Know Your Tricentennial New Orleans 1718-2018
Photographs Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection
New Orleans! Merely mentioning the city’s name conjures up cast iron-laced romantic images of a Gallic-Hispanic and Caribbean city on the southern edge of a predominantly Anglo North American culture.
Famed New York journalist A. J. Liebling once described New Orleans as the northern most Caribbean city, a cross between Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Paterson, New Jersey. He was right. New Orleans was founded by the French, later ruled by the Spanish, regained by Napoleon, and sold to the United States. For three centuries, it has survived epidemics, wars, economic depressions, hurricanes, floods, the American and French revolutions, Civil War and Reconstruction, riots and oppression, political corruption and intrigue, crime, and, finally, Americanization.
New Orleans ranks among the most multi-cultural cities in the nation. Its earliest populations consisted of lesser French and Spanish gentry, criminals, soldiers, debtors, tradesmen, merchants, prostitutes, priests and nuns, German and French farmers, Acadian exiles, Canary Islanders, Native Americans, Africans, Englishmen, Irish, even more Germans, and Anglo-Americans from the British colonies and later American states along the Atlantic seaboard. Then came the Sicilians, Greeks, Eastern Europeans, Cubans, Indians, Pakistanis, Middle Easterners, Central Americans, Chinese, Vietnamese and others from every corner of the Earth.
How did all of this get started? On the eve of the city’s tricentennial celebrations, New Orleanians with a bit more knowledge of the city’s beginnings will fare far better at parties if they can offer up a few facts about early New Orleans. Answer these basic questions and impress everyone. Don’t panic. We give you the answers.
1. There’s a place down river from New Orleans called English Turn. Other than a beautiful golf course, what’s that all about?
A few months after the French arrived in 1699, Bienville was off exploring the river just below present day New Orleans when he came upon a British ship. Bienville told the captain to leave or face a French fleet just up river. The captain left but threatened to return with more war ships. To this day, that spot on the river is called English Turn. The French wasted little time in building posts along the Mississippi and Gulf Coast, including what is today Mobile, Alabama, and Biloxi, Mississippi. (photo of Bienville at top of article)
2. Why was New Orleans sold to the United States?
In 1800 Napoleon forced Spain to return Louisiana. The news didn’t sit well with President Thomas Jefferson, who feared war with France was inevitable. He also wanted free navigation of the Mississippi from the Ohio and Illinois territory to the river’s mouth. To solve both problems, he offered to buy New Orleans and a portion of West Florida bordering the Mississippi River, including Baton Rouge. This would put the entire east bank of the river in American hands. Napoleon had a better deal in mind. Having failed to defeat the rebels in Haiti and needing money to fight Great Britain, Napoleon decided in early 1803 to sell the Americans all of Louisiana, including New Orleans, from the mouth of the Mississippi north to Canada and west to the Rocky Mountains.
3. What Native Tribes lived in the New Orleans area before the arrival of Europeans?
The Bayagoulas lived just upriver below today’s Baton Rouge. The Chitimacha and Houmas tribes also lived in the region and the Acolapissas along the Pearl River. To the east along the Gulf Coast were the Biloxi Indians.
4. How did the Mississippi River get its name?
Tribes living up and down the river had various names for it, including the “Missi-Sipy,” “Michisipy,” “Mississippi,” “Malybanchia” and “Malabouchia.” The first Spanish explorers called it the “Rio Del Espiritu Santo.”
5. Why did France establish a colony in Louisiana and who was sent to plant the flag?
In the early 1690s, France wanted to protect and expand its colonial possessions and to block the British moving west from the Atlantic seaboard. In September 1698, the crown dispatched Canadians Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, with his younger brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, and five small ships. After a brief encounter with the Spanish in Pensacola, the expedition dropped anchor near the mouth of the Mississippi on March 3, 1699. It was Mardi Gras and New Orleanians have been celebrating ever since.
6. What role did Germans and Native Americans play in the early days of New Orleans?
The Bayagoulas Indians, and later Choctaws, and Germans who settled upriver in the 1720s provided New Orleanians with fresh food. In the very early years, local Indian tribes saved French colonists from starvation and acted as guides into the back wilderness.
7. What did early New Orleans look like in the 1720s?
Pauger’s 1721 plan called for New Orleans to be laid out in a grid around a parade ground called the Place d’Armes (now Jackson Square). Behind the square was space for the parish church. In the early 1720s, carpenters, soldiers and African slaves built sturdier houses and buildings with a “bousillage” of clay and moss stuffed between framed timbers. The exteriors were covered with wide clapboards. After the first brick kiln was built in 1724, bricks-between-posts replaced the clay and moss. In 1728, a young Ursuline nun described New Orleans in a letter to her father in France: “Our city is very pretty, well constructed and regularly built. The people have worked and still work to perfect it. The streets are very wide and are laid out in straight lines . . . .The houses are very well built of ‘collombage et mortier.’ They are white washed, paneled and filled with sunlight. The roofs of the houses are covered with tiles which are pieces of wood in the shape of slate . . . . It suffices to say that there is a song sung openly here in which the words proclaim that this city is as beautiful as Paris.”
8. Why was New Orleans placed on a muddy crescent in the Mississippi?
Bienville chose to establish New Orleans on a low-lying, flood-prone bend in the river. The site had its advantages. It was close to the mouth of the Mississippi and Bayou St. John, which provided easy access to Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf Coast. Company officials, however, wanted to plant the city farther up river where Bayou Manchac entered the Mississippi just below today’s Baton Rouge. Defying company orders, Bienville built the settlement where it now stands. Apparently, Bienville did what he wanted to do and sought permission later.
9. John Law was an important figure in the settlement of the River Parishes and New Orleans, but who was he?
In 1712 French officials granted the wealthy Frenchman Antoine Crozat an exclusive charter to develop the Louisiana colony. After five years of losing money, the Duc d’Orléans, then regent for the young Louis XV, relieved Crozat of his burden. Along came Scotsman John Law, who had formed the “Banque Générale” of France in 1716. The industrious Scot convinced the duke that Louisiana had potential for great wealth. In 1717 Law formed the Company of the West as a joint stock company and sold shares to finance his Louisiana scheme. Two years later, he reorganized his holdings as the Company of the Indies. With his charter, Law sent hundreds of settlers and African slaves to Louisiana. To encourage farmers to move to Louisiana, Law inundated southern Germany, Switzerland and France with handbills, promising free land. Thousands took him up on the offer and settled the “Côte des Allemands,” the German Coast, in today’s River Parishes. For a brief time, convicts and prostitutes were given their freedom if they married and settled in Louisiana. Another group, the “Casket girls,” so called for the government-issued chest of clothes and linen, also went to Louisiana to marry local men. By the early 1720s, Law’s so-called “Mississippi Bubble” was in deep trouble. He barely escaped Paris alive. In 1731 the reorganized company petitioned the crown to take back the colony. Historian Lawrence Powell describes Law’s adventure as a “Ponzi scheme of mind-boggling proportions.” Though a financial failure, the company firmly established the Louisiana colony, including New Orleans.
10. What was the name of the first French settlement near the mouth of the Mississippi?
After Bienville chased off the British, Iberville erected Fort de Mississippi or Fort de la Boulaye, near the mouth of the river in 1699. It was abandoned by 1707.
11. Much has been said about the first Europeans to settle in New Orleans, but when did the first Africans arrive?
The first Africans arrived in the colony as slaves between 1719 and 1721.
12. When was St. Louis Cathedral built?
The French engineer Adrien De Pauger, who arrived in the colony in 1721, designed the first church facing the Place d’Armes (Jackson Square) and dedicated it to Louis IX, the saint King of France. On March 21, 1788, a fire destroyed the original church and much of the city. Rebuilding soon began, thanks to a sizable gift from benefactor Don Andres Almonester y Roxas. Designed by colonial architect Gilberto Guillemard, officials dedicated the new church – now St. Louis Cathedral – on Christmas Eve 1794. By the 1840s, the building was in bad shape and too small for its growing congregation. Between 1849 and 1851, the cathedral – the one we now see – underwent a major facelift and expansion under the direction of New Orleans architect J.N.B De Pouilly.
13. How old are the Cabildo and Presbytère?
Both were designed by Gilberto Guillemard and constructed mostly during the Spanish era. The Cabildo, named for the Spanish council that met there, was built between 1795 and 1799 after the Great Fire of 1788. The fashionable Mansard roof was added in 1847. One of the most important events in the city’s history took place in the Cabildo’s second floor “Sala Capitular.” It was there that the Louisiana Purchase transfer ceremony took place in 1803. The Presbytère was originally meant to be a residence for the Capuchin monks. By 1798 only the first floor had been completed. The second floor was added in 1813 and, like the Cabildo, the Mansard roof in 1847. Despite its name, the Presbytère was never used as a clerical residence. Both buildings are now part of the Louisiana State Museum
14. Why would the French name Jackson Square for Andrew Jackson, the seventh president and hero of the Battle of New Orleans?
They didn’t. Laid out in the 1720s as the Place d’Armes, the public square was a popular place where people met, public executions took place and the militia drilled. In the 1850s, the city renamed it Jackson Square in honor of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and president of the United States. Jackson’s statue is one of three designed in 1856 by Clark Mills. The second one stands in Lafayette Park in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., and the third in Nashville, Tennessee, Jackson’s hometown.
15. When was New Orleans founded and how did it get its name?
An exact day for the founding of the city remains illusive, though Wikipedia gives the undocumented and often quoted date of May 7, 1718. Most historians agree, however, that Bienville and his men began clearing the land between mid-March and mid-April 1718. By the end of May, they had thrown up a few small palmetto huts. In naming the city, company officials chose “La Nouvelle Orléans” for Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, with street names to honor members of the royal family, their ancestors, patron saints, cousins, and major stockholders. As a result, French Quarter streets now bear pedigrees such as St. Ann, St. Louis, Royal, Bourbon, Chartres, Conti, Dauphine, Burgundy, Du Maine, Orleans, and Bourbon (the royal family, not the whiskey). In 1719 a flood wiped out all that stood. Little progress was made until March 1721 with the arrival of French engineer Adrien de Pauger who was sent to oversee construction. That same year the company moved the capital from Biloxi to New Orleans. The following year another hurricane struck, and in 1727 the Ursuline nuns arrived. The city’s destiny, despite its miserable start, was not lost on a French Canadian priest who visited the village in 1721: “I have the best grounded hopes for saying that this wild and deserted place, at present almost entirely covered with canes and trees shall one day . . . become the capital of a large and rich colony. . . . Rome and Paris had not such considerable beginnings.”
16. How did Lakes Pontchartrainand Maurepas get their names?
In 1699 Iberville named the larger of the two lakes for France’s Minister of Marine, Jérôme Phélypeaux, Comte de Pontchartrain, and the smaller body of water for his son, the Comte de Maurepas.
17. Who gave Louisiana its name?
Europeans had known about the Mississippi as early as the 1500s, thanks to Spanish explorers who traveled through the region but moved on. In 1682 the French Canadian Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, became the first known European to descend the Mississippi to its mouth and claim the region for King Louis XIV of France – hence “La Louisiane,” or Louisiana. La Salle failed to establish a colony and was assassinated by his own men on a later expedition. Actual colonization was left to two other French Canadians.
18. How did New Orleans end up in Spanish hands?
During the 17th and 18th centuries England, France and Spain competed for dominance in North America. In 1754 war broke out in North America and quickly spread to Europe. Called the French and Indian War in the British American colonies and the Seven Years War in Europe, the British defeated France and Spain in 1763. In the resulting treaty, France ceded to England all of Canada and French territory east of the Mississippi River, keeping two small islands in the St. Lawrence Seaway. Spain lost Florida to England. New Orleans and Louisiana west of the Mississippi, however, were not included in the package. In 1762, Louis XV convinced his cousin, King Carlos III of Spain, to enter the war. In appreciation, Louis gave him New Orleans and Louisiana west of the river.
19. Is the architecture in the French Quarter today really French?
No. Most buildings in the French Quarter date from the 19th and early 20th centuries with a few from the late 18th century Spanish era. Devastating fires in the 1780s and 1790s destroyed most of the city’s French colonial architecture. The only building remaining from French days is the former Ursuline Convent on Chartres Street, completed in the early 1750s. Another colonial building is Madame John’s Legacy, which derives its name from New Orleans-native George Washington Cable’s 1874 fictional short story “Tite Poulette.” Constructed in approximately 1788, Madame John’s is a rare example of the city’s 18th-century raised and galleried Creole colonial house.
That ends our tricentennial quiz. You probably know the rest. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 came the slow Americanization of New Orleans, the Battle of New Orleans, Civil War and Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and Storyville, all that took place in the 20th and now 21st centuries, Hurricane Katrina, and finally the most unexpected historical event of all – the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV in 2010.