Louisiana: The French Quarter, New Orleans

A sixty-six-square-block area of the city of New Orleans, comprising both residential and commercial buildings that are among the oldest continuously occupied structures in the United States, many of them excellent examples of French and Spanish provincial and colonial architecture. The French Quarter is the home of many historic sites and landmarks, including the St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo and Presbytere, Jackson Square, the French Market, the former U.S. Mint, and the Ursuline Convent.

Site Office

New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau

1520 Sugar Bowl Drive

New Orleans, LA 70112

ph.: (800) 672-6124; (504) 566-5003

Web site: www.nawlins.com

The French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana, is like no other place in the United States. New Orleans is known as the “city that care forgot”; the quarter is very much a place that time forgot. Also known as the Vieux Carré (old square), the quarter is rich in historic structures, many of which are at least one hundred fifty years old and some of which are nearly two hundred years old. The buildings’ age and their styles–primarily developed by the early French and Spanish colonists–give the quarter a European atmosphere. Added to that is the influence of other cultures, particularly that of African Americans, making the quarter a truly cosmopolitan area, a center of historical and architectural treasures, unusual shops, fine restaurants, great music, and an ongoing series of festivals, the most famous of which is Mardi Gras.

Early History

In the late 1600’s, French King Louis XIV was looking for a way to consolidate his gains in North America and to flank the English colonies on the eastern seaboard and limit their ability to expand westward. French settlers and cultures already were well established in eastern Canada. The king’s representatives made their way westward through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi River. In 1682 René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, led an expedition in search of the river’s mouth. What he found was a constantly expanding and moving delta, with the river splitting into dozens of channels and changing its course through a seemingly endless expanse of semisubmerged canebrakes and muck. La Salle placed a plaque near the mouth of the river, claiming the land for France and naming it Louisiane, in honor of the king. Then La Salle and his party sailed back to France.

At Versailles La Salle had no trouble convincing the king and his court that the territory was valuable. They were convinced that it would expand French influence in the New World and serve as a buffer against the colonies of other European empires. They also probably did not picture the land very clearly; they likely envisioned a clear river harbor like those in France, not an insect-infested swampland. Even if they had had an accurate idea of the territory, however, they still may have found it desirable: They believed that if France did not claim it, a rival power would.

The king sent La Salle back to the area, but with the highly inaccurate maps that existed, La Salle’s party landed several hundred miles to the west of the mouth of the river. When La Salle attempted to go overland to find the river, he was killed by his own men.

First Settlements

It was not until 1699 that a young Quebecois, Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, led the next party down the river. His mission was to build a small fort, which he eventually did, near the site of present-day Biloxi, Mississippi. About one hundred men were garrisoned at the outpost. Iberville’s twenty-one-year-old brother, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, became commander of the fort the next year. Iberville had left the fort and traveled to Havana, where he died of yellow fever in 1706. Bienville, who was extremely resilient, managed to avoid the disease that was to become the scourge of the future city of New Orleans and stayed to make his mark on the history of the city.

After a short period, the fort was moved to a site near what is now Mobile, Alabama. Although the French government sent livestock, tools, and young women, and although a few French Canadians arrived by river, the colony struggled. By this time France was at war with England, and the country’s treasury was too strained to aid the settlers.

French influence in the area was bolstered, oddly enough, by a Scottish gambler named John Law. Law arrived in Paris in the first years of the eighteenth century. He had a knack for winning money and for public relations. In 1717 he began to sell stock in a company that he claimed would exploit the riches of the territory of Louisiana. His Compagnie d’Occident (Company of the West, later Company of Indies) attracted investors from all over France. After three years, it became apparent that Louisiana offered few riches, at least not in the short term. The investors lost their capital, and Law had to flee France. This incident became known as the Mississippi Bubble. By then, however, the infrastructure of the tiny settlement of New Orleans was in place.

There were no compelling reasons for French colonists to go to Louisiana. Unlike their colonial competitors, the English, the French did not allow religious dissenters to settle in their colonies. The French colonies did not hold veins of gold and silver, as did the land of their Spanish competitors, nor was France overcrowded like Holland. The new colony had to be held, however, so the king’s agents swept the streets of the homeless, the diseased, and unguarded children and shipped them to the muddy wilderness.

Selection of New Orleans’s Site

In 1718, Bienville, by order of the Company of the Indies, chose a permanent site for the struggling colony. The prospects were not good, as nearly all the land along the lower Mississippi was below sea level, but he chose a crescent-shaped bend where an ancient Indian portage led to a four-mile-long bayou, Bayou St. John, which flowed into Lake Pontchartrain. The site also provided a point from which to monitor the river traffic. Bienville’s party of slaves, convict laborers, and a few trained carpenters set about clearing the canebrakes and cypress trees. To this day, when deep excavations are made in the French Quarter, the huge trunks of those cypresses cleared by Bienville’s men are found.

By this time, Louis XIV was dead, and the new king was his great-grandson, the child-king Louis XV. The young king’s regent was Philippe, the duke of Orleans. The settlement was named La Nouvelle Orleans in his honor.

Laying out of New Orleans

At the same time, the French engineer-in-chief, Le Blond de la Tour, designed the street plan in a classic grid style and directed his assistant, Adrien de Pauger, to start laying out the streets. The streets were given names associated with the royal family–Bourbon, Royal, St. Louis, Burgundy, Toulouse, and Dumaine. The quarter’s basic street plan has not changed since then.

The first buildings were log houses, which were either swallowed by mud or blown over by the frequent hurricanes. These problems led to the development of an architectural style in which a simple frame cottage was raised above the ground on brick pilings. The river frequently overflowed its banks, so the settlers began building levees.

By the 1720’s New Orleans had one hundred bark huts, a small church, warehouses, and a house for Bienville. The original St. Louis Cathedral was destroyed by a hurricane in 1722 and rebuilt shortly thereafter. The second cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1788; its successor was completed in 1794. That structure is still standing, although it underwent numerous alterations in 1849-1850, and has been declared a minor basilica by the Vatican. Mass is still spoken in Latin there on special occasions, and the colorful frescoes on the interior tell the story of French King Louis IX, who was canonized as St. Louis. The cathedral is the centerpiece of the French Quarter and probably the most photographed structure in the city.

French Administration

In the 1730’s the French government took over management of the settlement from the Company of the Indies. New Orleans was now attracting different types of settlers. Together the government and the company had convinced a few rich French men and women to go to the city, and Catholic religious orders sent contingents there. The appearance of New Orleans evolved as well. Builders began using a construction method that combined cypress timber, stone, and mud adobe. This type of construction can be seen today in structures like Jean Lafitte’s blacksmith shop. The government also granted more and more planters property along the river both above and below New Orleans. Planters believed that whites could not survive hard physical labor in a hot, humid climate, so they began bringing in black slaves from Africa.

By the 1750’s some New Orleans residents were living in luxury, but most of the settlement was still struggling. In 1762 France rid itself of the troubled settlement; Louis XV ceded New Orleans to his first cousin, King Charles III of Spain, in a secret treaty. News of the transfer did not reach New Orleans for four years. When the Spanish colonial governor, Don Antonio d’Ulloa, arrived in 1766, some of the French residents took up arms in rebellion. The rebellion was quashed by the arrival of Spanish troops under the command of Don Alexander O’Reilly.

Spanish Influences

Though they ruled the French Quarter for only three decades, the Spanish had a great effect on the area’s architecture, if not its culture. As the older French buildings deteriorated, they were replaced by structures in the Spanish tradition, with arched windows and doorways, tile roofs, and courtyards. The Spanish also made lavish use of wrought-iron grillwork, still visible on many of the galleries, balconies, archways, and door handles of the French Quarter. The Spanish also painted many of their buildings in pastel colors and often included a service floor between the first and second stories of their structures.

Spanish rule was authoritarian, and the colony was not officially allowed to trade with any country but Spain. Colonial officials were easily corrupted, however, and soon English ships plied the river and anchored opposite the city. Their cargoes of fancy foods, luxury dry goods, and other delicacies were coveted by the Spaniards. When Spain took the side of the American colonists during the American Revolution, a few Americans were granted trading privileges. It was the beginning of a rich history of trade, illegal and legal, which fueled the growth of the city, developed its cosmopolitan atmosphere, and made it one of the largest ports in the United States.

In March, 1788, on Good Friday, candles left unattended started a fire that raged through the French Quarter, destroying most of its buildings, including the second St. Louis Cathedral. Another fire, six years later, again nearly wiped out the city. There was now very little left of the French colony, and the citizens struggled to rebuild the quarter, with the cathedral as the center. The Cabildo, built in 1795 with financing by prominent businessman Don Andres Almonester y Roxas on the upriver side of the church, was the capital house for the Spanish colonial governing council. Almonester also funded the reconstruction of the cathedral.

American Intrusion

By the end of the eighteenth century, many Americans, including rough frontiersmen from the interior and merchants in sailing ships, were coming to the city, bringing goods from the fledgling United States, in exchange for much-needed hard currency. The Spanish and French used the American goods to build docks, sidewalks, and houses.

In 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte negotiated the return of the Louisiana Territory to France. Thomas Jefferson, elected U.S. president that year, was distressed by the idea of Napoleon controlling so much territory in North America, so Jefferson sent emissaries to buy at least a portion of it for the United States. They ended up buying the entire territory, for fifteen million dollars, in 1803. New Orleans was incorporated as a city in 1805, and Louisiana became a state in 1812.

The quarter’s French and Spanish residents, known as Creoles, somewhat resented the Americans. Yet the quarter and the rest of New Orleans thrived under U.S. ownership, and the Americans could not help but be charmed by the city, with its stately cathedral and government buildings as well as European-style homes, the Ursuline Convent, and a variety of shops, docks, and warehouses. Trade flourished in cotton, lumber, liquor, finished goods, and slaves. The once-quiet levee became a beehive of commerce; steamboats plied the river, bringing passengers and merchandise from faraway places such as St. Louis and Ohio; and the population grew. The French Market, originally built by the Spanish in 1791, along what is now Decatur Street next to the levee, became an open-air center of commerce where vegetables, arms, and people could be bought and sold only blocks from the cathedral. The city was growing, but it was not out of danger.

The Battle of New Orleans

In January, 1815, after a treaty had already been signed ending the War of 1812, a fleet of British warships anchored in the river downstream from the city, which the British intended to seize. Andrew Jackson had been placed in command of a small garrison based in old Spanish barracks in the French Quarter. Jackson had made an uneasy alliance with the French pirate Jean Lafitte, who had masqueraded as a legitimate businessman with a blacksmith shop at Bourbon and St. Philip Streets for years, and the pirate brought cannon from his ships to the battlefield. It was probably the good defensive position of Jackson’s troops and the withering fire from Lafitte’s cannon that saved the quarter from yet another change in ownership.

Under American Rule

With the city secure, and with the influx of American spirit, capital, and entrepreneurship, the French Quarter soon became a center of growth. Jackson’s leadership was commemorated in an equestrian statue, which became the centerpiece of Jackson Square, in front of the cathedral.

The city grew beyond the French Quarter and became a commercial center, with many banks and mercantile exchanges being established. Yet the quarter remained the center of commercial activity throughout the 1830’s, the golden age of building in New Orleans. Sites outside the quarter were more suitable for large businesses, and through the next decades, other portions of New Orleans developed commercially while the quarter took on a more residential character. It was during this period that the Pontalba Buildings, commissioned by Micaela Almonester de Pontalba, daughter of Don Andres Almonester y Roxas, were completed. They were built on the north and south sides of what would become Jackson Square, facing perpendicular to the cathedral. They were occupied in 1850 with shops and offices on the ground floors and luxury apartments on the second and third stories.

With the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, Louisiana joined the Confederacy. Union troops captured New Orleans, quickly and bloodlessly, early in 1862, and occupied it for the remainder of the war. Union general Benjamin F. Butler was appointed military governor of New Orleans, and his autocratic rule made him unpopular with citizens in the French Quarter as well as other parts of the city. The residents of New Orleans nicknamed him “the beast.” One of the marks he left on the quarter was the statement he ordered carved into the base of the Andrew Jackson statue in Jackson Square: “The union must and shall be preserved.”

Post-Civil War Recovery

Economic recovery after the war was slow, but the French Quarter retained its unique character and remained a center of entertainment, as it had been before the war. The quarter’s public ballrooms were popular places for white men to meet and flirt with women of color, often of mixed Creole and African descent, and for socializing in general. The city’s European heritage also led to interest in classical theater and music. The Grand Opera House, built in 1859 at Bourbon and Toulouse Streets, was the site of many first-rate performances, but like many entertainment houses it was often closed in the summer because of the heat. It burned in 1909, and many theaters were susceptible to the same fate. The city’s real reputation in the area of entertainment was spawned outdoors. Blacks, Creoles, and others would congregate in the public squares for music, gambling, and other diversions.

New Orleans Jazz

New Orleans’s most famous product, jazz, developed throughout the city, but with important contributions from the French Quarter. River steamboats, gambling houses, bars, and brothels in the quarter were perfect venues for the musical form, named with a word derived from the West Indian Mandingo tribe’s word jasi, meaning “to act out of the ordinary.” Many jazz progenitors worked in Storyville, the city’s red-light district, just to the north of the French Quarter, but the music they played came from the spirited outdoor parties of the quarter. The quarter became a place where musicians who played the music could work steadily, a tradition that persists today. Among the many testaments to the importance of jazz in New Orleans and the French Quarter are the numerous music clubs along Bourbon Street in the quarter, the city’s annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the park named for great jazzman Louis Armstrong, along Rampart Street. Armstrong was born in New Orleans in 1900.

Visitors to the French Quarter today will find a wealth of historic sites. St. Louis Cathedral, particularly beautiful at night, is still the centerpiece of the area, and no building in the quarter rises higher than the cathedral’s central spire. The cathedral is flanked by the Cabildo, site of the transfer of Louisiana to the United States after the Louisiana Purchase, and the Presbytere, built to house clergy but never used for that purpose; it was used as a courthouse instead. The Cabildo and Presbytere are both part of the the Louisiana State Museum. In front of the cathedral at Jackson Square, Andrew Jackson, mounted on his horse, tips his hat to passersby. The Pontalba Buildings still flank the square. Other attractions around the quarter include the Old U.S. Mint, the Ursuline Convent, the French Market, and numerous historic homes, such as the Beauregard-Keyes House, home in the nineteenth century to Confederate general Pierre G. T. Beauregard and in the twentieth century to novelist Frances Parkinson Keyes. Other prominent writers, such as playwright Tennessee Williams, have lived in the quarter as well.

The French Quarter in the late twentieth century is a monument to times past. It is a testament to human ingenuity in overcoming hostile land, disease, and natural disasters with grace, elegance, and respect for the past.

It is the main magnet for tourism, which has become the second largest industry in New Orleans, next to the port, and still exemplifies openness, ease of living, and a gracious European style not available in other U.S. cities. Its survival against the odds has made it the center of the “city that care forgot.”

For Further Information

  • Cable, Mary. Lost New Orleans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. An excellent examination of New Orleans and its origins. Although it mentions many buildings and places that are no longer in existence, it is a fine description of the early history of the city.
  • Lynn, Stuart M. New Orleans. New York: American Legacy Press, 1977. A pictorial work, with extensive captioning, that gives a sense of the feeling and look of the French Quarter.
  • Villiers du Terrage, Marc de. A History of the Foundation of New Orleans, 1712-1722. Ville Platte, La.: Provincial Press, 1999. Ths work is reprinted from the Louisiana Historical Quarterly 3, no. 2 (April, 1920).