Today in History

Today in History: December 8

Louisiana: the Creole State

Citizens of Louisiana ratified a new state constitution on December 8, 1879. The post-Reconstruction constitution reorganized the Louisiana judiciary and moved the state capital from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Louisianians revised and passed new constitutions ten times from 1812-1921.

1863 map of New Orleans
New Orleans, Louisiana and its Vicinity,
J. Wells, 1863.
Panoramic Maps

Located at the mouth of the Mississippi-Missouri river system, Louisiana was occupied by Native Americans for 16,000 years prior to European settlement. Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to discover Louisiana, but the French were the first to colonize it. In 1682, French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle  claimed this strategically vital region for France.

French Canadians from the colony of Acadia sought refuge in Louisiana during the 1750s and 1760s after being ousted by the British. Their descendants, the "Cajuns," culturally dominate much of southern Louisiana.

In 1812, nine years after the ratification of the Louisiana Purchase, Louisiana became the eighteenth state in the Union. Just three years later, Major General Andrew Jackson successfully defended Louisiana's main port in the Battle of New Orleans. Over the next thirty years, the combination of the expansion of steamboat transport and the rise of King Cotton made the port of New Orleans the fourth busiest in the world.

Louisiana's fertile subtropical soils conceal oil fields and also support production of cotton, sugar cane, and rice. Frequent flooding prompted innovative planning including a system of canals and the aboveground cemeteries of New Orleans.

Humorist William Hall used Louisiana's climate as a point of departure in his 1904 monologue Diversified Drollery:

Appreciating the fact that her [my mother-in-law's] life depended on being in a dry climate, I rented a house in the flood section of Louisiana, in a town called Swamp Haven. Swamp Haven is on the banks of the Mississippi river, when it's not under it….That landlord was actually imbued with the idea that Swamp Haven was the only town on the map…. I said [to him], "Don't you think it would have a tendency to check these floods if the citizens would get together to dam the water?" He said, "No, I think prayers would do more good than profanity"

William D. Hall, Diversified Drollery: A Monologue, Satirical and Reminiscent,, 2-4, 1904.
The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920

The rich multicultural heritage of Louisiana is very evident in New Orleans. With French, Spanish, and African roots, this Creole city on the Mississippi proved fertile ground for American creativity. The birthplace of jazz, New Orleans produced famed musical artists Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Mahalia Jackson. Writer Truman Capote, poet/novelist Arna Bontemps, and playwright/screenwriter Lillian Hellman also were born in New Orleans. In the 1940s, Louisiana state politics inspired Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men. The city also provides the setting for Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire.

Traditional Mardi Gras festivities express the cultural diversity of New Orleans as well as the fun-loving spirit of the "city that care forgot."

Mardi Gras street scene
Mardi Gras Scenery, New Orleans, 1910.
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991

The Library of Congress has a wealth of materials on Louisiana.