New Orleans, Louisiana
The land mass that was to become the city of New Orleans was formed around 2200 BC when the Mississippi River deposited silt creating the delta which would be New Orleans. Before Europeans founded it the area was inhabited by Native Americans for about 1300 years. The Mississippian culture peoples built mounds and earthworks in the area. Later Native Americans created a portage between the headwaters of Bayou St. John (known to the natives as Bayouk Choupique) and the Mississippi River. The bayou flowed into Lake Pontchartrain. This became an important trade route. Archaeological evidence has shown settlement here dated back to at least 400 A.D.
French explorers, fur trappers and traders arrived in the area by the 1690s, some making settlements amid the Native American village of thatched huts along the bayou. By the end of the decade, the French made an encampment called “Port Bayou St. Jean” near the head of the bayou; this would later be known as the Faubourg St. John neighborhood. The French also built a small fort, “St. Jean” at the mouth of the bayou in 1701, using as a base a large Native American shell midden dating back to the Marksville culture. These early European settlements are now within the limits of the city of New Orleans, though predating its official date of founding.
New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French as Nouvelle-Orleans, under the direction of Jean Baptiste le Moyne de Bienville. It was adjacent to the trading route and portage between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain via Bayou St. John, offering access to the Gulf of Mexico port of Biloxi without going downriver 100 miles; and it offered control of the entire Mississippi River Valley, at a safe distance from Spanish and English colonial settlements. From its founding, the French intended it to be an important colonial city. The city was named in honor of the then Regent of France, Philip II, Duke of Orleans.
In 1722, Nouvelle-Orleans was made the capital of French Louisiana, replacing Biloxi in that role.
In September of that year, a hurricane struck the city, blowing most of the structures down. After this, the administrators enforced the grid pattern dictated by Bienville but hitherto previously mostly ignored by the colonists. This grid plan is still seen today in the streets of the city’s “French Quarter”.
Much of the colonial population in early days was of the wildest and most undesirable character: deported galley slaves, trappers, gold-hunters; the colonial governors’ letters were full of complaints regarding the riff raff sent as soldiers as late as Kerlerec’s administration.
In 1763 following Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War, the French colony west of the Mississippi River-plus New Orleans was ceded to the Spanish Empire as a secret provision of the 1762 Treaty of Fontainebleau, confirmed the following year in the Treaty of Paris. This was to compensate Spain for the loss of Florida to the British, who also took the remainder of the formerly French territory east of the River.
No Spanish governor came to take control until 1766. French and German settlers, hoping to restore New Orleans to French control, forced the Spanish governor to flee to Spain in the bloodless Rebellion of 1768. A year later, the Spanish reasserted control, executing five ringleaders and sending five plotters to a prison in Cuba, and formally instituting Spanish law. Other members of the rebellion were forgiven as long as they pledged loyalty to Spain.
The city grew rapidly, with influxes of Americans, African, French and Creole French (people of French descent born in the Americas) and Creoles of Color (people of mixed European and African ancestry), many of the latter two groups fleeing from the revolution in Haiti.
The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) established the second republic in the Western Hemisphere and the first led by blacks. Haitian refugees, both white and free people of color ( affranchis or gens de couleur fibres ), arrived in New Orleans, often bringing slaves.
In the final third of the Spanish period, two massive fires burned the great majority of the city’s buildings. The Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 destroyed 856 buildings in the city on Good Friday, March 21 of that year. In December 1794, another fire destroyed 212 buildings. After the fires, the city was rebuilt with bricks, replacing the simpler wooden buildings constructed in the early colonial period.
While the architecture from this period is commonly attributed to French influence, characteristics of the French Quarter, such as multi-storied buildings centered around inner courtyards, large arched doorways, and the use of decorative wrought-iron, were most ubiquitous in parts of Spain and the Spanish colonies. In addition, it should be noted that while the architectural style of New Orleans, with its wrought iron balconies and full-height windows may remind one of Paris, may of New Orleans’s oldest buildings actually predate the Haussman Projects that later renovated large areas of Paris in this same style.
In 1800 Spain and France signed the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso stipulating that Spain give Louisiana back to France, although it had to remain under Spanish control as long as France wished to postpone the transfer of power. There was another relevant treaty in 1801, the Treaty of Aranjuez, and later a royal bill issued by King Charles IV of Spain in 1802; these confirmed and finalized the retrocession of Spanish Louisiana to France.
In April 1803, Napoleon sold Louisiana (New France) (which then included portions of more than a dozen present-day states) to the U.S. in the Louisiana Purchase. A French prefect, Pierre Clement de Laussat, who had only arrived in New Orleans on March 23, 1803, formally took control of Louisiana for France on November 30, only to hand it over to the U.S. on December 20, 1803. In the meantime he created New Orleans’ first city council, abolishing the Spanish cabildo.
In 1805, a census showed a heterogeneous population of 8,500, comprising 3,551 whites, 1,556 free blacks, and 3,105 slaves. Observers at the time and historians since believe there was an undercount and the true population was about 10,000).
During the War of 1812, the British sent a large force to conquer the city, but they were defeated early in 1815 by Andrew Jackson’s combined forces some miles downriver from the city, during the Battle of New Orleans. The American government managed to obtain early information of the enterprise and prepared to meet it with forces (regular, militia, and naval) under the command of Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson.
General Jackson had arrived in New Orleans in early December 1814, having marched overland from Mobile in the Mississippi Territory. His final departure was not until mid-March 1815. Martial law was maintained in the city throughout the period of three and a half months.
The introduction of natural gas (about 1830); the building of the Pontchartrain Rail-Road (1830-31), one of the earliest in the United States; the introduction of the first steam powered cotton press (1832), and the beginning of the public school system (1840) marked these years; foreign exports more than doubled in the period 1831-1833. In 1838 the commercially-important New Basin Canal opened a shipping route from the Lake to uptown New Orleans. New Orleans exported most of the nation’s cotton output.
Altogether there was much of the wildness of a frontier town, and a seemingly boundless promise of prosperity. The crisis of 1837, indeed, was severely felt, but did not greatly retard the city’s advancement, which continued unchecked until the Civil War. In 1849 Baton Rouge replaced New Orleans as the capital of the state. In 1851, the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern railway, the first railway outlet northward, later part of the Illinois Central were begun.
In 1836 the city was divided into three municipalities: the first being the French Quarter and Faubourg Treme, the second being Uptown (then meaning all settled areas upriver from Canal Street), and the third being Downtown (the rest of the city from Esplanade Avenue on, downriver). For two decades the three Municipalities were essentially governed as separate cities, with the office of Mayor of New Orleans having only a minor role in facilitating discussions between municipal governments.
The importance of New Orleans as a commercial center was reinforced when the United States Federal Government established a branch of the United States Mint there in 1838, along with two other Southern branch mints at Charlotte, North Carolina, and Dahlonega, Georgia. Although there was an existing coin shortage, the situation became much worse because in 1836 President Andrew Jackson had issued an executive order, called a specie circular, which demanded that all land transactions in the United States be conducted in cash, thus increasing the need for minted money. In contrast to the other two Southern branch mints, which only minted gold coins, the New Orleans Mint produced both gold and silver coinage, which perhaps marked it as the most important branch mint in the country.
Large numbers of German and Irish immigrants began arriving at this time. The population of the city doubled in the 1830s and by 1840 New Orleans had become the wealthiest and third-most populous city in the nation.
By 1840, the city’s population was approximately 102,000 and it was now the third largest in the U.S, the largest city away from the Atlantic seaboard as well as the largest in the South.
The political and commercial importance of New Orleans, as well as its strategic position, marked it out as the objective of a Union expedition soon after the opening of the Civil War. Elements of the Union Blockade fleet arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi on May 27, 1861 . An effort to drive them off lead to the Battle of the Head of Passes on October 12, 1861. Captain D.G. Farragut and the Western Gulf squadron sailed for New Orleans in January 1862. The main defenses of the Mississippi consisted of the two permanent forts, Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip. On April 16, after elaborate reconnaissances, the Union fleet steamed up into position below the forts and opened fire two days later. Within days, the fleet had bypassed the forts in what was known as the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip. At noon on the 25th, Farragut anchored in front of New Orleans. Forts Jackson and St. Philip, isolated and continuously bombarded by Farragut’s mortar boats, surrendered on the 28th, and soon afterwards the military portion of the expedition occupied the city resulting in the Capture of New Orleans.
Early in the American Civil War New Orleans was captured by the Union without a battle in the city itself, and hence was spared the destruction suffered by many other cities of the American South. It retains a historical flavor with a wealth of 19th century structures.
The city again served as capital of Louisiana from 1865 to 1880. Throughout the years of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period the history of the city is inseparable from that of the state. All the constitutional conventions were held here, the seat of government again was here (in 1864-1882) and New Orleans was the center of dispute and organization in the struggle between political and ethnic blocks for the control of government.
On September 14, 1874, armed forces led by the White League defeated the integrated Republican metropolitan police and their allies in pitched battle in the French Quarter and along Canal Street. The White League forced the temporary flight of the William P. Kellogg government, installing John McEnery as Governor of Louisiana. Kellogg and the
Republican administration were reinstated in power 3 days later by United States troops.
In 1892, the New Orleans political machine, “the Ring,” won a sweeping victory over the incumbent reformers. John Fitzpatrick, leader of the working class Irish, became mayor.
In the spring of 1896, Mayor Fitzpatrick, leader of the city’s Bourbon Democratic organization, left office after a scandal-ridden administration.
In the early part of the 20th century the Francophone character of the city was still much in evidence, with one 1902 report describing “one-fourth of the population of the city speaks French in ordinary daily intercourse, while another two-fourths is able to understand the language perfectly.” As late as 1945, one still encountered elderly Creole women who spoke no English.
The population of New Orleans and other settlements in south Louisiana suffered from epidemics of yellow fever, malaria, cholera, and smallpox, beginning in the late 18th century and periodically throughout the 19th century. Doctors did not understand how the diseases were transmitted; primitive sanitation and lack of public water system contributed to public health problems, as did the highly transient population of sailors and immigrants.
In 1905, yellow fever was reported in the city, which had suffered under repeated epidemics of the disease in the previous century. As the role of mosquitoes in spreading the disease was newly understood, the city embarked on a massive campaign to drain, screen, or oil all cisterns and standing water (breeding ground for mosquitoes) in the city and educate the public on their vital role in preventing mosquitoes. The effort was a success and the disease was stopped before reaching epidemic proportions. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the city to demonstrate the safety of New Orleans. The city has had no cases of Yellow Fever since.
In 1909, the New Orleans Mint ceased coinage, with active coining equipment shipped to Philadelphia.
New Orleans was hit by major storms in the 1909 Atlantic hurricane season and again in the 1915 Atlantic hurricane season.
In 1927 a project was begun to fill in the shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain and create leve along the lake side of the city. Previously areas along the lakefront like Milneburg were built up on stilts, often over water of the constantly shifting shallow shores of the Lake.
During World War II, New Orleans was the site of the development and construction of Higgins boats under the direction of Andrew Higgins. General Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed these landing craft vital to the Allied victory in the war.
The suburbs saw great growth in the second half of the 20th century, and it was only in the post-World War II period that a truly metropolitan New Orleans comprising the New Orleans center city and surrounding suburbs developed. The largest suburb today is Metairie, an unincorporated subdivision of Jefferson Parish that borders New Orleans to the west. In a somewhat different postwar developmental pattern than that experienced by other older American cities, New Orleans• center city population grew for the first two decades after the war. This was due to the city’s ability to accommodate large amounts of new, suburban-style development within the existing city limits, in such neighborhoods as Lakeview, Gentilly, Algiers and New Orleans East. Unlike some other municipalities, notably many in Texas, New Orleans is unable to annex adjacent suburban development.
Mayor DeLesseps “Chep” Morrison was elected as a reform candidate in 1946. He served as mayor of New Orleans until 1961, shaping the city’s post-World War II trajectory. His energetic administration accomplished much and received considerable national acclaim. By the end of his mayoralty, however, his political fortunes were dwindling, and he failed to effectively respond to the growing Civil Rights movement.
The 1947 Fort Lauderdale Hurricane hit the city. The levees and pumping system succeeded in protecting the city proper from major flooding. The city suffered from the effects of a major hurricane on and after August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the gulf coast near the city. In the aftermath of the storm, what has been called “the largest civil engineering disaster in the history of the United States” flooded the majority of the city when the levee and floodwall system protecting New Orleans failed.
An estimated 600,000 people were temporarily evacuated from Greater New Orleans when projected tracks of Hurricane Katrina included a possible major hit of the city. It missed, although Katrina included a possible major hit of the city. It missed, although Katrina wreaked considerable havoc on the Gulf Coast east of Louisiana.
While many residents and businesses returned to the task of rebuilding the city, the effects of the hurricane on the economy and demographics of the city are expected to be dramatic and long term. As of March 2006, more than half of New Orleanians had yet to return to the city, and there were doubts as to how many more would. By 2008, estimated repopulation had topped 330,000.
The final death toll of Hurricane Katrina was 1,836 lives lost, primarily from Louisiana (1,577). Half of these were senior citizens. It has now been revitalized.
Next time you’re walking around New Orleans, LA, take a tour with the Historic Walking Tour app!