The first Europeans known to travel past the site of New Orleans were followers of Hernando Cortez, a Spanish soldier of fortune who died on the banks of the Mississippi River in 1543. One hundred forty years later French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle, led an expedition from Canada that traced the Mississippi, called "Father of Waters," as far as the Gulf of Mexico, and boldly claimed all land between the Alleghenies and Rockies for his sovereign, France's Louis XIV. La Salle was assassinated before he could direct the building of a settlement in the land he called "Louisiane." In 1718 Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, a founder of outposts in what are now Biloxi, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama, placed a cross at a point where the Mississippi curved near Lake Pontchartrain to mark the site for a new settlement. The proposed town was named for the Duc d'Orleans, who was governing France during Louis XV's childhood.
To establish a population in the new settlement, France sent prisoners, slaves, and bonded servants. An unscrupulous speculator, John Law, beguiled the Duc d'Orleans into giving him a 25-year charter to exploit the new territory and managed to lure a few Europeans across the seas with tales of nearby gold. The men who arrived found only a village of cyprus huts and criminals surrounded by swamp, disease, and hostile Native American tribes. Under threat of a revolt, France then sent "wives" for the colonists: about ninety women from Paris jails, a wild group chaperoned by Ursuline nuns until they were married. Later, poor girls of good reputation were also recruited to bring the settlement a core of respectability, but by then the ribald side of New Orleans's lifestyle had been established. Swamp conditions were hard on its inhabitants, yet the settlement grew into a French crown colony and soon served as territorial capital.
In 1762 New Orleans citizens suddenly found themselves subjects of Charles III of Spain; France's Louis XV had paid a debt to his Spanish cousin by giving away Louisiana. The thoroughly French colony drove out the Spanish commissioner sent to govern them. In the summer of 1763, 22 Spanish warships and 3,000 troops arrived to restore order and install another governor, this time without provoking open opposition. Descendants of these early French-Spanish colonial times are known as Creoles. French-speaking families also began emigrating from Canada's maritime region, Acadia—now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick—to flee British occupation. Referred to as Acadians, and eventually Cajuns, they found sanctuary in New Orleans and in the bayous of the wide Mississippi Delta not far from the city.
In 1788 and 1794 devastating fires destroyed most of the buildings in New Orleans's French Quarter, or Vieux Carre (Old Square); these were replaced by structures of a decidedly Spanish nature. About the same time a process for making granulated sugar made sugar cane an important cash crop in a market soon dominated by cotton. When Spain transferred Louisiana back to France in 1803, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson adroitly bought the territory for $15 million. New Orleans was incorporated two years later. The city was unsuccessfully attacked by British forces during the War of 1812; that same year the first steamboat arrived from Natchez, and Louisiana became a state. The years following the Louisiana Purchase saw rapid development and swift growth in the city's slave and free population. United States and foreign interests invested in the expanding port and immigration increased.
Americans settling in nearby Faubourg Ste. Marie, the present business district, developed a suburb very different in nature from the old French Quarter. Other individualistic neighborhoods developed, including the Irish Channel, a rowdy waterfront area; Bucktown, a one-street fishing village on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Jefferson Parish; and the wealthy residential Garden District.
The city's prosperity depended heavily on slave labor, however, and economic threats to this trade made New Orleans intensely pro-Confederate in the Civil War. After the war, reconstruction in New Orleans was hampered by rivalry between ethnic and economic factions, yet eventually, the city emerged as a railroad and shipping center. New Orleans survived a yellow fever and cholera outbreak in 1853 in which nearly 11,000 people died; a malaria outbreak in 1871; a yellow fever outbreak in 1878 in which more than 4,000 people died; a severe hurricane in 1915; and an influenza epidemic in 1918 in which 35,000 people died statewide.
Jazz, considered the unique American music idiom, developed in New Orleans at the beginning of the twentieth century while the city continued to celebrate its cultural origins with the phenomenally successful Mardi Gras and world-renowned cuisine. Tourists began to flock to the city to experience its heralded celebrations and unique neighborhoods. While crime troubled the city in later years of the twentieth century—a blight the city has continued to fight against—New Orleans fiercely protects its legendary heritage. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings nestle in the shadow of sleek modern towers, convention centers, and shopping facilities, part of the mix of business, history, and good times that characterizes the city's charm.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a downtown rebirth was on the minds of city planners. "The Downtown Revival!," a multi-million dollar project that includes a long list of improvements to New Orleans' entire downtown area, is aimed at restoring the downtown and Canal Street for the millions of tourists that flock to the city each year. Today's New Orleans is a successful blend of southern historical charm and modern tourist mecca.
Historical Information: Musee Conti, 917 Conti Street, New Orleans, LA 70112; telephone (504)525-2605; (800)233-5405