Coming to America By Choice, By Force, By Circumstance

In the early 1700s, trappers from Canada and the Illinois country likely wandered into the northern parts of the West Baton Rouge region and into the thriving French settlement of Pointe Coupee, just north of West Baton Rouge.

The Mississippi River regularly deposits sediment along its banks, and European settlers found that this land was very fertile and well-suited to agriculture. Furthermore, the land fronting on the river and the larger bayous was higher than the surrounding land and thus less prone to flooding. 

However, the rich lands along the banks of the river did not significantly attract permanent settlers to West Baton Rouge until the second half of the 18th century. In hopes of further colonizing Louisiana, France agreed to allow businessman John Law to establish the Company of the West in 1717, which later became the Company of the Indies. Settlement was sporadic and made difficult by disease, corruption, and a general lack of effective governance among the earliest generations of settlers. 

In the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau (1762), all of French Louisiana - including the future West Baton Rouge Parish - was ceded to Spain, although this was not publicly announced to Louisiana residents until years later. The subsequent Spanish land grants in the West Baton Rouge region were given to industrious Acadian, German, French, Spanish, Anglo, and Italian immigrants.

Because roads were rare and of poor quality, most commerce and travel took place on the river and the larger bayous. Every land owner needed access to a waterway in order to receive supplies and send his products to market, and so the French developed the “long lot” system. These plots of land were measured in arpents (an old French measurement equal to about .8 acres). A long lot typically had a few arpents of water frontage and then extended from the river toward the backland swamps in a “pie slice” shape. In this way, each land owner had access to the waterway.

Plantations on the Mississippi River from Natchez to New Orleans, 1858Plantations on the Mississippi River from Natchez to New Orleans, Louisiana Digital Library, Baton Rouge, La.

Large tracts of land, called “concessions,” were granted to very influential people; these often became plantations. However, the majority of settlers, many of whom were immigrating Acadians, received smaller holdings called “habitations,” with a common width of six to eight arpents, or five to six and three quarter acres, fronting on the river. These often became subsistence farms. Whether large plantations or small habitations, land owners typically grew commercial crops near the river and harvested cypress timber from the backlands. 

The main pre-steamboat cargo carrier on the river was referred to as a “bateau” in Louisiana. It was a type of plank-constructed, flat-bottomed keelboat propelled with large oars or poles. Pirogues were similar boats of a lighter build that were most often used to traverse the calmer inner waters of the bayous. The various types of flatboats on the river were the main source of traffic until the coming of the steamboat.

The first steamboat on the Mississippi River reached New Orleans from Pittsburgh in 1812, carrying a few passengers and one bale of cotton. The era of the steamboats developed around the transportation of cargo and people up and down the Mississippi River. 

West Baton Rouge Land Owners

Although it is likely that a few land grants were given during the French Louisiana period (1687-1762), records show significant settlement began in the West Baton Rouge region during the Spanish Louisiana period (1762-1803). European settlers who received land grants began cultivating the rich soil in West Baton Rouge. The European and Acadian settlers cleared the lands on the west bank of the Mississippi River about 22 leagues north of the growing port city of New Orleans, directly across the Mississippi River from the developing town of Baton Rouge (Fort San Carlos) and St. Gabriel at Manchac.

During the Spanish colonial period (1762-1803), residents did not distinguish clearly between east and west Baton Rouge. Instead, people referred to the town as the “fort” or “Baton Rouge.” Officially, it was to be referred to as Fort San Carlos and the District of Baton Rouge. Legal records confirm that Baton Rouge land owners held land on both sides of the Mississippi River. Similarly, on the east side of the Mississippi River during the British colonial period (1754 to 1779), Baton Rouge was referred to as Fort New Richmond.

French and Spanish land grants had to be confirmed by the young United States government during the first years of the federal period. Officials gathered evidence and statements from witnesses to attest to the authenticity of land holders’ claims. For example, in 1804, Pierre Joseph Favrot, a West Baton Rouge resident and owner of Monte Vista Plantation, received a letter of attestation from the United States government; it confirmed a 1799 Spanish land grant he had received on the east bank in the Baton Rouge District for his distinguished career in the Spanish colonial military.

African Diaspora

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Forced migration brought African people across the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico to the French, Spanish, and British colonies of the New World. The trade in human cargo lasted from the 16th century to the 19th century. Most enslaved people brought to Louisiana were shipped from West Africa as early as 1719. However, it is more likely that enslaved Africans did not arrive to the West Baton Rouge area until after 1771.

Most contemporary historians estimate that between 9.4 and 12 million Africans arrived in the New World this way. The Middle Passage was the treacherous voyages across the Atlantic which ultimately involved four continents, four centuries, and millions of people.

Enslaved Africans who were brought to Louisiana in the early colonial period (1719-1763) were mostly from the Senegal-Gambia region of West Africa. When France ceded the Louisiana colony to Spain in 1763, people of African origin formed the majority of the population. For example, in 1746, Pointe Coupee was the third-largest French settlement in Louisiana; the population of that settlement included approximately 250 French white settlers and 400 African and Caribbean free and enslaved black residents. 

In the Spanish colonial era (1762-1803), enslaved Africans were brought to the area primarily from St. Domingue (Haiti), Jamaica, the United States, and Cuba. Records indicate that Baton Rouge-area plantation owners regularly purchased people at slave markets in Mobile, New Orleans, and Charleston. France ceased importing enslaved Africans to Louisiana in 1731, Britain banned their slave trade in 1807, and in 1808, the United States outlawed the importation of slaves.

Le Code Noir

In 1724, Louisiana colonial Governor Bienville initiated Le Code Noir, or Black Code, to increase control over the non-white population in the French Louisiana colony and define the conditions of slavery. The Black Code contained some legal protection for enslaved people: for example, it established slaveholders’ responsibility to feed, clothe, and provide religious instruction to slaves, and forbid the separate sale of married spouses and their children under ten years. However, these rules were not always enforced and it was often left up to the individual slaveholders to follow or not follow the rules as they saw fit. The Code also established slaveholders’ right to physically discipline their slaves. The Black Code was amended by the Spanish to permit enslaved people to purchase their own freedom, a condition that was later eliminated by the American government. In addition, the Black Code restricted the activities of free people of color, ordered all Jews out of the colony, and forbade the exercise of any religion other than Roman Catholicism. 

Native Tongues

The linguistic situation in the Baton Rouge District was complex. Records indicate that Africans enslaved on the east and west banks of the Mississippi River spoke several African languages. French and the Louisiana Creole language became prominent. Nonetheless, by the latter part of the 19th century, English had emerged as the dominant language.

Acadian Exiles

Diaspora and Settlement in the West Baton Rouge Region

Louisiana was a Spanish colony (1762-1803) when an agreement was made between the kings of France and Spain to allow the displaced Acadians in Nantes, France, to immigrate to Louisiana. These Acadians hoped to be reunited with deported relatives who had already made their homes in Louisiana as early as 1755. 

They left Nantes in seven ships between May and October 1785; the voyages took between two and three months. 1,600 Acadians departed on the long journey to Louisiana. They landed in New Orleans and dispersed to established settlements: Atakapas, Lafourche, Manchac, and (east and west) Baton Rouge. Spanish government agents helped newly arrived Acadians decide which settlements to join and provided the Acadians with tools and seeds, with the understanding that they would clear and cultivate the land.

A number of Acadian settlers found their way to present-day West Baton Rouge and worked the land as allowed by the Spanish government. In 1803, it became possible for settlers to claim land from the United States government if they could prove that they had farmed a piece of land for at least ten years.

First Church:  St. John the Baptist Catholic Church

Sometime after 1755, congregants of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church gathered at private homes in West Baton Rouge. Pastors from Pointe Coupee and St Gabriel traveled to celebrate mass, bless graves, perform marriages, and administer sacraments. By 1792, Father Charles Burke of St. Joseph Church in East Baton Rouge, likely traveled regularly by skiff to minister to the congregants in West Baton Rouge. This early congregation of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church probably built the first chapel (ca. 1795-1800) on land donated by Jean Baptiste Hebert (b. 1761, d. 1842) in present-day Brusly. He was the son of Acadian exiles who settled in Baltimore, Maryland. Jean Baptiste traveled to Louisiana looking for relatives, and in 1785, married Anne Marie Hebert in West Baton Rouge. By 1832, the congregation purchased land from Jean Baptist Hebert to relocate their chapel. The next year, Hebert donated an adjoining tract of land for a cemetery, which was swallowed by the Mississippi River in 1860.