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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Early History of New Orleans Part Dos

Yesterday I blogged about early French influence on New Orleans, but France wasn’t the only country to play a role in the formation of this city. France eagerly handed over Louisiana to Spain in 1762 after the conclusion of the French and Indian War. Basically, England and France were fighting over who could be the bigger expansionists and dominate North America and the Caribbean colonies. The English were winning victory after victory when Spain jumped into the fray, aligning with France.

Overall, Spain was behaving honorably by following the “Family Compact” between the two Bourbon powers on the thrones of Spain and France. (If I followed the family tree correctly, the two kings were cousins.) At the end of the fighting, Spain had lost Manila and Havana to the English, and it seemed certain they were going to lose Florida, too. If your cousin has your back, I suppose you had best repay him, and Louis XV did so by unloading of a huge money pit.

Spain was not naïve in matters and had no intentions of trying to make a profit from Louisiana. Their interest was in creating some breathing room between their desirable Spanish territory and the blasted English with their fancy tea, biscuits, and stolen fresh squeezed Florida orange juice. Spain was in no hurry to take possession of Louisiana. For four years, the French flag continued to flap in the breeze, probably leading the settlers to believe they would never see the Spanish. So it must have been a shock when Don Antonio de Ulloa landed in New Orleans in March of 1766 with just enough soldiers to tick off the locals. Ulloa set out to tour the other parts of Louisiana, but when he returned, a group of men with financial stakes in New Orleans greeted him and his men with guns and ran them out of town. But you can’t really pull guns on a major world power without receiving a negative response.

In 1769, Spain came back to New Orleans with a fleet of 24 ships under O'Reilly (an Irish man who had fled to Spain and saved the life of King Charles III in a riot in Madrid.) The twelve leaders of the rebellion were arrested and received various sentences, none of them good. The people of New Orleans were granted amnesty and ordered to take an oath to the king of Spain.

O'Reilly was reportedly a competent administrator and helped to organize the colony. He instituted Spanish law and created the Cabildo (town council), and had a building constructed for the council's deliberations. Also called The Cabildo. The building still stands at 701 Chartres Street. The Cabildo was the court of last appeal, much like the United States Supreme Court.

Part of the reason Louisiana survived was due to the willingness of Spain to look the other way when it came to trade and allowed smugglers to go about their business. After the Pickney Treaty of 1795 granted Americans the right of deposit in New Orleans, ships leaving the port would as likely be flying the American colors as Spain's. The major exports during these years were tobacco, deer hides, salt meat, flour and indigo.

The population of the colony finally increased under Spanish rule from approximately 7,500 in 1762 to 50,000 in 1803. New immigrants came to the area from Canada (Acadians aka French Canadians aka Cajuns) and the British colonies in North America. The number of black people increased as well with new arrivals being transported from the West Indies and Africa as slaves. Emancipation was considered fairly easy under French law, but even more so under Spanish law. By 1803, there were around 1,300 free black people in New Orleans.

There was a custom practiced by a small minority of young white men and free black women called placage. Until the white men married, they would take black mistresses, sometimes maintaining them afterwards, too. As the practice continued, African blood became more diluted.

Eventually, the people of New Orleans began to call themselves Creoles, a Portuguese word that means “native to the region”. The French were the first settlers, so initially the term Creole applied to their descendants. When the Spanish arrived, there was intermarriage between the two cultures, so the term began to evolve to mean the blending of two cultures. Creoles of color denoted the bi-racial descendants of Europeans (mostly French since they were the larger population) and Africans or West Indians. The French and Spanish made a distinction between Creoles of color and Africans. However, Creoles of color were not seen by the whites as equals either.

Even though New Orleans thrived under Spanish rule, Spain had little lasting influence on the culture. The people still mostly spoke French, had French attitudes toward pleasure, and practiced French cooking. What you can still see of Spanish influence is in some of the surnames and architecture. Fires in 1788 and 1794 destroyed most of New Orleans, so when the Spanish rebuilt the city, they styled the buildings after the architecture in Spain.

New Orleans has so much history that I have only scratched the surface. Perhaps sometime soon I’ll share a little about the Ursaline nuns, the casket girls and rumored vampires.


  1. Another very interesting post, Samantha. Thanks so much for the history lesson!

  2. That was a really interesting read, Samantha! Thank you for posting this. I am looking forward to reading about casket girls- I have no idea what they are, lol! I don't know anything about NOLA, so this is great. :)

  3. Thanks, Ladies. I'm glad y'all enjoyed it. I sure had fun doing the research. :)

  4. Excellent post. My family are late comers to the city. They started coming during the Spanish era (Acadian and French) and continued into the Haitian emigration in the early American period. In my understanding, creole means "home grown". If you were born in the colony, you were "creole". There are white Creoles of French and Spanish descent. This is mostly a dead term now, though I knew of families of my father's generation that were white creoles. Now a days creole is a term for a class in New Orleans that is old New Orleans and mixed race. They are light skinned blacks (mixed race) descended from free people of color that made up 40% of the city before the Civil War. To this day, they are part of the power elite of the city.

  5. Doctorj2u,

    Thanks so much for sharing what you know of New Orleans. It's great to have someone from the area with insider's knowledge. :)