Over 500 years define the history of the site of Ascension Parish; a site historically identified by the important junction of the Mississippi River and Bayou Lafourche.
About the year 1200, these waterways were one, then the river changed course, leaving behind a small stream the Native Tribes called ‘bayuk’; today’s Bayou Lafourche.
The Houma, Bayougoula, and Tchitimacha tribes occupied this site for years before Europeans. While primitive, they lived in organized communities with disciplined beliefs.
They were hunters and farmers who built mounds and temples. They knew pottery, basketry, and ceramics. They named the Great River, ‘Michi Sipi,’ and are to be credited for helping the early settlers.
The first Europeans (Spanish explorers) arrived here before 1520. In 1541, the conquistador, Hernando de Soto, was the first to write of the Great River, and his lieutenant, Luis de Moscoso, was likely the first to travel the length of Bayou Lafourche on his escape to Mexico.
In this period the Tribes spoke openly of ‘the fork’ (Bayou Lafourche) in the river as another route to the Gulf, but this openness faded, and la fourche was thought mere fable. In 1680, however, the French missionary, Louis Hennepin, wrote of the strategic fork in the river. Afterwards, the search for ‘la fourche’ became an obsession for the French.
In 1682, Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, descended the Mississippi. In April, he found the Gulf, and claimed ‘La Louisiane’ for France.
Due to seasonal high waters la fourche was not found. Because he did not document the river’s mouth, for nearly twenty years Louisiana was mostly undisturbed, other than ‘coureurs-des-bois’ (French trappers) roaming the territory.
By 1698, France and Spain were competing for Louisiana. Serving France, in 1699, Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville rediscovered the Mississippi, and began colonization. With help from the Natives he found Bayou Manchaq, which today is one of Ascension’s northern boundaries. ‘La fourche’, however, remained elusive.
In 1700, d’Iberville’s brother, Jean-Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, with Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, and Henri de Tonti, found la fourche, and named it ‘Les Riviere de Tchitimacha.’ In this period, Iberville founded Mobile in 1702; St. Denis founded Natchitoches in 1714,
Bienville founded New Orleans in 1718, and the French became firmly established from Canada to the Gulf.
It is thought that a tiny village existed on the Mississippi at Bayou Lafourche at this time. The village was called ‘La Fourche des Tchitimacha,’ and later ‘La Fourche.’ In time, French, Canadians, Germans, Spanish, English, African and Native Slaves populated it.
AGRICULTURE IS ESTABLISHED
During this time the area’s economy was agricultural; food crops, tobacco, and indigo. Sugar Cane was planted in 1700, but not formally established until 1795. Because adequate labor was needed, by 1717 some 3,000 African Slaves were cultivating the land, and their number grew until Slavery was outlawed. Like the Natives, Africans are to be credited for the growth of the Colony.
By 1721, Louisiana was divided into nine districts with the New Orleans District representing today’s Ascension Parish. That year saw the arrival of German settlers (L’Allemands) on the river and in the Bayou Lafourche area. They suffered deprivation and great loss coming to Louisiana, but their hardiness was later credited with saving New Orleans.
In 1762, France ceded Louisiana west of the Mississippi, and the ‘Isle of Orleans’ to Spain. The Isle was the area east of the river bounded by Bayou Manchaq, the Amite River, Lakes Maurepas, Ponchartrain, and Borgne. All of today’s East Ascension was part of the Isle of Orleans.
In 1755, an event critical to Ascension occurred in Canada; England’s exile of the French from Acadia (England’s Nova Scotia). Acadian families were scattered and torn apart. Misery followed, but disciplined beliefs sustained them. In 1765, many arrived at New Orleans, and were settled in today’s Ascension, an area quickly called the ‘Acadian Coast,’ later Acadia District (1769), and Acadia County (1804). The Cajuns are due much credit for the growth of Ascension and Louisiana.
Curious to the diverse people of Ascension at this time was the ‘Creole.’ Writers called them a ‘created people.’ They were first defined as the newborn French in the Louisiana Colony. In time, this was applied to the Germans, Spanish, and Africans. Indeed, so popular was being Creole, even their produce held that important notoriety, and was constantly sought-out by visitors.
In 1772, at the village of La Fourche, the Ascension Church Parish, ‘La Iglesia de la Ascension de Nuestro Senor Jesus Christo de La Fourche de Los Tchitimacha’ was officially founded by Father Angelus de Reuillagodos. Because of this, La Fourche became known as ‘L’Ascension.’
In 1778, Spain recruited settlers from the Canary Islands to help defend against the advancing English (L’Anglais). Called ‘Islenos,’ they founded two settlements near L’Ascension, ‘Villa de Galvez’ and ‘Villa de Valanzuela.’ English economic penetration was feared, and despite attempts to prevent it, at L’Ascension, Baton Rouge and New Orleans they became established.
THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
In 1779, the American Revolution visited Louisiana. Successfully defending the region were the Spanish and local troops of French, Canadian, Cajun, Isleno, German, African (Slave and Free), and Tribal Natives. Victories at Baton Rouge and Mobile were fervently hailed by the United States.
In 1800, Spain returned Louisiana to Napoleon’s France. Realizing the difficulty of defending Louisiana from the English, in 1803, he sold it to the United States. When news of ‘The Purchase’ reached L’Ascension, English settlers were jubilant, while the French were dismayed.
CREATING ASCENSION PARISH
In 1804, The Purchase was divided, with Louisiana as the ‘Orleans Territory.’ This was divided into 12 counties, with the L’Ascension area as ‘Acadia’; population 5,000. Due to its prosperity, Acadia became the ‘Gold Coast.’ In 1807, the Territory was divided into 19 parishes. ‘Ascension Parish’ was created from Acadia. In 1812, the Territory became ‘Louisiana,’ the 18th State.
Today, Ascension Parish is a true American treasure. It is the ‘Gateway’ to a glorious and sublime portrait of time and people spanning more than five centuries. Ascension Parish is an immense collection of diverse histories deserving simply of recognition, celebration, and protection.