Saturday, January 11, 2020

Notes on the Founding of Opelousas

History is, like science, a self-correcting discipline: professional historians make their careers in part by correcting or refining the research and assertions of other historians. This is a laudable practice and should be encouraged — even by historians whose own research is called into question and perhaps refuted. As I myself am fond of quoting, "No one who cannot rejoice in the discovery of his own mistakes deserves to be called a scholar."


What does Shakespeare
 have to do with Louisiana history?

This quote comes from noted Shakespeare scholar Donald Foster, who in 2002 recanted his own claim that the Bard of Avon had authored an anonymous poem titled "A Funeral Elegy." As the New York Times reported, "Now, in a stunning development that has set the world of Shakespeare scholarship abuzz, Professor Foster has admitted he was wrong." To me, such an admission is nothing but praiseworthy. It's how scholarship should work.

This brings me to an issue far removed from the world of British poetry — to a seemingly minor issue that nonetheless has garnered regional media attention in south-central Louisiana: namely, was the town of Opelousas, Louisiana, founded in 1720 as sometimes asserted in tourism brochures, on city welcome signs, and on the Internet, among other places?(1) Or was it founded later, as claimed by several professional and avocational historians, including Dr. Claude F. Oubre of LSU Eunice, Dr. Carl A. Brasseaux of UL Lafayette, genealogist Winston De Ville, independent researchers John Harper and Donald J. Arceneaux (the latter four of whom I thank for proofing this essay), and myself?

In truth, I have never seen any evidence to indicate that Opelousas was founded in 1720 or, for that matter, any time before the mid- to late-eighteenth century. And by "evidence" I don't mean twentieth-century or early twenty-first-century published secondary-source material, such as a book of local history, an encyclopedia entry, a magazine article, or a city government website. I mean primary-source evidence from or around 1720, such as a handwritten colonial document in French or Spanish.


Random example of a primary-source
document from the colonial era.

By the time of Opelousas' alleged 1720 founding, New Orleans had existed for only two years, and the entire Louisiana colony, for a mere twenty-one years. The region surrounding and adjacent to present-day Opelousas (that is, modern south-central and southwestern Louisiana) was during the early to mid-1700s a sort of no-man's land claimed by both France and Spain. In fact, Spain located the capital of its Mexican province of Texas in what is today Louisiana (at Los Adaes near Natchitoches, Louisiana, some 110 miles to the northwest of present-day Opelousas).

Because France and Spain were allied Bourbon monarchies with a common perennial enemy — namely, Britain — the two Empires mutually refrained from settling the disputed region. In this way, reasoned French and Spanish administrators, they could avoid antagonizing each other.


Attakapas Indian,
by Alexandre de Batz (1735).
Source: Wikimedia.org

There was another reason France and Spain avoided incursions into the region: fear of the reputedly cannibalistic Attakapas Indian tribe (whose very name, given to them by other, rival tribes, means "Man-Eater").(2) It is uncertain if the Attakapas were actually cannibals, but it hardly mattered to colonial-age settlers: they believed the Attakapas were cannibals, and that was enough to curtail settlement in the region. In fact, the French in Louisiana rarely wandered from the protective banks of Louisiana's great river system. As a result, most French activity in colonial Louisiana occurred right along the shores of the Red and Mississippi rivers.

It thus would have been surprisingly early, and extremely incautious, for the French to have settled the town of Opelousas in 1720And yet it nevertheless has been widely stated that the French did precisely that. The year even appears on the City of Opelousas' official seal.(3)


Seal of the City of Opelousas.

The claim also shows up — to cite only a few of a great many published examples — in Fodor's 2000 travel guide to the U.S. It states "Opelousas is the third-oldest town in the state" because it was "Founded by the French in 1720. . . ." Likewise, the New Encyclopedia Britannica observed in 1974 that Opelousas had been "Founded in 1720 as a French garrison and trading post. . . ." In 1954 the Louisiana Municipal Review magazine asserted "History shows that enterprising French adventurers operated a permanent trading post with the friendly Attakapas Indians on the site of present day Opelousas as early as 1720. . . ." 

Unfortunately, none of these sources cite a primary (original colonial-era) source. So what primary-source evidence is there for the 1720 date of origin?

As far as I know, there is no such evidence . . . except for one document that I believe might be the source of an erroneous 1720 date. That document is the French-language Carte de la Louisiane et du Cours du Mississipi by Guillaume de l'Isle, printed in 1718 and used shortly afterwards as the basis for John Senex's English-language Map of Louisiana and of the River Mississipi, printed in 1721. Both maps could be said, therefore, to have been printed "around 1720."(Mississipi, by the way, is an archaic, colonial-era spelling of the modern Mississippi.)


Guillaume de l'Isle, Carte de la Louisiane
et du Cours du Mississipi (1718).
Source: Library of Congress

Those two very similar maps depict the entire eastern half of North America, from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Atlantic Coast in east. De l'Isle and Senex's maps also encompass parts of Spanish Mexico, French Louisiana (when the name "Louisiana" denoted about one-third of the entire North American continent), and the British colonies from the Carolinas to New York.

A close look at the section of de l'Isle's map covering littoral south-central and southwestern Louisiana reveals the caption "Indiens errans and Antropophages" — in English, "Wandering Man-Eating Indians." And there, right above the word "Antropophages," is the intriguing word "Loupeloussa".


"Wandering Man-Eating Indians,"
detail of the 1718 de l'Isle map.

I believe it is this word "Loupeloussa" that some unknown or forgotten historical researcher, perhaps decades ago, misinterpreted as referring to the town of Opelousas. But it is not a reference to the town. Rather, it is a reference to the Indian tribe after whom the town was eventually named.

We can be certain of this for two reasons:

First, the intriguing map label in question reads "Loupeloussa" – that is, "L'Oupeloussa", or in English translation "The Oupeloussa". This combination of the French article "L'" with the tribal name "Oupeloussa" indicates that de l'Isle applied the term not to a settlement, but to a group of people: the Oupeloussa tribe. De l'Isle did likewise on the map for many other (though not all) Indian tribes, as when he labeled "Les Cheraqui" (The Cherokee) and "Les Chicachas" (The Chickasaw), to name only two of many such instances.


Other tribes identified
on de l'Isle's map.

Second, just below the "L" in "Loupeloussa" appears a diminutive symbol that looks like a house or other dwelling. De l'Isle expressly states in the key to his map that this symbol denotes "Habitations des Indiens" — Indian habitations. Not colonial settlements founded by Europeans and Africans, but Native American villages.


Key to de l'Isle's map.

One might assert that the Native American village labeled "Loupeloussa" could have evolved into the modern-day town of Opelousas. This, however, is clearly not the case: both the word "Loupeloussa" and its accompanying symbol appear on de l'Isle's map next to a bayou flowing a short distance, and directly, into the Gulf of Mexico. The modern-day town of Opelousas, however, is not located a short distance from the Gulf of Mexico (St. Landry Parish, in which the town sits, being landlocked); nor does the town sit on a notable bayou (local bayous Yarbor and Tesson, for example, being little more than cement-lined coulées [ravines] inside the city limits); nor does the town sit on a bayou flowing directly into the Gulf of Mexico. (The two most notable bayous near but not in Opelousas — namely, the Teche and the Courtableau — likewise do not flow directly into the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, they run more or less southeasterly into the Atchafalaya River and its distributary, the Lower Atchafalaya River.)


"Loupeloussa" label and its dwelling symbol
on the "Rio Mexicano,"
detail of the 1718 de l'Isle map. 

On even closer inspection of de l'Isle's map, we see that the waterway on which the cartographer placed "Loupeloussa" and its dwelling symbol is labeled "R. Mexicano" — that is, Rio Mexicano (or in English, the Mexican River). As I note in my 2016 book, Teche: A History of Louisiana's Most Famous Bayou (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi), "[A]t one time or another the [colonial] Spanish referred to the present-day Sabine and Mermentau rivers . . . as the Rio Mexicano (Mexican River)." Thus, it appears de l'Isle placed the "Loupeloussa" tribe and its village on the Mermentau (the Sabine being too far west in this instance to consider). And the Mermentau, interestingly, does indeed flow directly into the Gulf.


John Senex's English-language map,
based on de l'Isle's earlier one (1721).
(Source: Library of Congress)

To summarize my analysis thus far: de l'Isle's circa 1720 map does not refer to the town of Opelousas, but to a village occupied by the Indian tribe called the "Loupeloussa," from whom the modern-day town — eventually founded some forty miles to the northeast — acquired its name.

The tribe similarly gave its name to the Poste des Opelousas, a term referring not, as often believed, to a single village or outpost or garrison, but to the entire southwestern corner of Louisiana now embracing St. Landry, Calcasieu, Cameron, Beauregard, Allen, Jefferson Davis, Evangeline, and Acadia parishes.


Detail of Senex's English-language map (1721),
based on 
de l'Isle's earlier one.

It would be several more decades, I believe, before settlers of European and African heritage founded a town called Opelousas. That event must have occurred some time after the mid-1700s. (When precisely the town came into existence I might explore in another essay.) I say this because, as far as anyone knows, the earliest permanent settlers in all south-central and southwestern Louisiana (that is, excluding wandering traders like Joseph Blanpain, who passed through but did not remain in the region) were the French pioneer Andre Massé and his enslaved Africans. And according to Massé's own correspondence, he arrived in the region in or before 1746. Indeed, an 1809 document now in the Louisiana State Land Office, signed by planters Joseph Sorrel and Claire Dauterive Dubuclet, testifies that "André Massé was the first person who settled in this part of the country. . . ."


"André Massé was the first person. . . .":
the Sorrel-Dubuclet document (1809).
Source: Louisiana State Land Office

If that is the case, no non-indigenous peoples settled in the region adjacent to and including modern-day Opelousas until Massé appeared on the Teche around 1746. For this reason — along with French and Spanish political concerns, widespread fear of the Attakapas tribe, and the apparent misinterpretation of de l'Isle's map — it seems to me incredibly doubtful that the town of Opelousas was founded any time before the region passed uncontested to Spanish control in 1762. 

A serious question remains: is there some other colonial-era, primary-source evidence — evidence I might not know about and so have not considered — proving that Opelousas was founded in 1720? If so, I would very much like to see it and, if conclusive, adjust my view accordingly. 

"It is vital, however (and I cannot stress this enough), that researchers distinguish between historical references to the Opelousas tribe, the Poste des Opelousas political district, and the later town of Opelousas. I say this because they are not the same thing, but could be confused with one another."

It is vital, however (and I cannot stress this enough), that researchers distinguish between historical references to the Opelousas tribe, the Poste des Opelousas political district, and the later town of Opelousas. I say this because they are not the same thing, but could be confused with one another. It would be easy, for example, to mistake a reference to the Poste des Opelousas district for a reference to a village or outpost or garrison called Opelousas. As I mentioned, however, the Poste was not a single small point on a map, but rather the entire southwestern part of the present-day state of Louisiana.


The old Poste des Opelousas region.
(Click to enlarge)
Source: William Darby, A Map of the State of Louisiana
with Part of the Mississippi Territory (1816).

Ultimately, if there is no indisputable primary-source evidence for the 1720 date, I suggest the claim, in the best tradition of scholarship, be acknowledged as incorrect and discarded. There would be no shame in this, only merit.


Notes


(1) The media broached this issue, for example, twenty years ago in Henri LeJeune, "Date Set on City's Seal May Not Match History," (Opelousas, La.) Daily World, Special Millennium Edition, 1 January 2000, pp. 1A, 3A; see also Bobby Ardoin, "Opelousas Planning 300th Birthday Celebration, Despite Dispute over City's Founding," (Opelousas, La.) Daily World, 4 January 2020, www.dailyworld.com/story/news/2020/01/04/opelousas-officials-schedule-300th-birthday-celebration-despite-dispute-over-citys-founding/2807156001/, accessed 14 January 2020.

(2) Tribal members today sometimes go by the name "Atakapa Ishak," the latter term being their traditional name for their own tribe (as opposed to "Attakapas," the name given them by other tribes).

(3) J. A. Allen, who designed the city seal in 1961, told the Daily World newspaper in 2000 "that originally he had placed the date of the founding of the city at 1764," but at others' urging he changed the date to 1720 even though, explained the newspaper, "there was no specific document that could be found to place the date . . . [of the founding] of the city. . . ." LeJeune, "Date Set on City's Seal May Not Match History," p. 3A.


Quoted Sources


Shane K. Bernard, Teche: A History of Louisiana's Most Famous Bayou (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016), 11.

Declaration of Joseph Sorrel and Clair Dauterive Dubuclet, [19 January (unclear, could read "February")] 1809, in Claim Papers S.W.D. [Southwestern District], T.14S. R.6-8E. & T.14S. R.9E. 58, Louisiana State Land Office, document no. 510.00174, Baton Rouge, La., https://wwwslodms.doa.la.gov/, accessed 4 September 2018. 

Fodor's 2000 USA (2000), 483.

Louisiana Municipal Review, Vols. 22-23 (1958), 15.

The New Encyclopedia Britannica Volume 7 (1974), 545.

William S. Niederkorn, "A Scholar Recants on His 'Shakespeare' Discovery," The New York Times, 20 June 2002, www.nytimes.com, accessed 12 January 2020.


Thanks to UL Lafayette public history intern Stephanie Simon for proofing this essay.