History of New Orleans

United States > US City Index > New Orleans > History

The story of New Orleans officially began in 1682, with the "discovery" of Louisiana by Rene Cavelier Sieur de la Salle. The area, named in honor of King Louis XIV of France and his wife Anne, comprised all lands drained by the Mississippi River, a substantially larger plot than the modern day state of Louisiana.

Phillipe, Duc d'Orleans, then Regent of France, gave his name to New Orleans, but Sieur d'Iberville founded the city itself, some 20 years later. A port city that united the Mississippi with the Gulf of Mexico was a strategic dream, but the site's actual physical landscape, an improbable 15 feet below sea-level, was a swampy, malaria-ridden nightmare. The French had their work cut out for them constructing and populating La Nouvelle Orleans, and it turned out to be a Scotsman, royal counselor John Law, who stimulated interest in France's newest colonial addition. Law mounted an 18th-century equivalent of today's full-blitz PR campaigns, complete with phony eyewitness accounts of gold-rich lands. Of course, when hopeful immigrants arrived at the non-city with no sight of any gold prospects, they had little choice but to stay and erect something themselves.

Working, as the new arrivals did, in the humid, unsanitary conditions of the time led to the creation of New Orleans' famous above-ground cemeteries. City builders expired left and right under the harsh conditions and it was soon discovered that coffins had an unpleasant propensity to pop out of the ground with every hard rain. Above-ground tombs and mausoleums were the only recourse.

The city's living residents set themselves up in a square-like grid now called the Vieux Carre, or "Old Square, centered upon an open area known as the Place d'Armes, today's Jackson Square. The societal make-up of the time, known as Creole society, was a mix of French aristocrats, merchants, farmers, soldiers, indentured servants, African and Caribbean slaves and free-people of color. Eventually, it became fashionable for male Creole aristocrats to have black or mixed-race mistresses. Children sired from these unions were often treated well, and sometimes given property or European educations. This generous-for-its-time attitude towards race set New Orleans apart from all other major North American colonial cities.

In the 1760s, New Orleans would undergo its first major social transformation with the arrival of two new groups: the Acadians and the Spanish. The Acadian immigrants, or Cajuns, ousted from their native Nova Scotia by the British, settled the bayou country west of New Orleans. The Spanish arrived in the city proper, prodded by the transfer of the Louisiana Territory to Spanish King Charles III, royal cousin to King Louis XV of France.

The Spanish reign was short and most notable for the building codes enacted to spare the Vieux Carre from the devastating fires that swept the city in 1788 and 1794. Architectural trademarks of the area frequently attributed to the French, including rear courtyards and elaborate wrought iron balconies, are actually Spanish contributions.

Despite the prosperity that developed during Spanish occupation, New Orleans remained predisposed to its French heritage. The city happily reunited with its original founders in 1800, when the Louisiana Territory returned to France. The reunion was short-lived, however. War debts forced Napoleon to sell the territory to the United States in the $15 million Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Louisiana later achieved statehood in 1812.

American settlers, and soon thereafter Irish and Italian immigrants, rushed into New Orleans. Rebuffed by the city's Creole society, the Americans settled upriver from the Vieux Carre, known by this time as the French Quarter. Skirmishes between new and old city residents occurred frequently, and the dividing line between the Quarter and the American sector, an empty canal that never was to be, became known as "the neutral ground" and eventually Canal Street.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, New Orleans became a city of great prosperity. Cotton, tobacco and sugarcane plantations ran at full throttle, as did the steamboats along the Mississippi that transferred the raw materials to the rest of country. It was during this economically comfortable period that New Orleans began to develop its party reputation. Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday," the celebration preceding Lent, began to develop its modern form. By 1823, balls commemorated the season. Secret aristocratic groups, known as Mardi Gras Krewes, formed to add structure to what had become a loose, sometimes violent, holiday season. In 1857, the first Krewe, the Mystick Krewe of Comus, debuted the first theme float. Some years later, after the formation of the second Mardi Gras Krewe, Rex, Comus introduced the first Mardi Gras Queen, Mildred Lee, daughter of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

New Orleans, loyal to the Confederacy, fell quickly to Union forces in the early years of the Civil War. City morale may have suffered, but the French Quarter continued to thrive as saloons, gambling parlors and bordellos began to overtake the Vieux Carre. Vice became somewhat regulated towards the turn of the century, when alderman Sidney Story proposed setting up a red-light district next to the French Quarter, along Basin Street. The area became known as "Storyville" and its resident entertainers "King" Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton would later contribute to the birth of the national musical art form known as Jazz.

The beginning years of the 20th century were difficult ones for New Orleans as a series of natural disasters--a hurricane in 1915, a flu epidemic in 1918, and a flood in 1927--devastated the city. Legendary governor and beloved scoundrel Huey P. Long rescued the city with successful bids to the state legislature for expansion of public works and services. Long's legally questionable but ultimately successful methods also put an odd, somewhat corrupt stamp on city and state politics. "Folks have a certain way of doing things 'round here," the famous line given by a charming, corrupt cop in the movie The Big Easy, is a fairly accurate assessment of the local bureaucratic mindset over the past century.

Oil, natural gas and tourism became New Orleans' largest post-Depression industries. In 1969, the first Jazz Fest, a 10-day period known as one of the world's largest musical celebrations, was held, and contiues to draw record numbers of visitors to the city. The 1984 World's Fair Exhibit was a less successful commercial venture, but did lead to the development of the Warehouse District wharves, now site of the ever-expanding Convention Center.