In 1831, the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States. The book which resulted from his nine-month journey through the young country, Democracy in America, is still read today. Although Tocqueville’s main goal was to describe America’s democratic system of government, he also had much to say about the places he visited. One of those places was New Orleans, Louisiana.
Tocqueville found much to like about the bustling port city on the Mississippi River. He was especially struck by its diversity. “Population similarly mixed, faces of all shades of color,” he said of the city’s residents. In the streets, Tocqueville heard languages including “French, English, Spanish, creole.” The local architecture showed several influences. He noted “flat English roofs,” “Spanish architecture,” and “small French doorways.”
Tocqueville felt that although it was part of the United States, the city seemed unlike the other American cities he had visited. He wrote that New Orleans was “Noisy, bustling, gossiping, and a thousand leagues from the United States.”
New Orleans remains a culturally diverse city, and Tocqueville’s observations of the city are not that different from those of today. This year, New Orleans is celebrating its 300th birthday. Since its founding in 1718, New Orleans has been ruled by three different countries: France, Spain, and the United States. Each has made a mark on this city.
New Orleans Geography
New Orleans is located in the U.S. Mississippi River delta region. It is about 100 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. The center of New Orleans is built on a curve in the river, which is why it is nicknamed the Crescent City. To the city’s north is Lake Pontchartrain. This lake is shallow. It is about 40 miles from east to west and 24 miles from north to south. The lake is crossed by the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. At almost 24 miles, this causeway is the longest continuous bridge over water in the world.
New Orleans’s elevation ranges from 5 feet below sea level to 15 feet above sea level. There are natural ridges along the Mississippi River, called levees, that help protect the city from hurricanes and flooding. However, over time, human development has led to erosion of these natural levees. Along with the loss of wetlands because of development, the city has become increasingly more vulnerable to damage from storms. For example, in 2005, the levees and flood walls which protect the city failed during Hurricane Katrina. As a result, 80 percent of the city was flooded. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Katrina is “the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history.”
The area which is now New Orleans was originally home to Native Americans from the Mississippian and Woodland cultures. The first Europeans to visit the area were the Spanish. They were led by explorer Hernando de Soto in 1542. De Soto and his men soon concluded that the area’s hot climate, dangerous wildlife, and unstable geography made it a poor choice for settlement.
The French next became interested in Louisiana, about 150 years later, in the late 1600s. King Louis XIV of France encouraged French citizens to explore the Mississippi River. The king had two objectives: One, he hoped to expand the French Empire in the New World, and two, he thought that more French explorers in the New World might halt the expansion of Britain there.
As a result of France’s interest in America, New Orleans was founded by French settlers in 1718. The site was chosen for several reasons. Since the city is located where the distance between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River is the shortest, Native Americans had already been using the area as a market for goods. Also, because this strip of land was so narrow, it allowed rapid movement of troops through the area. In addition, the river curved at that location, which slowed down approaching enemy ships, making them more susceptible to gunfire.
Storms and flooding are not new to New Orleans. In fact, the city was destroyed by a hurricane only four years after its founding in 1722. When the city was rebuilt, the streets were redesigned and laid out in a grid pattern. This area of the city is now called the French Quarter, which remains a major destination for tourists from around the world.
Life for the early residents was not easy. They encountered deadly diseases, such as cholera, smallpox, malaria, and yellow fever. Waste from the city accumulated in the swamp lands surrounding it, which attracted disease-carrying insects and created polluted drinking water. Also, since they were so far away from Europe, New Orleans’s residents could not count on a reliable source of supplies from home. The French colonists introduced slavery into this area. Not only did they bring people from Africa, they also enslaved Native Americans in the region.
In 1717, the French government turned the administration of Louisiana over to a private corporation called the Company of the Indies. However, failed crops, wars with local Native people, revolts by enslaved people, and financial hardship led the corporation to return Louisiana to the French government. France ruled over the city until 1763, at which time they ceded their territory to Spain.
Spain ruled Louisiana from its regional headquarters in Havana, Cuba. Spain allowed people from various countries to govern areas in the Louisiana territory as long as they swore allegiance to Spain. However, many colonial officials were French or from French ancestry. They reacted negatively to Spanish rule.
The Spanish eventually found success in the Louisiana territory. However, in the late 1700s, Spain was involved in a war with Great Britain. This greatly drained their resources. France’s new first consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, pressured the Spanish government to return the territory to France. Although Napoleon had promised Spain that the territory would not be transferred to anyone else, soon after Spain ceded Louisiana to France, Napoleon sold it to the United States in 1803. This sale is known as the Louisiana Purchase.
Under the United States, New Orleans thrived. By the middle of the nineteenth century, its population grew to 170,000. It also became the wealthiest city in the U.S. Unusual for the time, New Orleans had a large population of economically successful free African Americans.
The Civil War
During the Civil War, New Orleans and Louisiana became strategically important to both the North and the South. New Orleans itself was an important manufacturing center. The city supplied Confederate troops with such items as arms, knapsacks, tents, and tinware. Also, New Orleans was a major shipbuilding center, providing both ironclads and gunboats to Southern troops.
Recognizing the port city as vital to supplying the South with items it needed to fight the war, the Union made it an objective to control it and the Mississippi. Just one year into the Civil War, in 1862, Union forces were able to wrest control of New Orleans from the South. Losing a major manufacturing center greatly hurt the Confederate cause.
After the Civil War, New Orleans remained important to the reunified U.S., as both a port and an economic power. This period, however, was riddled with tensions between African American and white citizens. There were conflicts between the free and newly emancipated African Americans and white supremacist groups. Organizations such as the Knights of the White Camelia and the White League tried to intimidate both voters and government leaders to return New Orleans and Louisiana to all-white rule.
The Birth of Jazz
Despite an atmosphere of violence and tension in the late 1800s and early 1900s, African Americans in New Orleans were creating a new form of music that would soon have an enormous influence on the U.S. and, eventually, the world: jazz.
New Orleans brought together African and Caribbean music along with music from the European classical music tradition. The fusion of these influences led to such styles as ragtime, blues, spirituals, and marches. Within this musical melting pot, an African American cornetist named Charles “Buddy” Bolden drew from these influences to create a new style called jazz. Jazz would continue to be shaped by influential musicians from New Orleans throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Included among them were Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver, and Kid Ory.
The Sights and Sounds of the Crescent City
Today, jazz is just one of many reasons why tourists visit New Orleans. People also come from around the world to sample the city’s famous food culture. Like jazz, New Orleans food combines European, Caribbean, and African American influences. Some well-known dishes that were invented in New Orleans include po’ boy sandwiches, oysters Rockefeller, and bananas Foster.
People also come to see the unique architecture found in the French Quarter and other parts of the city. As Tocqueville noticed, New Orleans does not look like other American cities. In New Orleans, you can see buildings influenced by French, Spanish, and American styles.
New Orleans has much to be thankful for as it celebrates its 300th year. Recently, New Orleans has shown that it has come a long way from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. In 2016, New Orleans hosted a record 10.45 million visitors. That number beats the previous record of 10.1 million visitors in 2004, one year before Katrina. Tourists have been vital to rebuilding New Orleans’s economy. In 2016, visitors spent about $7.4 billion in the city.
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