The region today called New Orleans was first visited by Europeans in 1541 when a Spanish exploration party led by Hernando de Soto discovered the Mississippi River. It was the French, however, who claimed the Mississippi River Territory when explorer Robert Cavalier de la Salle visited the area in 1682. At the turn of the eighteenth century, French brothers Pierre le Moyne d'Iberville and Jean Baptiste le Moyne de Bienville established a colony in southeastern "Louisiane" when they arrived with 200 settlers. Dubbed
New Orleans grew tremendously in the nineteenth century. It was incorporated as a city in 1805. The College of Orleans, the first institution of higher learning in Louisiana, opened in the city in 1811. The following year the first steamboat began operating between New Orleans and Natchez. The War of 1812 actually ended in New Orleans when, on January 8, 1815, General Sir Edward Pakenham attacked the city with a British force and was defeated by U.S. General Andrew Jackson at Chalmette Plantation, now a National Historical Park. Louisiana was admitted to the Union on April 30, 1812, with New Orleans as the state capital. It remained so until 1849, except for a brief period between 1830 and 1831.
The city's location near the mouth of the Mississippi River made it an excellent locale for trade with cotton and sugarcane as the primary commodities. Hundreds of thousands of people were drawn by economic opportunity, and New Orleans' population skyrocketed to 166,375 by the 1850s. New Orleans had become the third-largest city in the United States.
An important Confederate port, New Orleans was captured by Union troops early in the Civil War and held under military rule for the duration. The Civil War led to a period of economic decline, and it was not until 1880 that port tonages were comparable with those of the late 1850s. Recovery was due largely to government construction of the Eads jetties (walls built out into the water to restrain currents and protect a harbor or pier) at the mouth of the Mississippi in 1879, greatly improving access to the Port of New Orleans.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Louisiana established the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans, and modernization of the port was underway. In 1917, a screw-type electric pump made substantial swamp drainage possible, and formerly uninhabitable land became habitable. By the 1930s, all of the swamp areas were as effectively drained as the higher sites.
In addition to swamp problems, fires, hurricanes, and yellow fever epidemics have taken their toll on the city, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, New Orleans' ongoing battle with nature has been made easier by twentieth century technology, and the city has experienced continuous growth since 1900.
In the second half of the twentieth century, establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) space-flight facility and further expansion of port facilities contributed to New Orleans' accelerated growth rate. In 1984, New Orleans' Mississippi River waterfront even hosted the Louisiana World Exposition.
In the 1990s, the Port of New Orleans remained among the busiest in the country. Rich in heritage and culture, the population continues to be extremely diverse, consisting of Creoles (descendants of the original French and Spanish colonists), Cajuns (descendants of the Acadians who were driven from Nova Scotia by the British in 1755), and other groups whose ancestry lies in Italy, Africa, and the Caribbean islands. New Orleans is also a major tourist destination, famous for its historic French Quarter and annual Mardi Gras celebration. With a population of more than 496,000 people at the outset of the twenty-first century, New Orleans is Louisiana's largest city.