Overall History of Louisiana

The lower Mississippi River area was dominated by the Mississippian mound-building culture until around 1592 when Europeans arrived and decimated the Native Americans with the usual combination of disease, unfavorable treaties and outright hostility.

The land was passed back and forth from the Spanish to the French, to the British and back to the French. After the American Revolution, the whole area passed to the USA in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, and Louisiana became a state in 1812.

Steamboats plying the rivers opened a vital trade network across the continent. New Orleans became a major port, and Louisiana’s slave-based plantation economy kept a flowing export of rice, tobacco, indigo, sugarcane and especially cotton. Louisiana seceded from the Union in 1861, but Union forces seized control of New Orleans in 1862, occupying much of the state during the war. Louisiana was readmitted to the Union in 1868, and the next 30 years saw political wrangling, economic stagnation and renewed discrimination against African Americans.

In the early 20th century oil discovery gave the economy a boost, while the devastation of cotton crops by boll weevils forced some agricultural diversification. In the 1920s, autocratic governor Huey Long was able to modernize much of the state’s infrastructure. Industry and tourism developed, but the tradition of unorthodox and sometimes ruthless politics continues today. Race and economics are ongoing sources of struggle: witness the post-Katrina rebuilding process. The 2005 hurricane and the flooding in its aftermath have reshaped southern Louisiana. Locals negotiate the tricky path through redevelopment, the return of displaced people, wetland restoration and outsider involvement.

Civil Rights, Disasters, and Diversification

About one third of Louisianans are African American, and their struggle for civil rights has been long and bitter. The move towardintegration following the 1954 Supreme Court ruling against racial segregation in public schools was difficult, and continuing resistance to social change is reflected in the careers of David Duke and others.

Hurricanes and flooding are recurrent dangers for the state. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy killed 74 and caused property damage in excess of $1 billion. In 1969, Hurricane Camille was even more destructive, ravaging Louisiana and neighboring states and killing 256 people. In Apr., 1973, the Mississippi River rose to its highest level recorded in Louisiana and, with its tributaries, flooded more than 10% of the state.

Louisiana enjoyed an oil boom in the early 1980s but then suffered following the 1986 collapse of oil prices. The state’s unemployment rate rose to the highest in the nation, and economic distress grew. The slump placed a great burden on the tourist industry and led to increased efforts to diversify the economy. The state’s recent environmental woes have largely arisen from the fact that natural erosion, oil exploitation, and river control projects have severely degraded its freshwater marshlands, especially in the delta of the Mississippi.

In 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated parts of the state, especially around New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast; as a result, it was estimated that some 240,000 people subsequently left Louisiana, though it was unclear if the population losses would be permanent.