New Orleans has to be one of the most interesting cities in the whole of North America due to its rich mix of history and diverse cultures, music, food and its location on the Mississippi River.
It’s a great city to visit and there is a really great atmosphere here in the ‘Big Easy’ with Bourbon Street and the Bayou almost as well known as the city itself.
In many ways, New Orleans is a party town, and this makes it also a special place too, with the Mardi Gras, different festivals, great Cajun food, gumbo, mint-juleps, and jazz, gospel and blues music all flowing through the veins of the city.
Welcome to New Orleans!
A LITTLE HISTORY –
The City of ‘New Orleans’ was named in honor of the French Regent, Philippe II Duc d’Orléans” (1674-1723), the nephew of the King of France, Louis XIV (1638-1715), the “Sun King”, with Louisiana named in honor of King Louis XIV, from the “House of Bourbon” in what was called at the time “New France”.
Philippe II married Françoise-Marie de Bourbon, one of Louis XIV’s daughters.
Bourbon Street in the center of New Orleans gains it name from the “House of Bourbon” Royal Family in France, and Bourbon Whiskey gains its name from the fact that the whiskey was brought down the mighty Mississippi from Kentucky to be sold in Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
The first European explorers to come to the Mississippi delta area were Spanish, with Hernando De Soto (c.1500–1542) leading an expedition force that found the river. He died here too from fever and the Spanish didn’t progress any significant settlements here following his death, with their interest being in Gold and developing their settlements in Mexico, Florida and in Central and South America. They would however come back to Louisiana after 1763 for a number of years until 1801.
In 1682 French explorers and fur traders led by René Cavelier de La Salle (1643-1687) from the Great Lakes area in Canada heading south setting up a series of forts before heading down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. He named Louisiana in honor of his King, Louis XIV, but died at the hand of one of his own men on the Expedition. Another Frenchman, Jean Batiste Le Moyne (1680-1768) Sieur de Bienville, a French Canadian, set up a settlements at Biloxi in 1699, Mobile in Alabama and on the Mississippi River near Lake Pontchartrain, and he named a proposed new town “New Orleans” in honor of the French Regent, Philippe II duc d’Orléans.
In order to build and also protect a settlement you need people as well as establish trade and self-sufficiency – and a number of French colonists including some slaves, servants and women from French jails were sent to the new colony. The settlement barely survived faced with hot climate, mosquitos, Malaria, Yellow Fever, attacks from Local Indians, hurricanes and floods and to save the French public purse, King Louis XIV granted a Royal Charter to a French merchant, Antoine Crozat (1650-1738) whereby he obtained the exclusive rights over the whole of Louisiana and all trade, including the slave trade for a 15 year period. Crozat however lost a fortune taking on the Charter, and in 1717 he successfully petitioned King Louis XV (who succeeded his father) to gain release from the charter.
King Louis XV then on the advice of his Regent (Philippe II) then agreed to grant a Royal Charter to a new Company, the ‘Compagnie d’Occident’ which by 1719 had become the ‘Compagnie des Indes’. This company gained a 25 year monopoly over all French territory trading, including the Slave trade and tobacco trade and even collection of taxes and it was headed by a Scot, John Law (1671-1729), who had set up the ‘Banque Generale’ in France in 1816. John Law has been variously described as an Investment banker, an economic theorist but equally as a gambler and adventurer.
John Law issued 625,000 stock shares in the company and great claims were made as to the fortunes that Stock holders would enjoy. Massive speculation ensued and at the same time the Bank issued ‘Billets d’état’ (State Bank bonds) which could be used to purchase stock shares in the Compagnie. Disaster followed the speculation and hype with the price of the stock reaching new heights before plunging with the company forced into bankruptcy. John Law fled France, moving to Venice, with the State forced to take back control over the Louisiana Colony and the company’s debt. The collapse became known as the “Mississippi Bubble”.
Louisiana however continued to develop and came back under the French King Louis XV’s control and authority until 1762 when he transferred the ownership to his cousin, Charles III of Spain as repayment of a war debt under the ‘Treaty of Fontainebleue’.
Those in the French settlement in New Orleans initially did not accept the new Spanish authority, but the Spanish authority was forcefully established when a Spanish fleet of ships and men arrived in 1769 under the command of Alejandro O’Reilly ( 1722-1794) to put down an uprising that had started in 1768. The French ringleaders were duly executed and others imprisoned and O’Reilly (An Irishman) became Governor for a short while before returning to Spain.
The Spanish continued to govern and control Louisiana until 1800, when once more Louisiana came under the control of the French, before France too in 1803 sold it to the United Sates for $15 million, in what became known as ‘the Louisiana Purchase’.
The Spanish had established the ‘Cabildo’ (Local Government) and built the building that became known as the ‘Cabildo’ between 1795 and 1799, with the ‘Cabildo’ taking on the roles of City Hall, Courthouse and prison. It is now the Louisiana State Museum and is located at 701 Chartres Street, on Jackson Square next to the St Louis Cathedral.
From the earliest times of French settlement in New Orleans, African slaves, mostly from Senegal had been brought to the Mississippi plantations to work.
The European Colonial powers – Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and English all had taken claims over ‘New World’ territories and also in both Africa and Asia and territorial claims and counter claims, wars, battles and clashes between these Colonial powers continued throughout the 1700’s and 1800’s.
The colonial powers all sought to gain power and wealth from the ‘New World’ they discovered and bring back those riches to their countries – to their King or Queen, the church, the Government, and those that financed their journeys. The Spanish found gold in Mexico and Peru plundering the treasures from the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas while taking control over most of South and Central America. In turn their Galleons carrying gold were attacked as they travelled back to Spain by pirates, privateers and naval powers.
Riches were also to found in commodities that were highly sought after in Europe – Spices from the orient, tea from India and China, cotton, coffee, tobacco and sugar from the Americas, but to grow these crops required lots of hard working, low cost manual labor.
Slavery goes back to the beginnings of civilisation, but it was the ‘African Slave Trade’ that enabled the Colonial powers to develop the sugar, cotton and tobacco industries in the Americas, with the Portuguese being the first major power to take slaves from the West Coast of Africa to their colonies in Brazil and in the West Indies, but also followed by the other Colonial powers.
In many countries indigenous people were enslaved, and while initially this was the case in North America with the capture of Native Americans, it brought the new settlers under attack, and those captured would often either run away or die when stricken down by diseases brought in by the new settlers to which the Native Americans had no resistance. The call to bring African slaves to the new settlements became the answer.
According to records, more than 10 million Africans were transported as slaves to the Americas between 1650 and 1900, with the African slave trade starting around 1500. Many people and maybe you too may be shocked at the huge numbers involved and also the number of years that the slave trade was in operation.
The Africans that were transported came from a diverse number of language and tribal groups – from countries now recognized as Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Cameroon, Congo, Angola, Mozambique and Madagascar. The biggest number were taken by the Portuguese to their territories, their main destination being Brazil, but also large numbers were taken by the Dutch, British, Spanish and French to their territories in the Caribbean and to their colonies and settlements in North and South America. Ships were specially fitted out as slave ships to carry their human cargo.
The conditions on board ship, the perils of a sea voyage lasting months, diseases such as Malaria and Yellow fever all took their toll. Enslaved Africans were seen as cargo by the ship owners and ship’s captains, then to be sold once they reached port, where they would be auctioned off to buyers. Rebellious behaviour was also quickly quashed, with the slave ‘broken’ using a whip and in some cases executed as a warning to others. They had no rights.
In New Orleans slave auctions were held in hotels and also other points of the City with Plantation owners bidding for each slave and sometimes whole Slave families. Sometimes these families were broken up and other times not, but even children being born to a slave were from birth considered to be slaves.
The slave markets traded not just in those brought in on ships, but also on slaves “owned” by plantation owners, who could buy or sell them according to will. They were simply considered property and some slave owners could have even 100’s of slaves under their control to work on their plantations.
The ‘southern way of life’ was established on the basis of slavery, but also free men and women emigrated to New Orleans and the other American settlements to make a new life. They came to New Orleans and Louisiana from France, Spain, the Canary Islands (off Spain), Ireland, the Caribbean and other parts of the world to establish a new life in the “New World”. Land grants during the time of the Spanish to newly arriving immigrants became a big incentive.
Back in 1755 another chapter in New Orleans history began too.
In Nova Scotia (New Scotland) in today’s maritime provinces of Canada, the British forced the deportation of Acadians from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island – in what became known as the “Great Upheaval” or “Le Grand Dérangement”. The Acadians were French immigrants who had migrated to this area, known as Acadia as early as 1604.
The British and French had been in an almost constant war with each other during the early 1700’s, and the Acadians were seen as sympathisers with the French, and involved in guerrilla attacks on the British during what became known as the Seven Year War (The French and Indian War 1754-1763). More than 10,000 Acadians were deported and sent to either other British controlled Colonies or to France or Britain, and between 1764 and 1800 over 2000 Acadians headed from the other colonies to Louisiana and New Orleans becoming known as Cajuns – the short form for Acadians.
This fusion of cultures in New Orleans and Louisiana – Native American (Chickasaw, Choctaw, Blackfoot, Seminoles), French, Spanish, African, Canary Islanders, Acadian, Caribbean/Haitian, Irish, German and other nationalities created a unique cultural mix – with their influence being seen in Cajun food, Mardi Gras festivities, religion, jazz, blues, voodoo, banjo playing, language, dance and architecture particularly in the French Quarter.
The Bayou swamps also created a different cultural mix too, with the swamplands, alligators and hidden waterways becoming home to both Cajuns and runaways but equally the marshes, swamps and alligators becoming a trap to those people who might seek to venture into this area unaware of the dangers.
Much of the original French quarter was destroyed in the great fire of New Orleans in 1788 which burnt over 800 buildings and in a second fire in 1794, which resulted in more than 200 more of the original wooden buildings being destroyed. These buildings were replaced by more Spanish designed brick, slate and tile roofed buildings with cast iron balustrades and many of these buildings in the French Quarter are still standing in the area around Jackson Square, Bourbon Street and Royal Street.
In Jackson Square you will also see St Louis Cathedral, The Cabildo and the Presbytère on Chartres Street which also houses the Mardi Gras Museum, while at 533 Royal Street, there are a number of houses in what is called the “Historic New Orleans Collection” with the Louisiana Supreme Court Building at 400 Royal Street. (See ‘What to see’ section on this website).
The ‘Louisiana Purchase’ in 1803 of the Louisiana Territory under the control of the French by US President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was perhaps the deal of the century, as it doubled the land area of the United States, covering a vast area of territory all the way to Canada from New Orleans. Napoleon Bonaparte in France agreed to sell the Territory and use the funds to wage war on Britain. In all, the territory was 828,000 square miles or 530 million acres of ground, almost the whole of the Mississippi Basin and its tributaries, with New Orleans already an important trading port. Fifteen states would ultimately be established within this Territory, with Louisiana State itself established in 1812.
Slavery continued under the United States control but New Orleans also maintained its love of France, with the main streets in the center keeping their French names, and the city maintaining unique blend of cultures.
Great fortunes were made in New Orleans through trading in slaves, cotton, sugar, shipping and other crops and the fortunes were channelled into building a number of big plantation homes, many of which can be seen today in St Charles Avenue in the New Orleans Garden District, and also on some of the Plantation properties that still exist up river from New Orleans. (See ‘What to see’ section on this website). There are also what are called “Shotgun Houses” single fronted houses with a small porch in front and rooms that run to the back with no windows on their sides. This house style is said to date back to the time when Haitians arrived in New Orleans following the Haitian Revolution in 1804. Many of these houses were destroyed or badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
New Orleans even had its own Mint, the building constructed in 1835 with the first coins produced in 1838. It continued to produce American coins up until 1861, and then Confederate coins for around a year, before resuming operations after the Civil War and producing coinage up until 1879.
As a southern state relying heavily on slave labor, it was inevitable that Louisiana would join the Confederate side, and Louisiana seceded from the Union in 1861. The great Mississippi and New Orleans location and port facilities were of great strategic importance to both the Union and Confederate sides, and a Mississippi riverman/engineer/salvage operator, James B Eads (1820-1887) proposed the building of steam powered ‘ironclad’ flat bottomed warships to the Union side. Eads then build the ‘ironclads’ and their use in the War is said to be one of the main reasons that Ulysses S. Grant was able to capture the two strategic forts- Forts Henry and Donelson.
Eads would also later go on to build the bridge over the Mississippi in St Louis between 1867 and 1874, and then between 1874 and 1879 he constructed a number of jetties and the shipping channel on the Mississippi below New Orleans that enabled big ocean ships to come into the Port to load and offload cargo.
Following the end of the Civil War, there was a period of reconstruction and newly freed slaves in many cases became ‘tenement or share farmers’ but many also left their rural life to find jobs in cities, heading north to the big industrial cities of Detroit, Chicago, New York and other cities. Industrialisation also affected agriculture too – with human labor replaced by Horse drawn ploughs and harvesters, and then by motorised tractors and equipment.
With railroads, cars and roads and air flights people could travel more and although New Orleans had its share of race riots, segregation, racial stereotyping and discrimination it also developed a reputation for Jazz, music, the Mardi Gras and fun times and the tourism and convention industries have developed as a result.
‘Mardi Gras’ – in New Orleans dates back to 1699 when the French-Canadian explorer, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne named the spot where his expedition rested as ‘Pointe du Mardi Gras’, based on his day of arrival there. The word ‘Mardi’ is French for ‘Tuesday’ and ‘Gras’ means ‘Fatty’ – as in ‘Fatty Tuesday’ a festival celebration when they would traditionally feast on a “Boeuf Gras” – a fatty cow, on the day before Lent.
The New Orleans Mardi Gras (like Carnival in Brazil) has evolved from that time, the first one celebrated in 1702 in Mobile and by the 1730’s in New Orleans. The King of Carnival is called ‘Rex’ while the God of ‘Mardi Gras’ is Comus – in Ancient Greek, Comus was the God of Festivity, revels and nocturnal dalliances, also being the cup bearer to Bacchus, the God of wine and good times!
In turn it is the ‘Crewe’ that organises the balls and parades that make New Orleans Mardi Gras such a special festival. A special cake is also made for the occasion, called ‘King Cake’, which if you are in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, you will be able to find.
Hurricanes and floods have always been a part of New Orleans life, with much of the city being below sea level. Levees to protect the city were started by the French in 1717, and have continued to this day, along with flood mitigation and other measures, but in August 2005 the most devastating of all hurricanes and tidal surges occurred when Hurricane Katrina bore down on the City. Some 1833 people were killed, and over 100,000 people became homeless, with an estimated $108 Billion of damage to property.
A large number of New Orleans residents left the city as a result, never to return, but New Orleans is recovering, and the spirit of New Orleans continues to make it a great city to visit.