History of Opelousas
Native Americans were the first inhabitants of the place we call Opelousas today. In fact, the city takes its name from one of the tribes, the Opelousas Indians. As far back as 1690, French trappers and hunters, “Courier de Bois,” carried on trade with the Opelousas Indians. This trading post established was also a stopping point for folks traveling between Natchitoches and New Orleans. The establishment of the French territory le Poste de Opelousas in 1720 paved the way for one of the oldest European settlements in Louisiana.
During the 1700s, even after the Spanish took over Louisiana from the French, Opelousas continued to serve as commercial center for the area. Records indicate that one of the first Spanish Colonial land grants to a settler in the Opelousas area was made in 1782 to Louis Pellerin, a French officer stationed at the Opelousas Poste. The establishment of the le Poste de Opelousas brought a wave of nationalities to the area. French settlers brought black slaves with them; Spanish settlers began to arrive, followed by German settlers in the late 1700s and early 1800s. One of the most influential groups of people to arrive during the mid-1700s was the French speaking Acadians, who were exiled from Canada by the British. Equally important were the Creoles, people with various combinations of French, Spanish, African and Native American roots, whose legacy in Louisiana dates back to the 1700s. By the late 1700s, Irish, Italian, and Scotch descendants found their way to the agriculture lands of the district as well as free people of color (le gens de couleur libres) who arrived to take advantage of Spanish land grants.
As a result of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the area was divided in two parts. The lower part became known as the Territory of Orleans, now the State of Louisiana. This territory was divided into twelve counties, which included the County of Opelousas. In 1805, Opelousas became the seat of government for this County. A year later, the first Opelousas County Courthouse was built on a square in the center of town. Today, the area around the courthouse is designated as a National Historic district. In 1807, Louisiana was divided into 19 parishes. The original Opelousas County then became Imperial-St. Landry Parish. The name was taken after the St. Landry Catholic Church relocated here in March of that same year. Louisiana was admitted to the Union in 1812. Opelousas was formally incorporated in 1821 by a legislative act that included all land within one-half mile of the courthouse.
During the Civil War, Opelousas became the capital of Confederate Louisiana in May 1862 after Union forces occupied Baton Rouge. The Lt. Governor at that time was Charles Homere Mouton, whose home in Opelousas became a temporary residence of the Governor at the time. As a courtesy to this, Mouton’s home became the Governor’s Mansion, a title it still bears today.
Other famous residents of Opelousas include Jim Bowie, legendary adventurer and hero of the Alamo and General Garriques de Flaugeac, a soldier under Napolean who was a hero of the Battle of New Orleans, and Gov. Jacque Dupre.
Important Dates In Opelousas History
1719: Military presence is established in Opelousas area when Ensign Nicholas Chauvin de la Frênière and two others are sent into area by Captain Renauld d'Hauterive.
1770: In order to encourage settlement of the newly acquired colony, Gov. O'Reilly issues a land ordinance allowing settlers to acquire liberal grants of land, particularly in the frontier areas of the Opelousas, Attakapas, and Natchitoches districts.
1804: Opelousas is made the seat of the "County of Opelousas."
1805: The County of Opelousas is renamed St. Landry for the church at Opelousas.
1806: Louisiana Memorial United Methodist Church is founded in Opelousas. This is the first Protestant church in Opelousas, the first Methodist Church in Louisiana, and the oldest Methodist church west of the Mississippi River.
1811: The St. Landry Parish Police Jury meets for the first time on July 16. Minutes are written in English and French. The first order of business was to order the immediate construction of a jail, to be built adjoining the "old prison" where debtors are confined.
1821: Opelousas is formally incorporated by legislative act that included all land within one-half mile of the courthouse.
1828: The third St. Landry Church is built in Opelousas.
1853: One of the first volunteer fire departments in Louisiana is incorporated in Opelousas.
1853: A terrible yellow fever epidemic strikes St. Landry Parish in August. The town of Washington was decimated. Twenty people died in Opelousas.
1862: Opelousas becomes the capital of Confederate Louisiana in May as the state government is forced to flee Baton Rouge. It remained the state capital until January 1863, when it was moved to Shreveport because Union troops threaten and occupy Opelousas.
1868: Between 25 and 50 blacks are victims of a riot at Opelousas in September. It is cited as one of the worst examples of Reconstruction violence in south Louisiana.
1880: The first passenger trains reach Opelousas on October 15.
1908: The present St. Landry Church begins construction in Opelousas.