History of Baton Rouge, Louisiana
The European-American settlement history of Baton Rouge, Louisiana dates to 1719, but the area was inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous peoples. It was first mentioned by European explorers in 1699.
- 1 Prehistory
- 2 French period (1699-1763)
- 3 Acadian settlement (1755)
- 4 British period (1763-1779)
- 5 Spanish period (1779-1810)
- 6 Republic of West Florida (1810)
- 7 Early Louisiana statehood and incorporation as capital (1812-1860)
- 8 Civil War (1860-1865)
- 9 Reconstruction era to twentieth century (1863-1900)
- 10 Early 20th century (1900-1953)
- 11 Civil rights era (1953-1968)
- 12 Modern era (1968-2005)
- 13 Hurricane Katrina (2005)
- 14 Today (2005-present)
- 15 See also
- 16 Notes
- 17 Further reading
From artifacts found in former settlements along the Mississippi, Comite, and Amite rivers, archaeologists have dated early habitation of the Baton Rouge area to 8000 B.C. The three earthwork mounds remaining in the city (two are now surrounded by the Louisiana State University campus) were built about 5000-3500 BC by later indigenous peoples of more complex cultures. The mounds were not used for burials, but researchers believe they had religious and social purposes. Their descendants were ancestors to the historic tribes.
French period (1699-1763)
European history of Baton Rouge dates to 1699, when French explorer Sieur d'Iberville led a party up the Mississippi River and saw a reddish cypress pole festooned with bloody animals and fish; it marked the boundary between the Houma Tribe and the Bayougoula hunting grounds. The French called the landmark tree le bâton rouge, (red stick). The Native American name for the site had been Istrouma. The French city of Baton Rouge became one of the more prominent of the few settlements of New France after permanent settlement began in 1719 with the building of a fort.
Acadian settlement (1755)
In the Great Expulsion of 1755 during the French and Indian War, the North American front of the Seven Years' War, British colonial officers expelled around 11,000 Acadians from Acadia in present-day Canada. Many were transported to France and secondarily resettled in La Louisiane; many settled in an area near Baton Rouge that would come to be known as Acadiana. Eventually the settlers began calling themselves Cajuns, a name derived from Acadians (French: Acadiens.) They maintained a separate culture from that of later Anglo-American Protestant settlers, continuing their traditions of distinct clothing, music, food, and dedication to the Catholic faith. They are part of the rich cultural stew of the Baton Rouge area.
British period (1763-1779)
On February 10, 1763, the Treaty of Paris was signed following France's defeat by Great Britain in the Seven Years' War; France ceded its territory in North America to Britain and Spain. Britain gained all land east of the Mississippi, except for New Orleans. Baton Rouge, now part of the newly established British colony of West Florida, suddenly had strategic significance as the southwest-most corner of British North America. Spain for a period had rule of New Orleans and all land west of the Mississippi, administering numerous French colonial towns, such as St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve in present-day Missouri.
Baton Rouge slowly developed as a town under British rule. The colony awarded land grants and was successful in attracting European-American 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.
In 1778 during the American Revolutionary War, France declared war on Britain, and in 1779, Spain followed suit. That same year, the 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 the recently constructed Fort New Richmond in the Battle of Baton Rouge. The Spanish renamed the site Fort San Carlos, and took control of Baton Rouge. Galvez subsequently captured Mobile in 1780 and Pensacola in 1781, ending the British presence on the Gulf Coast.
Spanish period (1779-1810)
A colony of Pennsylvania German farmers migrated north from Bayou Manchac after a series of floods in the 1780s, and settled to the south of Baton Rouge. Known locally as "Dutch Highlanders" ("Dutch" being a corruption of Deutsch, in reference to their language), they settled along a line of bluffs that served as barrier to the Mississippi River floodplain. 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 the early settlers. The ethnic Germans named two major roads in the area, Essen and Siegen lanes, after cities in Germany. The Kleinpeter and Staring families were amongst the most prominent of the early German families in the area. Their descendants have remained active in local business affairs since.
In 1800, the Tessier-Lafayette buildings were built on what is now Lafayette Street and survive today. Development of sections followed. In 1805, the Spanish administrator, Don Carlos Louis Boucher de Grand Pré, commissioned a plan for the area today known as Spanish Town. In 1806, Elias Beauregard led a planning commission for what is today known as Beauregard Town.
Republic of West Florida (1810)
As a result of the United States' 1803 Louisiana Purchase, it gained former French territory in North America, and Spanish West Florida was almost entirely surrounded by the United States and its possessions. The Spanish fort at Baton Rouge became the only non-United States Post on the Mississippi River.
Several of the inhabitants of West Florida began to organize conventions to plan a rebellion, among them Fulwar Skipwith, a Baton Rouge native. At least one was held in a house on a street that has since been renamed Convention Street in their honor. 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 inspired the Lone Star flag of Texas. The West Florida Republic existed for ninety (90) days, during which St. Francisville served as its capital.
Seizing the opportunity, President James Madison ordered W.C.C. Claiborne to move north and seize the fledgling republic to annex 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. Composed largely of American settlers, the rebels provided no resistance to Claiborne's forces. With minor resentment, they watched the "Stars and Stripes" raised on December 10, 1810. For the first time, all of the land that would become the State of Louisiana 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. As Baton Rouge was a strategic military outpost, between 1819 and 1822, the U.S. Army built the Pentagon Barracks, which became a major command post 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 gunpowder magazine for the U.S. Army Post.
In 1825, Baton Rouge was visited by the Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution, as part of his triumphal tour of the United States. The town feted him as the guest of honor at a banquet and ball. To celebrate the occasion and honor him, the city changed the name of Second Street to Lafayette Street.
In 1846, the Louisiana state legislature in New Orleans, dominated in number by wealthy rural planters, decided to move the seat of government to Baton Rouge. The majority of representatives feared a concentration of power in the state's largest city and the continuing strong influence of French Creoles in politics. In 1840, New Orleans' population was around 102,000, then fourth-largest in the entire United States. Its economy was thriving, based on the domestic slave trade and the largest slave market in the nation. Products from the center of the country flowed through New Orleans for export, and ships arrived with a range of goods for the city, and the many towns and cities upriver. 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 in Baton Rouge. Rather than mimic the federal Capitol Building in Washington, as so many other state designers had done, he conceived a Neo-Gothic medieval castle, complete with turrets and crenellations, overlooking the Mississippi. In 1859, the Capitol was featured and favorably described in DeBow's Review, the most prestigious periodical in the antebellum South. But the riverboat pilot and writer Mark Twain loathed the sight; later in his Life on the Mississippi (1874), he wrote, "It is pathetic ... that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things ... should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place."
Twain wrote further of the city:
"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."
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the city grew steadily as the result of steamboat trade and transportation. By the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the population had more than doubled to nearly 5,500 people. The Civil War halted economic progress, but the city was not physically affected until it was occupied by Union forces in 1862.
Civil War (1860-1865)
Southern states seceded from the Union largely due to disputes over taxation and slavery. The first state to secede was South Carolina in December of 1860. Others states quickly followed.
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 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 at the corner of Third Street and North Blvd. to the memory of those who fought in the Civil War. In the early 21st century, the statue was removed to enable construction beginning in 2010 of the new North Boulevard Town Square, located directly behind the Old Louisiana State Capitol and extending to North Boulevard. This was part of the master plan for the Downtown Development District, to create a center of activities and gatherings at the town center. When construction is completed, the statue is to be installed at a final site on the grounds of the Old Capitol Building.
Reconstruction era to twentieth century (1863-1900)
The migration of many freedmen into towns and cities in the South was reflected in growth in the black population of Baton Rouge. They moved out of rural areas to escape white control and to seek jobs and education more available in towns, as well as the safety of being in their own communities. In 1860, blacks (mostly slaves) made up nearly one-third of the town's population. By the 1880 U.S. census, Baton Rouge was 60 percent black. It was not until the 1920 census that the white population of Baton Rouge exceeded 50 percent of the total.
During the Reconstruction era, state offices were located in New Orleans, which was a base for federal troops. Elections after 1868 were increasingly accompanied by violence and fraud as whites sought to regain power and suppress black voting. Following a disputed gubernatorial election in 1872, in 1874 thousands of paramilitary White League members took over state government buildings in New Orleans for several days. Blacks continued to be elected to local office. Before the end of Reconstruction marked by the withdrawal of federal troops in 1877, the white Democratic Party politicians regained control of the state's and the city's political institutions. They had benefited from the violence and intimidation by white paramilitary groups such as the White League to suppress black voting.
By 1880, Baton Rouge was recovering economically from the war years. The population that year reached 7,197 and the city's boundaries were unchanged. The biracial coalition of the Reconstruction years had been replaced at the state level by white Democrats who loathed the Republicans, eulogized the Confederacy, and preached white supremacy. At the end of the century, white Democrats in the state legislature effectively disfranchised freedmen and other blacks, including educated Louisiana Creole people, by changes to voter registration laws and the state constitution. They passed laws imposing legal racial segregation and "Jim Crow," imposing second-class status on African Americans. This system held into the 1960s until after passage of federal civil rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to enforce constitutional rights to vote.
This "Bourbon" era was short-lived in Baton Rouge, however. In the 1890s, a more management-oriented local style of conservatism developed among whites in the city that continued into the early 20th century.. Increased civic-mindedness and the arrival of the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railway stimulated investments in the local economy, attracted new businesses, and led to the development of more forward-looking leadership.
Early 20th century (1900-1953)
The city constructed new waterworks, promoted widespread electrification of homes and businesses, and the passed several large bond issues for the construction of public buildings, new schools (which were racially segregated), paving of streets, drainage and sewer improvements, and the establishment of a scientific municipal public health department. Due to the exclusion of blacks from politics through disfranchisement, the segregated facilities and residential areas for African Americans, ranging from schools to infrastructure, were underfunded. This population was historically underserved, although they received no relief from paying taxes.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the city was being industrialized due to 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 lured other petrochemical firms. Although the waterfront was flooded in 1912, the city escaped extensive damage then and in the 1927 Great Flood, which did extensive damage in the Mississippi Delta of Mississippi and Arkansas.
In 1932, during the Great Depression, Governor Huey P. Long directed the construction of a new Louisiana State Capitol, a public works project that was also a symbol of modernization. He also expanded and improved facilities to provide for the welfare of the people. The growth of the state government contributed to growth in related businesses and amenities for the city.
Near the same time, both the Louisiana Institute for the Blind, and the School for the Deaf and Dumb were built in Baton Rouge. Throughout World War II, military demand for increased production at local chemical plants contributed to the growth of the city, generating many new defense jobs.
In the late 1940s, Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish became a consolidated city/parish with a mayor/president leading the government. It was one of the first cities in the nation to consolidate with regional government. The parish surrounds three incorporated cities: Baker, Zachary, and Central.
Civil rights era (1953-1968)
In 1953 Baton Rouge was the site of the first bus boycott by African Americans of the civil rights movement. On June 20, 1953 black citizens of Baton Rouge began an organized boycott of the segregated municipal bus system that lasted for eight days. As they made up 80% of the riders, their boycott strongly affected city revenues and they objected to having the number of seats they could use be limited and to being forced to give up seats to white riders. The boycott served as the model for the more famous Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956.
The boycott was led by the newly formed United Defense League (UDL), under the direction of Willis Reed, later publisher of the Baton Rouge newspaper; Reverend T. J. Jemison and Raymond Scott. A volunteer "free ride" system, coordinated through black churches, supported the efforts and helped provide transportation for African Americans. In response to the boycott, the Baton Rouge city council adopted an ordinance that changed segregated seating so that black patrons 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. They avoided problems of an earlier ordinance by stipulating that the races did not sit in the same rows. In the view of many historians, the boycott's success in getting justice for black bus riders led the way for larger organized efforts within the civil rights movement. The actions and participants were commemorated June 19–21, 2003, on the 50th anniversary of the boycott. A community forum and events were held by Southern University and Louisiana State University.
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 to seek service. Public education was still segregated and SU was a historically black college. The following day, nine more students were arrested for sitting-in at the Greyhound bus terminal. The next day Major Johns, an SU student and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) member, 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, threatening their education and future livelihoods. 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 college. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions of the arrested students. In 2004 they were awarded honorary degrees by Southern University and the state legislature passed a resolution in their honor.
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 in retail stores, 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 1,000 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 the arrested students. To prevent further disturbances, SU administrators closed the campus four days early for Christmas vacation .
In January 1962, U.S. Federal Judge Gordon West issued an injunction against CORE that banned all forms of protest of any kind at SU. The university expelled many activist students and state police troopers occupied the campus to quell further protests. Judge West's order was finally overturned by a higher court in 1964, but during the intervening years, civil rights activity was effectively suppressed.
In February 1962, Dion Diamond, a Freedom Rider and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretary, was arrested for entering the SU campus to meet with students. He was charged with "criminal anarchy" — attempting to overthrow the government of the State of Louisiana. SNCC Chairman Chuck McDew and white field secretary Bob Zellner were also arrested and charged with "criminal anarchy" when they visited Diamond in jail. Zellner was put in a cell with white prisoners, who attacked him as a "race-mixer" while the guards looked on. After years of legal proceedings, the charges against Diamond were dropped, but Diamond was forced to serve 60 days for other charges. In 1964 and 1965, passage of federal civil rights legislation ended legal segregation and began to enforce African Americans' constitutional right as citizens to vote and sit on juries.
Modern era (1968-2005)
In the 1970s, Baton Rouge experienced a boom in the petrochemical industry that resulted in expansion of the city 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 among cities in the South. Earning a rank of #1 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; failed levees flooded much of New Orleans and areas of lower Mississippi. Although the damage was relatively minor in Baton Rouge, the city had 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. East Baton Rouge Parish's population shot up to almost 600,000 after the mandatory evacuation had been issued. In the period since, extensive city planning efforts have led to both completed and projected infrastructure improvements.
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. Most returned to their original cities.
Due to the hurricane victims returning home and native Baton Rouge residents fleeing to outlying parishes such as Livingston and Ascension, the U.S. Census Bureau in its 2007-2008 estimate designated Baton Rouge as the second-fastest declining city . Baton Rouge has established a Downtown Development District, and embarked on a process of urban growth and renewal to concentrate on attractions downtown. North Boulevard Town Square, for instance, constructed near the Old Capitol Building, provides both a place for central activities and attractions and recreates connections to the river. In addition to Louisiana State University and capital city politics, Baton Rouge is home to a vibrant mix of cultures from around Louisiana. The city motto is: "Authentic Louisiana at every turn".
Under state tax breaks to attract film production companies, Baton Rouge has attracted many projects of the film industry. Sound stages have been constructed for the use of production companies, and various spots around the city have been used by production companies as settings for films.
- Steuckrath, Prof. George."Historical Collections of Louisiana—Baton Rouge." Debow's review, Agricultural, commercial, industrial progress and resources. New Orleans (etc.): J.D.B. DeBow, (April, 1859) pp. 439-444 from Making of America Journal Articles, Library, University of Michigan
- Life on the Mississippi, New York: Houghton and Company, 1874, Chap. 40, pp. 416-17, digital version on Documents of the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- "City/DDD Receives $1.9 Million for Town Square", Downtown Baton Rouge, accessed 19 October 2014
- Debbie Elliott, "The First Civil Rights Bus Boycott: 50 Years Ago, Baton Rouge Jim Crow Protest Made History", NPR, 13 Jun 2003, accessed 5 Dec 2010
- Baton Rouge Bus Boycott ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
- Baton Rouge Sit-ins & Student Strike ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
- Baton Rouge Student Protests ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
- "Criminal Anarchy" in Louisiana ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
- "Baton Rouge". Commercial Directory of the Western States. St. Louis: Richard Edwards. 1867.
- Meyers, Rose. A History of Baton Rouge, 1699-1812 (1976)