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You may be new to the area and want to get to know the roots of all the fine people and culture you have come to enjoy, or maybe you have lived in Lafayette all your life and still feel like you haven’t learned the origins of the place you call home. Either way, prepare to be educated and I hope entertained by this brief overview of the history of Lafayette, LA (or in particular, the Downtown area).
What we know about the origins of this region starts in the year 1815 when the academic William Darby wrote about the area then referred to as Attakapas land. In his day there were very few people living over such a large area. The Vermilion River split to prairies that several aboriginal tribes occupied namely the aforementioned Attakapas, Choctaw, Chitimacha, and Opelousa. Decades before this, Acadians from farther north had begun to trickle in, bringing with them their distinctly French culture and Roman Catholicism. Their first church in the area, the Saint Martin de Tours Catholic Church, was built in 1765. It would be rebuilt even better in 1840 after being incorporated by the state. This is where the present day geographical organization of the area began with the church establishing what we now refer to as Saint Martinville.
The earliest history of this area – approximately the late 1700s to early 1800s – people primarily would live along the rivers in larger communities and would leave the interior less populated. The rivers and bayous that were popular were the Tortue, Vermilion, Mermentau, and Teche bayous along with the Atchafalaya River. The only major trailways at the time became what we now know of as Cameron Street, also known as US Highway 90 and Pinhook Road, also known as State Highway 182. These two trials were called the Old Spanish Trail due to its use as a conduit from Santa Fe, New Mexico to various parts of Florida.
On the Subject of Vermilionville…
The French leaders of Louisiana decided the Attakapas’ land should be put to use for cattle ranching. Pinhook Bridge was the trading outpost that several diverse people would use to trade and sell, including the French, Spanish, English, and Natives. Pinhook was actually known as Pinsahuk which means Basswood tree in the indigenous language of Lafayette.
The Acadians’ Arrival
Deported Acadians from Nova Scotia began settling Opelousas and St. Martinville in 1765. Free land was being given to these settlers. The Catholic presence was solidified as such that by 1815, Father Miguel Bernardo Barriere of the St. Martin de Tours church in the Saint Martinville area was a permanent fixture in the lives of all families.
Vermilionville was founded by several families but Jean Mouton was arguably the most important. He became wealthy from cotton and donated some prime real estate to the church which led to the construction of Saint John Cathedral. This became the true center of town where all important messages could be delivered since it was the only place all residents would visit.
Les Americains Enter the Area
By 1835 More Americans would migrate to the area, transforming it into a more urban space. The Advertiser newspaper was created during this time. In 1837, the first protestant church of Vermilionville (Methodist/Episcopalian) was built.
The role of foreign born immigrants can not be ignored. Immigrants from Europe came to Louisiana in large numbers between 1830 and 1880 from Germany, France, and Ireland in particular. There was not enough free land and not enough plantation labor to employ them full time, so they took to the trades. Those trade vocations further lead to the urbanizing of the Lafayette area.
It is also worth noting that the Lafayette Parish was far less damaged during the Civil War. This helped the people bounce back faster than other Southern communities.
Finally, in 1884, Vermillionville is Now Lafeyette, Louisiana!
Vermillionville decided to change its name to Lafayette and by 1890, 2106 people would call it home. This had more than doubled the population just a decade earlier. Some of the buildings of this era exist to this very day, namely Charles Mouton’s plantation (1820), Alexander Mouton’s Plantation/hotel (1825), Café Vermilionville which still serves food! (1835), and the Old City Hall building that is now added to the National Register of Historic places (1898).
Next time you are in Lafayette, give those places a visit!