A Bit of History: Louisiana

Bayous, Mardi Gras, cajuns and zydeco. Jambalaya, gumbo and crawfish pie. Louisiana became a state in 1812 but the American melting pot hasn't yet cracked all the ice around this delightfully unique place. To that, grateful travelers say, "Vive le difference!"

The deeper you delve into Louisiana history the more delicious it becomes. Medieval French is still spoken in isolated communities. New Orleans is a world of lacy ironwork, gaslight-era streetscapes and sublime cuisine. In the countryside one meets a rich Creole culture created when free blacks intermarried with French, Spanish and native Americans.

Spanish explorers introduced the Catholic religion that was continued by the French. When the English drove the Spanish out of Florida, tribes that had been baptized into the Catholic faith fled westward to French territory. Louisiana is still almost one-third Catholic.

French explorer Sieur de La Salle claimed the territory for France in 1682, the same year the royal family moved into a new palace called Versailles. The first permanent settlement in what is now Louisiana was a fort on the site of present-day Natchitoches (say NACK-it-tush) in 1714. It's on the route still known as El Camino Real or King's Highway, the original Spanish trail from the Red River to San Antonio. Today the old city, with its period architecture and luscious Natchitoches pies, is a tourism treasure.

By 1721, little New Orleans had a population of less than 400 while treaties in Europe continued to re-drawn maps in the New World. . The Treaty of Fontainebleau gave the Louisiana territory to Spain in 1762 but communications were so slow it was almost two years before French settlers heard the news. Baton Rouge was ceded to the British, who renamed it New Richmond.

A Spanish governor divided the area into parishes, a term still used today instead of the county divisions in other states then Spain and Britain were at war again. The Spanish governor raided British Baton Rouge and won West Florida in the deal. Borders of the territory were redrawn yet again.

Meanwhile the British were conquering French territory in far-away Canada in a move that would transform Louisiana. French settlers in the area known as Acadia were given a choice: pledge allegiance to the King of England or abandon their homeland. Starting in the early 1760's, many set out on the long, painful journey to find refuge in French Louisiana. These Acadians became Louisiana's Cajuns.

The massive land mass that we now call the Louisiana Purchase was transferred in 1803, doubling the size of the United States by adding land that today encompasses all or part of 14 states and two Canadian provinces. It was a win-win deal. Thomas Jefferson needed the Port of New Orleans, Napoleon needed the cash to bankroll his dreams of empire, and everyone wanted to upstage the British.

Louisiana gained statehood in 1812, a time of war between the United States and Britain over many issues including control of American ports. Outnumbered two to one, Andrew Jackson's American forces won the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, effectively ending British intrusions into American shipping. .

The state continued to grow and thrive despite massive setbacks such as floods, yellow fever epidemics, hurricanes and the occasional financial panic. New Orleans staged its first Mardi Gras in 1838 and two years later the iconic Antoine's restaurant opened. There had already been many bloody slave uprisings and now anti-slavery fever spread throughout the nation. Louisiana seceded from the Union and joined the Confederate States of America.

With the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865 and the end of slavery. Louisiana was re-admitted to the Union in 1868 but its sad days of hurricanes and yellow fever were not ended. Another 5,000 people died in the state in 1878 from "yellow jack" and 2,000 in Louisiana and Mississippi died in a hurricane in 1893. New Orleans was flooded again in 1901 Hurricanes soon had names. Those that devastated the state have included Audrey, Betsy and Katrina.

Still, the Pelican State marched ahead. The first oil well was discovered in 1901, a massive natural gas field was found in 1916. By 1932, the capital was moved to Baton Rouge, where state buildings are still an impressive tour for travelers.

Gambling has been popular with Louisianans since the first state lottery was established in 1868. Now that riverboat gambling has come to the Mississippi River, tourists flock to the state to try their luck in glittering casinos starring big-name entertainers and anchored by plush hotels. The Port of New Orleans is also a favorite with cruise ship passengers headed out to sea while river boats leave the Crescent City on cruises that go upstream as far as St. Paul, Minnesota.

Shocks, scandals, sugarcane and slavery are all part of Louisiana's roistering past but there has also been a triumph of the human spirit as New Orleans rebuilds, tourism rebounds with a bang and warm French and Creole hospitality shine through.