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New Orleans: July 4, 1776

As New Orleanians went about their business on July 4, 1776 they did not know that they had awakened to what would truly be an historic day:

A patchwork of European powers ruled North America; most notably England, Spain and France, but there were rumblings in the British controlled American colonies. They were feeling fervor for self-government and a nation of their own.

In distant Philadelphia, excitement filled the streets over the vote, that had been finalized the day before, declaring independence from England. Word of the vote had not yet reached New Orleans, but from that day on the city was on a course toward becoming part of a nation greater than its previous European possessors. 

July 4 was on a Thursday in 1776, so it would have been a busy day for fishermen preparing to bring their catch to the markets in Catholic New Orleans for the next day’s meatless Friday. 

Louisiana’s Spanish governor was Luis de Unzaga. He had much on his mind. Although there was no American nation yet, the insurrection had started. Spain was anxious to see England’s empire weakened wherever possible. Unzaga was secretly aiding the American cause by arranging for five tons of gun powder to be shipped up the Mississippi, under the flag of Spain. He wanted to help colonial forces ward off British efforts to capture Fort Pitt in Pennsylvania.

An armed British boat – the West Florida – had been patrolling the Mississippi Sound since January and thus gave the British control of the lower Mississippi and the lakes. The boat would become a source of contention between the British and the Spanish government that controlled New Orleans. The West Florida was yet another reason why Spain would become a supporter of the revolution that was erupting. 

(On a personal level, Unzaga was awaiting word from Spain, to whom he had written 12 days earlier, asking to be relieved of his command because of failing health and eyesight. The Spanish government would not agree to the request though. It would eventually transfer him to Caracas, Venezuela and made him governor general there).

Among the dictates issued during Unzaga’s reign was a rule issued by “the Cabildo”, the building that was the seat of government, demanding that all devices used for measurement when selling goods had to be inspected and marked annually. If a measuring device was found to be fraudulent, the offender’s goods were donated to Charity Hospital.

Spain was also helping to populate the area. Residents of the remote Canary Islands, a possession of Spain, were being dispersed by the Spanish government in spots along the isolated Louisiana Gulf Coast, partially to help provide defense. One large settlement would be along Bayou Barataria. The area would eventually be named after the patron saint of Bernardo de Galvez, who succeeded Unzaga as governor. It would be called St. Bernard Parish and the settlers would be known as Islenos.

Of all living things that day what would be nature’s longest survivor stood on a plot of land northwest of the city. It was an oak tree that would one day be named after John McDonogh, who had eventually purchased the land. Later, the property would become part of New Orleans’ City Park, the site of many future Fourth of July Celebrations.  The oak’s age is estimated to be approximately 800 years. In 1776 it was already around 550 years old. 

Though New Orleans, founded by French Canadians, had been established as a city in 1718, its course was not truly set until France, by then in possession of the Louisiana territory, sold its holding to the United States in 1803. The purchase would establish New Orleans as a quirky Euro/Afro/Caribbean city with a character of its own and the advantage of being part of what would be the American powerhouse. The Louisiana purchase was orchestrated by the third president of the United States who saw the possession of the city as being a necessity for the American nation. On July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson had been in Philadelphia where he was one of the signers, and the author, of the Declaration of Independence.

Eventually, there would be a street in New Orleans named after Unzaga and a parish in Louisiana named after Jefferson.

Each July 4th, American independence is celebrated by riverfront fireworks near the neighborhood named after the French. Its architecture is primarily Spanish.


Have something to add to this story, or want to send a comment to Errol? Email him at errol@myneworleans.com.

SOMETHING NEW: Listen to Louisiana Insider a weekly podcast covering the people, places and culture of the state: LouisianaLife.com/LouisianaInsider, Apple Podcasts or Audible/Amazon Music.

BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.


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