Bienville Parish History

History of Bienville Parish
By: Sharon O. Kleinpeter

It is doubtful if LaSalle in his 1687 exploration of Louisiana ever set foot in Bienville Parish. But, in 1690 the area was explored by Don Domingo Teran DeRios who was sent from Mexico to scout the complete area of the Caddo Federation of Indians. He was considered the first white leader to sight Lake Bistineau. Father Masinettes, who was with the expedition, established a mission called "Mission Loretteto". This site is believed to be near present day Ringgold, Louisiana.

In 1700, Bienville and St. Denis explored the areas west of the Mississippi River. In 1714, St. Dennis founded Natchitoches, the first permanent settlement in present Louisiana. Bienville Parish was part of Natchitoches County.

Originally, Bienville Parish was a part of the Territory of Orleans, then it was known as the Catholic Parish of St. Francis. In 1805 it became part of Natchitoches County which was changed to Natchitoches Parish in 1807. In 1828 old Natchitoches was divided and portions of it (including present Bienville Parish)became Claiborne Parish. In 1848 the lower part of Claiborne became Bienville Parish, it being named in honor of the "Father of Louisiana", Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Bienville. Legislative Act 183, creating Bienville Parish, was enacted during the administration of Governor Isaac Johnson.

Mt. Lebanon became the first permanent stable community in Bienville Parish. Reuben Drake came to the area, scouting land for his South Carolina families. A church and school were at the top of their priority list. For many years these people and their descendants led the state in Christianity and education. Mt.Lebanon University and its Female College branch were the pride of the region and owed their existence to the Louisiana Baptists. The college was moved to Pineville in 1907 and became Louisiana College.

The town of Sparta was the first parish seat. It was the cultural and political center of the parish until the late nineteenth century. It was built on an incredibly sandy, eight-acre tract of federal land which was transferred to the parish. Wagon roads led to Sparta from almost all the communities in the parish as early as the 1850's and perhaps sooner. Despite its centralized location, Sparta proved to be a remote community. Unfortunately, Sparta was located far away from any navigable watercourse. Merchants had to haul their goods from Lake Bistineau, 18 miles away, or from the Ouachita River. But it was the coming oft he railroad that doomed Sparta. The railroad was constructed in the northern part of the parish thus cutting off the town of Sparta. Arcadia and Gibsland, 20 miles north of Sparta, became boom towns and the economic focus of the parish began to shift.

In 1890 citizens of Arcadia and Gibsland petitioned the state legislature for permission to hold a referendum to decide whether or not to move the parish seat. In the third referendum, Arcadia carried the election by 65 votes eliminating other candidates, Bienville and Gibsland.

Controversy still surrounds what the residents call "the midnight raid". Approximately thirty minutes after the final tabulation of the ballots six wagons, loaded with Arcadians, surrounded the deserted Sparta courthouse. Some of the Arcadians entered the building and tossed out most of the parochial records to their waiting companions. In a wild chase which ensued, it is more than likely that some records were lost.Many newspaper articles referred to that night in 1893 as the night "Bienville government was stolen".

Undoubtedly, the early settlers envisioned a prosperous land as a legacy to future generations. But the road to prosperity took a sharp turn with the beginning of the Civil War. Dr. Philip C. Cook in his article "Bienville Parish: A History of Progress" gives the following account of that period of Bienville Parish history. "Religious, social and educational institutions were becoming a familiar part of BienvilleParish life, along with the government and political activities that were characteristic of the older regions.All evidence points toward a Bienville Parish in 1860 that was well on its way toward fulfilling the dreams and ambition of its settlers. Yet that same year marked the beginning of a disastrous war that would destroy this progress and long retard the entire region.

While human losses were high, the Civil War took a much greater toll in the economy of the parish.The boom years of the 1850's and the strong demand for cotton had led everyone who could possibly do so to stake everything on cotton farms and slaves. Fortunes large and small were lost and more significantly, away of life was 'gone with the wind'. Although genteel plantation culture never existed to a great extent in Bienville Parish, the hopes and dreams of the more numerous common farmers were oriented that way.Instead, the abolition of slavery ended those dreams and produced a somewhat leveling effect, wiping out wealth and reducing many of the previously affluent struggling for survival."

Economic recovery was slow as a nation torn apart by war had to heal many wounds and find new ways of doing business. The dependence on cotton had lulled innovative minds to sleep. But the drastic decline in cotton prices in 1877 was a chilling wake-up call. King cotton was dethroned.

The coming of the railroad infused new hope in a tired land. The rails opened up markets for a natural resource that had been overlooked - timber. Sawmills came into the parish to harvest virgin timber.Sawmills brought jobs. Jobs and the sale of timber supplemented the income derived from cotton farming.The timber industry continues to dominate the economy of Bienville parish today.

In 1934 Bienville Parish became famous as the location where law officers gunned down the infamous criminals "Bonnie and Clyde". The back-country outlaws were accused of killing 12 people, nine of them policemen. In 1967 Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway portrayed the outlaws in a movie. Local residents have mixed emotions about the notoriety gained for the parish. Many feel that the movie glamorized the outlaws who were really cold-blooded murderers.

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