Robert Cavelier de La Salle (1643–87) was the first European to follow the Mississippi River to its mouth. On 9 April 1682 he claimed it and its tributaries for France, calling the territory Louisiana after his king, Louis XIV. To forestall claims by England and Spain, Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville (1661–1706) founded a colony, landing on 25 January 1699, and constructing Fort Maurepas at Old Biloxi (now Ocean Springs). Louisiana encompassed the entire Mississippi River basin from the river’s source in what is now Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. It included outposts in southern Indiana and Illinois, but as a practical matter the government, based in New Orleans after its transfer from Biloxi in 1722, exercised minimal authority north of present-day Natchez.
As a result of the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War), France ceded the land west of the Mississippi (including New Orleans) to Spain on 3 November 1762. On 10 February 1763 the Treaty of Paris gave England the land east of the river (including what is now Mississippi) and free navigation of the river, plus Spanish Florida. The Indians living in the immense territories were of course not consulted.
To the French government, a colony—any colony—was worth only what it contributed to the power and wealth of France. The Louisiana Territory was valued for three reasons: (1) it would keep England out of the Mississippi Valley and thus protect New France; (2) it would control the mouth of the river and provide a naval base to protect the immensely profitable West Indies sugar islands; and (3) it might be a base from which France could gain a share of Spain’s colonial trade. Even if Louisiana had become a profitable exporter to France or its colonies, only strategic purposes justified its retention. Hence, in the government’s eyes, after England conquered Canada in the French and Indian War, Louisiana became expendable. It could no longer be defended from the English, but everything west of the river might be given to Spain, France’s ally, to cement the friendship and block further English expansion. Spain and England finally agreed to the deal. French Louisiana was gone—until 1800, when Spain, under duress, gave its share back to Napoleon, who sold it to the United States three years later although he had assured Spain that he would not do so.
Louisiana’s government was part of New France (except for the 1720–31 period) and thus subject to the governor-general in Quebec. In practice, however, Louisiana’s governors (or their interim substitutes) answered only to the Ministry of Marine in Paris. Louisiana remained a royal colony until 1763, and French authority over the Spanish cession continued on an interim basis until 1769.
As in all French colonies, Louisiana’s government was hampered by entangled responsibilities. The governor exercised general oversight and full military authority. After the 1706 death of Iberville, who had mostly been absent, Louisiana’s governors included Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (1713–17); Jean Michele de Lépinay (1717); Étienne Boucher de Périer (1729–33); Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville (1733–43), Iberville’s younger brother, who as king’s lieutenant, commandant, and finally commandant-general was the colony’s most consequential figure; Pierre Rigaud de Vaudreuil (1743–53); and Louis Billouart de Kerlérec (1753–63).
As historian W. J. Eccles has observed, “In one respect Louisiana surpassed all the French colonies: the constant bickering, intrigue, and open quarrelling among the officials.” Aside from turf battles, reasons abounded: the great distances from Paris and Quebec, which hindered supervision and provisioning; perpetual shortages of food and trading goods; miserable salaries, when paid; the inferior talents of many civil and military appointees; intense rivalries between the military and administrative nobilities; plentiful opportunities for graft, corruption, and illicit trading; feuding religious orders and a lack of discipline in the clergy; fear of revolt by the black slaves; and the stress of relations with the Indians—many times more numerous than the colonists—regarding trade, customs, and warfare.
- Arthur S. Aiton, American Historical Review (July 1931)
- W. J. Eccles, France in America (1972)
- Marcel Giraud, Mississippi Valley Historical Review 36 (1949–50)
- Giraud, Histoire de la Louisiana Française, 5 vols. (1953–87)
- Donald J. Lemieux, Southern Studies (Spring 1978)
- John Francis McDermott, ed., The French in the Mississippi Valley (1965)
- K. Saadami, in French Colonial History (2003)
- Jennifer M. Spear, William and Mary Quarterly (January 2003)
- Daniel H. Usner Jr., Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley before 1783 (1992)