Our Pages

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Early History of New Orleans Part Un

I have been lucky to have visited some great cities in the US over the years, but one of my favorites is New Orleans. My husband and I had the chance to stay in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and though the Crescent City hadn’t regained its former glory at the time, its spirit was still alive.

I loved every moment in the city: sitting in the outdoor cafés, observing the street performers, savoring the Creole cuisine, admiring the historic homes of the French Quarter. Therefore, when it came time to write about a hero who is the master of his own ship, New Orleans was my first choice for his sea port away from home. The city was calling to me.

Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately, depending on how you look at it—writing a story in a different setting aside from England required me to do a lot more research. I didn’t have as much information at my fingertips. Even though not much of the story takes place in New Orleans, I wanted to include details to help build the world, and I wanted them to be accurate. Today I’m going to share some of my research and subject you to my commentary on the early origins of this wonderful city.

The French were the first to recognize the strategic significance of a fort at the mouth of the Mississippi, and in 1682, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, led an expedition from Canada down the Mississippi river to its mouth. On April 6, 1683, they reached the salt waters and he placed a cross in the mud, claiming the country for France. It was named Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV. La Salle probably didn’t realize at the time his outside-the-box thinking would eventually contribute to political and economic failure for his home country.

Early attempts at settling the colony were far from successful over the next 65 years. Most original settlers hoped to become rich through mining and fur trade, and no one wanted the life of a farmer. Oddly enough, that meant no crops were planted to prevent starvation. Add on the occasional hostile relationship with the Native Americans, malaria, dysentery and a lot less women than men, and is it any wonder the French had trouble finding volunteers to come to the new colony?

With the various failures to create a thriving settlement, it seems like France would have given up on Louisiana, but instead they decided to make it a proprietary colony in 1712 under Antoine Crozat, Marquis de Chatel. Crozat’s best move was arranging for twenty five women of marriageable age to be brought to the colony. Let’s just say there was a period of contentment for the men. Crozat didn’t see the riches he had dreamed about when he started his venture, and in 1717 the colony was transferred to the proprietorship of John Law’s Company of the West.

Mr. Law was a Scot, a professional gambler and reportedly a good shot. After he killed a man in a duel, he found it wise to leave Scotland rather quickly and eventually made his way to France. He had big aspirations and made big promises to the young Louis XV. In exchange for granting Louisiana to his company, Law agreed to transport six thousand colonists and three thousand African slaves a year to its new acquisition. He couldn’t deliver, but never let it be said he lacked ingenuity.

When it became hard to find volunteers to come to Louisiana, France allowed for the release of some of its prisoners who were willing to sail across the world for their freedom. Later, convicts were forced to come whether they wanted to or not. No more cozy French prison cells for you, mes amis. Since that tactic seemed to work so well, the France began sweeping the streets for prostitutes, vagrants and beggars for an all-expenses paid voyage halfway around the globe.

These ragtag groups of settlers made for poor candidates for colony life, because most didn’t survive the voyage or they succumbed to illness soon after they made it to New Orleans. The ones that did survive continued their lifestyles of gambling, drinking, and late night runs into the Spanish territory for Taco Bell. (Not really. Just seeing if you’re paying attention.) Since the new arrivals had no farming skills and showed no inclination to learn, food had to be imported from France, the West Indies and the Illinois grains area.

Eventually, Law’s company realized their mistake and began looking for settlers outside of France. They promised settlers land, work animals, tools and food to last until the first harvest. Many peasants from the Rhineland and German-speaking parts of Switzerland were happy to have an opportunity for a new beginning. These new settlers were hard workers, and though New Orleans didn't become self-sufficient with their arrival, they lessened the colony’s dependence on outside sources.

What is interesting is that after a few generations, the Germanic settlers had lost their native tongue and were speaking French. Unique to Louisiana was the French's ability to impose their language on other nationalities, including the slaves from Africa and the West Indies.

In 1731, the Law’s Company of the Indies (previously Company of the West) had exhausted its resources and begged France to take the colony off its hands. Louisiana once again was a French colony.

Tomorrow I’ll cover Spain’s influence in New Orleans after France ceded the colony to them, under the guise of an apology for making them lose Florida, Havana and Manila to the English at the conclusion of the French and Indian War. I think France just wanted to unload Louisiana and who better to dump on than their allies?


  1. Absolutely fascinating, Samantha! I'm sorry to say that I knew almost none of this (bad Erin!). I did enjoy the offerings of the city when I visited during a layover several years ago (though I don't remember any Taco Bells, lol), and I still crave beignets every and then. I definitely hope to visit again soon!

  2. Loved the blog, Samantha! Very informative. The Big Easy is one of my most favorite cities to visit. I knew very little of what you posted (as my research in the city has been in a more paranormal vein.) Can't wait for part 2 of your post. :)

  3. I have to admit I know very little about New Orleans history, outside of the Louisiana Purchase...and I've actually never been there. I may have to remedy that last part before too long. :)

  4. Ladies,

    I'm so glad you enjoyed the blog today. New Orleans has always been a unique place. Catherine, when you get a chance to visit, take it. I would love to go again. :)

  5. Did you run acros the "casket girls" in your research? It is an important part ofthe city's early history.

  6. Wow, love it! This is on my to-be visited sites, Samatha! And I cannot wait! This is great info, thanks for sharing it!

  7. BTW The Big Easy is one of my all time favorite eighties movies! Loved it! And loved thier accents!!!

  8. Doctorj2u,

    I did run across the casket girls. I don't talk about them in tomorrow's blog, but I hint at a future blog on this topic. Don't you think they deserve a whole blog to themselves? I think they could make interesting fodder for some great stories.

    Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing this resource. :)

  9. Suzie,

    You would probably really enjoy learning about the pirate Lafitte and sailing up the Mississippi. That was no easy accomplishment.