Pre-Civil War New Orleans


New Orleans is a city in southern Louisiana, located on the
Mississippi River. Most of the city is situated on the east
bank, between the river and Lake Pontchartrain to the
north. Because it was built on a great turn of the river,
it is known as the Crescent City. 

New Orleans, with a population of 496,938 (1990 census), is
the largest city in Louisiana and one of the principal
cities of the South. It was established on the high ground
nearest the mouth of the Mississippi, which is 177 km (110
mi) downstream. Elevations range from 3.65 m (12 ft) above
sea level to 2 m (6.5 ft) below; as a result, an ingenious
system of water pumps, drainage canals, and levees has been
built to protect the city from flooding. New Orleans was
founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de
Bienville, and named for the regent of France, Philippe II,
duc d'Orleans. It remained a French colony until 1763, when
it was transferred to the Spain. In 1800, Spain ceded it
back to France and in 1803, New Orleans, along with the
entire Louisiana Purchase, was sold by Napoleon I to the
United States. It was the site of the Battle of New Orleans
(1815) in the War of 1812. During the Civil War the city
was besieged by Union ships under Adm. David Farragut; it
fell on Apr. 25, 1862. 

New Orleans , as a city, has a wide and diverse history. It
is a place where Africans, Indians and European settlers
shared their cultures and intermingled. Encouraged by the
French government, this strategy for producing a durable
culture in a difficult place marked New Orleans as
different and special from its inception and continues to
distinguish the city today. Like the early American
settlements along Massachusetts Bay and Chesapeake Bay, New
Orleans served as a distinctive cultural gateway to North
America, where people from Europe and Africa initially
intertwined their lives and customs with those of the
native inhabitants of the New World. The resulting way of
life differed dramatically from the culture than was
spawned in the English colonies of North America. 

New Orleans' Creole population (those with ancestry rooted
in the city's colonial era), ensured not only that English
was not the prevailing language, but also that
Protestantism was scorned, public education unheralded, and
democratic government untried. Isolation helped to nourish
the differences. From its founding in 1718 until the early
nineteenth century, New Orleans remained far removed from
the patterns of living in early Massachusetts or Virginia.
Established a century after those seminal Anglo- Saxon
places, it remained for the next hundred years an outpost
for the French and Spanish until Napoleon sold it to the
United States with the rest of the Louisiana Purchase in

Even though steamboats and sailing ships connected French
Louisiana to the rest of the country, New Orleans guarded
its own way of life. It became Dixie's chief cotton and
slave market, but it always remained a strange place in the
American South. American newcomers from the South as well
as the North recoiled when they encountered the prevailing
French language of the city, its dominant Catholicism, its
bawdy sensual delights, or its proud free black and slave
inhabitants' in short, its deeply rooted Creole population
and its peculiar traditions. Rapid influxes of non-southern
population compounded the peculiarity of its Creole past. 

Until the mid-nineteenth century, a greater number of
migrants arrived in the boomtown from northern states such
as New York and Pennsylvania than from the Old South. Its
social makeup became even more complicated as more foreign
immigrants than Americans came to take up residence in the
city almost to the beginning of the twentieth century. The
largest waves of immigrants came from Ireland and Germany.
In certain neighborhoods, their descendants' dialects would
make visitors feel as if they were back in Brooklyn or

From 1820 to 1870, the Irish and Germans made New Orleans
one of the main immigration ports in the nation, second
only to New York, but ahead of Boston, Philadelphia, and
Baltimore. New Orleans also was the first city in America
to host a significant settlement of Italians, Greeks,
Croatians, and Filipinos. African Americans compile about
half of the city of New Orleans population to date.
During the eighteenth century, Africans came to the city
directly from West Africa. The majority passed neither
through the West Indies nor South America, and developed
complicated relations with both the Indian and Europeans.
Their descendants born in the colony were called "Creoles".
The Spanish rulers (1765-1802) reached out to the black
population for support against the French settlers; in
doing so, they allowed many to buy their own freedom. These
free black settlers, along with Creole slaves, formed the
earliest black urban settlement in North America. 

Black American immigrants found the Creoles to be quite
exotic, for the black Creoles were Catholic, spoke French
or Creole, and were accustomed to an entirely different
lifestyle. The native Creole population and the American
newcomers resolved some of their conflicts by living in
different areas of the city. Eventually, the Americans
concentrated their numbers in new uptown neighborhoods. For
a certain period (1836-1852), they even ran separate
municipal governments to avoid severe political, economic,
and cultural clashes. Evidence of this early cleavage still
survives in the city's oldest quarters. 

During the infamous Atlantic slave trade, thousands of
Muslims from the Senegambia and Sudan were kidnapped or
captured in local wars and sold into slavery. In America,
these same Muslims converted other Africans and Amerindians
to Islam. The historical record of shipping manifests
attests to the fact that the majority of slaving merchant
vessels that deposited their goods at the mouth of the
Mississippi took on their cargoes from those areas of West
Africa with significant Muslim population. 

As the Islamic belief system forbids suicide and encourages
patient perseverance, the middle-passage survival rate of
captured African Muslims was quite high. For example, one
such courageous survivor was Ibrahima Abdur Rahman, son of
the king of the Fulani people of the Senegambia region,
named "The Prince" by his master Thomas Foster of Natchez,
Mississippi. Abdur Rahman came through the Port of New
Orleans, was sold at auction and became a man of renown on
the Foster Plantation. He eventually petitioned his freedom
via President John Quincy Adams and returned to Africa
after 46 years of enslavement. 

Free People of Color (f.p.c.) were Africans, Creoles of
Color (New World-Born People of African descent), and
persons of mixed African, European, and or Native American
descent. In Louisiana, the first f.p.c. came from France or
its Colonies in the Caribbean and in West Africa. During
the French Colonial period in Louisiana, f.p.c. were a
rather small and insignificant group. During French rule
from 1702-1769, there are records for only 150
emancipations of slaves. The majority of slaves freed in
Louisiana's Colonial period was during the Spanish reign
from 1769-1803, with approximately 2,500 slaves being
freed. The majority of these slaves were Africans and
unmixed Blacks who bought their freedom. Later on this
initial group would be augmented by Haitian refugees and
other f.p.c. from the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South
America, other parts of the United States, and from around
the world. 

Besides self-purchase and donation of freedom, slaves
sometimes earned freedom for meritorious service in battle
or saving the life of their masters. A significant amount
of slaves became free because they were the children of
white native born and European fathers who sometimes openly
acknowledged their mixed offspring and who also usually
freed the mother of their children. It would be several
generations before mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon women
would become the common-law wives and mistresses of white
men. The reason for the high number of f.p.c. in New
Orleans was largely due to the influx of Haitian Refugees
into the city in 1809. Approximately 10,000 people arrived
in New Orleans with roughly a third being f.p.c., another
third slaves, and the remaining were white. By the eve of
the Civil War in 1860, the reported total population for
f.p.c. in Louisiana was 18,647 people with the majority
being in New Orleans with a census tally of 10,689 people.
Free People of Color were highly skilled craftsmen,
business people, educators, writers, planters, and
musicians. Many free women of color were highly skilled
seamstresses, hairdressers, and cooks while some owned
property and kept boarding houses. Some f.p.c. were
planters before and after the Civil War and owned slaves.
Although shocking and incomprehensible to many people
today, the fact that some f.p.c. owned slaves must come to
In eighteenth century Louisiana, the term Creole referred
to locally born persons, regardless of status or race, and
was used to distinguish American-born slaves from
African-born slaves when they testified in court and on
inventory lists of slaves. They were identified simply as
Creoles if they were locally born, or Creoles of another
region or colony if they had been born elsewhere in the
Americas of non-American ancestry, whether African or
European. However, due to the racial and cultural
complexity of colonial Louisiana, native Americans who were
born into slavery were sometimes described as "Creoles" or
"born in country." After the United States took over
Louisiana, the Creole cultural identity became a means of
distinguishing who was truly native to Louisiana from those
that were Anglo. 

Creole has to come mean the language and folk culture which
is native to the southern part of Louisiana where African,
French, and Spanish influence were most deeply rooted
historically and culturally. The language too, represents
these traits, whereas the vocabulary of Louisiana Creole is
overwhelmingly French in origin, its grammatical structure
is largely African. The early creation of the Louisiana
Creole language and its widespread use among whites as well
as blacks up until World War II is strong evidence for the
strength of the African ingredient in Louisiana Creole

The widespread survival of Louisiana Creole until very
recent times and its use by whites of various social
positions as well as by blacks and mixed-bloods had, no
doubt, a great impact upon Africanizing Louisiana culture.
The Louisiana Creole language became an important part of
the identity, not only of African-Creoles, but of many
whites of all classes who, seduced by its rhythm,
intoxicating accent, humor and imagination, adopted it as
their preferred means of communication. There is still a
significant number of whites who only speak Louisiana

Many locals begin with a party on January 6 that includes a
King Cake, a cake baked in the shape of a large doughnut,
covered with icing and colored sugar of green, gold, and
purple, the traditional Mardi Gras colors. Purple
represents justice, green representing faith, and gold
representing power. Inside the cake is a tiny plastic baby,
meant to represent the Baby Jesus. Whoever gets the piece
with the baby is crowned King or Queen ... and is expected
to throw a party on the following weekend. Parties with
King Cake continue each weekend until Mardi Gras itself
finally arrives. The name Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday in
French. The day is known as Fat Tuesday, since it is the
last day before Lent. Lent is the season of prayer and
fasting observed by the Roman Catholic Church and other
Christian denominations during the forty days and seven
Sundays before Easter Sunday. Easter can be on any Sunday
from March 23 to April 25, since the exact day is set to
coincide with the first Sunday after the full moon
following the Spring Equinox. Mardi Gras occurs on any
Tuesday from February 3 through March 9. 

The Gregorian calendar, setup by the Catholic Church,
determines the exact day for Mardi Gras. The celebration
started in New Orleans around the seventeenth century, when
Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville, and Pierre
LeMoyne, Sieur de Iberville founded the city. In 1699, the
group set up camp 60 miles south of the present location of
New Orleans on the river's West Bank. They named the site
Point du Mardi Gras in recognition of the major French
holiday happening on that day, March 3. The late 1700's,
saw pre-Lenten balls and fetes in the infant New Orleans.
The masked balls continued until the Spanish government
took over and banned the events. The ban even continued
after New Orleans became an American city in 1803.
Eventually, the predominant Creole population revitalized
the balls by 1823. Within the next four years, street
masking was legalized. But it must be remembered that
although costumes are worn for both, Mardi Gras is not
Halloween. Gore and mayhem may work for All Hallow's Eve,
but for Mardi Gras, glamour is de rigour. Feathers, beads,
glitter, spangles -- all work well on Mardi Gras. Tuxedoes,
ball gowns, and boas work. Fake blood and Freddie Krueger
gloves do not. 

The early Mardi Gras consisted of citizens wearing masks on
foot, in carriages, and on horseback. The first documented
parade in 1837 was made of a costumed revelers. The
Carnival season eventually became so wild that the
authorities banned street masking by the late 1830's. This
was an attempt to control the civil disorder arising from
this annual celebration. This ban didn't stop the hard core
celebrators. By the 1840's, a strong desire to ban all
public celebrations was growing. Luckily, six young men
from Mobile saved Mardi Gras. These men had been members of
the Cowbellians, a group that performed New Year's Eve
parades in Mobile since 1831. The six men established the
Mystick Krewe of Comus, which put together the first New
Orleans Carnival parade on the evening of Mardi Gras in
1857. The parade consisted of two mule-driven floats. This
promoted others to join in on this new addition to Mardi

Unfortunately, the Civil War caused the celebration to
loose some of its magic and public observance. The magic
returned along with several other new krewes after the war.
Rituals and traditions have also evolved with non-krewe
members as well. Those in the heart of Carnival often begin
their celebrating on January 6, and don't let up until Ash
Wednesday , remember, Mardi Gras is the peak of the
Carnival Season, but it 's only one day. Therefore, New
Orleans has officially established Lundi Gras on the Monday
before Fat Tuesday because no one can get any work done as
of the Friday before anyway. 

New Orleans became another crossroads where the river, the
bayous and the sea were open roads; where various nations
ruled but the folk continued to reign. They turned
inhospitable swamplands into a refuge for the independent,
the defiant, and the creative "unimportant" people who tore
down all the barriers of language and culture among peoples
throughout the world and continue to sing to them of joy
and the triumph of the human spirit.


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