No other city in America keeps its history as vital and accessible as New Orleans. House after house, street after street, indeed entire neighborhoods, exude a rich sense of place, and serve as touchstones for fascinating history and complex culture. Look for it. In New Orleans, history can strut as loudly as a Carnival walking krewe, or creep as softly as a green lizard on a courtyard wall. Thrilling. Colorful. Tragic. Inspiring. Discover a little about the sweep of the city’s history.
Indigenous people called it Balbancha, “land of many tongues,” and they inhabited the rich delta lands between the Mississippi River (“Father of Waters”) and Okwa-Ta (“Big Water,” Lake Pontchartrain) for the same reasons that would later attract Europeans: abundant ecological resources and a convenient network of navigable rivers, bayous and bays. Claimed for the French Crown by explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1682, La Nouvelle-Orleans was founded by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville in 1718 upon the slightly elevated banks of the Mississippi River approximately 95 miles above its mouth. Engineers laid out a grid of streets with a Place d’Armes (today’s Jackson Square) that would become known as the Vieux Carré (“Old Square”), or today’s French Quarter. The nascent outpost became the capital of the French Colony of Louisiana in 1723.
That same year, France ceded Louisiana to Spain, to keep it out of the hands of the British, victors of the recent French and Indian War. For the remainder of the 1700s, Louisiana was a Spanish colony, and Nueva Orleans functioned as an important trading and cultural partner with Cuba, Mexico, and beyond. It was during the Spanish colonial era that New Orleans transformed from a village-like environment of wooden houses to a city of sturdier brick buildings with urban infrastructure, largely due to the unpaid labor of enslaved people. Catalyzing the change were two disastrous fires, in 1788 and 1794, which together destroyed over a thousand old French buildings. New architectural codes were introduced shortly thereafter, resulting in splendid Spanish Colonial-style buildings such as the Cabildo fronting today’s Jackson Square. Other Spanish contributions include wrought-iron balconies, patios (courtyards), above-ground cemeteries, and the city’s earliest expansion, the Suburbio Santa Maria, today’s Central Business District. The Spanish also liberalized policies governing slavery, which enabled the dramatic growth of a caste of free people of color
In 1800, the Spanish retroceded Louisiana back to France, only to have Napoleon sell the entire Louisiana colony, including New Orleans, to the United States as part of the $15 million Louisiana Purchase, finalized on December 20, 1803.
Although no longer a French colony, residents in the new American city of New Orleans held tight to their Francophile ways, including language, religion, customs, a complex social strata, and a penchant for the epicurean. The Creoles—that is, the locally born descendants of early inhabitants, many with French blood—created a sophisticated and cosmopolitan society that stood apart from nearly every other American city. From the streets of the French Quarter, to the Creole cottages of the Faubourg Marigny, to the Old Ursuline Convent and the former Charity Hospital, vestiges of French colonial times persist to this day.
The flow of goods between the Gulf of Mexico and port of New Orleans attracted smugglers, privateers, and pirates, with Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre among the most infamous. Jean Lafitte was a fixer and rogue who played an instrumental role in aiding Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson and the Americans in their victory over the British during the Battle of New Orleans (1815) at Chalmette. Tradition holds that Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, at 941 Bourbon Street, served as the pirates’ base. Probably dating to the 1770s and said to be the oldest structure housing a bar in the United States, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop is a picturesque relic of colonial-era vernacular architecture, and still a popular saloon today.
Mardi Gras was first recorded in the present-day United States in March 1699, as Iberville and Bienville sailed up the Mississippi River and made note of the midwinter feast in their journal as they camped at Point du Mardi Gras. After that, French colonists celebrated Mardi Gras in Mobile and, following its founding in 1718, in New Orleans, mostly in the form of public festivity and private costumed balls. Mardi Gras remained a raucous but generally informal affair until 1857, when a group of Anglo-Americans from Mobile formed the Mistick Krewe of Comus and introduced formal parades and elaborate floats organized by social organizations called krewes. The krewes of Comus and later Rex would set the template for Mardi Gras for decades to come, by which time New Orleanians proudly called their pre-Lenten feast “the greatest free show on Earth.”
In the mid-1800s, the highest concentration of millionaires in America could be found between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Their wealth came largely from sugar cane plantations, which depended on the labor of thousands of enslaved African Americans. In the 1850s alone, Louisiana plantations produced an estimated 450 million pounds of sugar per year, worth more than $20 million annually.
Sugar and cotton came downriver on steamboats en route to global markets. Thousands of dockworkers toiled on the wharves of New Orleans to transfer the cargo to ocean-going ships after unloading their imports, while hundreds of bankers, merchants, factors, insurers, and lawyers managed finance and logistics. Millions were made in the commerce, and much of it went to the powerful aristocracy. That wealth may be seen to this day in the opulent townhouses of the French Quarter and the magnificent mansions of the Garden District. But that elegance could not mask the fact that this was an enslaved society, as well as the nation’s busiest slave marketplace, throughout the antebellum era, 1803-1861.
In 1840, New Orleans ranked as the third-largest city in the nation, the largest in the South, and the fourth-busiest port in the world. It had a population of 102,193, of whom 58 percent were white, 23 percent were enslaved African Americans; and 19 percent were free people of color. Its two primary ethnicities, French-speaking Creoles and English-speaking Anglo-Americans competed for power and lived in largely separate sections, the Creoles in the French Quarter and the lower faubourgs, the Anglo-Americans in what is now the Central Business District, Lower Garden District, and Garden District. All neighborhoods occupied the narrow crescent-shaped natural levee abutting the Mississippi River, behind which was an uninhabitable swamp. River floods, hurricanes, and fires were constant threats, as were devastating epidemics of yellow fever, dengue, malaria and cholera.
Union troops captured Confederate New Orleans in May 1862 and occupied the region for the remainder of the Civil War. Afterward, a racially integrated Reconstruction-era government passed a progressive state constitution and sought to establish civil rights for emancipated slaves. But after the end of Reconstruction in 1877, white-supremacist forces steadily regained control, and racial subjugation and segregation would ensue for a century to come. The 1896 Supreme Court decision on Plessy versus Ferguson, which legally sanctioned “separate but equal” policies, derived from a local case.
While New Orleans would never regain its domination of western trade, the Crescent City in postbellum times did catch up on railroad construction, port modernization, levee-building, and urban improvements. The city made bold infrastructural advancements during the Progressive Era in municipal drainage, water treatment, sewerage, sanitation, public health, and urban beautification. Locals also pioneered the preservation movement, starting with the French Quarter, even as auto-friendly neighborhoods were laid out in recently drained swamplands, and the urban footprint of the modernizing metropolis reached to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.
You can still hear it and smell it: the rustle of skirts across heart-of-pine floors; a Ragtime tune tinkling from an open Treme window; a whiff of cheroot smoke; iced oysters and lager beer from a Magazine Street saloon. Discover Victorian New Orleans, the late 1800s, when the city gained traction, when arts and performance flourished, and when ornate gingerbread-adorned houses went up by the thousands. The Fairgrounds (1872), Audubon Park (1886), New Orleans Museum of Art (1911) and many other of the city’s great offerings came into being in this era.
The late Victorian period also saw the emergence of jazz, a revolutionary new musical idiom that would become New Orleans’ greatest cultural contribution to the nation and world. Music has always been a birthright in New Orleans; even before jazz, diverse ethnic and racial groups— French, Spanish, African, Italian, Latin, German, Anglo, Irish—found common ground in making music, and to this day, the city makes outsized contributions in various musical genres, including rap, hip-hop, bounce, and funk.
The Jazz Age in New Orleans also saw the rise of a literary and artistic community. The “French Quarter Renaissance” involved figures such as writers William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson, artists Ellsworth Woodward and Caroline Wogan Durieux, and famed playwright Tennessee Williams, who took inspiration from the “rattletrap streetcar” that ran down Bourbon and up Royal Street as he penned his 1947 masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire.
New Orleans played a critical role in the epic struggle of World War II. Local shipbuilder Andrew Higgins, who had designed special vessels to navigate shallow Louisiana bayous, realized they would serve to well to deliver soldiers and materiel onto shallow beaches while avoiding deep-water harbors in enemy hands.
Built in local shipyards by a racially integrated workforce of men and women, “Higgins Boats” were used on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and throughout the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific. They were so successful that General Dwight D. Eisenhower would describe Higgins as “the man who won the war for us.” The story of New Orleans’ heroic role in the war is featured in New Orleans’ world-class National WWII Museum.
A continuum of change marks New Orleans’ post-WWII experience. New bridges and highways were built to access expanding suburbs; a new city government complex opened in downtown, and modern skyscrapers broke the city’s formerly modest skyline.
In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement brought dignity and new opportunities to Black New Orleanians. But, as elsewhere, resistance to school integration, white flight, and a reduced tax base left some inner-city neighborhoods impoverished and divested.
The oil bust of the early 1980s, coinciding with the mechanization of port activity and the decline of well-paying shipping jobs, led to a regional recessional and population exodus. By the late 1990s, however, an increasingly robust tourism sector and a more diversified economy helped mitigate the losses, though they fell short of returning the metropolis to its earlier economic position.
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina landed east of New Orleans, driving a storm surge into manmade canals and breaching federal levees and floodwalls in numerous locations. Eighty percent of the urbanized East Bank flooded, tens of thousands of people were trapped in the deluge for days, and over 1500 people would eventually perish. Many evacuees never returned, and some neighborhoods, particularly the Lower Ninth Ward, endure today with significantly reduced populations.
While recovery proved slow and contentious at first, sheer grit got most New Orleanians through the crisis and yielded something of a renaissance of civil spirit and cultural pride. A highlight of the post-Katrina era came on February 7, 2010, when the city’s beloved New Orleans Saints won the team’s first-ever Super Bowl. Cheers were heard ‘round the world, and the sustained revival of spirit helped attract well-educated young people to be part of this epic story, transforming the Crescent City once again.
New Orleans remains a city of rich culture, proud people, and historic neighborhoods that have survived and thrived against odds. New Orleanians have always held tight to their unique culture, exuding pride of place and relishing music, cuisine, and festivity. Tourists from around the world can’t stay away. We’re glad you’re here as we embark on our fourth century since Bienville commenced this bold experiment on the banks of the Mississippi, over three hundred years ago.