Mississippi River
Delta Region
Global Warming
City History


By Polina Bakhteiarov 

The City of New Orleans was originally founded due to its prime location at the mouth of the Mississippi River. In essence, it provided an entryway to the far-reaching joint Mississippi-Missouri River system.  For this reason, during the 18th and 19th centuries, it was eagerly sought after by major European nations who understood the enormous economic potential of establishing a port at such a prime location.

In The Beginning

Historical records show that the first European surveyor to explore the territory of present-day Louisiana was Spanish conquistador Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who led an excursion through the area in 1528. The first Frenchmen to land in the area arrived in 1682, led by René-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle, who claimed all of the area that is drained by the Mississippi River for France in the name of King Louis XIV.  He appropriately named his claim “Louisiana” (Louisiana, 2001-05).  

New Orleans itself, however, was not established until 1717, when John Law’s Company of the West, which had gained full commercial privileges to Louisiana that same year from Antoine Crozat, made the decision to establish a “port of deposit,” or “transshipment center,” at the mouth of the Mississippi River, calling it “Nouvelle-Orléans” in honor of Philippe II, duc d’Orléans, a region that lies to the south of Paris. Jean-Baptiste le Moyne de Bienville, who initially proposed the erection of the city, foresaw New Orleans as a vital checkpoint along the Mississippi River trade route and envisioned the city as a hotspot for financial profit from the substantial quantities of goods traveling up and down the river  (New Orleans, 2006).

Nonetheless, problems with the actual construction of the city began almost immediately. Two brutal hurricanes struck the region in 1721 and 1722, destroying much of the city’s new architecture. Other delays in the building process centered around a lack of adequate tools, the utilization of unmotivated prisoners as the principal work force, and the humid, wet, mosquito-dominated natural environment in which they were forced to toil. In the end, the Vieux Carré, or French Quarter, was established on the banks of the Mississippi, and the capital of the colony was relocated there in 1722 (“New Orleans,” 2001-05). To compare the size of New Orleans in 1722 to its current size, please refer to the map below, where the Vieux Carré is labeled as the “French Quarter:”
Neighborhoods Map

Demographics: Then and Now

From the time of the city’s establishment in the 18th century, its demographics have always been heterogeneous. In 1721, New Orleans’ population stood at just under 500 people, of whom 59% were white, 37% were Black slaves, and 4% were Native American slaves (New Orleans, 2006). By 2005, the city swelled to 454,863 people, of whom approximately 28% were White, 68% were Black, and only .2% were Native American (New Orleans city, Louisiana, 2005). Whatever the exact numbers may be now and were back then, it is important to realize that the history of New Orleans sprung up from a mixture of different cultures that have had to coexist in a physically unstable environment. 

The main reason for New Orleans’ perpetual racial diversity stems from the fact that, upon its founding, it immediately became the largest slave port in North America. Aside from the revenues brought in by commercial shipping, the city thrived on the earnings of sugar plantations that succeeded solely due to the manual labor of enslaved Blacks. Furthermore, in 1805, the City Council coerced prisoners and slaves into work chain gangs that basically built up the entire municipality, toiling on projects such as the erection of levees and public buildings, as well as the beautification of streets. Essentially, the entire City of New Orleans was built up and expanded due to an extensive exploitation of Black enslaved peoples, resulting in what historian Walter Johnson calls millions of “social deaths” as innocent Blacks were maliciously torn from their families and forced to work endlessly and live vacantly without any sense of community or history.  While at the same time, they were being forced into providing rich whites with hundreds of billions of dollars in hard labor (Lavelle, K., & Feagin, J., 2006).

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The French, the Spanish, and the Americans

From the establishment of the city by the French in 1717, to its sale to the Americans during the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, New Orleans and Louisiana traded hands between the French and the Spanish on several occasions, each time in secret. In the year prior to the Treaty of Paris of 1763, France furtively relinquished its colony to Spain in an enthusiastic attempt to rid itself of the successive economic failures of Louisiana. Less than half of a century later, Spain clandestinely returned the land to Napoleon, who almost immediately sold it to Jefferson. In fact, the ceremonies that occurred when Louisiana was handed over to France and then to America occurred in the heart of New Orleans at the Place d’Armes, or Plaza d’Armas, now called Jackson Square after General Jackson, who (although unnecessarily, since the War of 1812 had already ended) defeated the British in 1815 and successfully protected the city (New Orleans, 2006). To take a virtual panoramic tour of Jackson square, please click on the following link: http://www.atneworleans.com/body/qt-jackson-square.htm.

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Prosperity and Hardship

From the 1820’s to the 1850’s, New Orleans grew in area, population, and wealth, as money poured in from both agriculture (growing cotton, tobacco, indigo, rice, and various vegetables) and commerce.  The city became a major cotton port for the United States, as well. However, the prosperity ended with the breakout of the Civil War.  The Union occupation of New Orleans significantly decreased the city’s economic output by limiting port access to the city’s merchants. During this time period, freed Black people suffered the most, especially Black women, who were often raped and abandoned by white men. In this way, the population of New Orleans became more intermixed, all while the city struggled to deal with the costs of Reconstruction (Lavelle, K., & Feagin, J., 2006).  

Aside from battling a debt of $24 million (in the 1880’s), New Orleans also faced the recurring outbreaks of yellow fever, the worst of which occurred in 1853 (however, they continued until 1906, when the disease was finally wiped out).  Unfortunately, even with a more healthy population, New Orleans was never able to fully recover from the economic blows of the Civil War (New Orleans, 2006). With the enactment of the Jim Crow laws in 1890, virtually all of the power in the city went to white supremacists who degraded New Orleans’ Black population both financially and mentally (Lavelle, K., & Feagin, J., 2006).

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Decline during the Twentieth Century

The percentage of African Americans in the city continued to rise through the first half of the twentieth century while the primarily Caucasian upper class relocated to the outlying suburbs.  This “white flight” began after the end of World War II and continued well into the 1960’s, when city officials tried to integrate New Orleans’ public schools for the first time.  This drove even more whites out of the city in a migration that mirrored similar ones in almost every major American city and left New Orleans more impoverished than ever before. The urban renewal projects of the 1950’s and 60’s did nothing for the economy and only drove many educated, artistic black families from the central neighborhoods into New Orleans East. To top it off, at the end of the troublesome decade in 1969, Hurricane Camille tore through the city, destroying buildings and claiming almost 150 lives in Louisiana and Mississippi.  Below, a plaque in Waveland, Mississippi. commemorates those who helped in the reconstruction of the city after that disaster; sadly, the sign stands in front of where the town’s city hall used to be but which was claimed by Hurricane Katrina (New Orleans: History, 2000-2005).

Sign for Camille

New Orleans did witness a slight rise in its economy during the oil boom of the 1970’s, as businesses invested in the city’s infrastructure. However, by the time of the World’s Fair of 1983, speculators had lost interest in the city and the economy had begun to crumple once more. Even the legalization of gambling in 1992 could not jump start the economy and the city’s population began to slowly decline by the end of the twentieth century (New Orleans: History, 2000-2005).