New Orleans is a testament to living history. Entire neighbourhoods, buildings, cobblestone streets and ancient oaks are markers of bygone eras. The history of New Orleans has turned the city into a colourful and exciting destination.
The History of New Orleans
Claimed for the French crown by explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1682, La Nouvelle-Orleans was founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville and became the capital of the French Colony in 1723. The city developed around the Vieux Carré (Old Square), a central square from which the French Quarter evolved.
A vital trading and commercial hub, Spain took control of New Orleans in 1763 and this 37 year rule can still be seen in the city’s street names and architecture, like the Cabildo and the Presbytere. This period also reflected Spain’s more liberal views on race that fostered a class of free people of colour.
In 1800, the Spanish ceded Louisiana back to France but after only 3 years Napoleon sold the city and the French Colony to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Despite this sale the residents of New Orleans held tight to their Francophile ways. Language and customs, cuisine, opera and social mores were still French. A sophisticated and cosmopolitan society was created by the Creoles (the American-born offspring of European settlers) in New Orleans. This French influence can still be seen in the Creole cottages, the Ursuline Convent and Charity Hospital as well as the streets of the French Quarter.
War of Independence & Civil War Eras
The British tried to claim the land during the War of Independence in 1812 but Andrew Jackson turned back more than 7,500 British soldiers, forcing them to abandon the area and ending the war.
As American plantation owners prospered, the French and Creoles of New Orleans socially rejected these nouveau riche. This led to the Americans staying across Canal Street in their own neighbourhoods.
In the mid-1800s, the highest concentration of millionaires in America could be found between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, fortunes founded on the slave trade and huge sugar plantations along the Mississippi River. Louisiana sugar plantations produced an estimated 450 million pounds of sugar per year, worth more than $20 million in the 1850s.
Elegant mansions were built by these millionaires on their plantations. Both depended heavily on slaves, one of the key motivators of the American Civil War. Union troops occupied New Orleans but the city didn't fight back, thus sparing itself from destruction. This signalled the end of New Orleans halcyon days, an era to become known as Antebellum (after the war).
After the war there was poverty, racial tension and governmental chaos. The city’s plantation owners could not match their antebellum success but the port of New Orleans preserved its essential status, as it does to this day.
Discover the period at the Old U.S. Mint, the only Confederate mint and the oldest U.S. mint in existence; or visit Louisiana’s Civil War Museum in the Warehouse District; see the statue of Margaret Gaffney Haughery, a beloved Irish immigrant whose bakery supplied bread to hungry families during the war and founder of orphanages, in the Lower Garden District.
World War II
New Orleans played a special role in the second world war. Shipbuilder and local industrialist Andrew Higgins invented a boat designed to float in Louisiana’s shallow water swamps and marshes. Built in local shipyards, “Higgins Boats” were used throughout the war for getting soldiers, vehicles and equipment off big ships to shore, most notably during the D-day invasion on the Normandy beaches.
After WWII land reclamation allowed New Orleans to expand. Similarly the history of New Orleans continues to create a city of rich culture, an eclectic mix of neighbourhoods - from the funky, bohemian Bywater all the way to the oak-lined Garden District, and civic pride. There's something for every type of traveller from authentic live music, historic architecture and vibrant nightlife.
New Orleans was an important port for trade with the Caribbean quickly becoming a target for piracy. Brothers Jean and Pierre Lafitte were perhaps the most infamous. Visit Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon Street, the base of these pirates, which claims to be the oldest structure housing a bar in the United States.
The first Mardi Gras in the United States was celebrated in March 1699 when Iberville and Bienville landed at the mouth of the Mississippi River on Mardi Gras, 60 miles south of New Orleans. They named the spot Point du Mardi Gras and celebrated with their men. By the 1730s the Mardi Gras was celebrated with parties and street fairs.
In 1857, a secret society of New Orleans businessmen called the Mistick Krewe of Comus organized a torch-lit Carnival procession. The present-day New Orleans Mardi Gras with marching bands and floats can be traced to this celebration.
Speak of New Orleans and you immediately think of jazz. Evolving in the late 19th century, jazz combined ragtime, blues, spirituals and the American songbook, a result of the diverse ethnic and racial groups — French, Spanish, African, Italian, German, and Irish — found in New Orleans.
The 1920s roared along the Mississippi, ignoring Prohibition and welcoming travellers. Authors, artists and the adventurous discovered the French Quarter. Le Petit Theater was opened on St. Peter Street. New Orleans provided the soundtrack to the era.
The city’s music is its beating heart. The musical notes of jazz, brass, R&B and soul fill the air along with night–blooming jasmine. Walk down Frenchmen Street, in the Marigny neighbourhood and take in the vibrant cafes, music clubs and restaurants including Snug Harbor, dba. and the Spotted Cat.
New Orleans has produced musical giants like Louis Armstrong, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint. New acts follow in the tradition at Preservation Hall on Bourbon Street, Mother-In-Law Lounge on Claiborne Avenue, Rock-N-Bowl in Mid-City, the Maple Leaf Uptown and Vaughn’s in the Bywater where you can dance the night away. It’s all part of the magic that is found only in New Orleans.
New Orleans has a love affair with its traditional fare. Join the romance over by crawfish etouffe at a smart restaurant or with a bowl of gumbo at a backstreet bistro. Grab a po-boy sandwich stuffed with fried oysters for a picnic. This heady mix of Creole, Cajun and Anglo-American cuisine is totally unique. Discover the most famous dishes below.
New Orleans King Cakes
New Orleans Pralines
In a city steeped in history, New Orleans has a history of mixing innovative cocktails. Antoine Amédé Peychaud, is thought to have mixed the very first Sazerac in his pharmacy on Royal Street in the 1830s. From an eye-opening Brandy Milk Punch to a flaming Café Brûlot, the quintessential Crescent City nightcap, raise a glass to New Orleans’ past and a toast the city’s most famous cocktails.
New Orleans is a great destination for any time of year and any type of holiday. Speak to us to plan your food adventure in the Big Easy.