Situated on a bend of the Mississippi River 100 miles from its mouth, New Orleans has been the chief city of Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico’s busiest northern port since the early 1700s. Founded by the French, ruled for 40 years by the Spanish and bought by the United States in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans is known for its distinct Creole culture and vibrant history. Significant battles of the War of 1812 and the Civil War were fought over the city. In its last hundred years the key struggles of New Orleans have been social (poverty, racial strife) and natural (hurricanes, floods and slowly sinking land).
France and the Founding of New Orleans
The first known residents of the New Orleans area were the Native Americans of the Woodland and Mississippian cultures. The expeditions of De Soto (1542) and La Salle (1682) passed through the area, but there were few permanent white settlers before 1718, when the governor of French Louisiana, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, founded the city of Nouvelle-Orléans on the first crescent of high ground above the Mississippi’s mouth. In 1722 he transferred Louisiana’s capital from Biloxi. The same year a hurricane destroyed most of the new city, which was rebuilt in the grid pattern of today’s French Quarter.
New Orleans Under Spanish Rule and the Louisiana Purchase
In 1762 and 1763 France signed treaties ceding Louisiana to Spain. For 40 years New Orleans was a Spanish city, trading heavily with Cuba and Mexico and adopting the Spanish racial rules that allowed for a class of free people of color. The city was ravaged by fires in 1788 and 1794 and rebuilt in brick with buildings and a cathedral that still stand today.
In 1803 Louisiana reverted to the French, who sold it to the United States 20 days later in the Louisiana Purchase. The final battle of the War of 1812 was fought in defense of New Orleans; Colonel Andrew Jackson led a coalition of pirates, formerly enslaved African Americans and Tennessee Volunteers to defeat a British force outside the city.
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New Orleans in the 1800s
During the first half of the 19th century, New Orleans became the United States’ wealthiest and third-largest city. Its port shipped the produce of much of the nation’s interior to the Caribbean, South America and Europe. Thousands of enslaved people were sold in its markets, but its free Black community thrived. Until 1830, the majority of its residents still spoke French.
At the start of the Civil War, New Orleans was the largest city in the Confederacy, but it was only a year until Union troops, having captured its downriver defenses, took the city unopposed. During the Reconstruction era race became a potent political force, as emancipated enslaved people and free people of color were brought into the political process and, with the 1870s rise of the White League and the Ku Klux Klan, forced back out of it. Although the rise of railroads made shipping on the Mississippi less essential than it had been, New Orleans remained a powerful and influential port.
New Orleans in the 20th Century
By 1900, the city’s streetcars were electrified, and New Orleans jazz was born in its clubs and dance halls. The city grew. New pump technology drove the ambitious draining of the low-lying swampland located between the city’s riverside crescent and Lake Pontchartrain. New levees and drainage canals meant that many residents could live below sea level. Hurricanes in 1909, 1915, 1947 and 1965 damaged the city, but never catastrophically.
After World War II, suburbanization and conflicts over school integration drew many white residents out of the city, leaving a core that was increasingly African-American and impoverished. Despite these social changes, the city grew as a tourist attraction, with hundreds of thousands of annual visitors drawn to its Mardi Gras festivities and to the culture that had inspired playwright Tennessee Williams, trumpeter Louis Armstrong and chef Jean Galatoire.
New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck a haphazardly evacuated New Orleans. Upon landfall, the Category 3 storm’s winds tore away roofs and drove a storm surge that breached four levees, flooding 80 percent of the city. Hundreds were killed in the flooding and thousands were trapped for days in harsh circumstances before state and federal rescuers could reach them.
The waters receded, but a year later only half the city’s residents had returned. Within five years 80 percent were back, but New Orleans—though as diverse, unique and historic as ever—remained far from reclaiming its 1930s nickname, “the city that care forgot.”