A Brief History of New Orleans
New Orleans lingers on the threshold between the Old World and the New, between history and legend.
The City that Care Forgot.
Jazz streams out into the moonlight French doors open to the night breezes, sweet olive scents the air. Nearby there is laughter, a cork popping, and cafe brulot aflame.
Welcome to New Orleans.
Our street names are French and Spanish, our Creole architecture comes in a carnival of tropical colors, and our voodoo is a Caribbean import. The magic is irresistible.
A cultural gumbo, we celebrate our differences. In fact, we celebrate almost anything in the Big Easy. We have a saying: LAISSEZ LE BONS TEMPS ROULER — LET THEGOOD TIMES ROLL. A reminder of our french heritage, a way of life that began three centuries ago.
HISTORY: Vintage 1718.
The party didn’t start right away. Like good wine, it took a while to mature after the initial fermentation. When Sieur de LaSalle explored the Mississippi in 1682, he claimed all lands drained by the river for France and named the territory for the reigning royal, King Louis XIV.
The Louisiana Territory consisted of 828,000 square miles and extended from the Mississippi to the Rockies, and the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. Eventually, French, Spanish, English, Independent, Confederate and Union flags would all fly over Louisiana.
In 1718, when Sieur de Bienville founded a strategic port city five feet below sea level, near the juncture of the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, it had to be reclaimed from a swamp. The new city, or ville, was named La nouvelle Orleans for Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, and centered around the Place d’Arms (later to be
known as Jackson Square. It was confined to the area we now call the French Quarter or Vieux Carre (Old Square).
The society that settled on the bend of the Mississippi was French in origin and at heart.
Even so, in 1762, either because he lost a bet, or because the royal coffers were exhausted, Louis XV gave Louisiana to his Spanish cousin, King Charles III. Spanish rule was relatively short — lasting until 1800 — but Spain would leave its imprint.
In 1788, the City went up in flames, incinerating over 800 buildings. New Orleans was still recovering when a second fire in 1794 destroyed 200 structures.
From Spain, Louisiana was ceded back to France and was finally sold by Napoleon to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, effectively doubling the size of the U.S.A. At a cost of fifteen million dollars, it was considered one of the greatest real estate bargains in history.
After the sale, Americans arrived en masse. Unwelcome in the Creole enclave of the French Quarter, they settled across Canal Street in what is known today as The Central Business District. The two factions skirmished often, and the Canal Street median became neutral territory. Ever since, all city medians have been called neutral grounds.
1812: WAR AND PEACE
Louisiana joined the Union and New Orleans became the State Capitol. THE NEW ORLEANS, the first steamboat to navigate the Mississippi successfully, arrived here from Pittsburgh. The voyage inaugurated the booming cotton and tobacco trade that soon transformed the Port of New Orleans into the nation’s second wealthiest city, after New York.
The war of 1812 began, culminating in the Battle of New Orleans three years later. In 1815, British troops attacked near New Orleans and tried to persuade the pirate Jean Lafitte, to join them. Instead, Lafitte offered his men and guns to the Commander of the U.S. troops, General Andrew Jackson. On the
morning of January 8, a polyglot band of 4,000 militia, frontiersmen, former Haitian slaves, and Lafitte’s pirates outfought 8,000 British veterans at the Chalmette battlefield, just a few miles east of the
French Quarter. Only eight Americans died in the battle and English casualties exceeded 2,000. The battlefield remains a place worthy of a visit.
A PORT CITY.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, New Orleans dominated the Caribbean as the most active port city and trade destination for island crops like sugar cane, rum ,tobacco and fruit.
Thousands of refugees arrived from the Caribbean following the Haitian revolution of 1791 to 1804, and thousands more gens de coleur libres, or free people of color, arrived in New Orleans from Senegambia, now the area in Central Africa known as Benin. Their presence effectively doubled the size of the city.
THE NEW PARIS.
By the mid 1800s, the city in the bend of the river became the fourth largest in the U.S. and one of the richest, dazzling visitors with chic Parisian couture, fabulous restaurants and sophisticated culture.
Society centered around the French Opera House, where professional opera and theatre companies played to full houses. In fact, opera was performed in New Orleans seven years before the Louisiana Purchase, and more than 400 operas premiered in the Crescent City during the l9th century.
A CULTURAL GUMBO
Under French, Spanish and American flags, Creole society coalesced as Islanders, West Africans, slaves, free people of color and indentured servants poured into the city along with a mix of French aristocrats, merchants, farmers, soldiers, freed prisoners and nuns.
New Orleans was, for its time, a permissive society where educated gens de colur libres were master builders who developed elegant Creole architecture and chefs who developed the city’s sophisticated Creole cuisine.
European aristocrats and rich Creoles often had mistresses, sometimes the famed quadroon (one-quarter black) or octoroons (one-eighth black). Native author Anne Rice set one of her early historical novels, The Feast of all Saints, in l9th-century Creole society.
Creole is a chameleon term. It’s a variety of tomato, an exotic cuisine, and a poetic architectural style.
It also refers to people, but the definition varies, depending on whom you ask. One thing is true of Creoles everywhere: they have always been colonials (vs European immigrants). The original New Orleans Creoles were thoroughbred French, who were the first generation to be born in the colonies. The word Creole derives from the Spanish criollo or the Portuguese crioullo (again depending upon whom you ask), which distinguished a person born in the colonies from an immigrant or an imported slave. In present-day New Orleans, there are people of various combinations of French, Spanish, West Indian and African ancestry who proudly call themselves Creole.
Cajuns, on the other hand, are descended from a specific group of Catholic, French-speaking trappers and farmers who were exiled from Nova Scotia by the ruling English-Protestants in 1755. About 10,000
eventually settled in Southwest Louisiana, in what is now called Acadiana. Some later came to New Orleans neighborhoods like Westwego. Over a million people of Cajun descent live in Louisiana. Bobby Hebert, the former star quarterback of the Falcons, is of such heritage and is known in sports broadcast circles as “The Cajun Cannon.”
Longfellow immortalized their story of loss and exile in his epic poem, “Evangeline.” But Canada’s expulsion was Louisiana’s gain; Cajuns brought us their joie de vivre, lively music, and famed cuisine.
Story courtesy of New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.. 2020 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70130 504-566-5011 nomcvb.com