Opelousas is a city in and the parish seat of St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, United States. It lies at the juncture of Interstate 49 and U.S. Route 190. The population was 22,860 at the 2000 census. Opelousas is the principal city for the Opelousas-Eunice Micropolitan Statistical Area, which had an estimated population of 91,528 in 2006. Opelousas is also the 3rd largest city in the Lafayette-Acadiana Combined Statistical Area, which has a population of 537,947. Founded in 1720, Opelousas is Louisiana's 3rd oldest city. The city served as a major trading post between New Orleans and Natchitoches in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Traditionally an area of settlement by French Creoles and Acadians, Opelousas is the center of zydeco music. It celebrates its heritage at the Creole Heritage Folklife Center, one of the destinations on the new Louisiana African American Heritage Trail. It is also the location of the Evangeline Downs Racetrack and Casino. The city is known as the spice capital of the world, with production and sale of seasonings such as Tony Chachere's products, Targil Seasonings, Savoie's cajun meats and products, and LouAna Cooking Oil. Opelousas is also home to one of the nation's two Yoohoo Factories.
There were 8,699 households out of which 32.8% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 33.7% were married couples living together, 26.9% had a female householder with no husband present, and 34.9% were non-families. 32.3% of all households were made up of individuals and 15.0% 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 3.24.
In the city the population was spread out with 30.3% under the age of 18, 9.4% from 18 to 24, 24.9% from 25 to 44, 19.6% from 45 to 64, and 15.8% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 34 years. For every 100 females there were 84.0 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 77.4 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $14,717, and the median income for a family was $19,966. Males had a median income of $24,588 versus $17,104 for females. The per capita income for the city was $9,957. About 37.7% of families and 43.1% of the population were below the poverty line, including 57.2% of those under age 18 and 32.0% of those age 65 or over.
Michel Du Birotte, who lived in Louisiana from 1718 to 1734, eight years of which he spent living among the Indians, said the Appalousa lived just west of two small lakes, thought to be "Leonard Swamp", east of Opelousas. This was the westernmost channel of the Mississippi River in earlier times. Because of mineral deposits and the great number of leaves covering the bottom, the waters of the lake were black. Appalousa hunting and fishing in the lake found their legs became stained black from the stagnant waters.
The first recorded European arrived in the Appalousa Territory in 1690. He was a French coureur de bois (trapper and hunter). French traders arrived later to trade with the Appalousa Indians. In 1719, the French sent the first military to the Territory, when Ensign Nicolas Chauvin de la Frénière and two others were sent to patrol the area. In 1720, the French established Opelousas Post as a major trading organization for the developing area.
French encouraged immigration to Opelousas Post before they ceded Louisiana in 1762 to Spain. By 1769 about 100 families, mostly French, were living in the Post. In 1774 the Saint Landry Catholic Church was built.
Don Alexandro O'Reilley, Governor of Louisiana for Spain, issued a land ordinance to allow settlers in the frontier of the Opelousas Territory to acquire land grants. The first official land grant was made in 1782. Numerous settlers: French, Creoles and Acadians, mainly from the Attakapas Territory, came to the Opelousas Territory and acquired land grants.
After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, settlers continued to arrive at the relative frontier from St. Martinville. Prejean, Thibodaux, Nezat, Hebert, Babineaux, Mouton, and Provost were some of the early Creole families. (This was Creole as French born in Louisiana, see French Creole.) Other early French Creole families were Roy, Barre, Guenard, Decuir, and Bail. In 1820, Alex Charles Barre, also a French Creole, founded Port Barre. His ancestors came from the French West Indies, probably after Haiti (St. Domingue) became independent. Jim Bowie and his family were said to settle in the area about 1813.
In 1805 Opelousas became the seat of the newly formed St. Landry Parish, also known as the Imperial Parish of Louisiana. The year 1806 marked the beginning of significant construction in Opelousas. The first courthouse was constructed in the middle of the town. Later in the year the Louisiana Memorial United Methodist Church was founded, becoming the first Methodist church in Louisiana, and the first Protestant church in Louisiana. Five years later, the first St. Landry Parish Police Jury met in Opelousas, keeping minutes in the two official languages of English and French.
European and American settlement was based on plantation agriculture, and both groups brought or purchased numerous enslaved Africans and African Americans to work as laborers in cotton cultivation. African Americans influenced all cultures as the people created a creolized cuisine and music. The long decline of cotton prices throughout the 19th century caused problems for all relying on agriculture alone for livelihood.
The city was officially incorporated in 1821 to the United States. After Baton Rouge fell to the Union troops during the Civil War in 1862, Opelousas was designated as the state capital for nine months. The capital was moved again in 1863, this time to Shreveport when Union troops occupied Opelousas. During Reconstruction, the state government operated from New Orleans.
After the defeat of the South and emancipation of slaves, many whites had difficulty accepting the changed conditions, especially as economic problems and dependence on agriculture slowed the South's recovery. Social tensions were high during Reconstruction. In 1868 a white mob rioted and killed 25-50 freedmen in Opelousas. This was one of the single worst instances of Reconstruction violence in south Louisiana. The northern part of the state had much more violence during Reconstruction.
In 1880, the railroad reached Opelousas, giving the city an opportunity to grow and be better connected for trade. After getting the railroad, Opelousas also served as a stop for at least three of the Orphan Trains arranged by New York social services agencies to provide for resettlement of orphans from up until 1929. Opelousas was the heart of a traditional Catholic region of French, Spanish, Canadian and French West Indian heritage. Families in Louisiana took in more than 2,000 mostly Catholic orphans to live in their rural farming communities.
Opelousas later accepted thousands of refugees in May 1927, following the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Heavy rains in northern and midwestern areas caused intense flooding in areas of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana downstream, especially after levées near Moreauville, Cecilia and Melville collapsed. Over 81% of St. Landry Parish suffered some flooding, with 77% of the inhabitants affected. People in more southern areas of Louisiana, especially those communities along Bayou Teche, were forced to flee their homes for areas which suffered less damage. By May 20th, over 5,700 refugees were registered in Opelousas, which itself had a population of only 6,000 people. Many of the refugees were later able to return to their homes and begin the rebuilding process.
The city of Opelousas is constructing an Orphan Train Museum (second in the nation) in an old train depot located in Le Vieux Village. The first museum dedicated to the Orphan Train children is located in Kansas.
The Yambilee Festival is held each year in Opelousas