If you’re looking for history, culture and southern hospitality, you’ll find it here. If you want a true culinary experience, you’ll find it here. If you love the sounds of pure South Louisiana music, you’ll find it here. If you enjoy architectural offerings of the past, you’ll find it here. And if you desire a place where century old traditions survive, you find it here. Welcome to Opelousas, one of Louisiana’s oldest cities and the place you’ll want to be!
The plaintive call of the mastodon once echoed here, as some of Louisiana’s pre-historic cultures inhabited the land. Later historic Indian tribes lived here, including one group called the Opelousas. The city of today takes its name from that tribe. The name Opelousas has been given various meanings over the years including “black hair,” and “black water.” But the meaning most commonly accepted is “black leg,” since legend tells us the tribe painted their legs black, which was in contract to their light skinned bodies.
Native American life survived in Louisiana for centuries, until the first Europeans arrived in the late 1600s. Soon these new arrivals explored the land, eventually coming into the area of what is now Opelousas and St. Landry Parish. Historians tell us the first of these Europeans to walk on the land of the Opelousas Indians were probably from France.
French Courier de Bois (“runner of the woods,” or hunters and trappers), carried on trade with the Opelousas Indians during the early 1700s. In about 1720, the French established a trading post, le Poste des Opelousas, which also served as a stopping point for colonists traveling between Natchitoches and New Orleans.
By the time the Spanish took control of the Louisiana Colony from the French in 1763, Opelousas was a thriving outpost. Records indicate that one of the first Spanish Colonial land grants in the Opelousas area was made in 1763 to Louis Pellerin, a French officer stationed at the Poste. In 1764, Pellerin laid out the town of Opelousas from the land he received.
Opelousas could be called a “cultural gumbo.” That’s because since its beginnings as a community, it was known for its cultural diversity. When the first French settlers arrived in the early 1700s, many brought African slaves with them. German colonist arrived in the mid-1700s, and Spanish settlers arrived in the 1770s. Also in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Irish, Italian, Scottish and other immigrants began arriving in Opelousas.
Beginning in 1765, one of the most influential cultural groups arrived in the Opelousas area, the French speaking Acadians who were exiled from Canada by the British. When they first came into Louisiana, the Acadians were not allowed to settle in Opelousas proper, but were sent to the vase prairie lands of the area, and to the Bayou regions of what was then known as the Attapapas area. Later, their descendants moved into Opelousas and all of St. Landry Parish.
Equally important to this diverse populations were the Créoles. (The word Créole derives from the Spanish word “criollo” — a child born in the colony). Créoles are the descendants of the early French and Spanish colonist of Louisiana. Later, in the nineteenth century, the word “Créole” had also become associated with people of mixed heritage that spoke French fluently. “Créoles de Couleur,” or Creoles of Color, are descendants of French and Spanish colonist as well as Native Americans, Haitians and Africans. Famous Creoles include the pirate Jean Lafitte, a French Creole who lived in early Louisiana, and Amédé Ardoin, a Creole of Color, who made the first audio recording of zydeco music.
As a result of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the area was divided into two parts. The lower section, known as the Territory of Orleans, and the northern section, known as “Upper Louisiana.” The Territory of Orleans 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. In 1807, Louisiana was divided into 19 “parishes” (because of the strong Roman Catholic heritage of Louisiana, the political subdivisions are called parishes instead of counties). The original Opelousas Parish then became Imperial St. Landry Parish. It is named after the St. Landry Catholic Church located here. Called “Imperial” because the area was the largest parish in the state at the time. The original parish extended from the Atchafalaya River on the east to the Sabine River on the west, north to the present boundary of Avoyelles Parish and to the Gulf of Mexico in the south. A total of seven parishes were created from the original St. Landry Parish.
On April 30, 1812 Louisiana became the 18th state of the US. 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 of 1862, after Union forces occupied Baton Rouge. The Lieutenant Governor at that time was Charles Homère Mouton, whose home in Opelousas became the temporary residence of Governor Thomas O. Moore. From that time on, the Mouton Home was known as the Governor’s Mansion.
Famous residents of Opelousas include Jim Bowie, legendary adventurer and hero of the Battle of the Alamo; General Garrigues de Flaugeac, one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s soldiers and a hero at the Battle of New Orleans; Louisiana governors Jacques Dupré and André Bienveau Roman; Olympic gold medalist Rodney Milburn; Swamp Pop music legend Rod Bernard; the “King of Zydeco” Clifton Chenier; novelist John Ed Bradley; Eula Savoie, founder of Savoie’s® Cajun Food Products; Hadley Castille, internationally known Cajun musician; Chef Tony Chachere, founder of Tony Chachere’s Famous Creole Seasoning®; and Chef Paul Prudhomme, who is credited for introducing Cajun food to the world.
Opelousas offers both a city historic district and a National Historic District, showcasing much of 19th and early 20th century architecture. (The area around the courthouse is a designated National Historic District.) This walking/ driving tour is only a suggestion. It is impossible to showcase every home, church, building, and historic site, so feel free to explore other avenues of this historic city. We know that you will enjoy this charming, storied place with its picturesque landscape, warm Southern hospitality, and Louisiana joie de vivre.
Further information on the history of Opelousas is available at the Opelousas Tourist Information Center, the Opelousas Museum and Interpretive Center, the Opelousas Public Library, or on the website:www.cityofopelousas.com.
Enjoy your visit and come back soon!
Last modified: April 9, 2021