It has been said that "You don't know where you're going until you know where you have been". St. James Parish has been through a beautiful and historic past, and we have been left with a legacy unmatched by any other parish. If our future is as successful as our past, then we have much to look forward to.
If our future is as successful as our past, then we have much to look forward to. Our forefathers carved this parish from a wilderness on both banks of the river. Great plantations and small settlements grew out of that wilderness, bearing the beautiful names given them by our forefathers.
History records tell that Hernando deSoto was one of the first Europeans to enter what is now the State of Louisiana, claiming the region for Spain as part of Florida in 1541. Later, LaSalle, sailed down the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers and claimed the territory for France, name it "Louisiana" in honor of French King Louis XIV.
Prior to creation as a civil parish, St. James Parish formed a part of "Conte' d'Acadie" or County of Acadia, which was composed of the old ecclesiastical parishes of St. James and "The Ascension", commonly referred to then as the First and Second Acadian Coasts.
The original seat of government was in St. James Parish on the west bank of the river, but in 1869 it was changed to the east bank, near the "Convent of the Sacred Heart" and a new courthouse was erected. This structure was destroyed by fire in 1904 aden another was built in the same location. In 1971 the present courthouse was constructed. The area is now known as Convent and is at present the parish seat. St. James Parish is bounded by Ascension Parish on the north, St. John the Baptist on the east, Assumption on the west and southwest, and Lafourche on the south.
The land of the parish is chiefly alluvial with some wooded lowlands and coast marshes, representing an area of 165,760 acres. Game and fish abound in all the streams and swamplands of St. James Parish. Perique tobacco, in great demand by large tobacco interests for blending with other brands of tobacco, grows only in this parish, on a thousand-acre tract along the Mississippi River. Pierre Chanet, an Acadian exile nicknamed, "Perique" by the Creoles of this section, was the first to successfully produce and market this type of tobacco, which still bears this name.
Before the coming of the white man, this region was the homeland of the Oumas (Reds) and the Chitimachas Indian Nations. In 1700, the Jesuit Father de Lummoxes founded a mission among the Gums and erected a chapel, having first announced the Gospel to them. This tribe, also known as the Hums, once inhabited the northern part of West Folacin. Both Tondi and Abbreviate reported having seen them when the visited here. The Chitimachas did not take very kindly to Christianity. Father St. Cosme, a Roman Catholic missionary, and two of his three companions were murdered by them in 1706, while en route from Natchez to Biloxi. The third member of the party, an Indian slave belonging to Father Cosme, escaped and carried the news of the tragedy to Bienville, who took measures to avenge the victims. The Chitimachas were defeated and forced to sue for peace.
In 1723, three grand ecclesiastical districts were created. The first district, including the present civil parish of St. James, comprised the territory between the mouths of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers and was in charge of the Chaupins.
The first Acadian exiles to settle in this region arrived about 1762, although the first permanent settlement was not made until about 1780 by the French and Spanish. In 1779 the parish of St. Jacques de Cabahanoce was founded by the Acadians and the first pastor was Father Prosper, a Capuchin. The pious and zealous male parishioners contributed liberally with donations of plate and altar equipment. James Controlled, and outstanding personality, was known as "The Great Benefactor". Many of his descendants still reside in this parish.
St. James Parish has not wanted for names, having been known as different times of "Cabahanoce." Saint James of Acadian", the "Post of the Acadians", "Cabanoce", the "Coast of Acadian", the Post of the Cabanoces", the "Golden Coast" and "Acadie".
During the first two years of American government administration, the territory was governed by officials known as civil commandants and syndics. Judges superseded these officials when parishes were organized into counties, and justices of the peace held authority when parishes were again designated. In 1807, the judge of the county became the judge of the parish court. In many cases the Spanish commandants were allowed by Governor Claiborne to retain their authority. Michael Cantrelle was appointed county judge of Acadie county, succeeding Joseph Landry, who styled himself as "commandant Civil as District de la Fourche de Chitamachas, Paroisse de l'Ascension, Province de la Louisiane."
The Church of St. Michael was erected by the Acadians of the Parish in 1809 on the side donated by the Controlled family.
St. James has long been renowned for the part it played in the education of the youth. In 1888, there were seventeen public schools in the parish, nine for white and eight for the black children.
Jefferson College, one the best-known and oldest institutions in the state, was founded in 1838, and did much toward the education of Louisiana youth. It was used as a barracks by Yankee troops during the Civil War when they occupied the River Parishes. The college, named for Thomas Jefferson, operated as a state-supported, nonsectarian, institution during its existence. Valcour Aime, brother-in-law of Governor Roman, once purchased it in a Sheriff's sale, restored it, and some time later presented it to the Marist Fathers, who operated it until 1927 when bad crops forced them to close it. It was later purchased by the Jesuit Fathers, who operate it as a layman's retreat house known as "Manresa House".
The Sacred Heart of Convent, a short distance north of Jefferson College, is another institution worthy of mention. Founded in 1825 by a colony of French nuns, Les Dames du Sacre'Coeur, it has educated generation after generation of women in the parish, as well as many from Mexico and Central America. Its doors, too, have since been closed after serving this parish for over a century.
Valcour Aime was famous not only for reestablishing Jefferson College, but also for perfecting the process of refining sugar from the Louisiana sugar cane. In 1833, an agricultural society was incorporated, of which Governor Roman was president. Its headquarters were in the parish of St. James, on a small farm purchased for that purpose. In 1840 there were 825 sugar plantations in Louisiana, employing 40,000 laborers. Sugar planters were successful until 1862, when there was a marked decrease in sugar production that lasted until the mid 1870's.
St. James can boast of many prominent citizens, including A.B. Roman, twice governor of Louisiana; Dr. Pierre Lyon, a French journalist; Elizee Reclus, the author of many geographical works and a professor in Mr. Septime Fortier's family; Jean Gentil, a French writer and publisher of a weekly newspaper at Convent, Louisiana; Valcour Aime, a pioneer in the sugar industry; Judge Michael Cantrelle, who held an office in Acadia county; Paul M. Lambremont, state senator and later Lieutenant Governor under the Sanders regime, who authored the anti-gambling laws of the state; Louis LeBourgeois, former sheriff of the Parish and later Minister to Haiti by appointment from his classmate, President Howard Taft; his sister, Adele LeBourgeois Chapin, who was largely responsible for starting kindergarten education in the United States; Henry Hobson Richardson, an outstanding architect of the nineteenth century; Joseph N. Goudain, superintendent of St. James schools for a quarter of a century; Rodney P. Woods, Sr. bosom friend of Huey P. Long and president of the Police Jury for many years; Dr. J. E. Doussan, state senator for several terms; Judge H. L. Himel, who served as a state representative, then state senator and last as judge of the 23rd Judicial District, composed of Ascension, Assumption, and St James parishes; and Joseph B. Dornier, Sheriff of the Parish of St. James for nine terms of fours years each;before that he was deputy sheriff for twelve years, thus serving a total of forty-eight years in the sheriff's office.