St. Martin Parish predates the establishment of Louisiana. It was organized by the second session of the first legislature of the Territory of Orleans in 1807, five years before the state entered the union in 1812. In 1811, St. Mary Parish was taken from the area which had composed St. Martin Parish, and in 1821, the land which became Lafayette and Vermilion Parishes was separated. In 1868, Iberia Parish was formed from parts of St. Martin and St. Mary Parishes. As a result of this separation, compounded by a surveyor's error, St. Martin Parish has two non-contiguous parts.
Three geographic features dominate the parish's landscape. The most striking is the Atchafalaya Basin. The history and development of the swampland was very different from that of the western portion of the parish. The second major geographic feature is Bayou Teche. The alluvial river-bottom provided prime agricultural lands for the development of a plantation-based economic system. Both of the parish's larger urban centers, Breaux Bridge and St. Martinville, are located on the Teche. Both communities grew as trading centers for the adjacent agricultural hinder lands. Neither became an important manufacturing center, so commerce and agriculture have remained the most important economic activities. The third geographic feature, the prairie in the western portion of the parish, provided the range upon which evolved one of the first and most important economic activities - cattle raising.
From the date of initial penetration of the area by the white man, agriculture has been the major activity. Starting in the 1750's, large land holdings were amassed in the Teche Valley. Indigo was the original staple crop grown on plantations founded by émigrés from France. Slaves were used on the plantations from their founding. Original land purchases were made from a remnant of the Attakapas Indian tribe which had survived a devastating defeat in battle administered by its combined enemies. This occurred shortly before the arrival of European settlers along the Teche. As a result, Native Americans played only a minor role in the story of European penetration of Acadiana, unlike contemporary history in neighboring regions.
The first European government in the area was established by the Spanish. Although France owned Louisiana until 1763, it never sponsored a large penetration of Acadiana and the Teche Valley. The French licensed a trading post to capture the Indian trade on the Teche but never promoted European settlement. That started to change in 1765, with the initial influx of Acadians and the simultaneous arrival of a more aggressive Spanish governmental presence. Two French trading posts (present-day St. Martinville and Opelousas) were turned into military-administrative centers. First Acadians, and then French Royalist émigrés were encouraged to settle in the Teche Valley. The river land was divided into large holdings, while the prairie became a lucrative cattle range. The American State Papers of 1815 indicated that 142 land grants of Spanish origin in the Teche Valley of St. Martin Parish had been converted into United States land grants.
As happened in former English colonies along the Atlantic coast, indigo cultivation was abandoned due to market conditions following the American Revolution. Cotton became the predominate staple crop. Starting in the 1820's, however, the crop for which the Teche Valley is best known, sugar cane, began to be planted widely. Cane has remained the backbone of St. Martin Parish agriculture. Other important crops have been Irish potatoes, corn and rice. The early nineteenth century prosperity of St. Martin Parish can be attributed to, in part, the excellent transportation capabilities provided by the Bayou Teche. Steamboats took agricultural goods to New Orleans for consumption or trans-shipment to other ports. Although adequate for commerce, the connection between St. Martinville and New Orleans was not an efficient one for passengers. When railroads became the major means to convey both freight and passengers, the decline of St. Martin Parish was assured by its failure to attract a trunk rail connection. The main line went elsewhere and with it prosperity and growth. A spur was built fifteen years after completion of the main line, and eventually a track ran along the east bank of the Teche. From 1908 until 1932, a track from Lafayette to Baton Rouge traversed the parish; however, none of these lines brought back the commercial prosperity which had existed in the antebellum years.
From the early eighteenth century on, the major settlement site in the Parish was at what is now St. Martinville. Originally, it was the site of an Indian trading post known as Poste de Attakapas. The Spanish turned the settlement into a military-administrative center in 1769, soon after the Acadians began to settle the area. The first census, taken in 1766, reported 409 persons in the settlement. Subsequent enumerations of the region showed 1070 residents in 1785, 2541 in 1788, and 3744 in 1803.
The influx of people in the late eighteenth century stemmed from two major sources, each of which gave undying legends and fame to St. Martinville. The Acadians were immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem Evangeline. Although the poet's account is historically inaccurate, it has seeped into the texture of St. Martinville life. The community contains the Evangeline and the Gabriel oak trees which are associated with the main characters of the poem. There is a statue of the Evangeline character in the churchyard cemetery adjacent to St. Martin of Tours church. The model for the sculpture was Delores Del Rio, the actress who portrayed Evangeline in the 1929 movie.
The second important myth connected with St. Martinville in the late eighteenth century involves its reputation as the home of numerous French Royalists who emigrated to escape the French Revolution. Supposedly, they replicated in the wilderness a social life which resembled Parisian society as closely as possible. St. Martinville has subsequently been know as "Le Petit Paris". The myth, without doubt, tremendously overrates reality. Although many Royalist may have settled in the region, they could not have been a class of leisure in the New World. The basis of their wealth in most cases was land. They probably were unable to transfer much capital to Louisiana, especially if they fled precipitously from mob attack. Most Royalists probably became firmly entrenched in middle-class occupations or sunk into poverty. If a Petit Paris was established on the banks of the Teche, it would have been short-lived for basic economic reasons.
A detailed account of St. Martinville was written in 1819 by James Leander Carthcart, a timber surveyor employed by the United States Navy. He visited a village of approximately one hundred houses containing six to seven hundred residents. The vast majority of the structures were of mud and moss construction. He specifically noted that formerly wealthy individuals lived in such simple houses. Cathcart added that the community had "an apology for a ballroom".
St. Martinville did experience a measure of prosperity from the 1820's through the mid-1850's for several reasons. The village was at the head of navigation on the Teche for steamboats. As plantations along the bayou grew in prosperity, the major community in the region became and important commercial and social center. With improved transportation provided by steamboats, St. Martinville and the Teche Valley became a popular summer resort for New Orleans residents escaping the city during the yellow fever season. French opera and theatre troupes performed in St. Martinville during the summer season. The first newspaper was established in 1824, which shows the advanced state of culture in the community.
The golden age in St. Martinville's history ended with a series of disasters starting in 1855, the year an outbreak of yellow fever attacked the town. New Orleans summer visitors quickly found new locations for their annual vacation from the city. During February, 1756, a major fire destroyed most of the downtown area of the village. Several years later, a destructive hurricane devastated the crops in the surrounding countryside. Finally, the Teche Valley was subjected to Federal invasion during the Civil War. By the time St. Martinville had recovered from this series of debilitation occurrences, it discovered that events had passed it by. Transportation depended on railroads which ran elsewhere and left St. Martinville behind.
One notable feature of St. Martinville is its historic buildings and sites. Probably the most remarkable is the St. Martin of Tours Church, an 1830's-1840's structure on a site first occupied in 1760. One special feature of the interior is a baptismal font which was sent to Louisiana by Louis XVI. The gift arrived after the donor had been executed. The Castillo Hotel occupies a site which contained the original trading post that started the community. From 1895 until 1987, the hotel had been a high school run by the Sisters of Mercy. At the present time, the hotel is a bed and breakfast and a popular restaurant, Place de Evangeline. Near St. Martinville are two excellent reminders of the plantation culture which once dominated the Teche Valley. In the Longfellow Evangeline State Commemorative area is a 1790's Acadian plantation house which has been connected to Louis Arceneaux, the Gabriel of Longfellow's poem. On the east bank of the Teche is the oak and pine alley which had been part of the plantation of Charles Durand. Durand supposedly had slaves cover spider webs woven among these trees with gold and silver dust in honor of the double wedding of his daughters in 1850.
The second most important community in St. Martin Parish is Breaux Bridge, which also has a long history, having been settled originally in the eighteenth century. There were fifteen households in the area in 1766. The community received its present name in the early nineteenth century because of a bridge over the Teche which connected lands of a father and son named Breaux.