There are three sites in the Opelousas area with remains of people who lived as much as 12,500 years ago in small, nomadic hunting groups. They followed the game they hunted with spears tipped with rock points, camping near streams in temporary shelters made of branches, grass, and hides.
Artifacts have been found at about 20 other locations near Opelousas where people lived about 7,000 years ago. These were also nomads, but they probably moved less often than the earlier tribes. They remained in some spots long enough to create mounds (either as burial sites or as garbage middens) that can still be found.
Even in historic times the Opelousas Indians were apparently more or less nomadic. In 1733, representatives of the tribe appeared before the governing body of the Louisiana colony to ask that traders be sent to visit them. If the traders came, they said, they would give up their nomadic ways and settle into villages.
The name Opelousas has been given many meanings, but the long accepted one is “black leg.” Some people think members of the tribe painted their legs a dark color. Another theory is that the Opelousas’ legs were stained when they waded in stagnant waters to hunt and fish. Simon le Page Du Pratz, who lived in Louisiana from 1718 to 1734, said the Opelousas lived just west of two small lakes east of what is now Opelousas. The waters of the lake were black because of a huge number of leaves covering the bottom.
The tribe that became known as the Opelousas probably came to Louisiana about 2,000 years ago. By about 1,200 years ago, they farmed, had pottery and other crafts, made axes and other crude tools, and smoked tobacco in pipes. They traded with other tribes, lived in windowless houses, and buried their dead in huge mounds.
In 1700, the Opelousas Indians were living on a stream, probably Bayou Courtableau, in houses built by arranging poles in teepee shape, plastering them with mud, covering them with palmetto leaves, and, finally, with mats of cane. They farmed, hunted and fished. They worshiped spirits, good (the sun) and bad (disease). They played games involving balls and sticks and they sang and danced. The people, by most reports, were friendly with Europeans, but there is an account reportedly written by the granddaughter of Judge Seth Lewis that says his home near Opelousas was fortified during “Indian wars.”
“When my grandfather bought his Louisiana plantation there was on it large double log house which had been a fort during the war with the Indians, and it was called Camp Hamilton. He retained the name, and the house was built of strong magnolia logs and was almost indestructible. He had the old building enclosed by a wood casing and added to it at the back; so that when I first saw it, it was a large old-fashioned double house, three rooms deep, and with a wide hall in the center and porches at the back and front,” she wrote.
In 1706, Juchereau St. Denis, founder of Natchitoches, was among the Opelousas Indians on a trading expedition. He reported, “The Opelousas are not afraid of the white man and they seemed to be accustomed to him. Among these Indians were seen two buckles of French make. They understood the French word ami as friend.”
The Opelousas were reported living near the town of Opelousas in 1724, evidently remaining there as long as they kept their tribal identity. In 1805, their tribal village was 15 miles west of present-day Opelousas.
One of the places where the Opelousas Indians camped or lived was in the area of Opelousas Catholic School, behind St. Landry Catholic Church on North Union Street. A lot of arrowheads have been found over the years in the area and, at one time, there was a mound with a pine tree standing on the property. This is said to have been the lookout post. In addition, there were fresh water springs at the site.
About 20 Opelousas Indians were still alive in 1814, but there is no mention of them later. Few signs of the days of the Opelousas Indians remain.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.