New Orleans is one of most colorful and fascinating of our destination cities. With a history dating back nearly 300 years and an incredible confluence of different cultures, The Crescent City is a remarkable place that ensures visitors return home with memories to last a lifetime. Here’s a look at the evolution of this premier place:
New Orleans was founded in 1718 by Sieur de Bienville. The site – centered around the Place d’Armes (which would later be known as Jackson Square) – was chosen for its topography (five feet below sea level) and its position near the juncture of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The city was named “La Nouvelle Orleans” for Philippe, Duc d’Orleans. Today, the boundaries of the original city are confined to the area known as the “French Quarter.”
In 1762, the territory of Louisiana changed hands from the French to the Spanish. The exact reason for this is unclear; King Louis XV may have lost a bet or, more likely, he had simply depleted the royal coffers. So, for economic reasons, Louis gave the land to his Spanish cousin, King Charles III. Even though the area would be under Spanish rule for less than 40 years, this period was highly influential on the overall feel of New Orleans. That’s because, in 1788, a fire destroyed more than 800 of the city’s buildings; a second fire in 1794 incinerated another 200 structures. These two events meant that most of the French architecture was wiped out. (One of the few buildings that survived was the Old Ursuline Convent, which was completed in 1752, making it the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley.) As a result, most of the construction done in what is now called the French Quarter has a distinctly Spanish influence.
In 1801, the Spanish gave Louisiana back to France. However, just two years after that, Napoleon – who needed money, as he was anticipating a war with Great Britain – sold the territory (along with the land that would become all or part of 14 other states) to the United States. Known as the Louisiana Purchase, it effectively doubled the size of our nascent nation – at a cost of $15 million.
After the Louisiana Purchase, Americans streamed into the city, as did European immigrants from Germany, Ireland and Sicily. However, there were tensions between the Creoles who had previously settled the French Quarter and these new arrivals, so the Americans proceeded to populate a different part of the city, which became known as the American Sector. Today, this area is known as the Central Business District.
The Haitian Revolution of 1804 led to an influx of thousands of people of Afro-Caribbean descent. These immigrants further diversified the population of New Orleans and made colorful contributions to the city’s culture.
Despite the fact that the war “officially” ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, the War of 1812 actually spilled over into 1815, when General Andrew Jackson led a patchwork band of 4,000 – made up of militia, frontiersman, former Haitian slaves and pirates led by the notorious Jean Lafitte – against an army of 8,000 British troops in the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson and his men were victorious at Chalmette Battlefield, just a few miles east of the French Quarter.
By the mid-1800s, New Orleans had grown to become the fourth largest in the U.S., as well as one of the richest. Visitors marveled at the chic Parisian couture, fabulous restaurants and sophisticated culture. Society centered around the French Opera House, where professional opera and theatre companies performed. In fact, opera was a staple in New Orleans as early as the 1790s; during the 19th century, more than 400 operas had their premieres there.
Throughout the 19th century, the New Orleans population developed into a sort of cultural gumbo. Creole society coalesced as Islanders, West Africans, slaves, free people of color and indentured servants poured into the city, along with a mix of French and Spanish aristocrats, merchants, farmers, soldiers, freed prisoners and nuns. New Orleans was, for its time, a permissive society that resulted an intermingling of peoples unseen in other communities, and it is this diverse heritage that is the driving force behind this unique and exotic city. The contributions of Africans, Caribbean peoples, the French, Spanish, Germans, Irish, Sicilians and more created a society unlike any other.
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