Throughout Louisiana’s history, American Indians, Spanish, French, British, Africans, Germans, Anglo Americans, Irish, Italians and others have created the cultural mix that gives the Pelican State its distinctive character. European settlement began in the late 17th century as Spain, France and Great Britain vied to realize their dreams of wealth and empire in the New World. The earliest permanent European settlements within Louisiana’s present boundaries were Natchitoches (1714) and New Orleans (1718). In 1763, after the Seven Years’ War, France gave up its extensive American claims. Spain ended up with French lands west of the Mississippi River, including Louisiana; Britain got the piece of Louisiana east of the river.
France’s Napoleon secretly arranged in 1800 to get Louisiana back from Spain, but American negotiators convinced him to sell it. Then in 1803, the United States acquired the vast Louisiana Purchase for $15 million, about 3 cents an acre. The land at its southernmost tip became the state of Louisiana in 1812.
The Europeans had learned early on that the area’s coastal plains produced impressive sugar cane and rice crops. As cotton became a popular cash crop in the 19th century, small farmers and planters spread production throughout Louisiana. By 1860, about 47 percent of Louisiana’s residents were slaves. Of the state’s free inhabitants, more than one-fifth the largest percentage in the South were foreign-born. In fact, New Orleans has long been a major port of entry for immigrants. (See the August 2004 Family Tree Magazine for a guide to finding your ancestors in immigration records.)
In spite of some opposition to secession, Louisiana joined the Confederacy during the Civil War. Numerous wartime engagements took place there, and today that history attracts heritage-minded travelers. Along with tourism, urban and industrial growth have considerably diversified the state’s economy.
In the 1750s, after Britain expelled French colonists called Acadians from what’s now Nova Scotia, many sought refuge in southern Louisiana’s bayou country. Scores of their descendants are today’s Cajuns. Creoles were colonists of European descent who were born in the New World and often stood among the elite of Louisiana society. Some had mixed European and African ancestry.
Colonial church and government records even censuses can help locate pre-1803 ancestors. For record resources, consult the Louisiana section in Ancestry’s Red Book, third edition (Ancestry), and search archives and online library catalogs for terms such as louisiana colonial records or louisiana church records. To see the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) <www.familysearch.org> holdings, click Library and Library Catalog, then do a place search for Louisiana. You can borrow FHL film through a branch Family History Center (FHC) the FamilySearch site can help you find a center near you.
The Louisiana Genealogical and Historical Society’s <www.rootsweb.com/˜lalghs> First Families of Louisiana Certificate Program recognizes families living within the state’s present-day boundaries before December 1803. A list of documented ancestors is on the Web site.
Ties to the land
After the United States purchased the Louisiana territory, settlers who’d received land grants under French, Spanish or British rule began filing claims to prove land ownership to the federal government. Many of these private land claims submitted before 1838 are abstracted in the congressional publication American State Papers: Public Lands, online at <memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwsp.html>. Search for your ancestor by clicking Browse American State Papers, then Public Lands, then Searchable Text for each volume’s index. Look for images of the original claim documents on National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm M1382, Bound Records of the General Land Office Relating to Private Land Claims in Louisiana 1767-1892. It’s available at some NARA facilities and from the FHL (the FHL series starts with film number 1605564). To learn more about finding colonial land records, consult E. Wade Hone’s Land & Property Research in the United States (Ancestry).
If your ancestors bought land from the US government, search for abstracts of their patents and images of the patent certificates on the Bureau of Land Management General Land Office patent search site <www.glorecords.blm.gov>. The certificate date may be later than the date of purchase, so order the land file from NARA (for information, see <www.archives.gov/research_room/obtain_ copies/reproductions_overview.html>).
Records of subsequent land transactions are in the parish clerk’s office (a parish is Louisiana’s equivalent to a county). These deed records, called conveyances in Louisiana, contain transaction details, the legal land description (which you’ll need for researching maps and other land records), and sometimes a wife’s maiden name. To find FHL microfilm of Louisiana conveyances and other parish records, go to the online catalog, click Place Search and enter your ancestor’s parish name (don’t add the word parish).
If your ancestor died leaving property or minor children, you may find a probate record (succession) on microfilm or in the parish clerk’s office. Many succession files include information such as guardianship (or tutorship) of children, their names and ages, and a widow’s remarriage from a family meeting about property disposition and related matters.
Louisiana began statewide birth and death registration in 1914. Look on the Office of Public Health Web site <www.oph.dhh.state.la.us/recordsstatistics/vitalrecords/index.html> under Informational Packets for instructions on obtaining copies. Order birth certificates more than 100 years old, death certificates more than 50 years old and Orleans Parish (home to New Orleans) marriage records more than 50 years old from the Louisiana State Archives <www.sec.state.la.us/archives/archives/archives-library.htm>. For marriage records of other parishes, check the parish clerk’s office that issued the license.
Look for New Orleans ancestors in the Louisiana GenWeb Archives Project <www.rootsweb.com/˜usgenweb/la/orleans.htm>, which includes searchable births, deaths and other pre-1900 events in Orleans Parish. The New Orleans Public Library has an online obituary index <nutrias.org/info/louinfo/louinfo.htm> (look under Genealogy) of notices published in newspapers and biographies between 1804 and 1972. Volunteers still are entering data; to search the entire index of more than 650,000 names, stop by the library or request a lookup and a copy via the Web (see <nutrias.org/info/louinfo/louinfo2.htm>) for a small fee.
US census takers first counted Louisiana residents in 1810, when the area was Orleans Territory. (Louisiana Territory was primarily present-day Arkansas and Missouri.) You can search Louisiana’s available censuses at NARA facilities, the FHL and many libraries, as well as on the subscription Web sites Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com > and Genealogy.com <www.genealogy.com>. Unfortunately, the state’s 1890 census burned in 1921 but you may find a Union soldier in its 1890 schedules of Union Civil War veterans and widows.
In US census years from 1850 to 1880, enumerators created separate mortality schedules of many who died during the year before the census, as well as agricultural schedules and manufacturing schedules. Slave schedules in 1850 and 1860 identify slaveholders and provide some facts about individual slaves, but rarely name them. These supplemental and slave schedules are on microfilm at the FHL, the Louisiana state archives and major research facilities (see resources).
Search the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System Web site’s <www.itd.nps.gov/cwss> database of 6.3 million soldier names for help learning if your ancestors were Union or Confederate soldiers, Union African-American sailors or US Medal of Honor recipients. Confederate service records are at the National Archives and on microfilm at major research facilities. Louisianians’ records are abstracted in Records of Louisiana Confederate Soldiers and Louisiana Confederate Commands edited by Andrew Booth (out of print). The Web site <www.rootsweb.com/˜usgenweb/la/military/WBTS.htm> has a transcription of the book, as well as other military records.
Whether you want to consume Cajun cookin’, listen to jazz, live it up at Mardi Gras, tour historic plantations or research Great-grandmother’s parents, Louisiana offers plenty of family history fare. So laissez les bons temps rouler!
From the April 2005 Family Tree Magazine