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Louisiana (LA) Fast Facts
Location and Geography: Louisiana is located at the mouth of the Mississippi River on the Gulf of Mexico, right between the states of Texas and Mississippi. The Mississippi River is the lifeblood of Louisiana, having built up the land itself by depositing silt along its banks as it poured into the Gulf. There is much concern over natural and man-made erosion in Louisiana, as the state is now losing its land area at a somewhat alarming rate.
Counties and Regions: Louisiana is made up of 64 parishes (unlike other states, these divisions are not referred to as counties). The generally recognized larger areas of Louisiana are as follows:
- Cajun Heartland
- Central Louisiana (often abbreviated as “Cen-La”)
- Florida Parishes
- French Louisiana (Southern Louisiana)
- Greater New Orleans
- North Louisiana
- River Parishes
Population: Around four and a half million people live in Louisiana, although in 2005 Hurricane Katrina devastated the population and created untold levels of temporary and permanent homelessness, making an accurate accounting somewhat difficult to achieve.
Major Cities: Baton Rouge, the state’s capital, has about eight hundred thousand people living in its metropolitan area. The most famous city in Louisiana, however, is certainly New Orleans. It is the largest city in the state, with nearly one and a quarter million people living in its metropolitan area. It is one of the most historically important cities in the United States, having been a center of Caribbean and inland trade for a few centuries.
Story Behind the Name: The state of Louisiana began as a vast territory claimed by France. It was named after the contemporary French king, the famous Louis XIV.
History and Colonization: Louisiana was home to one of America’s most ancient native cultures, the Caddo, whose roots extend far back into a time before history. The Spanish were the first Europeans to encounter them in the sixteenth century, but they only lightly explored the region and did not set up any major colonies. France took a much greater interest in the area in the seventeenth century, intending to use it as a base in its bid to claim much of the North American continent. Naming their new colony “Louisiana” after their king, the French claimed all the land along the Mississippi River and leading northward to their colonies in Canada(although at the time, nobody had a real picture of how truly gigantic this territory was). They founded New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi and made it the center of commerce and government in their New World empire.
What is now the state of Louisiana traded hands several times between the Spanish and the French throughout the late eighteenth century, as the two colonial powers struggled for dominance in North America. Louisiana, especially the southern coastal region, saw the beginnings of the eclectic mix of cultures that defines the state as we know it today. The native population and the Spanish and French settlers were added to by large numbers of imported African slaves. Even more slaves were brought there by slaveowners and elites fleeing slave uprisings in the Caribbean Islands. Slavery continued in Louisiana even after the United States acquired the territory and forbade it there, as the practice was far too entrenched to stop.
The method by which the United States came to own the Louisiana Territory was a rather complicated and strange deal known as the Louisiana Purchase. Basically, the U.S. was interested in acquiring the port city of New Orleans from France, as this was the main area of trade for much of their central and southern territory. Unexpectedly, Napoleon Bonaparte (the ruler of France) had given up on the entire territory and decided to sell it to the U.S. for quick cash to fuel his wars in Europe. U.S negotiators were shocked to be offered the entire territory, and hammered out a deal on the spot without the consent of the President or Congress (one of several reasons why the transaction was technically illegal). This purchase effectively doubled the size of the United States overnight, and caused a huge political stir in the Northeast once it was revealed. The Louisiana Purchase proved to be a major turning point in the westward expansion of the United States, increasing the tension between the North and the South in the decades before the Civil War.
Louisiana endured much social turmoil during and after the Civil War, as its unusually mixed population led to a wide range of opinions on slavery, race, and segregation. African-American migration away from the state helped to concentrate the powers of the white elite, and Louisiana was a major political battleground during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. In 2005, Louisiana was hit by the powerful Hurricane Katrina, which nearly destroyed the city of New Orleans and severely disrupted the state’s population. The disaster was of such epic proportions that recovery is still ongoing.