Long before the famed Storyville district birthed a rowdy beat called "jass", Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, founded a city on a bit of high ground next to the Mississippi River. Long before Tennessee Williams sent a streetcar named "Cemeteries" to Elysian Fields, a colony of French fur trappers thrived in the bayou. Long before the Mystic Krewe of Comus lit the first Mardi Gras parade with flambeaux, the territory of Louisiane belonged to the Spanish, then the French again, then the Americans. One of the most colorfully historic cities in America, New Orleans combines fascinating architecture, incomparable regional cuisine and a little something called jazz into a languid, yet indefatigable spirit.
In 1718, fewer than twenty years after Pierre le Moyne, Sieur de Iberville, first launched the settlement of Louisiane for King Louis XIV of France, Iberville's younger brother Jean Bienville, chose a crescent of the Mississippi River upon which to found La Nouvelle Orleans, the capital of the territory. France continued to exert her control and influence over Louisiane and its new capital for several decades, even beyond King Louis XV’s cessation of the entire territory to his Bourbon cousin, King Charles III of Spain, in 1762. Not until 1769 after the citizens of New Orleans sent one Spanish governor fleeing to Cuba and then watched the leaders of her uprising hang at the hands of the next did Spain finally gain control of the city.
Spain managed to retain control of New Orleans until 1803, but despite that brief rule, the Spanish influence on the city is pronounced. In 1788, and again in 1794, fire ravaged the French Quarter, destroying hundreds of buildings each time. As the Spanish rebuilt, the wrought-iron balconies and central courtyards that were so prominent in Spain became dominant. Even today, the most famous architecture in New Orleans the magnificent St. Louis Cathedral on the Place d'Arms, now Jackson Square, and the Cabildo, which served as the Spanish seat of government clearly reflects the Spanish influence.
It was during the Spanish rule that New Orleans' two unique cultures evolved. First, following an ejection from Canada by the British and a brief stay in France, the Acadians arrived on Louisiana's shores in force in 1785. Their culture, today known as Cajun, pervades New Orleans and the surrounding area, and has introduced items such as their heavily syncopated music and jambalaya to the region and the world. Spanish influence also brought to prominence the word Créole, from the Spanish word criollo, which designated a pure-blooded Spanish child born in the New World. Over the years, the word's meaning expanded, first to indicate anyone in the New World whose ancestors came from Europe, but then to refer to a somewhat larger population. Today, "creole" refers not only to a population but to many things, from food to style, that are distinctly New Orleans.
In 1803, through a series of questionable maneuvers, Napoleon Bonaparte purchased the Louisiana Territory back from Spain. Despite an express promise not to, he promptly sold the entire package to the Americans in the largest real estate transaction in history. The city barely had time to settle into her new country before she was the site of the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson's hero-making event, when the British were driven from the New World. Jackson's actions during the battle earned him not only the presidency of the United States, but the admiration of a lady who constructed a statue of him the first statue of a rider atop a rearing horse in the Place d'Arms, now renamed Jackson Square.
A second major battle occurred on the Mississippi River in 1862, when Captain David Farragut of the Union forces decisively captured New Orleans and raised the Stars and Stripes above the United States Mint and Custom House. Thereafter followed not only the bitterness of Reconstruction, but political intrigue when Louisiana traded her electoral vote in the 1876 presidential election for the withdrawal of the Union forces. Thus, Rutherford B. Hayes was elected president of the United States by one electoral vote and Louisiana finally ended the pain of Reconstruction.
Shortly after the Civil War and its aftermath, New Orleans again re-emerged, this time with a new beat. Pioneering musicians, from the depths of Storyville the least scandalous of New Orleans’ three red-light districts changed the rhythm of the city. The renowned Sidney Bechet, Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and countless others first revitalized New Orleans, then worked their way north with the birth of jazz. Jazz clubs, like Preservation Hall, and jazz funerals the second line of revelers following the first line of mourning family still pervade New Orleans today.
The list of literary greats who made their home in New Orleans is nearly as long as the roster of jazz musicians that played in the bordellos of Storyville. John James Audubon, Kate Chopin, Truman Capote, Lillian Hellman, William Faulkner, Walker Percy and Walt Whitman all lived in the Vieux Carré, and most of them made regular rounds of the area's restaurants, clubs and bars, not to mention the rollicking private parties that became a staple of New Orleans in the last century. New Orleans has also been immortalized in numerous written works, most notably Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, which contains the dialogue, "[t]hey told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!," despite that the Cemeteries streetcars traveled a line distant from Elysian Fields, and John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, which his mother convinced the Louisiana State University Press to publish posthumously after Toole committed suicide.
Perhaps the grandest, most famous tradition of New Orleans, however, is her annual, rowdy Mardi Gras celebration. Mardi Gras, which is French for "Fat Tuesday", refers to the final day before Ash Wednesday, or the beginning of Lent. As New Orleans has been predominantly Catholic throughout her history, the entire Carnival season beginning on Twelfth Night and ending on Mardi Gras has become a chance for her residents and tourists alike to celebrate life before the long season of Lent. Beginning in 1857, when the Mystic Krewe of Comus staged the first flambeaux-lit Mardi Gras parade, the city has reveled with the traditional masquerade balls and parades. Today, more than thirty krewes, including Zulu, Orpheus, Endymion, Bacchus and Rex, stage parades and balls. The streets are closed as the floats come through, and the masked, costumed krewe members toss "throws" trinkets and souvenirs to the crowds. The month-long celebration brings out the ebullient nature of the city and provides a tremendous influx of tourists to the festivities, as people come from far and wide to celebrate with the locals.
Tennessee Williams once said that he'd "never known anyone who lived in, or even visited the Quarter who wasn't slightly intoxicated without the booze." The sultry pace, grace and charm of the City That Care Forgot will welcome you effusively, as will her offer to share the singular rhythm that is New Orleans. Laissez les bons temps rouler!