Victorian style mansion in the Garden District
Some geography of New Orleans. The location and geography of New Orleans is unique in America. Most of the city is well below sea level, except for the French Quarter which was built on a natural levee of the river in the 1700s. As the city has expanded special levees, pumps and flood gates have been erected around the city. When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 the storm itself did damage to New Orleans but the major devastation came from the levees failing and water flooding at least 80% of the city area. It is useful to remember that 50% of New Orleans city is water and not land! Its location on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, near the delta bayous and swamps was the raison d’être for the city. It was to control all navigation and commercial activity on the river and to provide a safe harbour as close as possible to the Gulf of Mexico. Because of its strategic location it has always been the prize for invaders during wars. The city has a tropical climate and the regions north of the city along the banks of the Mississippi were and are major sugar plantation areas, not cotton plantation areas. You have to travel upstate in Louisiana to find the cotton growing areas. This tropical climate along one of the world’s major water courses meant until recently that the area was plagued with Yellow Fever, malaria and other deadly illnesses. To the north and east of the city is Lake Pontchartrain, a huge body of water; in fact the city is bordered by water on three sides. By road the mouth of the Mississippi is over 100 miles away but this is because the river follows a circuitous route to the mouth of its delta. The city metropolitan area has a population of 1.1 million, exactly the same as the population of Adelaide. Although the population fell after Hurricane Katrina the population is now 90% of what is was before the hurricane. There is little evidence of flood damage in the areas that we will see as tourists. The French Quarter was not flooded because the founding French settlers sensibly chose a high site for their city.
Some early history of New Orleans. The city was founded in 1718 by the French Mississippi Company, a major trader in furs bought from the Indians up river. They got the local Indians, the Chitimacha to cede land to them. The Company named the city after the Duke of Orleans who was the Regent of France at that time. After the French Wars between the Indians, British, French and Spanish in America from 1756-63 the French ceded New Orleans to the Spanish. The Spanish held New Orleans from 1763 to 1801 when Napoleon defeated the Spanish and New Orleans and its territories to the west were returned to France. As Napoleon needed more funds to continue his Napoleonic Wars with Britain and others he soon (in 1803) sold New Orleans and all territories west of the Mississippi to President Jefferson for the small sum of $15 million. West Florida, New Orleans and the west comprised over 800,000 square miles! The Louisiana Purchase covered - Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nth & Sth Dakota, Oklahoma & parts of Texas and Wyoming.
When the French settled New Orleans they built a trading port city of wooden buildings on the high ground along the banks of the Mississippi. The streets were named after the royal houses of France and Catholic saints, hence Bourbon Street after the Dukes of Bourbon, not the whisky. Local pine was the timber used for building the houses, often on brick pylons to raise the houses above any possible flood threat. The compact town was destroyed by two major fires during the Spanish ownership of Louisiana in 1788 and again in 1794. The city was rebuilt in brick, with wrought iron balconies in the Spanish style usually with central courtyards. So most of what we see today in the French Quarter or Vieux Carré is actually of Spanish design and from the era of Spanish building in the late 1790s. So the French Quarter is really the Spanish Quarter and the Spanish buildings include the three major public buildings of this era- the Cathedral of St. Louis, and the adjoining Cabildo and Presbytere. The first St. Louis Cathedral was built in 1781; the second in 1725; and the third in 1789. That third structure in Spanish style was almost totally rebuilt in 1850 in the style of the previous cathedral.
The Strategic Importance of New Orleans. Not long after the Americans bought New Orleans a major war broke out between England and her former American colonies. War raged from 1812-14 when the British, amongst other achievements, sailed up the Potomac River in Washington and burnt down the White House and attacked the national capital. As the port that controlled the Mississippi and the river system that went up to the British colonies in Canada the British wanted to retake New Orleans. A young American officer, Andrew Jackson (later President Andrew Jackson) led the American forces in a battle with the British. The battle of New Orleans (remember the hit song about it in 1959?) took place in January 1815. It was the final battle of the War of 1812 and despite bad odds Andrew Jackson and the Americans prevailed and won the battle. Hence the main square in New Orleans is Jackson Square with a fine statue of the later President on horseback is in the centre of the square. And again during the Civil War both the Confederates and Unionists wanted to control New Orleans. During the Antebellum period New Orleans had been a major port for the slave trade and the major slave auction centre of the American South. Louisiana declared their secession from the Union in January 1861 and the Confederates bolstered their occupation of the area. It was the link to the South’s cotton plantations up the Mississippi River Valley and its link across the Mississippi to the wealthy states of Texas, Arkansas and some secessionist counties of Missouri. The first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861. New Orleans was blockaded by the North in May 1861 showing what an important prize the city was to the Union. After two short battles in April 1862 the Union forces occupied New Orleans and split the Confederacy into two parts as it then controlled the Mississippi River too.
The Creole Culture of New Orleans. Creole culture in Louisiana is still strong. Creoles are primarily the people descended from the early French and Spanish settlers mixed with later German immigrants and African slaves. Creoles were originally white Europeans but the term later included mixed race people. When the Haitian Revolution led by slaves erupted in 1804 many French residents fled from Haiti to New Orleans with their African slaves. They reinforced the French culture of New Orleans and established their three tiered society of white Creoles, mixed race Creoles and black slaves. The mixed race Creoles were mainly fee black people and added to the free black population of New Orleans. French speakers dominated in New Orleans until 1830. But as late as 1900, 25% of residents spoke French and 75% could understand it. (250,000 Louisianans still speak French at home today.) Half the schools in New Orleans taught in French until the Civil War. In 1862 the Union occupier of the city General Butler abolished French instruction and enforced English teaching. The War made New Orleans an American city. But the Creoles did not disappear. They continued to dominate society for some time. The Creole planters along the Mississippi lived on their plantations during the hot malaria filled summers but moved to their French Quarter town houses for the cool winters. (It was the reverse in Charleston where the planters lived in Charleston in the hot summers and spent winters on their plantations.) The New Orleans winter was the time for balls and parties and the celebrations around Lent and the Mardi Gras activities, which still persist as a reminder of the French heritage of the city. The white French Creoles also often took black slave women as mistresses but unlike the white Americans they tended to give freedom to the children born from these unions. Thus New Orleans ended up with the largest number of free blacks of any Southern city in the Antebellum days. Mixed race Creoles had their own society balls and functions. Many had property and were quite wealthy in their own rights because of grants from their white Creole fathers. But their access to political and legal rights disappeared during the Jim Crow era as white Americans applied their white-black caste system on all parts of America including Louisiana. Free persons of colour were discriminated against by the Jim Crow regulations and segregation in New Orleans too. Change came with of the Civil Rights era.