Recognizing the great strategic importance of the Mississippi River Valley, the French began establishing the colony of Louisiana around 1700. Though the boundaries of colonial Louisiana were largely undefined, the area included present-day Louisiana and the Mississippi Valley as far north as the Missouri River.
French Louisiana was really two colonies. The bulk of European settlers and African slaves clustered around New Orleans and its surrounding plantations, while French traders and soldiers stationed forts and posts along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Louisiana was only marginally incorporated into the colonial Atlantic economy until the 1780s, when French planters and Spanish officials established a viable plantation economy. This set the stage for the explosive growth of slavery with the sugar and cotton boom of the 1790s.
In the 1540s, Hernando de Soto led a Spanish expedition through the lower Mississippi Valley. De Soto’s expedition was a violent one, and it also introduced devastating diseases, which led to the collapse of the complex native civilizations of the lower Mississippi Valley. When a French and Native American expedition from Canada explored the region in the 1670s, they encountered only Petites Nations, descendants of survivors of de Soto’s raids, who had collected themselves into small tribes. Over the next three decades, some of these tribes would form the Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw, powerful confederacies that competed with the Natchez for supremacy in the lower Mississippi Valley.
Outside of New Orleans, French Louisiana was little more than a string of forts and trading posts existing at the sufferance of the native peoples. These posts, located at places like Natchez and St. Louis, strengthened alliances built on trade and tribute between the French and the Mississippi Indians, providing the French with their one viable export from Louisiana, deerskins. More powerful Native American nations like the Choctaw welcomed these alliances, using French dependence to their own advantage. Less powerful tribes could not dictate terms to the French and often entered into these alliances to protect themselves from enemy tribes. Despite the protection afforded by alliances, war and disease eventually devastated these small tribes. The population of the Petites Nations, for example, declined from over 20,000 in 1685 to 4,000 in 1730.
French efforts to establish a plantation economy in Louisiana began in 1717 when the French government granted the Company of the West a charter to establish a colony in the lower Mississippi Valley. It established a main town at New Orleans and offered land grants in the vicinity. From 1718 to 1730, the company also provided over 5,000 Europeans and 6,000 Africans for labor; in 1719, it was renamed the Company of the Indies. Merchants and officials engaged in the fur trade, smuggling, and sometimes piracy, while those with plantations produced small crops of rice, cotton, tobacco, and naval stores.
In the early years, the plantation economy languished. Louisiana rice, indigo, and tobacco were inferior, pricey, and heavily dependent on subsidies from the French government, and Louisiana planters could not compete with English colonies like Virginia and South Carolina, which produced the same staples. Slave and Native American resistance also thwarted attempts to create a plantation society. The Natchez Indian Rebellion of 1729, in which several hundred slaves either participated or were captured, hastened the end of French efforts to establish a plantation society in Louisiana. In 1731, the French Crown took control of the colony from the Company of the Indies, but did little to promote emigration or economic development.
An exchange economy involving merchants, traders, planters, farmers, slaves, and Native Americans emerged in the aftermath of the plantation regime’s collapse. Louisiana planters and merchants began provisioning the sugar islands of the Caribbean, producing timber, naval stores, and cattle. With no staple crop demanding a regimented labor system, planters increasingly let slaves provide for themselves. Slaves used these opportunities to claim greater control over their own lives by hiring themselves out, working for wages, and producing goods for the New Orleans market. Some managed to purchase their own freedom, leading to the growth of a small, but significant, class of free blacks and mulattos in New Orleans.
In 1763, France transferred control of Louisiana to the Spanish. Spain’s main interest in Louisiana was to create a buffer colony protecting the far more lucrative province of Mexico. Spanish policies, nonetheless, nurtured the slow growth of slavery in the 1780s and 1790s. In the mid-1790s, the invention of the cotton gin and the slave rebellion in Haiti led to a plantation revolution in Louisiana. North of New Orleans, planters established cotton plantations. South of New Orleans, planters fleeing the slave rebellion in Haiti brought to Louisiana the capital and expertise needed for sugar production. By 1803, when the United States acquired the Louisianas, French planters and Spanish officials were well on their way toward creating a thriving plantation society. John Craig Hammond See also: Acadians; French; French Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology); Mississippi River; New Orleans; Spanish Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology). Bibliography Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1998. Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992. Usner, Daniel H. Jr. Indians, Settlers, & Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.