The Opelousas National Historic District is located in the heart of Old Opelousas, LA. Showcasing more than 175 years of architecture styles ranging from Greek Revival to Art Deco. The City of Opelousas Historic District includes French Colonial and Victorian homes surrounded by hundred year old oaks. The history of our city is as rich and flavorful as the roux we use to make our gumbo!
Native Americans were the first inhabitants of the place we today call Opelousas. In fact, the city takes its name from one of the tribes, the Opelousa Indians. Opelousa translates into “black water” and, according to legend, the term Opelousas means “black hair” or “black leg,” which was derived from two lakes near the area they occupied. The lakes evidently appeared black from the excessive quantity of leaves along the lake’s banks.
In the early 1700s, French Courier de Bois (“runner of the woods,” or hunters and trappers), carried on trade with the Opelousas. In 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. Opelousas is the third oldest settlement in Louisiana.
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 to a settler in the Opelousas area was made in 1763 to Louis Pellerin, a French officer stationed at the Opelousas Post. From this grant, Pellerin laid out the town of Opelousas in 1764.
The establishment of the Opelousas Post brought a wave of diverse ethnic groups to the area. French settlers brought black slaves with them. German colonists arrived in the mid-1700s and Spanish settlers began to arrive in the 1770s. Soon, Irish, Italian and Scottish settlers began arriving in the late 1700s and early 1800s. One of the most influential groups of people arriving in 1765 were the French-speaking Acadians, who were exiled from Canada by the British.
Equally important were the Créoles. Créole derives from the Spanish word “criollo” (a child born in the colony). Créoles were 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 and people who spoke French fluently. “Créoles de Couleur,” or Creoles of Color, refers to descendants of French and Spanish colonists that intermingled with the Native Americans, Haitians and Africans. Famous Creoles include the pirate Jean Lafitte, a French Creole, and Amédé Ardoin, a Creole of Color, who made the first audio recording of zydeco music. Opelousas is truly a cultural mosaic!
As a result of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the area was divided in two parts. The lower section became known as the Territory of Orleans, and “Upper 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” (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.
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. This was in May 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 the Governor. As a courtesy to this, Mouton’s home became the Governor’s Mansion – a title it still bears to this day.
Famous residents of Opelousas include Jim Bowie, legendary adventurer and hero of the Battle of the Alamo; General Garrigues de Flaugeac, a soldier under Napoléon Bonaparte who was a hero at the Battle of New Orleans; 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; and, Eula Savoie, founder of Savoie’s® Cajun Food Products. Perhaps the most famous Opelousas natives are 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.
Stop by the Opelousas Tourist Information Center and pick up our free driving and walking guide to the third oldest city’s architectural assets and begin your journey of discovery!