Tensas Parish (Paroisse des Tensas) is a parish located in the U.S. state of Louisiana. The seat of the parish is St. Joseph. In 2000, the population of the parish was 6,618; it is the least-populous parish in Louisiana.
Near Newellton is the Winter Quarters Plantation restoration, where Union General Ulysses S. Grant and his men spent the winter of 1862-63, prior to launching the assault in July 1863 against Vicksburg, Mississippi, to the northeast of Tensas Parish.
St. Joseph numbered no more than 720 residents (and Tensas Parish, 19,070) at the turn of the 20th century, most having been engaged in cotton growing and related river work. The pages of the Tensas Gazette between 1890 and 1914 often read like notes from a church social and still do to a great extent. Almost everybody in St. Joseph's white society seemed to know everybody else, from the mayor to the sheriff to society belles to the druggist, and the bailiff at the parish jail, a kindly old "colored" man, as African Americans were then known, named "Collins."
In 1962, the parish, with only whites registered, gave the Republican Taylor W. O'Hearn 48.2 percent of the vote in a race for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Russell B. Long. Tensas Parish also voted for Republican presidential nominee Barry M. Goldwater in 1964, when few blacks were yet registered.
After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, large numbers of Tensas Parish blacks were able to register to vote. These new black voters were staunchly Democratic. Since then, the parish has been a Democratic stronghold. However, some white Democrats have continued to win some public offices in the parish, including Sheriff Rickey A. Jones and several school board members.
Tensas Parish was desegregated at one time in the fall of 1970. However, the schools remain de facto segregated by parental decisions. The majority of white students attend the private Tensas Academy in St. Joseph. Nearly all African American students attend the public schools, whereas few whites are registered. Enrollment in the public system, now based in St. Joseph, has been declining in recent years. Former high schools and elementary schools in Newellton and Waterproof have closed because of decreased enrollments. Tensas Parish High School in St. Joseph is the latest consolidation of the former Davidson High School of St. Joseph as well as Newellton and Waterproof high schools.
In 2004, the Democratic ticket of John F. Kerry and John Edwards carried Tensas Parish by only sixteen votes. The tabulation was 1,460 for Kerry-Edwards and 1,453 for President George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore, won Tensas Parish by 250 votes. The Democratic electors polled 1,580 votes that year to 1,330 for the Bush-Cheney ticket.
In the 2004 U.S. Senate primary election, Tensas Parish gave a plurality to the Republican candidate, Congressman David Vitter of St. Tammany Parish. Vitter polled 1,145 votes (41 percent) compared to 881 ballots (32 percent) for his chief Democratic rival, Congressman Christopher John of Crowley, the seat of Acadia Parish. There was no general election to determine if Vitter would have surpassed 50 percent plus one vote to obtain an outright majority in this traditionally Democratic parish.
Prior to 1968, each parish regardless of population had at least one member in the Louisiana House of Representatives. The last member to represent only Tensas Parish was Democrat S. S. DeWitt (1914-1998) of Newellton and later St. Joseph. DeWitt won the legislative post in 1964 by unseating 20-year incumbent J. C. Seaman of Waterproof. He lost the seat in the 1971 primary to Lantz Womack of Winnsboro in Franklin Parish.
Tensas Parish is considered the fastest declining parish in the state. No other parish has lost such a large percent of its population as has Tensas. Every year families, mostly white, leave the parish, seeking a more convenient life near more urbanized areas. The exodus throws the parish even further behind economically and socially.
Between July 1, 2006, and July 1, 2007, Tensas Parish lost 173 residents, or 2.9 percent of its population. Police Jury Vice President Jane Merriett Netterville (born ca. 1956) of St. Joseph expressed surprise at the latest exodus figures considering that some had moved there after Hurrican Katrina. "Maybe the loss was the people who died. We have a large elderly population," she told the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate. Netterville explained that younger people leave Tensas Parish because of the scarcity of higher-paying jobs.
Tensas Parish has one principal cemetery, Legion Memorial, north of Newellton. Tall manicured cedar trees surround the graves.
St. Joseph is located adjacent to the Mississippi River levee system.
There are three communities in the parish: Newellton, St. Joseph, and Waterproof. Newellton was founded by the planter and attorney John David Stokes Newell, Sr., who named it for his father Edward D. Newell, a North Carolina native. All three communities are linked by Highway 65, which passes just to the west of each town. The developed Lake Bruin State Park lies near St. Joseph. Lake Bruin is an oxbow lake created by the meandering of the Mississippi River.
There were 2,416 households out of which 30.00% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 43.10% were married couples living together, 20.20% had a female householder with no husband present, and 32.30% were non-families. 29.30% of all households were made up of individuals and 14.90% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.54 and the average family size was 3.14.
In the parish the population was spread out with 26.50% under the age of 18, 10.00% from 18 to 24, 25.10% from 25 to 44, 22.90% from 45 to 64, and 15.50% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 37 years. For every 100 females there were 97.80 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 96.20 males.
The median income for a household in the parish was $19,799, and the median income for a family was $25,739. Males had a median income of $26,636 versus $16,781 for females. The per capita income for the parish was $12,622. About 30.00% of families and 36.30% of the population were below the poverty line, including 48.20% of those under age 18 and 29.60% of those age 65 or over.