February – This Month in History

By: Dr. Trevor Smith

In 1718 the first French settlers arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi River and began plantation farming. These settlers would be joined by French Haitians, known as Creoles, and the new colony grew and was named Orleans Nouveaux (New Orleans). Sugar cane became the dominant crop, which grew after new technology enabled sugar to be processed more efficiently. The city of New Orleans evolved to become this settlement’s primary port.

Because it controlled access to the Mississippi River, the French government came to regard it as strategically critical to the entire French Empire in North America. Within a few years of its founding New Orleans was easily the largest city on the Gulf Coast. In 1756 France and Britain went to war over global colonial conquest, and North America was a major theater of this conflict. In 1762, as Britain was on the verge of victory, France secretly transferred New Orleans to Spain in an agreement known as the Treaty of Fontainebleau. Britain would latter recognize the legitimacy of this transfer in return for British control of Florida. The people of New Orleans, on the other hand, initially resisted Spanish control, and in 1868 attempted to rebel by forcing out the newly appointed Spanish governor.  Despite the initial resistance, the people of New Orleans eventually accepted Spanish control, but Spain did not attempt to change the culture or function of the city. Much of the architecture and layout of the French Quarter dates to this era. The centerpiece of this Spanish style is Jackson Square, which is modeled after other Spanish plazas in the Americas. For the most part, trade and port activities remained the city’s primary function, but by this time New Orleans had become a very diverse place. It was a well known haven for pirates and criminals. It also hosted a thriving trade in contraband goods. In 1801 Spain secretly transferred New Orleans back to the French, and two years later France sold it to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. In American hands, New Orleans became a proud symbol of America’s westward expansion. Its defense from the British during the War of 1812 became a signature victory that helped define America’s emergence as a strong nation, and convinced the American people that the United States had the ability to remain sovereign and independent of European control.  During the nineteenth century New Orleans remained the largest city in the American South and the most active port in the United States. During the antebellum era it was also the largest center of slave trading. Unlike most Southern cities, during the Civil War (1861-65) New Orleans suffered little damage because it was one of the first cities captured by the Union Army.  In the years following the Civil War, new techniques in land reclamation enabled New Orleans to drain its surrounding lowlands. Although several Southern cities surpassed it in size, the population of New Orleans continued to grow until the 1970s. The ravages brought by Hurricane Katrina are well-known, but most experts agree that New Orleans will almost certainly recover and continue to thrive.

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