Opelousas (French: Les Opelousas) is a city in and the parish seat of St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, United States. It lies at the junction of Interstate 49 and U.S. Route 190. The population was 22,860 at the 2000 census. Although the 2006 population estimate was 23,222, a 2004 annexation should put the city's population above 25,000. In the 2010 census, the population shrunk to 16,634. Opelousas is the principal city for the Opelousas-Eunice Micropolitan Statistical Area, which had an estimated population of 92,178 in 2008. Opelousas is also the 3rd largest city in the Lafayette-Acadiana Combined Statistical Area, which has a population of 537,947.
At only 7.5 square miles, Opelousas is the most densely populated incorporated city in Louisiana. Founded in 1720, Opelousas is Louisiana's 3rd oldest city. The city served as a major trading post between New Orleans and Natchitoches in the 18th and 19th centuries. Traditionally an area of settlement by French Creoles and Acadians, Opelousas is the center of zydeco music. It celebrates its heritage at the Creole Heritage Folklife Center, one of the destinations on the new Louisiana African American Heritage Trail. It is also the location of the Evangeline Downs Racetrack and Casino.
The city calls itself the spice capital of the world, with production and sale of seasonings such as Tony Chachere's products, Targil Seasonings, Savoie's cajun meats and products, and LouAna Cooking Oil. Opelousas was also home to one of the nation's two Yoohoo Factories until their closing.
During the tenure of Sheriff Cat Doucet from 1936 to 1940 and 1952 to 1968 that part of Opelousas along Highway 190 was a haven of gambling and prostitution. Doucet told the historian Michael Kurtz that the return of Earl Kemp Long to the governorship in 1956 allowed him to bring back brothels and casinos and to guarantee the sheriff a take of the proceeds.
Opelousas takes its name from the Native American tribe Appalousa who had occupied the area before European contact.
The first recorded European arrived in the Appalousa Territory in 1690. He was a French coureur de bois (trapper and hunter). French traders arrived later to trade with the Appalousa Indians. In 1719, the French sent the first military to the Territory, when Ensign Nicolas Chauvin de la Frénière and two others were sent to patrol the area and in 1720, the French established Opelousas Post as a major trading organization for the developing area. The French encouraged immigration to Opelousas Post before they ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1762. By 1769 about 100 families, mostly French, were living in the Post. In 1774 Saint Landry Catholic Church was built. Don Alejandro O'Reilly, Spanish governor of Louisiana, issued a land ordinance to allow settlers in the frontier of the Opelousas Territory to acquire land grants. The first official land grant was made in 1782. Numerous settlers: French, Creoles and Acadians, mainly from the Attakapas Territory, came to the Opelousas Territory and acquired land grants.
After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, settlers continued to arrive from St. Martinville. LeBon, Prejean, Thibodaux, Esprit, Nezat, Hebert, Babineaux, Mouton, and Provost were some of the early Creole families. (This was Creole as French born in Louisiana, see Louisiana Creole people.) Other early French Creole families were Roy, Barre, Guenard, Decuir, and Bail. In 1820, Alex Charles Barre, also a French Creole, founded Port Barre. His ancestors came from the French West Indies, probably after Haiti (St. Domingue) became independent. Jim Bowie and his family were said to have settled in the area circa 1813. In 1805, Opelousas became the seat of the newly formed St. Landry Parish, also known as the Imperial Parish of Louisiana. The year 1806 marked the beginning of significant construction in Opelousas. The first courthouse was constructed in the middle of the town. Later in 1806, Louisiana Memorial United Methodist Church was founded, becoming the first Methodist, as well as Protestant, church in Louisiana. Five years later, the first St. Landry Parish Police Jury met in Opelousas, keeping minutes in the two official languages of English and French. The city was incorporated in 1821.