NEW ORLEANS HISTORY

No other city in America keeps its history as vital and accessible as New Orleans. House after house, street after street, indeed entire neighborhoods, exude a rich sense of place, and serve as touchstones for fascinating history and complex culture. Look for it. In New Orleans, history can strut as loudly as a Carnival walking krewe, or creep as softly as a green lizard on a courtyard wall. Thrilling. Colorful. Tragic. Inspiring. Discover a little about the sweep of the city’s history.

COLONIAL NEW ORLEANS

Indigenous people called it Balbancha, 11land of many tongues,” and they inhabited the rich delta lands between the Mississippi River (11 Father of Waters”) and Okwa-Ta (11 Big Water,” Lake Pontchartrain) for the same reasons that would later attract Europeans: abundant ecological resources and a convenient network of navigable rivers, bayous and bays. Claimed for the French Crown by explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1682, La Nouvelle-Orleans was founded by Jean Baptiste Le Mayne de Bienville in 1718 upon the slightly elevated banks of the Mississippi River approximately 95 miles above its mouth. Engineers laid out a grid of streets with a Place d’ Armes (today’s Jackson Square) that would become known as the Vieux Carre (“Old Square”), or today’s French Quarter. The nascent outpost became the capital of the French Colony of Louisiana in 1723. 

In 1800, the Spanish retroceded Louisiana back to France, only to have Napoleon sell the entire Louisiana colony, including New Orleans, to the United States as part of the $15 million Louisiana Purchase, finalized on December 20, 1803.

BESET BY PIRATES AND PRIVATEERS

The flow of goods between the Gulf of Mexico and port of New Orleans attracted smugglers, privateers, and pirates, with Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre among the most infamous. Jean Lafitte was a fixer and rogue who played an instrumental role in aiding Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson and the Americans in their victory over the British during the Battle of New Orleans (1815) at Chalmette. Tradition holds that Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, at 941 Bourbon Street, served as the pirates’ base. Probably dating to the 1770s and said to be the oldest structure housing a bar in the United States, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop is a picturesque relic of colonial-era vernacular architecture, and still a popular saloon today.

MARDI GRAS

Mardi Gras was first recorded in the present-day United States in March 1699, as Iberville and Bienville sailed up the Mississippi River and made note of the midwinter feast in their journal as they camped at Point du Mardi Gras. After that, French colonists celebrated Mardi Gras in Mobile and, following its founding in 1718, in New Orleans, mostly in the form of public festivity and private costumed balls. Mardi Gras remained a raucous but generally informal affair until 1857, when a group of Anglo­Americans from Mobile formed the Mistick Krewe of Com us and introduced formal parades and elaborate floats organized by social organizations called krewes. The krewes of Co mus and later Rex would set the template for Mardi Gras for decades to come, by which time New Orleanians proudly called their pre-Lenten feast “the greatest free show on Earth.”

VICTORIAN NEW ORLEANS AND THE DAWN OF JAZZ

New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, the city of Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, Pete Fountain, Harry Connick, Jr. and the Marsalis family.

It’s a place where gospel music achieves lofty heights and marching bands step, dip and sway down well­worn parade routes. It’s a place where Mardi Gras Indians first inspired the call and response now associated with hip-hop, rap and bounce.

New Orleanians care deeply about family, faith, food, traditions, and, perhaps most of all, about making a joyful noise. Here we take our brassy expression of bliss to the streets in celebration of life, death and everything in between.

MARDI GRAS BALLS

Some of the most glittering spectacles of Mardi Gras happen behind closed doors at grand balls thrown by krewes for their members and lucky guests. More than a hundred Carnival balls take place every year in New Orleans, beginning with the Twelfth Night Ball, held on Jan. 6, by the Twelfth Night Revelers. While most balls are invitation-only, a select few are open to the public.

AMERICA'S FIRST CITY OF OPERA

New Orleans has long reigned as America’s First City of Opera.

In 1796, Josephine said “I do” to Napoleon, Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, and New Orleans, still under Spanish rule, was treated to “Sylvain,’ the city’s first documented performance of opera.

It wasn’t long before New Orleans became “The Opera Capital of North America.” The French Opera House -Theatre de !’Opera-was the center of New Orleans social life from 1859 until 1919 when it was destroyed by fire. Works by European master composers such as Verdi, Rossini and Bellini had their American premieres at the French Opera House and other theaters in town.