History Louisiana History St Landry History

Tidbits of Opelousas History – A Place Called Opelousas

CAROLA LILLIE HARTLEY
Contributing Writer

For those of us who have been around Opelousas for some time, when we talk about our town, we are talking about a place that we know today and have also known for several decades. But the place that we now call Opelousas has been an established inhabited land for many centuries before our time. In fact, we can trace this place back to the earliest inhabitants of Louisiana — back to several thousand years BC.

Many, many years ago the first humans settled in the territory of the present city of Opelousas, Louisiana. Although not much is known about these early prehistoric inhabitants, it’s safe to say they arrived in the Opelousas area over 12,500 years ago. And through the centuries, Archeologist and Anthropologists have agreed that the area we now call Opelousas and St. Landry Parish was inhabited by all but one of the prehistoric cultures of Louisiana. In fact, there are at lease 110 places in St. Landry Parish identified as sites where prehistoric people lived. The land they settled and roamed has been a great place to live since that time. (Note, for those of you interested in the prehistory of Louisiana, I encourage you to check out the Louisiana Division of Archaeology at http://www.crt.state.la.us/archaeology)

Following the prehistoric period in Louisiana and Opelousas, a group, or band, from the historic Attakapa tribe of Louisiana lived in the area we know today as our hometown. They were the Opelousas, and the city of Opelousas takes its name from these early people.

In the book, The Historic Indian Tribes of Louisiana – from 1542 to the Present (written by Fred B. Kniffen, Hiram F. Gregory and George A. Stokes, published by Louisiana State University Press in 1987), Fred Kniffen writes about the Attakapa and the Opelousas Indians of Louisiana as follows: “The Attakapa comprised four sovereign bands, each of which had one or more villages. Dialectic differences distinguished the two eastern bands known as the ‘sunrise people’ from the other bands, known as the ‘sunset people.’ A fifth band, the Opelousas, were related only linguistically.”

Kniffen goes on to say about the Opelousas band: “The principal nineteenth century village of the Opelousas was some fifteen miles west of the Opelousas church, at the edge of the great swamp. Other sites have been reported to the north and west of this village, and on Bayou Plaquemine Brule.” (Note: When Kniffen refers to the Opelousas Church he may not necessarily be referring to the church building or grounds. After the Louisiana Purchase and before Opelousas was officially incorporated in 1821, the town area was known as Opelousas Church. So that is something to keep in mind when trying to determine the location of the principal 19th century village of the Opelousas Indian tribe.)

He continues, “The Opelousas were reported near Opelousas in 1725, evidently remaining there as long as their tribal identity was retained. In 1803 their tribal village was located some fifteen miles west of present-day Opelousas. There were about twenty Opelousas in 1814, and by 1830 there were none.” Kniffen claims the remaining Opelousas may have been absorbed by the Attakapa or the Bayou Chicot Choctaw.

When the first French explorers and the Coureur de Bois (runners of the woods) arrived around what is now Opelousas, the people they encountered were the Opelousas. Since these people were friendly to the newcomers, some of the early explorers and fur traders began to settle in the area. Although area and local historians do not all agree on the exact date of this early settlement, the City of Opelousas concluded many years ago it was about 1720. This would make Opelousas one of the oldest settlements in Louisiana. In 1970 the town celebrated the 250th anniversary of this settlement date.

Regardless of what side of this founding argument you are on, it is a fact that the name Opelousas, and the area that is now the city we know, goes back hundreds of years before the Europeans and all people of other cultural groups arrived.

Watch for more information on the early days of Opelousas in future articles.

Drawing of Attakapa man as described by the early Europeans.