Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is the state's capital and second-largest city, situated on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, in the southeastern region of the state. The city has a rich and diverse history that spans hundreds of years, with a mixture of Native American, French, Spanish, and American cultures influencing the city's development. Baton Rouge's history is shaped by its geography and political environment, with the Mississippi River and the state's unique political landscape playing significant roles.
The history of Baton Rouge can be traced back to the pre-Columbian period, when Native American tribes, such as the Houma, Bayougoula, and Tangipahoa, inhabited the region. The tribes utilized the Mississippi River for trade and transportation, and their culture was heavily influenced by the river's resources. The city's name, Baton Rouge, is derived from the French phrase "le bâton rouge," meaning "the red stick." The name is said to have originated from a red pole that marked the boundary between two Native American tribes.
In 1699, the French explorer Sieur d'Iberville arrived in the region and claimed it for France. The French established a small settlement at the present-day location of Baton Rouge, and the city became an important center of trade and commerce. The French ceded the region to Spain in 1763, and the Spanish maintained control until 1802, when France regained control of the area. In 1803, the United States purchased the region, as part of the Louisiana Purchase, and Baton Rouge became a part of the United States.
The city's location on the Mississippi River was crucial to its development, as it served as a vital transportation hub for the region. In the mid-19th century, Baton Rouge's economy grew rapidly, thanks to the expansion of the cotton industry and the construction of railroads. The city's population increased steadily, from around 2,000 in 1830 to over 10,000 by 1860. Baton Rouge's strategic location also made it a site of significant military importance during the Civil War. Union troops occupied the city in 1862 and maintained control for the rest of the war.
After the war, Baton Rouge's population continued to grow, as the city became a center for education and industry. The establishment of Louisiana State University in 1860 and Southern University in 1880 helped to establish Baton Rouge as an educational center. The city's industry also grew, with the establishment of major industries, such as the Standard Oil Company, in the early 20th century.
Throughout the 20th century, Baton Rouge's political landscape was shaped by the state's unique politics. Louisiana's system of "courthouse politics," which allowed powerful political figures to maintain control over local governments, had a significant impact on Baton Rouge. Political boss Huey P. Long, who served as governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932, and as a U.S. Senator from 1932 until his assassination in 1935, was a major political figure in the state and had significant influence over Baton Rouge's development. Long's "Share Our Wealth" program and other populist initiatives helped to improve the city's infrastructure and economy.
In the mid-20th century, Baton Rouge became a center of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1953, Southern University students staged a sit-in to protest segregation at local lunch counters, and in 1960, Baton Rouge was the site of the first successful bus boycott in the United States. The Civil Rights Movement had a significant impact on Baton Rouge's politics and culture, and the city continued to be a center for activism throughout the 1960s and 1970s.