization, was a difficult activity, carried on most of the time by young unmarried men. Many ultimately wished to go on to more sedentary agricultural activities. Meanwhile, a good number of them were integrated into native communities, learned the languages and took native wives. A well-known example is the French Canadian Toussaint Charbonneau, husband to Sacagawea, who gave birth to Jean-Baptiste. They took part in the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804-1806.
While Ancien Régime France wished to make Native Americans subjects of the king and good Christians, the distance from Metropolitan France and the sparseness of French settlement prevented movement in this direction. In official rhetoric, the Native Americans were regarded as subjects of the King of France, but in reality, they were largely autonomous due to their numerical superiority. The local authorities (governors, officers) did not have the means of imposing their decisions and often compromised. The tribes offered essential support for the French in Louisiana: they ensured the survival of the colonists, participated with them in the fur trade, were used as guides in expeditions. Their alliance was also essential in the fight against the British.
The two peoples influenced each other in many fields: the French learned the languages of the natives, who bought European goods (fabric, alcohol, firearms, etc), and sometimes adopted their religion. The coureurs des bois and the soldiers borrowed canoes and moccasins. Many of them ate native food such as wild rice and various meats, like bear and dog. The colonists were often dependent on the Native Americans for food. Creole cuisine is the heir of these mutual influences: thus, sagamité, for example, is a mix of corn pulp, bear fat and bacon. Today jambalaya, a word of Seminole origin, refers to a multitude of recipes calling for meat and rice, all very spicy. Sometimes shamans succeeded in curing the colonists thanks to traditional remedies (application of fir tree gum on wounds and Royal Fern on a rattlesnake bite).
Many colonists both admired and feared the military power of the Native Americans, but others scorned their culture and regarded them as racially less pure than the Whites. In 1735, interracial marriages without the approval of the authorities were prohibited in Louisiana. The Jesuit priests were often scandalized by the supposedly libertine ways of the Native Americans. In spite of some disagreements (the Indians killed pigs which devastated corn fields), and sometimes violent confrontations (War of the Foxes, Natchez uprisings and expeditions against the Chicachas), the relationship with the Native Americans was relatively good in Louisiana because the French were not numerous. French imperialism was expressed through some wars and the slavery of some Native Americans. But most of the time, the relationship was based on dialogue and negotiation.
Louisiana could be divided into two main areas, both with well-differentiated economic systems.
This sparsely-settled northern area of French Louisiana, criss-crossed by the Mississippi and its affluents, was primarily devoted to cereals. The very few French farmers lived in villages (such as Fort de Chartres, Kaskaskia, Prairie du Rocher, and Sainte-Geneviève). They cultivated the land with paid laborers, producing mostly corn and wheat. The fields were cleared with ploughs. They raised horses, cows and pigs, and also grew a little tobacco, hemp, flax and grapes (though most wine was still imported from France). Agriculture was at the mercy of the rough climate and periodic floods of the Mississippi.
The trading posts in the Illinois Country concentrated mostly on the fur trade. Placed at strategic points, they were modestly fortified. Only a few were made out of stone (Fort de Chartres, Fort Niagara). Like their American "mountain man" counterparts, the coureurs des bois exchanged beaverskin or deer pelts for weapons, cloth or shoddy goods, because the local economy was based on barter. The skins and fur are later sold in the forts and cities of New France. The Illinois Country also produced salt and lead and provided New Orleans with game.
Lower Louisiana's enconomy was based on slave-owning plantations. The owners generally had their main residence in New Orleans and entrusted the supervision of the fields to a treasurer. The crops were varied and adapted to the climate and terrain. Part of the production was intended for use by Louisianans (corn, vegetables, rice, livestock), the rest being exported to France (especially tobacco and indigo).
New Orleans was the economic capital of Louisiana, though it remained a village for several decades. The colonists built infrastructure to encourage trade; a canal was dug in 1723. The stores on banks of the Mississippi also served as warehouses. The city exported pelts from the interior as well as products from the plantations. It was also, of course, a local hub of commerce. Its shops and markets sold whatever the plantations produced.
The rare shipments from France brought food (lard, wheat...), alcohol and various indispensable finished products (weapons, tools, cloth, clothing). Fur and various products came from the interior, and the port sent tobacco and indigo to the metropolis. But these exports remained on the whole relatively weak. New Orleans also still sold wood, rice and corn to the French West Indies.
The hostility between the French and British flared up again two years before the beginning of the Seven Years' War in Europe, but they also cool down earlier, before the signing of the Treaty of Paris (1763). After having seen a few victories thanks to their Native American allies (1754-1757), the French suffered several disastrous defeats in Canada (1758-1760). The surrender of Montreal began the isolation of Louisiana.
The Treaty of Paris, signed on 10 February 1763, announced the eviction of the French from North America: Canada and the east bank of the Mississippi were handed over to Britain. New Orleans and the west bank of the river were given to Spain. This decision provoked the departure of a few settlers; however, the Spaniards effectively took control of their new territories rather late (in 1766), and there was not much Spanish immigration. To the East, the United States foresaw the conquest of the West; commercial navigation on the Mississippi was opened to Americans in 1795.
During the French Revolution, Louisiana was agitated under Spanish control: certain French-speaking colonists sent petitions to the metropolis and the slaves attempted revolts in 1791 and 1795.
The Treaty of San Ildefonso, signed in secrecy on October 1, 1800, envisaged the transfer of Western Louisiana as well as New Orleans to France in exchange for the Duchy of Parma. However, Napoleon Bonaparte soon decided not to keep the immense territory. The army he sent to take possession of the colony was first required to put down a revolution in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti); its failure to do so, coupled with the rupture of the Treaty of Amiens with the United Kingdom, prompted him to decide to sell Louisiana to the young United States. This was done on April 30, 1803 for the sum of 80 million francs (15 million dollars). American sovereignty was established on December 20, 1803.
French colonization in Louisiana left a cultural inheritance which has been celebrated significantly in recent decades. The heritage of the French language, Louisiana Creole French and of Cajun French is that which has been most threatened; for this reason, the CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana) was created in 1968. A subject of debate is the variety of French that should be taught: that of France, Canadian French, standard Louisiana French or Cajun French. Today, many Cajun-dominated areas of Louisiana have formed associations with Acadian communities in Canada, which send French professors to re-teach the language in the schools. In 2003, 7% of Louisianans were French-speaking, though most also spoke English. An estimated 25% of the state's population has some French ancestry, carrying a number of last names of French origin (e.g., LeBlanc, Cordier, Dion, Menard, Pineaux, Roubideaux…).
Many cities and villages have names of French origin. (See French in the United States for a list of these.) They include St. Louis, Detroit, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Mobile, and Duluth. The flag and the seal of the state of Minnesota carry a French legend. Historical festivals and commemorations point out the French presence: in 1999, Louisiana celebrated the 300th anniversary of its foundation; in 2001, Detroit did the same. In 2003, the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase was commemorated on numerous occasions as well as by a formal conference to recall its history. Certain places testify to a cultural inheritance left by the French; a prime example is the French Quarter of New Orleans. Many French forts have been rebuilt and opened to visitors.
A key part of Louisianan culture finds its roots in the French period: Creole songs influenced the blues and jazz. Cajun music, often sung in French, remains very much alive today. New Orleans' Carnival, with its height at Mardi Gras, testifies to a long-lived Roman Catholic tradition.