Lafayette, the heart of Acadiana and the unofficial capital of Cajun Country, with its gleaming present belies an exciting and captivating past. Lafayette is a metropolis which displays an extraordinary mixture of tradition and progressiveness. Having a rich French heritage blended with Spanish, American, Indian and African influences, the city represents a colorful combination of lifestyles.
Lafayette lies 15 miles west of the Atchafalaya Basin and 35 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico and exhibits the subtropical climate typical of South Louisiana. The city is situated in a geographical area of forests and prairies interlaced with bayous, swamps and marshes.
The first known inhabitants, the Attakapas Indians, were known to have populated the Lafayette area in the 1700s. The tribe was very powerful and feared by other Indians. The Attakapas dominated until three opposing tribes, the Opelousas, Alabamons and Choctaws, united in battle and conquered their opponent. Legend reports that the Attakapas Indians supposedly ate their prisoners of war.
The exact date when the first European settlers reached the Lafayette area is not known. Early historians report that a few trappers, traders and ranchers were present in the region prior to the Spanish occupation of 1766. A census conducted in 1769 by Spanish Governor O'Reilly indicated a population of 409 for the area.
The historical event of the 18th century which had the greatest cultural impact on Lafayette was the migration of the Acadians from French Canada. Approximately 18,000 French-speaking Catholic inhabitants settled Acadie (now Nova Scotia) in 1605 and lived there under French rule until 1713 when the region went into English hands.
Faced with the refusal of the Acadians to pledge allegiance to the British crown and Anglican Church, English Governor Charles Lawrence took action. Acting on his own and not under orders from the crown as he professed, he gave the orders that led to the expulsion of the Acadians in 1755, also known as "Le Grand Derangement."
Families were separated and as the Acadians went to sea under dreadful conditions, more than half lost their lives. The exiles ended up in many locations and in 1784, the King of Spain consented to allow them to settle in South Louisiana. The Acadians then joined a scattering of their people who had arrived as early as 1765 from the Caribbean and the East Coast.
Some exiles settled at various locations along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, but most followed the path which led to New Orleans. There they received a hostile greeting from the French aristocracy so they headed west into unsettled territory. They settled along the bayous of south central and south western Louisiana where they could live according to their own beliefs and customs.
The first settlement, known as Petit Manchac, was established by the English who used it during the Revolutionary War as an outpost. It constituted a small trading post on the banks of the Vermilion River where the Old Spanish Trail crossed the bayou (about where today's Pinhook Bridge is located). The village also came to be known as Pin Hook, a name about which many stories of origin exist.
The years of 1765-1785 marked the great immigration period of the Acadians and many land grants were given by the French and Spanish governments. As a result of the Treaty of Fountainebleau in 1762, Louisiana went from French to Spanish rule. The Spanish actually took possession in 1766. The French Revolution of 1789 had its effect on Lafayette as many French Loyalists fled to Louisiana to settle. With the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Louisiana then became possession of the United States.
More specifically for Lafayette, in 1821, Jean Mouton (an Acadian) donated land for the construction of a Catholic church. On May 15, 1822 Bishop Duborg created the church parish of St. John the Evangelist of Vermilion which encompassed the area from Mouton's plantation south to the Gulf of Mexico and west to the Sabine River.
A settlement grew around the church and on January 17, 1823, the Louisiana Legislature created Lafayette Parish from the western portion of what was St. Martin Parish. Mouton made a second land donation to the new community, this time for a courthouse. The town of Vermilionville became the new parish's seat. The settlement grew and the town of Vermilionville was renamed Lafayette in 1884 in honor of the French Marquis de Lafayette.
ACADIANA: THE REGION, THE WORD, THE HERITAGE
© Craig Mergist, 1997, Le Guide, Volume 18, Number 3, used with permission
The term Acadiana, (a-kay'-dee-anna) has come to signify all that is great about south Louisiana. It encompasses the "joie de vivre" so well-known in Cajun Country, the "work hard and play hard" attitude exhibited by the people who live here, and the love of the land settled generations ago by our ancestors.
But while the qualities which make this area unique can be traced back to those early settlers, the word Acadiana is relatively new. June 6  will mark the 26th anniversary of the official state recognition of the area and the adoption of the term Acadiana as a specific region of the state. It was in 1971 that the then-Gov. Edwin Edwards signed the bill designating the 22-parish (county) area of Acadiana, with Lafayette enjoying a geographic position in the heart of the region.
It was only a decade before that the word Acadiana came into existence, and, as with so many treasures of life, was stumbled upon by accident.
When KATC TV-3 began operation in 1962, it was owned by Acadian Television Corp., according to Bill Patton, who served as the station's general manager at the time.
"We began searching for something to identify the area," Patton says. "There were other areas, like ArkLaTex and the Golden Triangle, which were popular, and we wanted something for this area. We thought about terms like 'Evangeline Country,' but nothing seemed right. We covered about a 60-mile radius and we couldn't find anything that really defined the area for us.
"Then, sometime around early 1963, the president of the company and I were going over invoices, and one of them was addressed to Acadiana Television Corp. Someone had typed an extra "a" at the end of the word Acadian. Right away we knew it was what we were looking for. We started using it at the station." The typo was, in fact, a logical combination of the names of the two geographic areas important to Cajun culture; Acadie, the area of Canada from which the French settlers were expelled in the late 1700's and, Louisiana, where they later settled and flourished.
To the station's credit, KATC never tried to copyright the term. That way, everyone would be free to use the term, and it would have a better chance of catching on with the public. The strategy worked. Today, there are dozens of businesses with the word "Acadiana" in its name.
When the Legislature began to consider adopting the term Acadiana and designating a specific geographic location for it, Patton says they were against it.
"We protested," he said. "We thought it was a disservice to the word and to the region, because it really cannot be defined in geographic terms. We felt that if people wanted to think they were in Acadiana, that was fine. It was more a feeling, a way of life."
And so it is that today's Cajuns remain true to the way of life handed down from generation to generation, becoming a living legacy to the first Acadians.