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History

When indigenous people first lived in the area around the Mississippi River, they discovered a shortcut from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi River through Lake Pontchartrain and then across the narrow land between the lake and the river. In 1682, French Canadian René-Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, travelled down the Mississippi River, met these peoples, and claimed the entire Mississippi watershed for France.

In 1699, the indigenous people showed this shortcut to Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and his brother Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne d’Bienville. The brothers were on a mission for France to found and colonize Louisiana. Nineteen years later, in 1718, Bienville directed the clearing of land at the site of what is now the French Quarter of New Orleans. The spot was on a natural levee and commanded a view of ships sailing up the river. Bienville named the new city “La Nouvelle-Orléans” in honor of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, the Prince Regent of France. In September 1722, a hurricane destroyed much of New Orleans but it was rebuilt.

This image is a photograph of a 1726 ink and watercolor by Jean-Pierre Lassus. It shows the city as seen from across the Mississippi River at Algiers Point. In the foreground, slaves cut down trees on the West Bank of the River (which is actually south of the city at this location). To right of center, a man spears an alligator. Small boats are on the Mississippi River, which is colored green in this work. Larger sailing ships lie across the river at the town. Trees are shown cleared only a short distance beyond the town limits. The road to Lake Pontchartrain is seen towards the top center of the view.

During all this time, Louisiana—and New Orleans—were French territory but were owned by a private company, The Company of the Indies. By 1731, however, the company gave control of Louisiana back to the king of France. In 1754, the French and Indian War began. In the New World, the dispute centered on claims in the Ohio Valley. As the war dragged out and France saw its power slipping, the king secretly ceded Louisiana to his cousin, the king of Spain. In 1764, when France was finally defeated, French North America was ceded to England—but not Louisiana because it was actually then owned by Spain!

After the American Revolution, Spain and the U.S. signed an agreement allowing the U.S. the right to use the Mississippi River to get to the Gulf. Spain was worried, however, about America’s interest in Louisiana—and secretly gave it back to France! By 1803, France was in need of money, worried about an impending war, and concerned about over-extending itself in its new colony. So Napoleon sold the entire Louisiana territory to the U.S. for about three cents per acre.

Everyone was convinced that New Orleans was now going to become one of the richest and most important cities in the world. This image is of an 1803 print by New Orleans artist J. L. Bouqueto de Woiseri, to celebrate his pleasure with the Louisiana Purchase and his expectation that economic prosperity would result. In this view from the east looking west, the Mississippi River curves along the left side of the picture. Large sailing ships lie at anchor in the harbor. The collection of buildings in the center is the present day French Quarter. Just steps away from this center of activity are farmlands and grazing cows.

In 1812, Louisiana was admitted to the Union as the eighteenth state. By this time, New Orleans had a substantial population of whites, free people of color, and black slaves. It had been ravaged by yellow fever, fire, and hurricanes. Cotton, sugar, and shipping were among the major enterprises of the City. This same year, the first Mississippi steamboat made its way to New Orleans. Three years later at the Battle of New Orleans, Major General Andrew Jackson defeated the British and ended the English threat. New Orleans was now considered a true part of the United States. By 1850, the population of the city exceeded 100,000. As slavery became a divisive issue nationwide, the city’s traditionally three-tiered racial caste system polarized into a two-tier system that encouraged some free people of color to leave the city. In 1861, Louisiana joined other southern states in seceding from the Union.

New Orleans’ experience during the American Civil War was different from that of many other southern cities. In 1862 it fell to Union troops–but  without a struggle. It was readmitted to the Union in 1868. The economy of the city and the State of Louisiana were devastated and many old social patterns changed. Sugar planters recruited Chinese and Sicilian workers for the plantations. Racial tensions polarized more and more. In 1877, federal troops were withdrawn, the Reconstruction period ended, and Jim Crow rules began. In 1896, Homer Plessy tested these laws by boarding a whites-only railroad car. He was arrested, and the case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The Court ruled that separate but equal facilities met the requirements of the Constitution, an interpretation that stood firm until 1954 when the Court repudiated Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education.

By 1880 the City had annexed neighboring towns and reached its modern-day geographical limits. The population at the turn of the century was just over 300,000. The beginning of the century saw the birth of jazz, the last yellow fever epidemic, World War I, and yet another hurricane. In the Twenties, the “French Quarter Renaissance” drew artists to the Quarter and gave New Orleans the reputation of a literary city. In 1927, the Great Mississippi River Flood covered over 25,000 square miles of land but did not flood New Orleans. Congress reacted with the Flood Control Act of 1927, which allowed the building of many river control projects. Along with the rest of the nation, New Orleans saw increasing development of infrastructure such as highways and bridges.

New Orleans’ relationship to the water played an important role in World War II. Material and troops passed through its port, of course, and carousing soldiers made the French Quarter famous. But most importantly, New Orleans resident Andrew Higgins contributed the Higgins boat. This boat, which made D-Day and other beach landings possible, was modeled after boats made to operate in swamps or marshes.

By 1950, New Orleans’ population had reached half a million. In the middle of the decade, the Causeway over Lake Pontchartrain was built and the bridge now called the Crescent City Connection was built to connect downtown New Orleans to the West Bank. In 1960 legal segregation ended. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy flooded major portions of the city and Congress provided funds to build hurricane protection around the outside of the city. In 1967, the Saints played their first professional football game, making New Orleans an NFL city. Forty-three years later, in 2010, Drew Brees led the Saints to their first Super Bowl victory.

In 1975 the Super Dome was built and became famous as the home of the Saints.  Thirty years later it was famous again as the place where tens of thousands of New Orleanians suffered during Hurricane Katrina. In the early 1980’s the entire world saw a crash in oil markets. Louisiana and New Orleans were particularly hard hit because the oil industry had become a dominant force in New Orleans over the years. By the mid-1990’s the economy was recovering.

At the turn of the century, several hurricanes threatened New Orleans. Andrew, Georges, Isidore, Lili, and Ivan all threatened but did not strike New Orleans. Over 250 years after Jean-Pierre Lassus painted his watercolor view of New Orleans from the west bank of the Mississippi River, the city had grown. By the time Katrina arrived, the same view from the west bank looked like this: