Section 2.2: Early Colonial Settlements in the Mississippi Delta

European colonial exploration of the Mississippi Delta and adjacent regions of the Gulf Coast began in 16th century with Hernando de Soto. By the beginning of the 18th century, sizeable European colonial populations inhabited the region. Initially, Spanish and French colonists were attracted to the Mississippi for the purposes of transportation and trade.

For example, the city of New Orleans was positioned to provide access to the interior of southern North America from the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River (Campanella, 2008). The port of New Orleans was linked with Lake Pontchartrain through a network of portages and canals, which took advantage of some naturally occurring bayous (e.g. Bayou St. John). These bayous formed initially as distributaries of the Mississippi during the deposition of the St. Bernard sediment lobe. In this way, the location of New Orleans was selected to maximize the use of the geographical features associated with the Lower Mississippi Valley and the Gulf Coast.

Further away from the transportation corridor of the Mississippi River channel, European colonial settlements focused on the availability of economic resources. In some ways, early European settlements along the Gulf Coast mirrored the patterns of the Native American populations that continued to live in the same region. Coastal settlements were associated with wetland ecosystems, which were rich and diverse, and which provided a wealth of food and other economic resources.

Over time, many distinct European, African, and Asian populations arrived in the Gulf Coast region, mixing with Native American communities and each other, while developing innovative adaptations to the landscapes and environments of the coast. This process of cultural exchange and adaptation accounts for the unique cultural heritage of coastal Louisiana, which is home to countless cultural identities and life ways. This invaluable cultural heritage is not just a reason to value the preservation of the Gulf Coast coastline, it is also a source of potential solutions to the many problems facing the coast today.

In 1804, Louisiana became a part of the United States thanks to the Louisiana Purchase. By then, European populations had filled the agricultural bottomlands of the Mississippi Valley with agricultural plantations. Relying on a brutal system of slave labor and the importation of enslaved peoples from Africa, this agricultural system was extremely lucrative—at least for the elites that controlled it. In this way, the plantation lands of the river parishes of the newly established state of Louisiana became a highly prized economic commodity, as well as a tragic source of inequality, hegemony, and brutality.

By the middle of the 19th century, the map of Louisiana had become fairly recognizable to modern eyes. Most of the major cities and towns of modern Louisiana had been established and the predominant economies of fishing and farming had taken shape.

In addition, at this time, a number of major social and economic distinctions had solidified in the Lower Mississippi Valley: the contrast between urban ports, which were involved in trade, and their rural peripheries, which relied on fishing and farming; between large plantations centered on fertile alluvial plains of the Mississippi and populations inhabiting wetland areas that were largely unsuitable for farming; and the enormous differences between the wealthy and powerful elites, who controlled trade and agricultural production, and the underclasses of enslaved peoples and the poor, who provided labor and who tended to live on the social and environmental fringes of society.

Go to: Section 2.3: The Mississippi River Levee System