City History: How Baton Rouge got it's name and more

In early 1699, a French expedition headed by Pierre le Moyne, whose title was Sieur d'Iberville, first saw the site on which the city of Baton Rouge is now located. On February 27, Iberville chose a party to explore the site. It included André Pénicaut, a ship’s carpenter; and Iberville's brother, Jean Baptiste le Moyne, whose title was Sieur de Bienville. Both of these men, who were to become very important in the history of Louisiana , were under the age of twenty.

The party first saw the bluffs of Baton Rouge on March 17, 1699. Iberville and his men reached a small stream at the right of the river. This river separated the hunting grounds of the Bayougoula and the Houmas Indians, living on the Istrouma Bluffs. The banks were separated by a reddened, 30-foot-high maypole with several heads of fish and bear attached in sacrifice and dripping with blood. The natives had planted the pole there to mark the land line between the two nations. The red stick the French saw was probably used both as a boundary marker and for ceremonial purposes. Iberville called this area Baton Rouge , French for red stick, and hence the region's name was born. Historian Rose Meyers notes that the name is also derived from a Choctaw Indian expression, “itti humma” or “istrouma” which essentially means the same as “red stick.”

One can readily believe that the site was used as a point of reference by priests, traders and settlers as they traveled up and down the Mississippi River . Significantly, no one was ever able to change the name though it was attempted several times. Le Baton Rouge had become a permanent part of the landscape. One-third of Louisiana ’s population today is of French descent, and one becomes accustomed to hearing the French accent throughout the area. Archeologists have confirmed that Native Americans were in this area thousands of years before the European explorers. The Indian Mounds on the campus of LSU were built 450 years before the construction of the great Egyptian pyramids. In 1929 an excavation of these mounds led archeologists to conclude that they served as burial mounds. On the grounds of the Louisiana State Capitol is a mound with a flattened top, which is thought to have been a ceremonial mound, one of at least two mounds that once stood in that area.

In 1736, under the Treaty of Paris, the French lost Baton Rouge to the British who maintained a fort here until 1779. In that year, the Spanish governor in New Orleans , Bernardo de Galvez, sent a small army to Baton Rouge and captured the area from the British. The city remained under Spanish rule until 1810 when local residents, mainly Anglo-Americans, took the fort and proclaimed the Republic of West Florida . For 74 days, Baton Rouge was an independent republic with Fulwar Skipwith as governor until the Americans in New Orleans came up the river and raised the American flag. W.C.C. Claiborne was appointed the first American governor by Thomas Jefferson and then elected to the post after statehood in 1812. Interestingly, Zachary Taylor was serving as commander at Baton Rouge ’s Pentagon Barracks when he was elected President of the United States in 1848.

From its origin as the site of an Indian village, through many years as a sleepy river town, to its emergence as a major educational, governmental and industrial center of the south, Baton Rouge has been a city of change and diversity. Baton Rouge was incorporated in 1817 and became the capital of the state in 1846. Louisiana seceded from the Union in 1861, and in August 1862, Baton Rouge fell to the Union forces and the government offices were moved to New Orleans . It was 1882 before Baton Rouge again became the capital of the state.

Louisiana State University opened in Baton Rouge in 1869. The campus was located downtown prior to its move in 1926 to its present location.

In 1927 Huey P. Long was elected governor and served from 1928-1932, when he became a United States Senator. He was elected to the U.S. post in 1930, but did not take his seat until the governorship was secure in the hands of his friend, O.K. Allen.

One of the most famous “populist” politicians, Long provided “free textbooks” for public schools. New highways and bridges were constructed throughout the state. He took special interest in enlarging Louisiana State University and making scholarships easily available. During Long’s term, the new State Capitol was erected. It cost $5 million and took only 14 months to complete. It stands nearly 450 feet tall with 34 stories. It was here that Long was assassinated in 1935. Long is buried on the grounds of the State Capitol.

Baton Rouge was in the forefront of the Civil Rights movement. In 1960, seven African American Southern University students held a demonstration at Kress Department Store’s lunch counter. This protest led to the first case in which the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of an African American arrested for violating the South’s Jim Crow laws.

Today, Baton Rouge is a cosmopolitan city offering superb resources to its visitors and citizens. International research is being conducted at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center and CAMD, Center for Microstructures and Devices. It is the center of the petrochemical industry and home to one of the ten largest ports in the nation.

With the City of Baton Rouge , the dominant center of business, culture, education and finance, the Parish of East Baton Rouge looks forward to even greater prosperity. Baton Rouge is the parish seat of government, the key industrial city in the area and the center of an immense chemical and petroleum complex on the Mississippi River . The metropolitan area is the second largest in the state. The Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport (Ryan Field) is served by four major airlines. Rail service is provided by five railroads. The expanding Port of Greater Baton Rouge ranks in the top ten among the major ports of the nation and second in Louisiana . Projected population figures show that this progressive city will have a phenomenal growth in future decades. One can only guess what Baton Rouge will be like tomorrow, but from all accounts, it seems certain that the future will be filled with bright promise and a continued dedication to growth and progress.

-compiled by Baton Rouge Area CVB & Foundation for Historical Louisiana