On Mardi Gras day in 1699 a small French Canadian expedition dropped anchor near the mouth of the Mississippi to colonize “La Louisiane”. This was the name given to the colony by Rene’-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle, 17 years earlier when he claimed the mighty river for his king and patron Louis XIV. During the next few years the expedition built posts and fortifications along the river and the Gulf Coast. The beginning of the new colony was stormy; hurricanes, floods, insects, sickness and discontent among the 200 settlers were just a few of the problems with which the young governor, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, had to deal.
In 1718 he decided to build a permanent settlement on the site where the river’s “beautiful crescent comes closest to the lake.” He named the settlement La Nouvelle-Orleans for the Duke of Orleans, who was ruling France for the young Louis XV. The first census was taken in 1721 and counted 470 people: 145 men, 65 women, 38 children, 29 indentured white servants and 193 black and Indian slaves. Three times as many people lived in the outskirts of town where ten times as many slaves worked the indigo plantations. In 1721 a group of German immigrants, duped by the French agents who promised them land in what is now Arkansas, were invited to settle above New Orleans.
New Orleans lost all stigma of a colonial outpost in the 1740’s and ‘50’s. The new governor, Marquis de Vaudreuil, arrived at his new post determined to teach his settlers French sophistication, courtliness, elegance and the art of lavish entertainment. For 15 years Vaudreuil and his beautiful wife presided over little Versaille, and New Orleans’ balls and soirees became a legend in London, Paris and New York.
The long running dispute between France and England over who owned what in America erupted into war. The French and Indian war ended in 1763 with France ceding all territories east of the Mississippi and Canada to Great Britain. New Orleans and the area west of the river were not included in this deal. France had already given New Orleans the western area to the King of Spain in order to gain Spain as an ally.
Against the change to Spanish rule Louisiana Frenchmen drove the first Spanish governor from Louisiana in a bloodless coup. In retaliation General O’Reilly, backed by a Spanish fleet and 2000 soldiers, proclaimed Louisiana a Spanish colony and executed ringleaders of the rebellion in the Place d’Armes. New Orleans prospered under Spanish rule. After the two great fires of 1788 and 1794, the ill-built and defenseless French city with muddy streets and wooden houses gave way to a stately Spanish town of 8,000 inhabitants, with a stockade enclosing most of the town and forts at four corners.
The Spanish governors also opened New Orleans to newcomers from all over the world, among them 5,000 French Canadians from Nova Scotia. These hard-working people, called Acadians or Cajuns settled into the swamps south and west of New Orleans.
After the American Revolution, boats of all sorts began to come down the river with their merchandise. New agricultural products, cotton and sugar cane, were just beginning to make Louisiana planters among the wealthiest people in the New World.
By the end of the 18th century New Orleans had become a major port. The arrival of white French planters and free people of color, fleeing the slave uprising in Saint-Domingue, infused the city with the French culture, voodoo religion and fine island food. Free people of color quickly became a distinct and educated caste of New Orleans society.
The beginning of the 19th century saw Louisiana again become a French colony, but in an effort to finance his imminent war with England, Napoleon sold the entire Louisiana colony to the United States for $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803.
In 1812 Louisiana became the 18th state of the Union. 1812 also brought war against Britain which ended for New Orleans in 1815 with the battle at Chalmette. The years between the Battle of New Orleans and the Civil War have been described as the cities golden era. Population increased and by 1840 New Orleans was the third largest city in America. The “Queen City of the South” led the nation not only in exports but also in duels fought, in the frequency of epidemics, and in the number of ballrooms and gambling houses.
On January 26, 1861, Louisiana seceded from the Union. Less than four months after secession, a Union fleet blockaded the mouth of the Mississippi river, causing economic hardship to the city. In April, 1862, the Union fleet, after sinking most of the confederate ships, anchored off the wharves of the South’s greatest city. Union troops occupied New Orleans and did not leave until the reconstruction ended 15 years later. By then, Louisiana, the richest state in the antebellum South, was one of the poorest.
The next forty years brought some economic growth to New Orleans. By 1910, so many Italian immigrants had arrived that they represented one-third of the population. The French quarter became known as Little Italy.
In the early 20th century, a new musical form born in New Orleans was becoming all the rage in New York, London and Paris. Almost all the early jazz greats were New Orleans musicians. In the 1920’s and ‘30’s the French Quarter became a gathering place not just for musicians but for writers, painters and sculptors.
The discovery of oil in the Louisiana tidelands set off an increase in industry around New Orleans and made the city one of the busiest ports in the country.
The construction of the Superdome and the 1984 World’s Fair has changed the Central Business District and adjacent warehouse district dramatically.
Today, the two cities – one more than two centuries old, a French/Spanish city, and the other a modern towering American city – have managed to preserve the old traditions and the joie de vivre of New Orleans’ French heritage.
* From the book New Orleans by Lisa D. Hoff