New Orleans – A History
By Kay Davis
Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, affecting much of the city and flooding 80% of it. The storm surge overwhelmed the levy system, once thought the best in the world. Even now restoration continues, and while it does, many of us are becoming interested once again in visiting this historic city. The following is from a visit prior to the hurricane, but history itself has not changed and the French Quarter managed to survive intact. So let us review a bit of what awaits us.
Only one hundred years ago New Orleans was a safe harbor for pirates of the Caribbean. Jean Lafitte was perhaps best known for his skill in hiding out in the many inlets, bays and bayous that form the great delta. The city was also an important port during the Civil War. Today it is a vital center for shipping oil and many other products as well as for receiving imports.
Its history has given the city a carefree approach that attracts people from all walks of life. The southwestern portion of the state is inhabited by Cajuns, descendents of French refugees exiled from Nova Scotia, then called Acadia, by the British in 1755. Their culture has been retained in their music, food, language and lifestyle. A wonderful variety of Cajun influences are found throughout New Orleans, most obvious of which is the food.
The French Quarter is the original site of the city when the French founded it in 1718 and still its cultural heart. The old buildings snuggle up against one another, revealing architecture not found anywhere else in America. Some of the ornate balcony railings are decorated with immense ferns. Those balconies and much of the architecture itself come from the Spanish influence during a brief reign by Spain over what was renamed the “Spanish Quarter,” a reign that lasted only 40 years from 1762 – 1800 but which left an indelible mark.
Some of the Quarter’s entryways are set back within fenced areas. Once a visitor passes through the stone alley separating buildings on either side, he or she finds a lovely garden and another building behind it, often of historic beauty. Some buildings in the district, however, are quite run-down and these are disappointing, but still this is not unexpected in a city whose origins are nearly 300 years old. There are 35,000 buildings in the Quarter which are listed as historic places and a number of residents are 5th generation. The Quarter is not a museum. It is a neighborhood.
Our hotel was located on historic Bourbon Street, home of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, home of Jazz, and today a street of questionable repute, offering as much drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll as you might wish, but also some excellent restaurants, some with their own histories.
The Italian restaurant where we had our first dinner was called Tony Moran’s Italian Cuisine, and it is upstairs in the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. What drew us in was that the restaurant owner had fascinated us with a recounting of the history of the building and of the Battle of New Orleans.
It seems the building was erected in 1806 as an import house and functioned that way for 40 years of trade, bartering in food, tobacco and Spanish liquor, a sort of early “corner grocery.” It was here that the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte and “Old Hickory” Andrew Jackson plotted the Battle of New Orleans against the British, who had decided to take over the port.
In the early 1800s, the US had only recently won its Revolutionary War against Britain with the assistance of France, Britain’s long time nemesis.
Meantime pirates in the Caribbean had plundered ships trading through the area, and Jean Lafitte was the most successful of them. What he did infuriated both the British and the Americans. While he allowed other trading vessels through the port unhindered, he attacked British and American ships.
As a trading ship sailed up the Mississippi River, Lafitte attacked at a particular bend in the river, unloaded the goods onto his own ship, and then sailed into the Barataria Canal, which cut straight across the bend. Then he docked at New Orleans, sold his goods, and was gone before the traders could recover.
From the Americans, he raided a ship full of ammunition, hiding the ship within the canal until he could unload and then stockpiling the ammunition. Those seeking the escape route failed to find the canal because its entry was covered by wetland growth on either end, yet it was deep enough and wide enough for the passage of a full-sized ship.
When the British decided to capture the port in retaliation, Lafitte offered to throw in with Andrew Jackson, offering the ammunition he had stockpiled. The choice of comrade in arms was not so strange. After all, something momentous had occurred in 1803 that made such a plan natural under the circumstances. It was called The Louisiana Purchase. US President Thomas Jefferson had attempted to negotiate the purchase of the harbor of New Orleans from the French. To his astonishment, cash-strapped Napoleon counter-offered the entire territory from the Canadian border through the port, in essence the entire French claim to the middle states of what is now the USA. President Jefferson concluded his land deal, making the USA an international force to be recognized and putting the French and the Americans in an even snugger relationship where New Orleans was concerned.
And just in time for Jean Lafitte. His only request of the Americans in exchange for his assistance in driving out the British from the port was amnesty for his piracy. The Americans granted him 24 hours to get out of Louisiana once the deal was complete.
And so the painting of the battle of tall ships appears on the wall of Tony Moran’s Italian Cuisine on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The French-American alliance won out. Jean Lafitte survived to live out his life. And the food, by the way, is great.
The Louisiana Purchase was signed at the Cabildo in New Orleans, and it is considered the 2nd most significant building in US History, second only to Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Look for the Cabildo. It is a beautiful building and worth a visit.
And it was Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British that assured his candidacy for President.
Enjoy the history along with the food, music, and a myriad of tours in America’s first marvelous city.
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