Louisiana sits above the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River, bordered by Arkansas to the north, Mississippi to the east and Texas to the west. Founded by the French, ruled for 40 years by the Spanish and bought by the United States in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans is known for its distinct Creole culture and vibrant history.
Significant battles of the War of 1812 and the Civil War were fought over the city. Louisiana’s capital city is Baton Rouge. It is also home to the historic port city of New Orleans, which is famous for its unique cuisine, jazz and spectacular Mardi Gras festival. In its last hundred years, the key struggles of New Orleans have been social (poverty, racial strife) and natural (hurricanes, floods and slowly sinking land).
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Louisiana Native American History
When the first French colonists arrived in the area now known as Louisiana in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the land had already been settled for more than 10,000 years by Native Americans. An estimated 15,000 people speaking 22 languages had formed numerous groups, including the Atakapa, Caddo, Chitimacha, Choctaw, Houma, Natchez and Tunica tribes.
In the early 1700s, various Native American groups allied with and fought against European settlers. The Tunica and Caddo Tribes allied with the French against the British. The Chitimacha entered a 12-year war against the French; most were killed, and many others were enslaved or forced to migrate. And the Choctaws allied with the French against the Natchez, who had attacked a French colony and killed hundreds of settlers. During the Natchez War of 1729, nearly all the Natchez were killed; the remaining few were enslaved or forced to migrate and join other pro-British tribes, including the Chickasaws, Creeks and Cherokees.
The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 drew many new American settlers to Louisiana and led the United States government to covet new territory. In the early 19th century, the Chitimacha, the Choctaws, Caddo and Tunica were compelled to give up most of their land. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 subsequently required the evacuation of Indigenous people to “Indian Territory” (modern-day Oklahoma). Most of those who did not leave were forcibly removed on what became known as the Trail of Tears, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 3,000 Indigenous people.
The four federally-recognized tribes in Louisiana today include the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians and the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Tribe of Louisiana. The Chitimacha is the only tribe in Louisiana to still live on some of their native lands. The Chitimacha and the Coushatta are renowned for their traditional, intricately-designed woven basketry.
Louisiana Exploration and Colonial History
Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was the first European to visit Louisiana during his 1541 expedition down the Mississippi River. In 1682, French explorer René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle claimed the territory at the foot of the Mississippi River for France and named it Louisiana after Louis XIV.
The first permanent French settlement was created in 1715 in modern-day Natchitoches. In 1718, Canadian-born Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville—known as the “Father of Louisiana”—founded New Orleans, which he named after the Duc d’Orleans. The city became the French colony’s capital in 1723. During the era of French Louisiana, the French crown and several chartered proprietors they contracted governed the territory. In addition to French settlers, the colony was populated in the 18th and 19th centuries by German immigrants and French-Canadian immigrants known as Acadians.
During the Seven Years’ War between France and England in the mid-1700s, France offered to give Louisiana to Spain in return for help fighting the British. Spain rejected the offer, but England caught wind of a supposed “secret alliance” between the countries and attacked Spain. In 1762, Louis XV of France again offered Louisiana to his cousin, Charles III of Spain, with the Treaty of Fontainebleau. France hoped the gift would incentivize Spain to end the conflict and keep the territory out of the hands of the British. England finally recognized Spanish ownership with the 1763 Treaty of Paris.
The Spanish were slow to take control of their new acquisition, and they allowed the mainly French settlers in the territory to maintain their language and customs. The first Spanish colonial governor, Don Antonio de Ulloa, arrived in 1766 and created strict trade restrictions, including banning business with England and the importation of French wine. The French settlers rebelled, ousting de Ulloa in 1768 and demanding the territory return to French hands. Spain countered in 1769 by sending a fleet of 24 ships and 2,000 troops, who retook the colony, reaffirmed Spanish rule and punished leaders of the rebellion.
The Louisiana Purchase and Statehood
The Louisiana Purchase was the conclusion of a decades-long struggle between France, England and Spain for control over North American territory—particularly around the Mississippi River, which enabled trade throughout much of the continent.
In the 1790s, a diplomatic incident led to a short war between the United States and France. In 1802, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte forced Spain to return Louisiana to France with the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso.
In 1803, Thomas Jefferson, fearing French control of Louisiana would compromise control of the Mississippi River, bought the Louisiana Territory from Bonaparte, who had given up on creating a “New France” in the Americas. Purchased for $15,000,000, the Louisiana Purchase became the single largest land acquisition in American history. It more than doubled the size of the United States and added more than 500 billion acres of land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.
In 1812, Louisiana became the 18th state admitted to the Union. In 1813, the newly-minted state became involved in the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. Due to slow communications, the Battle of New Orleans was fought in Louisiana two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, was signed. General Andrew Jackson led about 5,700 troops to one of the most important land victories of the war, emerging from the battle a national hero.
Slaves have been a part of Louisiana’s history since the French colony was established. Given its location at the mouth of the Mississippi River, New Orleans eventually became the largest and most significant slave-trading center in the United States during the 19th century. On the eve of the Civil War, slaves made up nearly half of the state’s population.
In the 1790s, a slave uprising in the French colony of San Domingue led to the formation of Haiti. Haitian plantation owners escaped to New Orleans with their slaves, more than doubling the city’s population in the early 1800s. The Haitian slaves’ defiant spirit led to the 1811 Slave Revolt when more than 500 Louisiana slaves killed their captors before they were slaughtered by the military.
During Spanish rule in the mid-1700s, slaves were allowed to earn money from selling goods and then buy their families’ freedom, leading to a significant population of free former slaves. From the early 19th century until the Civil War, New Orleans had one of the largest populations of free Black people in the South. Some were wealthy and well-educated, and many settled in the New Orleans suburb of Tremé.
The Civil War
After the election of President Abraham Lincoln, who promised to abolish slavery, Louisiana became the sixth state to secede from the Union on January 26, 1861. During the Civil War, the manufacturing hub of New Orleans supplied Confederate troops, and around 60,000 Louisianans eventually served in the Confederate Army.
From the start of the war, Union troops sought to seize territory on the Mississippi River to control critical trading ports and divide the Confederacy. The capture of New Orleans on April 28, 1862, secured the Confederacy’s biggest city and most important seaport for the Union. On May 9, Union troops seized control of the state capitol at Baton Rouge. The last major Civil War battles in Louisiana were fought during the 1864 Red River Campaign, when the Union attempted and failed to secure Shreveport, Louisiana.
Reconstruction and Civil Rights Movement
In 1864—before the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 14th Amendment—the Louisiana legislature passed a state constitution that banned slavery but didn’t allow African Americans to vote. White politicians lashed back with Black codes limiting former slaves’ freedom. Violent clashes erupted between radical Republicans, who wanted to grant Black people the right to vote, and white supremacists enraged by Reconstruction policies.
Louisiana’s 1868 state constitution granted Black citizens the right to vote. One of the most progressive state constitutions in the United States at the time, it also banned the Black codes and guaranteed African Americans public education and access to public facilities. Reconstruction in New Orleans was especially successful, integrating many institutions, including nearly all public schools. Louisiana was the first state in the United States to have a Black governor, New Orleans resident P.B.S. Pinchback, from 1872 to 1873.
This progressive stance incensed white supremacists, leading to the implementation of Jim Crow laws. Homer Plessy, a Black Louisiana man, contested the constitutionality of a law segregating train cars. His case—Plessy v. Ferguson—made it to the Supreme Court, and its 1896 decision instilled “separate but equal” statuses throughout the country for the next half-century.
Black Louisianans again fought against injustice during the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement. Activists organized the first bus boycott of segregated buses in Baton Rouge in 1953, two years before the Montgomery bus boycott. In February 1957, Martin Luther King Junior formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—a key civil rights organization—at the New Zion Baptist Church in New Orleans. Louisianans participated in many more boycotts, freedom rides and sit-ins that led to the integration of schools, transportation and public facilities.
Cajun, Creole and Cultural Contributions
A diverse blend of ethnic backgrounds in Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, has made the area famous for its rich cultural heritage. Two of the most prominent ethnic groups are Cajuns and Creoles. In the 18th and 19th centuries, “Creole” was used to designate anyone who was native to Louisiana, regardless of their ethnicity. Over time, people with Native American, West African, German, Canadian, French and Spanish backgrounds all contributed to the Creole culture. These people blended their culinary, linguistic and musical practices to create a new cultural phenomenon; gumbo, for example, is a mix of French, West African and Native American ingredients and culinary techniques.
Cajuns were once known as Creoles. Originally the descendants of a French-speaking group of Acadians exiled from Canada in the 1700s, some of these people began self-identifying as Cajun instead of Creole at the end of the 1800s. Over the next century, “Creole” became associated with Black culture, while “Cajun” became associated with white culture—even though the groups were historically intertwined.
Louisiana’s blend of cultures resulted in cultural traditions unique to Louisiana, including colorful Mardi Gras celebrations and jazz—which was created by New Orleans musicians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Date of Statehood: April 30, 1812
Capital: Baton Rouge
Population: 4.52 million (2020)
Size: 51,988 square miles
Nickname(s): Pelican State; Sportsman’s Paradise
Motto: Union, Justice, Confidence
Tree: Bald Cypress
Bird: Eastern Brown Pelican
- At 34 stories high and 450 feet tall, the Louisiana State Capitol is the tallest of all state capitol buildings. On September 8, 1935, Senator Huey Long—who had been instrumental in convincing the public to construct the new building in 1935—was assassinated in one of its corridors.
- Hurricane Katrina hit landfall in southeastern Louisiana on August 29, 2005, as a Category 3 storm. The most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history, it resulted in more than 1,800 deaths—over 1,500 of which were in Louisiana—and close to $100 billion in damages.
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- The word “bayou”—a marshy body of water often associated with Louisiana—comes from the Choctaw (Mobilian) word “bayuk.”
Hurricane Katrina in Photos
American Library Association, Indigenous Tribes of New Orleans & Louisiana.
Coushatta Tribe, Our Story.
64 Parishes, Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana.
Sovereign Nation of the Chitimacha, Tribal History.
National Park Service, Early Choctaw History.
National Park Service, American Indians in Louisiana.
Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, History.
64 Parishes, Natchez Revolt of 1729.
64 Parishes, Indian (Native American) Removal.
64 Parishes, Natchez Indians.
Louisiana Department of Culture Recreation and Tourism, American Indians: The First Families of Louisiana on the Eve of French Settlement.
Louisiana Office of Cultural Development, Louisiana’s Native Americans: An Overview.
Tunica-Biloxi Indians of Louisiana, History.
64 Parishes, Caddo Nation.
Caddo Nation, History.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Cavelier de la Salle.
Louisiana Department of Culture Recreation and Tourism, Colonial Louisiana.
Library of Congress, Louisiana as a French Colony.
Library of Congress, Louisiana as a Spanish Colony.
Library of Congress, The Louisiana Purchase.
Kansas Historical Society, Louisiana Purchase.
United States Census Bureau, Louisiana 210th Anniversary of Statehood (1812): April 30, 2022.
American Battlefield Trust, Battle of New Orleans.
National Archives, Treaty of Ghent (1814).
Smithsonian Magazine, Before the Civil War, New Orleans Was the Center of the U.S. Slave Trade.
Louisiana Department of Culture Recreation and Tourism, The Civil War.
64 Parishes, Civil War Louisiana.
PBS, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).
PBS, The Black Governor Who Was Almost a Senator.
Louisiana Department of Culture Recreation and Tourism, Reconstruction.
64 Parishes, Reconstruction.
United Teachers of New Orleans, Some Black History You Should Know.
The Historic New Orleans Collection, What’s the difference between Cajun and Creole—or is there one?
National Park Service, Creole History and Culture.
University of Louisiana at Lafayette, German-Americans.
National Park Service, From Acadian to Cajun.
National Park Service, A New Orleans Jazz History, 1895-1927.
Louisiana House of Representatives, Louisiana Capitol History and Tour.