Present-day St. John the Baptist Parish includes the third permanent settlement in what is now the state of Louisiana, after Natchitoches (1714) and New Orleans (1718). It was considered part of the German Coast because the area was settled in the early 1720’s by a group of German colonists. Many families established towns close to the Mississippi River in the areas now known as Lucy, Garyville and Reserve. The area was under the French regime until 1763, when France ceded Louisiana to Spain after the Seven Years’ War or the French and Indian War.
At the beginning of the Spanish colonial period, many Acadians, people of French descent, began arriving in south Louisiana due to being expelled by the British from what is now Nova Scotia, when the British were victorious in the Seven Years’ War and took over French territory in Canada and North America east of the Mississippi river. The first Acadian village was established in what is now Wallace, Louisiana. The German and French cultures thrived alongside one another, but French came to be the dominant language. They developed a culture known as Cajun.
The early settlers in the area received land grants from the Spanish or French royal governments, depending upon which country owned the territory at the time of application. These grants generally included some narrow frontage on the river for access to transportation of goods to and from New Orleans and world markets. The remaining property extended away from the river deeply into the wetlands. This was a French style of property allotment.
Most transportation was done by boat, mainly on the bayous and lakes, but via the Mississippi River as well, for decades into the 19th century. St. John, with its fertile land being nine feet above sea level, proved to be an excellent settlement for farming and agriculture. In the late 18th century, planters began to invest more in labor-intensive sugar cane cultivation and processing, increasing their demand for slave labor. Sugar production meant prosperity for the planters and New Orleans. Planters held large numbers of slaves, to the extent that the parishes had black majorities before the Civil War.
With the sugar wealth, some wealthy planters built elaborate houses and outbuildings. Three survived in St. John Parish and each is recognized for its national architectural and historic significance. On the west bank are the major complex of house and outbuildings designated as the Whitney Plantation Historic District and the National Historic Landmark (NHL) of Evergreen Plantation. San Francisco Plantation House, also a designated NHL, is on the east bank. San Francisco and Evergreen plantations are open to the public for tours. Whitney and Evergreen plantations are both included among the first 26 sites on the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail.
In January 1811, the German Coast Uprising started in the parish. It was the largest slave insurrection in U.S. history, but it was short-lived. The slaves killed two whites, but suffered 96 deaths among their forces at the hands of the militia and in executions after quick trials afterward. They attacked five plantations and burned three houses to the ground. Charles Deslondes, a mulatto or mixed-race slave brought from Saint-Domingue before the success of its revolution, was one of the leaders of the insurrection. He and his followers were influenced by the ideals and promises of the French and Haitian revolutions.
He gathered more than 200 slaves from plantations along the way, marching into St. Charles Parish toward New Orleans before meeting much resistance. Unable to get the arms they had planned on, the slaves were defeated by the well-armed informal and territorial militias. During these confrontations and executions after brief trials, Deslondes and ninety-five slaves were killed. Decades before the American Civil War and emancipation, their actions expressed African American’s deep desire for freedom.
As the number of white families in the settlement increased, they wanted education for their children. Before the Civil War, typically planters would hire tutors, often college graduates from the North, who would live with the family for an extended period of time, typically two years. The tutor would teach all of the planter’s children, and sometimes the family would arrange for other neighborhood children to join the classes as well.
In 1869, following the Civil War, families wanting French instruction founded private schools to continue their culture. The Reconstruction legislature established the first public schools in the state during this period, but it took time for the state to arrange adequate funding for public education. The first high schools at Edgard and Reserve were not built until 1909. Students traveled to the schools by horse-drawn buses or by train.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the parish has a total area of 348 square miles (900 km), of which 213 square miles (550 km) are land and 135 square miles (350 km) (39%) are water. It is the third-smallest parish in Louisiana by land area and fifth smallest by total area.
St. John the Baptist Parish is located on the Mississippi River approximately 130 miles (210 km) upriver from the Gulf of Mexico and 30 miles (48 km) upriver from the City of New Orleans. The area, known as the River Region, has an abundance of natural resources and a mild “Sunbelt” climate. The average monthly temperature in New Orleans ranges from 55.1° in January to 83.7° in July, and rainfall averages 53.2” per year with monthly averages running from 2.52” in October to 7.17” in July. The New Orleans/River Region contains a good supply of raw materials, which has helped Louisiana maintain a high rank in the United States in the production of natural gas, petroleum, sulphur, salt and fur pelts. High silica sands, lime, clays, timber, seafood and various agricultural products are also produced in abundance.
St. John the Baptist Parish is bisected by the Mississippi River. Though the River actually separates the Parish into northern and southern parts, the former is still referred to as the “east bank” and the latter as the “west bank.” The Mississippi River provides an important transportation corridor which supports the heavy industry located in the area.
St. John the Baptist Parish is bordered by St. Charles Parish and Lake Pontchartrain to the east, Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas to the north, Lafourche Parish and Lac des Allemands to the south, and St. James Parish to the west. It is one of three parishes which comprise the “River Parishes” with St. John Parish being the heart of the “River Parishes.” This section of the state, also consisting of St. James and St. Charles Parishes, makes up the area along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. All of these parishes are home to at least one major chemical and/or petroleum processing facility, the primary sources of employment in the region.
Much of the parish is either open water or wetlands. The wetlands are currently protected by federal law and development is limited to what is permitted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and/or the Federal Wildlife and Fisheries Department.
Higher ground in the parish is found in an alluvial plain which generally borders the Mississippi River on both sides. Soil deposits from the Mississippi’s annual flooding created a rich and fertile area which has historically been intensively farmed (sugar cane, soybeans, feed corn, and occasional cotton). This fact, and the natural transportation corridor supplied by the river, resulted in the creation of numerous farms and plantations along the lower Mississippi Valley.
Many of these plantations were large tracts of land with modest or average-sized homes and outbuildings found on the higher ground. Several, however, were improved with palatial mansions. Three of the larger homes have survived in St. John Parish, as noted in the History above.
The higher ground along the banks was used to grow crops, while the wetlands were valued for their abundant timber, hunting and fishing. For years development in the River Parishes was limited to those areas that were naturally higher and less prone to flooding. Until the existing levees and pump systems were built, however, few places were truly safe from high water. Even today, most of the parish is considered a flood hazard area according to FEMA Flood Maps.
The primary artery on the east bank of St. John Parish is Airline Highway (U.S. Highway 61). This five-lane, asphalt-paved road was once the predominant route linking Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Though it is still heavily traveled, much of the New Orleans-Baton Rouge traffic has been diverted to Interstate 10, located in the northern part of the parish. Interstate 10, a divided, controlled-access highway, has two interchanges in St. John Parish; one at Belle Terre Boulevard and the second at U.S. Highway 51/Interstate 55, both in LaPlace. Both Belle Terre Boulevard and Highway 51 intersect Airline Highway approximately 3.5 miles (5.6 km) south of Interstate 10.
Interstate 55, a north-south route leading to Jackson, Mississippi, and beyond, intersects Interstate 10 in the northeastern sector of LaPlace. A third Interstate 10 interchange exists just west of the St. John Parish line near Gramercy in St. James Parish.
River Road, also known as Jefferson Highway or Louisiana Highway 44, is a two-lane, asphalt-paved, winding highway which parallels the Mississippi River. Most of the heavy industry in the parish fronts on this road.
Most of the development on the west bank lies along Louisiana Highway 18 (the Great River Road), a two-lane, asphalt-paved highway which parallels the Mississippi River similarly to Highway 44 on the east bank. In addition to Louisiana 18, the west bank has Louisiana Highway 3127 or the River Parishes Highway, which is roughly equivalent to the east bank’s Airline Highway in that it follows the Mississippi River. It is not as winding nor as populated as River Road. Highway 3127 leads to Donaldsonville upriver from St. John Parish. It is home to the “Sunshine Bridge” over the Mississippi River in Ascension Parish. This road has little development on either side and is generally surrounded by wetlands in St. John Parish.
Veterans Memorial Bridge or Gramercy Bridge (Louisiana Highway 3213) originates on the east bank of St. James Parish near Gramercy/Lutcher and has access to I-10 and Airline Highway via Louisiana Highway 641. The foot of the bridge on the west bank is in St. John Parish near Wallace, with a tie-in to Louisiana Highway 3127 that opened June 18, 2008. The opening of this bridge has spurred the development hoped for along the west bank of St. John Parish. The bridge is also known as the “Bridge to No where.”
Access to the west bank of St. John Parish is also provided by a ferry crossing at Reserve/Edgard and by the Hale Boggs Bridge over the Mississippi in St. Charles Parish.