The earliest settlers in the Lafayette area were the Atakapa-Ishak Indians. The name “Atakapa” means “man eater” in Choctaw and according to legend this tribe engaged in cannibalism and ate their prisoners of war.
Acadians, who arrived in the Lafayette area between 1765 and 1785, were the first great wave of immigration. Acadians were the decedents of French colonists who settled in Nova Scotia in 1604 and established the colony Acadie. After the War of the Spanish Succession ended in 1714, Acadie was ceded to the British, and the Acadians were forced to pledge allegiance to the British crown and renounce their Catholic religion. They refused. Beginning in 1755, the British governor of Acadie exiled Acadians during a period known as the Great Expulsion or the Grand Dérangement.
The King of Spain extended an invitation to the Acadian refugees to come to Louisiana. Many settled in the area that is now Lafayette because they could live according to their own Roman Catholic beliefs and traditions. The Acadians formed what is today referred to as the Cajun culture.
After French Revolution in 1789, the French presence in Lafayette continued to grow as many French loyalists fled to Louisiana to settle. Louisiana, including the Lafayette area, became property of the United States in 1803 through the Louisiana Purchase and Americans searching for inexpensive fertile land immigrated to the area.
Founding of Vermilionville
The original village, which later became Lafayette, was given the name Vermilionville in 1821 when Jean Mouton (an Acadian) donated land for the construction of St. John’s Catholic Church. A settlement grew around the church and Mouton made a second land donation for a courthouse. The villagers laid out the cross-grid town with streets named for U.S. presidents.
The fertility of the land gave rise to great sugar and cotton plantations, along with smaller rice plantations. Slave labor from West Africa operated the plantations and by 1860, fifty percent of the population was enslaved.
Lafayette Name Change
The name of the city changed from Vermilionville to Lafayette in 1884. The city was named after French General Marquis de Lafayette who was a hero in French and American Revolutions. By 1884, Lafayette had a railway stop and a growing population. The arrival of the railroad helped propel the town from an agricultural village to a center of commerce and trade. In 1901, the Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute (SLII), now UL Lafayette, opened its door to students.
In the 1940s, oil was discovered in Lafayette and the petroleum and natural gas industries became dominant growing the local economy. The Heymann Oil Center was established in 1952 to provide commercial office space for the oil and gas industries. The oil industry in Lafayette has continued to expand and Louisiana is now one of the leading producers of oil and natural gas in the country.
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