By Gary E. Theall
In 1682, René Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle (1643-1687) claimed all of the land drained by the Mississippi River for Louis XIV of France, and called it "La Louisiane." The property that now comprises Vermilion Parish is drained not by the Mississippi River, but by the Vermilion River. This raises the interesting question: if the Louisiana Purchase included the lands claimed by LaSalle, how did Vermilion Parish become part of Louisiana?
La Salle later attempted to return to Louisiana to found a colony, but failed. Eventually, Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville and his younger brother, Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, started a successful colony. They founded Biloxi in 1699, and Mobile in 1702. After the death of Iberville in Havana in 1706, Bienville founded New Orleans in 1718.
As time went on, the English colonists along the Atlantic seaboard began to move westward. The area between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River became a contested zone. Conflict erupted in 1754 between England and France over this territory, leading to the French and Indian War. France, wanting to put the Louisiana territory west of the Mississippi River out of the reach of England, secretly entered into the Treaty of Fontainebleau with Spain, by which France ceded Louisiana to Spain in return for Spain's help in fighting England. Spain's help was not enough to win, and the war was ended by the Treaty of Paris (1763), by which England kept Canada and the area between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, France kept the area around New Orleans, and Spain kept Louisiana west of the Mississippi River.
After the war, some of the Acadian families that England had deported from Nova Scotia began to arrive in Louisiana. The governors sent the steadily arriving stream of Acadian families to the Attakapas District (which contains present-day Vermilion Parish), to the Opelousas District, to Pointe Coupee, to the German Coast, and elsewhere.
In 1800 (after the American and the French Revolutions), the United States was a separate country independent of England, and Napoleon Bonaparte was the ruler of France. Bonaparte reacquired Louisiana from Spain through the Treaty of San Ildefonso (1800). The treaty did not specifically describe the western boundary of Louisiana. Spain informed the United States that it would no longer have free use of the Mississippi River and would no longer have the right of deposit at New Orleans, as France was taking Louisiana back. This caused considerable consternation among Americans engaged in river commerce. The president at the time, Thomas Jefferson, addressed Congress several times to emphasize the seriousness of the situation.
Jefferson's minister to France was Robert R. Livingston, whom Jefferson instructed to negotiate with the French to try to obtain the river rights and the right of deposit. Jefferson sent James Monroe to join Livingston in Paris to impress upon him the extreme urgency of the matter, but by the time Monroe arrived in France, Livingston had almost completed a deal for the United States to buy all of Louisiana. What Livingston and Monroe accomplished was probably the greatest real estate deal in history—the Louisiana Purchase. However, the French were unable to give the Americans an exact description of the western boundary of Louisiana.
On November 30, 1803, France officially took possession of Louisiana from Spain. Twenty days later, on December 20, 1803, France delivered possession of Louisiana to the United States. The ceremony took place in the Cabildo at New Orleans, after which the French flag was lowered and the American flag was raised in Jackson Square. When the flags met at half-staff, they were paused while cannons and fusillades were fired.
One of the first things that the United States Congress did with Louisiana was to pass a law dividing the territory into two parts. All of the Louisiana territory situated south of the 33rd parallel (the present northern boundary of the state of Louisiana) was to be known as the "Territory of Orleans," and the portion to the north was to be known as the "district of Louisiana." Again, the location of the western boundary was not specified. In 1812, the Territory of Orleans was well enough developed to apply for statehood. The western boundary of the new state of "Louisiana" was tentatively set at the middle of the Sabine River. It was absolutely unknown at that time whether this western boundary could be defended.
In 1819, President James Monroe (Livingston's partner in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase) gave his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, the task of negotiating with Spain to fix the elusive boundary between the Louisiana territory and the Spanish lands to the west. Adams negotiated the boundaries with Don Luis De Onis of Spain. The boundary between Spain and America, insofar as the state of Louisiana was concerned, was fixed along the west bank of the Sabine River until the 32nd parallel is reached, then north to the 33rd parallel (still the boundary of the state of Louisiana, except that a later dispute with Texas moved the boundary from the west bank to the center of the Sabine River).
Thus the Adams-Onis Treaty finally fixed the previously unidentifiable western boundary of the state of Louisiana, and established that the land comprising Vermilion Parish was indeed included in Louisiana and in the United States.