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New Orleans, Louisiana


The city of New Orleans, Louisiana, is situated on the Mississippi River. It is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north the Gulf of Mexico, making it a strategic port of entry to the North American mainland. Before the arrival of Europeans in the 1500s Louisiana was home to the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Natchez Indians who had lived there for thousands of years. French explorer Robert Cavelier (16431687) sailed down the Mississippi River in 1682 in search of a westward route from Canada into the interior. He claimed the entire river basin for France. The claim consisted of roughly the central third of the present-day United States. La Salle named it Louisiana in honor of French king Louis XIV (16381715). In 1701 the territory was made a province of France; it was one of three French colonies on the North American mainland (the other two were Acadia and Canada; together the three colonies were known as New France). It was not until 1714 that the French began settling Louisiana. In 1718 colonist Sieur de Bienville (16261685) established a settlement at New Orleans. He named it after French regent Philippe II (16741723), Duke of Orleans. Philippe II ruled France after the death of Louis XIV on behalf of King Louis XV (17101774) who was only a youth at the time. To encourage development Scottish financier John Law (16711729) was named controller-general in 1720. This gave him authority over Louisiana. While Law succeeded in increasing shipping between New Orleans and France, his Compagnie d'Occident failed later that year. The city was made the capital of Louisiana in 1722 but under Law's scheme it attracted few reputable emigrants. In 1731 France reclaimed Louisiana as a royal province, but the colony still did not thrive economically.

In 1762 King Louis XV ceded Louisiana to Spain (ruled by his cousin, King Charles III; 17161788). He was on the verge of losing the rest of New France to Great Britain in the French and Indian Wars (17541763). Under Spanish rule the colony grew more prosperous, attracting French, American, and Spanish settlers. However New Orleans was still beset by problems, including two fires that destroyed more than a thousand buildings during the late 1700s.

In 1800 the economic and strategic importance of New Orleans became clear as French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte (17691821) exhibited an interest in reacquiring Louisiana. Spain, which had bought Louisiana and New Orleans from France in 1763 at the end of the French and Indian Wars with Great Britain, was no match for the French militarily, and Napoleon secretly pressured Spain to return Louisiana to France. Under U.S. envoy Thomas Pinkney's 1795 Treaty with Spain the Spanish had been allowing the Americans to traffic on the Mississippi River and to store their river freight in the warehouses of New Orleans' prior to transshipping it onto ocean going ships. In 1800 and 1802 Spain secretly sold Louisiana back to the French. At about the same time Spain began to renege on the privileges that it had accorded the Americans. In March 1803 the transfer became publicly known.

President Thomas Jefferson, who had been a supporter of the French Revolution and a critic of France's enemy, Great Britain, feared that Napoleon would establish a French presence along the Mississippi River and eventually obstruct westward settlement by the United States' farming population. Jefferson wrote to his diplomatic minister to France, Robert Livingston, that although he had always looked on France as the "natural friend" of the United States, now he had to reassess matters. He observed that there was "one spot" on the face of the earth the possessor of which automatically became "our natural . . . enemy." That spot was New Orleans because of its chokehold on U.S. western river traffic. (Brinkley, 211) Accordingly, Jefferson ordered the rebuilding of the United States Navy and prepared for war with France. Rather than go to war with the United States when he was already engaged in hostilities with the British, Napoleon then agreed to sell the Louisiana territory to the United States. For only $15 million in the Louisiana Purchase the United States doubled its size.

The city of New Orleans continued to grow and prosper as the agricultural economy of the Ohio Valley and of the "new" southwest of the country (along the Mississippi River) expanded. During the War of 1812 (18121814) New Orleans was the site of the most fortunate military engagement of the war (from the standpoint of the U.S.) The city had already been incorporated in 1805. In the Battle of New Orleans the U.S. troops under the command of Andrew Jackson "whipped" the British in what turned out to be the last armed hostilities between the United States and Great Britain.

After the War of 1812 New Orleans continued to serve in its familiar role of warehousing and shipping agricultural goods as the South's sugarcane and cotton plantations were thriving. As a result New Orleans river trade flourished. During the succeeding years it became a major U.S. seaport. Ten dollar bills issued by the Bank of Louisiana were used to pay riverboat men when they unloaded their cargo in New Orleans. The notes were called "dixies" because the French word for ten, dix, was prominently displayed on the bill. So successful was this trade that "dixie" soon began to mean the entire south.

Once again, the strategic importance of New Orleans and of the traffic along the Mississippi River shaped military calculations during the Civil War (18611865). Early in the war the Union forces established a blockade of southern ports and, under the command of David Farragut, captured New Orleans on April 25, 1862. Throughout the war the Union forces controlled New Orleans, thus preventing the Confederates from receiving provisions and military hardware from its largest port. The Union Army then proceeded to attack other cities along the Mississippi. They bombarded Vicksburg in June 1862. Over a year later, in July 1863 Vicksburg fell after a six-week siege conducted by Union General Ulysses Grant finally wore down its defenders.

In the modern age New Orleans has continued to prosper not only for its continued economically importance in transshipping agricultural commodities, but also for its tropic climate and its rich cultural resources.

See also: Civil War, Colonies (Proprietary), Louisiana, Louisiana Purchase

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