The second largest city in Louisiana, Baton Rouge was established as a military post by the French in 1719. The present name of the city, however, dates back to 1699, when French explorers noted a red cypress tree stripped of its bark that marked the boundary between Houma and Bayou Goula tribal hunting grounds. They called the tree "le baton rouge," or red stick. The native name for the site had been Istrouma. From evidence found along the Mississippi, Comite, and Amite rivers, and in three native mounds remaining in the city, archaeologists have been able to date habitation of the Baton Rouge area to 8000 B.C.
Since European settlement, Baton Rouge has functioned under seven governing bodies: France, England, Spain, Louisiana, the Florida Republic, the Confederate States, and the United States. In the mid-1700s when French-speaking settlers of Acadia, Canada's maritime regions, were driven into exile by British forces, many took up residence in rural Louisiana. Popularly known as Cajuns, descendants of the Acadians maintained a separate culture that immeasurably enriched the Baton Rouge area. Incorporated in 1817, Baton Rouge became Louisiana's state capital in 1849. During the first half of the nineteenth century the city grew steadily as the result of steamboat trade and transportation; at the outbreak of the Civil War the population was 5,500 people. The war halted economic progress but did not actually touch the town until it was occupied by Union forces in 1862.
In August of that year, the Third Battle of Baton Rouge was fought at Port Hudson, less than 25 miles north of the city. Six thousand Confederate troops were ultimately defeated by 18,000 Union soldiers in one of the longest sieges in American military history.
During the war, the state capital had been moved to Shreveport, but it was returned to Baton Rouge in 1880. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the town had undergone significant industrial development as a result of its strategic location for the production of petroleum, natural gas, and salt. In 1909 the Standard Oil Company built a facility that proved to be a lure for other petrochemical firms. Throughout World War II, these plants increased production for the war effort and contributed to the growth of the city.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Baton Rouge experienced a boom in the petrochemical industry, causing the city to expand away from the river and threatening to strand the historic downtown area. In recent years, however, government and business have begun a move back to the central district. A building boom that began in the 1990s continues today, with multi million dollar projects for quality of life improvements and new construction happening all over the city. With a renewed interest and focus in the downtown area, it appears that the twenty-first century will mark a new phase in the life of the city.
Historical Information: Foundation for Historical Louisiana, 900 North Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA, 70802; telephone (225)387-2464. Baton Rouge Genealogical & Historical Society, PO Box 80565, Southeast Station, Baton Rouge, LA 70898-0565. Louisiana Genealogical & Historical Society, PO Box 82060, Baton Rouge, LA 70884-2060. Louisiana State Archives, Secretary of States Building, 3851 Essen Lane, Baton Rouge, LA; telephone (225)922-1209