Before Europeans and Africans settled along Bayou Teche in present-day St. Martinville, Native Americans had hunting camps in this area. The nearest village to the present-day city limits was an Attakapas Indian settlement, located further south on Bayou Teche near modern Jeanerette. The Bayou Teche has a part in Chitimacha Indian folklore. Legend tells of a serpent of fabulous dimension living in the Atchafalaya Basin.
While being slain by Indian braves, its writhing gorged out the Bayou Teche. "Teche" may be derived from the Chitimacha word for "snake", and some say the Great River will one day avenge the serpent. The geographic fact is the Bayou Teche was created over 3,500 years ago from the ancient channel of two mighty river systems, the Mississippi and the Red. Before roads, the Teche was a highway navigable for over 100 miles. Bayou Teche would sustain settlers to the area and later assist the commercial development of St. Martinville. In the mid 1750s, Louisiana's French rulers made land available in the Attakapas District for the raising of cattle to supply meat for New Orleans.
The first census of the Attakapas District taken in 1766 census lists forty white Creole and Acadian households. Two of these households included Black and possibly Native American slaves, and both households have a special place in St. Martinville history. First, the city today lies completely within the boundaries of a grant issued to Jean-Antoine Bernard d'Hauterive.
Dauterive lived in Iberville Parish, but the 1766 census shows four slaves homesteading and tending cattle for him. Second, Andre Masse's household near present-day Charenton appears on the census with 24 slaves. The first acts in surviving church records for the Attakapas District are entries for several enslaved Africans and Creoles belonging to Masse, including the baptisms and marriage of Jean dit Ingui of the Manega nation and Marie of the Senegal nation.
These acts were performed and recorded in 1756 by a traveling Catholic priest from Pointe Coupee. Many slaves from the Senegambian region were sent to the French colony of Louisiana. Slaves from St. Louis and Goree Island possessed the agricultural technology needed to produce crops in the tropical summer months of the Gulf Coast region, ensuring a food supply and later cash crops for the colony.
French and Spanish colonial law provided the means for some slaves to obtain freedom, forming a prosperous class of farmers, tradesmen and businessmen. Acadians arrived here in 1765, when acting governor Aubrey sent 193 Acadian refugees to establish a village on Dauterive's land and sharecrop his cattle.
The prospective Attakapas settlers were given enough flour, hardtack, rice, salt pork, and beef to maintain themselves. They were also provided with tools to clear their lands and with seed rice and corn. But instead of establishing a village, the Acadians settled outside the modern city limits. They moved to the north, south, and west along Bayous Teche and Tortue. They negotiated to obtain land grants from Louisiana's colonial government and to purchase land from Attakapas natives.
Aubry had also sent a French priest, Fr. Jean Louis Civrey, to accompany the Acadians and serve the Attakapas district, where he became the first resident curate. In his records, Civrey refers to his new home as "la Nouvelle Acadie". He calls his new parish "l'Église des Attakapas (Attakapas Church)" and later, "lÉglise St-Martin de Tours (St. Martin de Tours Church)", for which it is said St. Martinville is named.
Spanish governor Unzaga ordered Dauterive to provide land for a church building, setting the stage for a town to develop here. Although the rest of Dauterive's grant was eventually seized and divided between new landowners, the church property remained intact. In 1814, the St. Martin de Tours Church parish council initiated a unique lease-purchase agreement with commission merchants and tradesmen (a practice that would continue until 1889).
This arrangement brought further growth and led to St. Martinville's incorporation in 1817 as the sixth community to be named a city under the laws of the new State of Louisiana. That year, the Niles Weekly Register printed a description of the Attakapas country, and noted that "the most important town is that of St. Martinville".
The Bayou Teche assured the rapid growth of St. Martinville as a business center, still evident in the historic architecture seen around the Church Square. A census of the time noted the following businesses: an academy, numerous local trade shops, four attorneys-at-law and three physicians. Inhabitants were known as industrious and enterprising.
Germans and Italians would later join the ranks of the city's ethnically diverse business owners, including Creoles (whites and free people of color) and some Anglo-Americans. Prominent citizens of St. Martinville, a bustling Victorian city, demanded many of the luxuries that they enjoyed elsewhere, and this is reflected in the musical history of the region. The nickname, Petit Paris dates from the era when St. Martinville was known as a cultural mecca with good hotels and a French Theater which featured the best operas and witty comedies.
One evening in 1856, a ballet was being enjoyed in the Opera House when a great fire broke out on Main Street. The fire would have caused more severe damage had not the large group attending the performance formed a bucket brigade.
The establishment of local volunteer fire companies date from that event. Steamboat service made St. Martinville accessible by the early 1800s, where many of the most prominent Creole families made the city a fashionable summer resort. A favorite pastime was listening to a brass band, the most well known of which was the Excelsior Brass Band, playing under a gazebo built for that purpose on the park-like church green.
The St. Martinville Historic District was placed on the National Register of
Historic Places on January 27, 1983. It was awarded this singular honor because
it qualified under several criteria for national significance in the Register
program, namely Architecture, Commerce and Exploration/Settlement.
The City of St. Martinville is twinned with: "the Village of Ploermel in Brittany, France ¨ the Acadian Town of Bouctouche in New Brunswick, Canada ¨ the City of Chaudfontaine in the Walloon region of Belgium ¨ the municipality of Goree Island in Senegal, West Africa Evangeline Oak Park is twinned with Grand-Pré National Historic Site in Nova Scotia, Canada. The Acadian Memorial Mural by Robert Dafford, "The Arrival of the Acadians in Louisiana"', is twinned with another Dafford mural in the Chantenay district of Nantes, France, called "The Embarkation of Acadians for Louisiana". Evangeline Oak Park signifies an area of historic buildings and greens owned and operated as visitor sites by the City of St. Martinville, namely the Acadian Memorial, the St. Martinville Cultural Heritage Center, Evangeline Blvd., the Bayou Teche Promenade, and the Duchamp Opera House. Visitors can enjoy daily tours year round.