The History of New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Created | Updated Jun 11, 2002
New Orleans is the largest city in the state of Louisiana, itself a part of the United States located in the American South on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It is located on a stretch of land between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.
The site for the city was found in 1699 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville and his brother Pierre, exploring an area that Jean de la Salle, another French explorer, had discovered ten years before and claimed for France. This alligator- and mosquito-infested alluvial flood plain apparently possessed much of the charm for which Jean-Baptiste, titled as 'Sieur de Bienville', was looking to found a colony. Located between a large freshwater lake and an even larger voluminous fast-moving river less than 15 nautical miles away from an even larger body of water known as the Gulf of Mexico, la Nouvelle Orléans was blessed with an oppressive humidity that would make most Russians search for a sauna to escape the heat. In truth, New Orleans, founded by Sieur de Bienville in 1718, holds the most strategic point of the Mississippi River by virtue of its proximity near the delta.
New Orleans quickly gained a reputation that was less than reputable, being a port of call, and even home, to pirates, smugglers, slavers and others of disreputable character. The most notable of this rousing rabble was probably the pirate Jean Lafitte, whose 18th Century 'blacksmith' shop is now appropriately home to a 21st Century poorly-lit drinking establishment.
Needless to say, this did not sit well with the reigning French monarch of the day, Louis XV. At the time, France was not a country concerned with trivial things such as, in a manner of speaking, a balanced cheque book. The previous monarch, Louis XIV, evidently weary from the ennui of living a life of excessive luxury (and rumoured sexual debauchery) at his Versailles estate, supplemented his boredom by declaring war on other nations on a fairly regular basis. Invading the mighty Dutch for dime bags and Spain for its authentic paella took its toll on the national treasury.
A 'Gift' to the Spanish
Louis XV, not to be outdone in the expenditures, eagerly took up the mantle of his father by throwing a fête of his own, known as the Seven Years War. Among his party guests were England, her American Colonies, and some folks who claim to hold title to all the lands by virtue of having lived there for a few thousand years, but we won't talk about them. Filled with prizes for all, the pinata was Canada. Evidently, 18th Century France was aching for such exports as beaver fur, maple syrup and hockey.
Feeling the pinch of the purse strings and losing his war, Louis XV found Louisiana to be an excellent bargaining tool. In 1762, he signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau, which ceded all of Louisiana west of the Mississippi (including New Orleans) to King Charles III of Spain for an alliance against England. This was a sizable chunk of land stretching northward to present day Minnesota and westward to western Montana.
As Louis XV was greeting his newly made Spanish ally with open arms, the British seized Québec and Nova Scotia, then called Acadie. The British, being the open-minded people that they were at the time, gave the French residents of Nova Scotia an ultimatum: swear loyalty to the English crown and join the Church of England or be exiled. The Acadiens being both French and Catholic, but more the latter than the former, opted for the more desirable choice of exile. Considering that Québec seemed to be meeting the same fate as Acadie, the Acadiens decided that, rather than return to France, la Nouvelle Orléans would become their new home.
Still, France hoped to regain Louisiana one day, and believed the best way to do this would be to assist the Acadiens in their exile to New Orleans. The Acadiens, still being loyal French citizens, agreed. Unfortunately for the Acadiens, or Cajuns (their diminutive name), the British and French authorities forgot to inform them that la Nouvelle Orléans was now la Nueva Orleáns. Spanish authorities, wary of French intentions at dumping a few hundred French émigrés on their shores, naturally demanded that the Cajuns become Spanish subjects. Upon their refusal, the Cajuns faced a second exile, this time from la Nueva Orleáns to the bayous. In Spanish Louisiana, the Creoles, half-African and half-French, were held in higher esteem than the Cajuns. This was a major stigma in the American South, one that haunted the Cajuns until the 1960s.
Back to the French...
Spain soon found that ruling New Orleans and Louisiana was no bargain, thanks to active piracy and a lack of real control over entrenched Creole society and bureaucracy. By 1800, they wanted out and looked for any exit. Napoleon Bonaparte offered to take over the city and territory and Spain accepted. Bonaparte, in apparent gratitude to Spain for the return of Louisiana under French authority, thanked Spain by invading and placing Spain also under French authority. The Spanish, equally thankful to Bonaparte for this wonderful gift, began a guerilla war to expel the French army.
Bonaparte soon found that by invading every country in Europe, enemies were made fast and money was spent even faster. In 1803, looking for a quick cash cow, and since he couldn't successfully defend it from either the British navy or American armies ready to partake of chicory coffee and beignets in the French Quarter, Bonaparte offered a $15 million price tag for Louisiana to American President Thomas Jefferson, a strict interpreter of the US Constitution who responded to Bonaparte's offer by acting unconstitutionally; he bought it without the consent of the American Congress. Incidentally, New Orleans is the only city of French origin which has a street dedicated to Napoleon.
Life as an American State
Creoles, French, Spanish and other cultures living in New Orleans were not exactly thrilled with the changing of the guard to the American Stars and Stripes. To isolate themselves from American influence, especially the Protestantism which pervaded American society at the time, the provisional government of Louisiana (controlled primarily by Creoles) adopted the Napoleonic Code and Spanish and French Civil Law, a legal gumbo which still exists today, albeit some elements are now anachronistic. For example, women did not have the right to directly inherit property until 1982. Although whether women should have the right to inherit property is arguable, it is not for debate here. In contemporary American society, it looks a little Neanderthal.
Americans did, however, manage to maintain control of New Orleans and Louisiana with a solvency much longer than the average post-war Italian government. They had fought a battle to defend the city from British capture in 1815, though it was pointless since the peace treaty had been signed the previous day. The state government finally fell to the Americans in 1852 thanks to the wheels of democracy. That same year, the American-dominated government repealed the Code Noir, a series of laws designed to protect slaves and free people of colour, of which the largest population in the USA lived in New Orleans. As a result, many Creoles and free blacks were stripped of their rights and property, and enslaved. By 1850, New Orleans was the largest centre of the slave trade in the United States.
The Land of the Free would face its hardest test ten years later, with the advent of the Civil War, also known as the War of Northern Aggression. Though thriving from the slave trade, New Orleans voted to remain in the Union, though the rest of Louisiana was determined to secede. Talk about being of two minds. New Orleans fell easily and quickly in the war and many disenfranchised blacks and Creoles joined the forces of the Northern 'aggressor'. After the Civil War, many civil rights gains won during the war were lost as segregation became the rule of the day.
The Start of the 20th Century
As a major port in the late 1800s, New Orleans was also a large immigration centre, especially for Italians and Irish. Still true to its smuggling tradition, these ethnic groups began fighting over both legitimate and illegitimate businesses. Contrary to popular belief, what would be considered the modern American Mafia originated in New Orleans between these two rival groups, and spread to other major port centres in the United States, namely Chicago and New York. The Italian Mafia did gain dominance in the city of New Orleans and was highly proficient in smuggling alcohol into the city during Prohibition. Al Capone, the infamous Chicago gangster, owned many a warehouse along the Mississippi where contraband would be stored. It is rumoured that the Mafia still operates today in New Orleans, although it is just a rumour, however well substantiated it may be.
As for the Irish, many of their business activities centred in a neighbourhood called the Irish Channel. Having lost certain profitable franchises to the Italians, namely the ports, the Irish became involved in gun smuggling and money laundering for the Irish Republican Army (Sinn Fein). At the height of the IRA's actions in Northern Ireland and England, New Orleans was the second largest financial backer in the USA after Boston. Of course, this is also just a rumour, however well substantiated it may be.
While the city was liquoring itself up with illegal booze, music was needed to accompany the intoxication. Jazz began to develop in the 1920s in New Orleans. Places like Storyville and Desire were soon filled with the sounds of jazz drifting through the humid air. New Orleans' favourite son is great jazz legend Louis Armstrong, whom New Orleanians have honoured with places bearing his name, including Louis Armstrong International Airport. Although jazz clubs are a dime a dozen in the French Quarter, clubs can be found throughout the city. New Orleans also became a literary centre, rivaling that of the Parisian scene, hosting writers such as John Steinbeck and Tennessee Williams, among others.
Also at this time, beyond literary, musical and economic importance, New Orleans was also finding itself to be a major centre of culture in the United States thanks to its annual celebration of Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday celebrated in Catholic calendars. Despite its Catholic echoes, Mardi Gras's modern incarnation began with the city's elite, who, in 1857, founded the celebration's first krewe, Comus. Today, Mardi Gras has over 30 krewe parades marching during the carnival season
WWII and Beyond
During the Second World War, New Orleans' ports found themselves building warships rather than barges. The Avondale shipyards built the PT landing boats used so successfully at Normandy on 6 June, 1944. From a high tide in the 1940s and 1950s, New Orleans began a steady decline beginning in the 1960s. Traditional cash crops arriving from South America and the Caribbean, especially coffee, that would fill the warehouses and wharves were instead being delivered to Miami, Charleston and other ports. The port is still one of the world's largest and still one of the United States' most valuable entry points for imports, ranking number one in tonnage handled. From its ports, New Orleans exports oil, food, cotton, paper, machinery and steel.
The oil boom, which seemed to be the savior for New Orleans' new fiscal woes, went bust in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Much of the investment culled from that industry had been lost to New Orleans' and Louisiana's colourful political machine or outright poorly invested. Much of the city's shipyards, once busy, lay dormant waiting for contract work. Crime rates skyrocketed, among the citizenship, the police force, and the mayor's office. A movement began in 1991 to change the state license plate motto from 'Sportsman's Paradise' to 'Third World and Proud of It!' At one time, New Orleans was the murder capital of the world.
Although the tourism industry has become a mainstay of New Orleanian economics thanks to Mardi Gras, sporting events and New Orleans' laissez-faire alcohol-drenched, food-smothered and jazz-omnipresent atmosphere, New Orleans suffers from a structural unemployment rate of 28%. Its largest private employer is Tulane University. In 1960, the population of New Orleans was 625,000. By 2000, the population had dropped to 460,000. Its future, threatened by economic decline as well as a real environmental threat of destruction by flooding and hurricane, is uncertain.