The French words bâton rouge mean "red stick" in English. In 1699, French explorer Sieur d'Iberville led an exploration party of about 200 up the Mississippi River. On March 17, on a bluff on the east bank of the river (on what is now the campus of Southern University), they saw a reddish cypress pole festooned with bloody animal and fish heads, which they learned was a boundary marker between the hunting territories of the Bayougoula and the Houma tribes (the Bayougoula village was situated near the present-day town of Bayou Goula, LA; the Houma village was believed to be situated near the site of what is now Angola, LA). The French term survives.
The British built Fort New Richmond just south of the eventual site of the LSU campus Pentagon Barracks (in downtown Baton Rouge), and began plans for the development of a town. Land grants were given, resulting in an influx of the first settlers.
When the older British colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America rebelled in 1776, the newer colony of West Florida, lacking a history of local government and distrustful of the potentially hostile Spanish nearby, remained loyal to the British crown.
In 1778, France declared war on Britain, and in 1779, Spain followed suit. That same year, Spanish Governor Don Bernardo de Galvez and his militia of about 1,400 men from New Orleans conquered Fort New Richmond. The fort was renamed Fort San Carlos. Once the Spanish controlled Baton Rouge, they ordered its inhabitants to declare their allegiance to Spain or leave. Most residents reluctantly stayed. Galvez subsequently captured Mobile in 1780 and Pensacola in 1781, thus ending the British presence on the Gulf Coast.
A colony of Pennsylvania German farmers settled to the south of town, having moved north to high ground from their original settlement on Bayou Manchac after a series of floods in the 1780s. They were known locally as "Dutch Highlanders" ("Dutch" being a corruption of the German "Deutsch") and today’s Highland Road cuts through their original indigo and cotton plantations. The two major roads off of Highland Road, Essen Lane and Siegen Lane were both named after cities in Germany. The Kleinpeter and Staring families (which Staring Lane is named after) have been prominent in Baton Rouge affairs ever since.
In 1800, the Tessier-Lafayette buildings were built on what is now Lafayette Street. The buildings are still standing today.
In 1805, the Spanish administrator, Don Carlos Louis Boucher de Grand Pré, commissioned a layout for what is today know as Spanish Town.
In 1806, Elias Beauregard led a planning commission for what is today known as Beauregard Town.
As a result of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, Spanish West Florida found itself almost entirely surrounded by the United States and its possessions. The Spanish Fort at Baton Rouge became the only non-American post on the Mississippi River.
Several of the inhabitants of West Florida began to have conventions to plan a rebellion, among them Fulwar Skipwith, a Baton Rouge native. At least one of these conventions was held in a house on a street in the city that has since been renamed Convention St. (in honor of the rebel conventions). On September 23, 1810, the rebels overcame the Spanish garrison at Baton Rouge, and unfurled the flag of the new Republic of West Florida, known as the Bonnie Blue Flag. The flag had a single white star on a blue field. The Bonnie Blue Flag also inspired the Lone Star flag of Texas.
The West Florida Republic existed for only seventy-four days, during which St. Francisville served as its capital.
Seizing upon the opportunity, President James Madison ordered W.C.C. Claiborne to move north and seize the fledgling republic for incorporation into the Territory of Orleans. Madison used the premise that the territory had always been a part of the U.S., citing the terms of the Louisiana Purchase, an explanation largely believed to be a deliberate error. The rebels were largely composed of American settlers, and they provided no resistance. With minor resentment, the stars and stripes were raised on December 10, 1810.
For the first time, all of the land that would become the State of Louisiana now lay within U.S. borders.
In 1825, Baton Rouge was visited by the Marquis de Lafayette as part of his triumphal tour of the United States, and he was the guest of honor at a town ball and banquet. To celebrate the occasion, the town renamed Second Street as Lafayette Street.
In 1846, the Louisiana state legislature in New Orleans decided to move the seat of government to Baton Rouge. As in many states, representatives from other parts of Louisiana feared a concentration of power in the state's largest city. In 1840, New Orleans' population was around 102,000, fourth largest in the U.S. The 1840 population of Baton Rouge, on the other hand, was only 2,269.
New York architect James Dakin was hired to design the new Capitol building in Baton Rouge, and rather than mimic the federal Capitol Building in Washington, as so many other states had done, he conceived a Neo-Gothic medieval castle overlooking the Mississippi, complete with turrets and crenelations. In 1859, the Capitol was featured and favorably described in DeBow's Review, the most prestigious periodical in the antebellum South. Mark Twain, however, as a steamboat pilot in the 1850s, loathed the sight of it, "It is pathetic ... that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things ... should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place." (Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 40)
Despite his view of the Capitol, Twain was fond of Baton Rouge, "Baton Rouge was clothed in flowers, like a bride — no, much more so; like a greenhouse. For we were in the absolute South now — no modifications, no compromises, no half-way measures. The magnolia trees in the Capitol grounds were lovely and fragrant, with their dense rich foliage and huge snowball blossoms....We were certainly in the South at last; for here the sugar region begins, and the plantations — vast green levels, with sugar-mill and negro quarters clustered together in the middle distance — were in view." (Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 40)
Southern secession was triggered by the 1860 election of Republican Abraham Lincoln because slave states feared that he would make good on his promise to stop the expansion of slavery and would thus put it on a course toward extinction. Many Southerners thought that even if Lincoln did not abolish slavery, sooner or later another Northerner would do so, and that it was thus time to leave the Union. In January 1861, Louisiana elected delegates to a state convention to decide the state's course of action. The convention voted for secession 112 to 17. Baton Rouge raised a number of volunteer companies for Confederate service, including the Pelican Rifles, the Delta Rifles, the Creole Guards, and the Baton Rouge Fencibles (about one-third of the town's male population) eventually volunteered.
The Confederates gave up Baton Rouge (which only had a population of 5,429 in 1860) without a fight, deciding to consolidate their forces elsewhere. In May 1862, Union troops entered the city and began the occupation of Baton Rouge. The Confederates only made one attempt to retake Baton Rouge. The Confederates lost the battle and the town was severely damaged. However, Baton Rouge escaped the level of devastation faced by cities that were major conflict points during the Civil War, and the city still has many structures that predate it.
In 1886, a statue of a Confederate soldier was dedicated to the memory of those who fought in the Civil War on the corner of Third Street and North Blvd.
The mass migration of ex-slaves into urban areas in the South also affected Baton Rouge. It has been estimated that in 1860, blacks made up just under one-third of the town's population. By the 1880 U.S. census, however, Baton Rouge was 60 percent black. Not until the 1920 census would the white population of Baton Rouge again exceed 50 percent. After the end of Reconstruction the white population regained control of the state's and the city's institutions, and segregation and "Jim Crow" laws were enforced, though leavened with a dose of paternalism (Radical Republican control in Louisiana had never been strong outside of New Orleans in any case).
By 1880, Baton Rouge was recovering economically and psychologically, though the population that year still was only 7,197 and its boundaries had remained the same. The carpetbaggers and scalawags of Reconstruction politics were replaced by middle-class white Democrats who loathed the Republicans, eulogized the Confederacy, and preached white supremacy. This "Bourbon" era was short-lived in Baton Rouge, however, replaced by a more management-oriented local style of conservatism in the 1890s and on into the early 20th century. Increased civic-mindedness and the arrival of the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railway led to the development of more forward-looking leadership, which included the construction of a new waterworks, widespread electrification of homes and businesses, and the passage of several large bond issues for the construction of public buildings, new schools, paving of streets, drainage and sewer improvements, and the establishment of a scientific municipal public health department.
At the same time, the state government was constructing in Baton Rouge a new Institute for the Blind and a School for the Deaf. LSU moved from Pineville to temporary quarters at the old arsenal and barracks and Southern University relocated from New Orleans to Scotlandville (just north of Baton Rouge at the time but now within the city limits). Finally, legal challenges to the Standard Oil Company in Texas led its board of directors to move its refining operations in 1909 to the banks of the Mississippi just above town; Exxon is still the largest private employer in Baton Rouge.
In the 1930s, the new Louisiana State Capitol building was built under the direction of Huey P. Long, and became the tallest capitol building in the United States. The old state capitol is now a museum.
In the late 1940s, Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish became a consolidated city/parish with a mayor/president in its government. It was also one of the first cities in the nation to consolidate, and the parish surrounds three incorporated cities: Baker, Zachary, and Central.
A boycott of the Baton Rouge bus system by black citizens in 1953 was forerunner of the more famous Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956. Like many southern cities in the 1950s, Baton Rouge buses were segregated, black riders had to sit at the back of the bus or stand even if seats at the front were empty. In response to black complaints the city council adopted an ordinance that changed segregated seating so that Blacks fill up the seats from the rear forward and whites fill the bus from front to back on a first-come, first-served basis. After white bus drivers go on strike to protest the new system, the Louisiana Attorney General overturned the ordinance in June on grounds that it violated state segregation laws.
In response, blacks formed the United Defense League (UDL). Led by Reverend T. J. Jemison and Raymond Scott, the UDL called on blacks to boycott the city buses on June 18. The boycott was effective. The great majority of bus riders were black, and most of them refused to ride the buses. A volunteer "free ride" system was coordinated through the churches, and many others chose to walk to work. After negotiations between black leaders and the city council a compromise was reached on June 24. The first-come, first-serve, seating system of back to front and front to back was reinstated. But to comply with state segregation laws, blacks and white were prohibited from sitting next to each other, the two front sideways seats were absolutely reserved for whites, and the wide rear seat at the back of the bus was reserved for blacks.
The wave of student sit-ins that started in Greensboro NC on February 1st, 1960 reached Baton Rouge on March 28 when seven Southern University (SU) students were arrested for sitting-in at a Kress lunch counter. The following day, nine more students were arrested for sitting-in at the Greyhound bus terminal, and the day after that SU student and CORE member Major Johns led more than 3,000 students on a march to the state capitol to protest segregation and the arrests. Major Johns and the 16 students arrested for sitting-in were expelled from SU and barred from all public colleges and universities in the state. SU students organized a class boycott to win reinstatement of the expelled students. Fearing for the safety of their children, many parents withdrew their sons and daughters from the school. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions of the arrested students, and in 2004 they were awarded honorary degrees by S.U. and the state legislature passed a resolution in their honor.
In October of 1961, SU students Ronnie Moore, Weldon Rougeau and Patricia Tate revived the Baton Rouge CORE chapter. After negotiations with downtown merchants failed to end segregation, they called for a consumer boycott in early December at the start of the busy holiday shopping season. Fourteen CORE pickets supporting the boycott were arrested in mid-December and held in jail for a month. More than a thousand SU students marched to the state capitol on December 15th to protest. Police attacked them with dogs and tear-gas, and arrested more than 50 of them. Thousands rallied on the SU campus against segregation and in support of all the arrested students. To prevent further disturbances, SU closed for Christmas vacation four days early.
In January of 1962, U.S. Federal Judge Gordon West issued an injunction against CORE that banned all forms of protest of any kind at SU. Many students were expelled and state police troopers occupied the campus to quell further protests. Judge West's order was overturned by a higher court in 1964, but during the intervening years civil rights activity was effectively suppressed.
In February of 1962, Freedom Rider and SNCC field secretary Dion Diamond was arrested for entering the SU campus to meet with students. He is charged with "Criminal Anarchy" — attempting to overthrow the government of the State of Louisiana. SNCC Chairman Chuck McDew and white field secretary Bob Zellner are also arrested and charged with "Criminal Anarchy" when they visit Diamond in jail. Zellner was put in a cell with white prisoners who attacked him as a "race-mixer" while the guards look on. Eventually, after years of legal proceedings, the "Criminal Anarchy" charges were dropped, but Diamond was forced to serve 60 days for other charges.
In the 2000s, Baton Rouge has proven to be one of the fastest growing cities in the South, not so much in population but in technology. Baton Rouge is well wired, and ranks #19 as one of the most wired cities (more wired than New Orleans, and most of the 25 largest cities in the United States) There are now many sky-eye traffic cameras at major intersections and countless other advances. Although, Baton Rouge's city population was not growing fast, it has overtaken Mobile, Alabama, Shreveport, and many other currently declining cities. After the 2000 census, Baton Rouge had a slight decline in population, with 224,000 from recent estimates. This is attributed by some to white flight.
Baton Rouge was rated one of the largest mid-sized business cities, after Hurricane Katrina. It was also one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the U.S. (under 1 million), with 600,000 in 2000 and 700,000 since 2000. Aside from politics, there is also a vibrant mix of cultures found throughout Louisiana, thus forming the basis of the city motto: "Authentic Louisiana at every turn".
The city executed massive rescue efforts for those who evacuated the New Orleans area. Schools and convention centers such as the Baton Rouge River Center opened their doors to evacuees. LSU's basketball arena, the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, and the adjacent LSU Field House were converted into emergency hospitals. Victims were flown in by helicopter (landing in the LSU Track Stadium) and brought by the hundreds in buses to be treated. Here patients were triaged and, depending on their status, were either treated immediately or transported further west to Lafayette, Louisiana. As a result of this the LSU football team was forced to play their originally home scheduled game against Arizona State in Arizona.
As a result, by August 31, TV station WAFB had reported that the city's population had more than doubled from about 228,000 to at least 450,000 and East Baton Rouge Parish's population shot up to almost 600,000 since the mandatory evacuation had been issued. That day, Mayor-President Kip Holden was expected to host a conference to discuss how to effectively enroll evacuated children into the East Baton Rouge Parish public school system. During late 2005 and half of 2006 traffic in the city was more congested to the point of hours long stand stills since the evacuation of the Gulf South but since then traffic is on somewhat normal levels for a parish that had 412,000 pre-Katrina residents.
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