In the Beginning

In 1682, explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, claimed the region for France, as he had with lands northward to Canada. His navigational and leadership failures in later explorations resulted in his mutinous murder in Texas in 1687 by his own party, fed up with his life-risking demands. Next, at the turn of the 18th century, two French-Canadian brothers led an expedition from France to rediscover the mouth of the Mississippi. The expedition succeeded, and Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, and 18-year-old Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, staked a claim at a dramatic bend in the river, near where La Salle had stopped almost 2 decades earlier. Iberville also established a fort at Biloxi. Brother Bienville stayed on there, becoming commanding officer of the territory while harboring thoughts of returning to the spot up the river to establish a new capital city.

In 1718 Bienville got his chance. The French monarch was eager to develop, populate, and garner the riches that Louisiana promised. Bienville was charged with finding a suitable location for a settlement, one that would also protect France’s New World holdings from British expansion. Bienville chose the easily defensible high ground at the bend in the river. Although it was some 100 miles inland along the river from the Gulf of Mexico, the site was near St. John’s Bayou, a waterway into Lake Pontchartrain. This “back door” was convenient for a military defense or escape, and as a trade route (as the Choctaw Indians had long known)—allowing relatively easy access to the Gulf while bypassing a perilous section of the Mississippi.

The new town was named La Nouvelle-Orléans in honor of the duc d’Orléans, then the regent of France. The “property development” was entrusted to John Law’s Company of the West. Following the plan of a late French medieval town, a central square (the Place d’Armes) was laid out with streets forming a grid around it. A church, government office, priest’s house, and official residences fronted the square, and earthen ramparts dotted with forts were built around the perimeter. A tiny wooden levee was raised against the river, which still flooded periodically and turned the streets into rivers of mud. Today this area of original settlement is known as the Vieux Carré (old square) and the Place d’Armes as Jackson Square.

A Melting Pot

In its first few years, New Orleans was a community of French officials, adventurers, merchants, slaves, soldiers, and convicts from French prisons, all living in crude huts of cypress, moss, and clay. These were the first ingredients of New Orleans’s population gumbo. The city’s commerce was mainly limited to trade with native tribes and to instituting agricultural production.

To supply people and capital to the colony, John Law’s company essentially pulled the first real estate scam in the New World. The territory and the city were marketed on the continent as Heaven on Earth, full of immediate and boundless opportunities for wealth and luxury. The value of real estate soared, and wealthy Europeans, aristocrats, merchants, exiles, soldiers, and a large contingent of German farmers arrived—to find only mosquitoes, a raw frontier existence, and swampy land. The scheme nearly bankrupted the French nation, but New Orleans’ population grew, and in 1723 it replaced Biloxi as the capital of the Louisiana territory.

The next year, Bienville approved the Code Noir, which set forth the laws under which African slaves were to be treated and established Catholicism as the territory’s official religion. While it codified slavery and banished Jews from Louisiana, the code did provide slaves recognition and a very slight degree of legal protection, unusual in the South at that time.

A lack of potential wives created a significant barrier to population and societal development. In 1727, a small contingent of Ursuline nuns were sent over and established a convent. While the nuns weren’t exactly eligible, they did provide a temporary home and education to many subsequent shiploads of les filles à la cassette. The “cassette girls” or “casket girls”—named for the government-issue cassettes or casketlike trunks in which they carried their possessions—were young women of appropriate character sent to Louisiana by the French government to be courted and married by the colonists. (If we’re to believe the current residents of the city, the plan was remarkably successful: Nearly everyone in New Orleans claims descent from the virtuous casket girls or from Spanish or French nobility. By insinuation, that means the colony’s motley initial population of convicts and “fallen women” was wholly infertile. Hmm . . . )

John Law’s company relinquished its governance of Louisiana in 1731, and the French monarch regained direct control of the territory. In the following decades, planters established estates up and down the river from New Orleans. In the city, wealthier society began to develop a courtly atmosphere on the French model. Amid their rough-and-tumble existence on their plantations, families competed to see who could throw the most opulent parties in their city townhouses.

During the 18th century, colonization of a different sort was taking place to the west, along the Gulf of Mexico. There, many French colonists, displaced by British rule from Acadia, Nova Scotia, made their way south from Canada and formed a rural outpost, where their descendants still live, farm, trap, and speak their unique brand of French to this day. These Acadians’ name has been Anglicized, and we know them today as Cajuns.

Meanwhile, New Orleans commercial development was stymied by trading restrictions imposed by France: The colony could trade only with the mother country. To subvert the restrictions, smugglers and pirates provided alternative markets and transportation for the local crops, furs, bricks, and tar.

As the French saw it, the colony was costing them development money, and the return on investment wasn’t paying off. In 1762, Louis XV traded the city and all of Louisiana west of the Mississippi to his cousin Charles III of Spain in the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau. It took 2 years for the news to reach a shocked New Orleans, and the Spanish took 2 more years to send a governor, Don Antonio de Ulloa. He made few friends among local residents, who eventually demanded Ulloa’s removal. Some proposed the formation of a Louisiana republic. Ulloa was sent packing, and for a time, New Orleans and Louisiana were effectively independent of any foreign power. That came to a crashing end in 1769 when the Spanish sent forth Don Alexander “Bloody” O’Reilly and 3,000 soldiers. Local leaders of the relatively peaceful rebellion were executed, and Spanish rule was imposed again. With a Gallic shrug, French aristocracy mingled with Spanish nobility, intermarried, and helped to create a new “Creole” culture.

A devastating fire struck in 1788, destroying more than 850 buildings, and again in 1794 in the midst of rebuilding. From the ashes emerged a new architecture dominated by the proud Spanish style of brick-and-plaster buildings replete with arches, courtyards, balconies with their famed cast-iron railings, and, of course, attached slave quarters. Today you’ll still see tile markers giving Spanish street names at French Quarter street corners.

The Spanish imposed the same kind of trade restrictions on the city that the French had, with even less success (making for good times for pirates and privateers like the infamous brothers Pierre and Jean Lafitte). Still, this was a period of intense imperial conflict and maneuvering between the Spanish, French, English, and Americans. Spain allowed some American revolutionaries to trade through the city in support of the colonists’ fight against Britain, but France rallied and regained possession of the territory in 1800 with a surprisingly quiet transfer of ownership. They held on for 3 years while Napoleon negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with the United States for the paltry (as it turned out) sum of $15 million. For Creole society, the return to French rule was unpleasant enough because France had long been facing serious financial troubles. But a sale to uncouth America was anathema. To their minds, it meant the end of a European lifestyle in the Vieux Carré.

Thus, when Americans arrived in the city, the upper classes made it known that they were welcome to settle—away from the old city and Creole society across Canal Street (so named because a drainage canal was once planned along its route).

And so it was that New Orleans came to be two parallel cities. The American section spread outward from Canal Street along St. Charles Avenue; business and cultural institutions centered in the Central Business District; and mansions rose in what is now the Garden District, which was a separate, incorporated city until 1852. French and Creole society dominated the Quarter for the rest of the 19th century, extending toward Lake Pontchartrain along Esplanade Avenue. Soon, however, the Americans (crass though they may have seemed) brought commercial success to the city, which quickly warmed relations—the Americans sought the vitality of downtown society, and the Creoles sought the profit of American business. They also had occasion to join forces against hurricanes, yellow-fever epidemics, and floods.

From the Battle of New Orleans to the Civil War

Perhaps nothing helped to cement a sense of community more than the Battle of New Orleans, during the War of 1812. The great turning point in Creole-American relations was the cooperation of Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte (and Choctaw Indians, and black soldiers, not incidentally). To save the city, Jackson set aside his disdain for the pirate, and Lafitte turned down offers to fight for the British, instead supplying the Americans with cannons and ammunition that helped swing the battle in their favor. When Jackson called for volunteers, some 5,000 citizens from both sides of Canal Street responded. At the battle on January 8, 1815, at Chalmette Battlefield a few miles downriver from the city, approximately 2,000 British troops and 20 Americans were killed or wounded. The course of history was changed, Louisiana was incorporated into the Union, and Jackson became a hero—though ironically neither he nor the British had been aware that a treaty concluding the war had been signed a full 2 weeks before, on December 24, 1814. Needless to say, fireworks are gonna fly for the Battle of New Orleans’ bicentennial celebration in 2015. (See “New Orleans Calendar of Events,” later in this chapter.)

From then until the Civil War, New Orleans was a boomtown. Colonial trade restrictions had evaporated with the Louisiana Purchase, and steam-powered river travel arrived in 1812. River commerce exploded, and by the 1840s New Orleans’s port was on par with New York’s. Cotton and sugar made many local fortunes (on the backs of slave labor); wealthy planters joined the city merchants in building luxurious townhouses and in attending festivals, opera, theater, banquets, parades, and spectacular balls (including “Quadroon Balls,” where beautiful mulatto girls were peddled to the male gentry as possible mistresses). As always, politics and gambling were dominant pastimes of these citizens and visitors.

By the middle of the century, cotton-related business was responsible for nearly half of the total commerce in New Orleans, and the city housed a large and ruthless slave market to support it. Paradoxically, New Orleans also had an extensive, established population of “free men (and women) of color”, uncommon in the American South. Furthermore, racial distinctions within the city became increasingly difficult to determine; people could often trace their ancestry back to two or even three different continents. Adding to the diversity, waves of Irish and German immigrants arrived in New Orleans during this period, supplying important sources of labor to support the city’s growth.

The only major impediments to the development of the city in these decades were occasional yellow-fever epidemics, which killed thousands of residents and visitors. Despite the clearing of swampland, the mosquito-borne disease persisted until the final decades of the 19th century.

Reconstruction & Beyond

The boom era ended rather abruptly with the Civil War and Louisiana’s secession from the United States in 1861. Federal troops marched into the city in 1862 and stayed until 1877, through the bitter Reconstruction period. Throughout the South, this period saw violent clashes between armed white groups and the state’s Reconstruction forces.

After the war, the city went about the business of rebuilding its economic life—without slavery. Without a free labor base, some fortunes crashed, but the city persevered. By 1880, annexations had fleshed out the city limits, port activity had picked up, and railroads were establishing their economic importance. A new group of immigrants, Sicilians, came to put their unique mark on the city. Through it all, an undiminished enthusiasm for fun survived. Gambling thrived; there were hundreds of saloons and scores of “bawdy houses” engaged in prostitution (illegal, but uncontrolled). New Orleans was earning an international reputation for open vice, much to the chagrin of the city’s polite society.

In 1897, Alderman Sidney Story moved all illegal (but highly profitable) activities into a restricted district along Basin Street next to the French Quarter, in an effort to improve the city’s tarnished image. Quickly nicknamed Storyville, the district boasted fancy “sporting palaces” with elaborate decor, musical entertainment, and a wide variety of ladies of pleasure. The Blue Book directory listed the names, addresses, and races of more than 700 prostitutes, working the swanky “palaces” down to the decrepit “cribs.” Black musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton played in the more ornate bordellos, popularizing early forms of jazz. When the Secretary of the Navy decreed in 1917 that armed forces should not be exposed to so much open vice, Storyville closed down and disappeared—with nary a trace beyond its great cultural impact.

Lady Bountiful: Baroness de Pontalba

New Orleans owes a great debt to Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba and her family. Without them, Jackson Square might still be a soggy mess. Her father, Don Almonester, used his money and influence to have St. Louis Cathedral, Cabildo, and Presbytère built. The baroness was responsible for the two long brick apartment buildings that flank Jackson Square and for the renovation that turned the center of the Quarter into what it is today.

Born in 1795 into the most influential family in New Orleans, the baroness married her cousin, who subsequently stole her inheritance. When she wanted a separation, at a time when such things were unheard of, her father-in-law shot her several times and then shot himself. She survived, though some of her fingers did not (nor did he). In subsequent portraits, she would hide the wounded hand in her dress. In the end, she got her money back—she used it for those French Quarter improvements—and also ended up caring for her slightly mad husband for the rest of his life. She died in Paris in 1874; her home there is now the American ambassador’s residence. The book Intimate Enemies, by Christina Vella (Louisiana State University Press, 1997), details this remarkable woman’s life.

The 20th Century

The 20th century found the city’s port becoming the largest in the United States and the second-busiest in the world (after Amsterdam), with goods coming in by barge and rail. Electrification and other modern technology kept the port whirring. Drainage problems were conquered by means of high levees, canals, pumping stations, and great spillways, which direct floodwater away from the city. Bridges were built across the Mississippi River, including the Huey P. Long Bridge, named after Louisiana’s infamous politician and demagogue. New Orleans’s emergence as a regional financial center, with more than 50 commercial banks, led to the construction of soaring office buildings, mostly in the Central Business District. World War II grew a thriving shipbuilding business, which was replaced by the expansion of oil, gas, and petrochemical businesses after the war. Later in the 20th century, tourism became another primary economic driver.

Like most other American cities, the city’s population spread outward, filling suburbs and nearby municipalities. A thriving community in New Orleans East was developed by Vietnamese refugees, who immigrated in the 1970s. Unlike other cities, however, New Orleans has been able to preserve its original town center and much of its historic architecture. 

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.