Why Ascension Parish
Directly through the heart of Ascension Parish winds the powerful Mississippi River, on which many a boat has tugged its load and many a reader has drifted his literary raft along with such legendary figures as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Ascension Parish continues to build itself upon its cherished traditions and generations of progress and innovation. To the west of the river lies the historic seat of Louisianan government and now the parish seat, Donaldsonville. To the east, the major city emerging is Gonzales.
Approximately 800 years ago, in A.D. 1200, when the world was just beginning to discover the beautiful riches of itself, one large body of water rested in the land now known as Ascension Parish. As new times and seasons passed, the great river changed its course, leaving behind a stream which the natives called “Bavuk”. Today, we know the ancient “Bavuk” as “Bayou Lafourche”. Before the French and Spanish settlers ventured into the swamps and pine forests of Louisiana in 1520, the tribes of the Houma, Bayougoula, and Tchitimacha farmed the land, hunted game, and built mounds and temples to the spirits. They were masterful craftsmen. They produced pottery, basketry, and ceramics to trade with their European neighbors.
In 1541, the famed conquistador, Hernando de Soto, wrote about the “Great River” (the Mississippi). His lieutenant, Luis de Moscoso, is believed to have been the first to travel the length of Bayou Lafourche on his rapid escape to Mexico. In 1682, Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, traveled the Mississippi. He discovered the Gulf of Mexico in April and claimed ‘La Louisiane’ for France.
The coureurs-des-bois (French trappers) peacefully roamed the vast, wild territory undisturbed for nearly twenty years. By 1698, France and Spain began openly competing for the governing of Louisiana. In 1699, Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville rediscovered the Mississippi and began colonization for France. Iberville, with help from the natives, discovered Bayou Manchac, which later marked the boundary between areas possessed by Great Britain and Spain (1763-1779), and later, Spain and the United States (1803-1810). Today, Bayou Manchac is a northern boundary of Ascension Parish.
In the early 1700s, the French firmly established their reign and controlled land ranging from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. In time, French, Canadians, Germans, Spanish, English, African and Natives populated the area. Like many other American communities, the early European settlers in the area possessed an agricultural economy. The first seeds of the South’s beloved sugarcane were planted in the year 1700. By 1795, large crops of the tall, verdant sugar cane sprawled over the marshlands. Approximately 3,000 African slaves were imported to cultivate the land by 1717. Like the Natives, Africans are to be greatly credited for the growth of the colony.
When Louisiana was divided into nine districts in 1721 with Orleans being the area of the modern Ascension Parish, German settlers (Les Allemands) began to arrive by boat along the Mississippi River and Bayou Lafourche. Meanwhile, the French and Indian War ravaged the East. In 1755, England exiled the French settlers living in Acadia, Canada (modern Nova Scotia) who refused to pledge loyalty to the English king. Although the Acadians were scattered and strewn across the continent, many were able to gather and migrate to French lands in Louisiana. In 1765, many people arrived at New Orleans and ventured to settle in modern Ascension Parish. This area became known as the Acadian Coast, later Acadia District (1769), and then Acadia County (1804).
A new race emerged in southern Louisiana, known as the ‘Creole’. Writers said they were a ‘created people.’ Originally, the Creole was one newly born to the Acadians living in Louisiana. Gradually, the definition of the Creole expanded to include the Germans, Spanish, and Africans. Being Creole became a trademark famed and desired around the world. Today, Creole cuisine is widely recognized as a particular style: relating to or being a highly seasoned food typically prepared with rice, okra, tomatoes, and peppers.
In the year 1772, Father Angelus de Reuillagodos founded ‘La Iglesia de la Ascension de Nuestro Senor Jesus Christo de La Fourche de Los Tchitimacha’, the Ascension church parish at the village of La Fourche. “The Church of the Ascension” led to the common appellation of ‘La Fourche’ as ‘L’Ascension.’
As the English encroached upon Spanish territory in Louisiana, Spain recruited settlers from the Canary Islands to help defend their land in 1778. Called ‘Islenos,’ the soldiers from the Canary Islands founded two settlements near L’Ascension, ‘Villa de Galvez’ and ‘Villa de Valanzuela.’ War mounted upon war. In 1779, the American Revolution passed through the dense forests of Louisiana. Successfully defending the region were the Spanish battalions and local militia consisting of Frenchmen, Cajuns, Islenos, Germans, Africans, and tribal natives.
In 1800, Spain returned the territory of Louisiana to France. Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803. When news of ‘The Purchase’ reached L’Ascension, English settlers were jubilant, but the French were wary and dismayed.
L’Ascension area was formally named ‘Acadia’ in 1804, when Louisiana was further subdivided after the Purchase. At that time, approximately 5,000 people lived in Acadia, then known as the ‘Gold Coast.’ In 1807, Orleans Territory was divided into 19 parishes. From Acadia were created the parishes of ‘Ascension’ and ‘St. James’.
Ascension Parish is a true American treasure. Embracing its history of Spanish conquistadores, French colonials, English exiles, bloody battlefields, and acres of ripening sugar cane, Ascension is able to look forward to the future with hope while holding onto a secure promise of many more adventures to come. The smorgasbord of traditions, languages, and people have been stirred together into a unique cultural pot. Add some spice, play some music. Let the good times roll. This is the Jambalaya Nation.
Special Thanks to the following sources:
Von de Leigh Hatcher. Other writing by Hatcher can be found at http://vondeleigh.wordpress.com
Gonzales Committee on Cultural Affairs: http://gonzalesculture.org
City of Gonzales: http://www.gonzalesla.com
Ascension Parish Tourism: http://www.tourascension.com
Ascension Parish Chamber of Commerce: http://www.ascensionchamber.com