New Orleans - Before The Civil War

New Orleans - Before The Civil War

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New Orleans is a city in southern Louisiana, located on the Mississippi River. Most of the city is situated on the east bank, between the river and Lake Pontchartrain to the north. Because it was built on a great turn of the river, it is known as the Crescent City. New Orleans, with a population of 496,938 (1990 census), is the largest city in Louisiana and one of the principal cities of the South. It was established on the high ground nearest the mouth of the Mississippi, which is 177 km (110 mi) downstream. Elevations range from 3.65 m (12 ft) above sea level to 2 m (6.5 ft) below; as a result, an ingenious system of water pumps, drainage canals, and levees has been built to protect the city from flooding.

New Orleans was founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, sieur de Bienville, and named for the regent of France, Philippe II, duc d'Orleans. It remained a French colony until 1763, when it was transferred to the Spanish. In 1800, Spain ceded it back to France; in 1803, New Orleans, along with the entire Louisiana Purchase, was sold by Napoleon I to the United States. It was the site of the Battle of New Orleans (1815) in the War of 1812. During the Civil War the city was besieged by Union ships under Adm. David Farragut; it fell on Apr. 25, 1862.

And that's what it say's in the books, a bit more, but nothing else of interest. This is too bad, New Orleans , as a city, has a wide and diverse history that reads as if it were a utopian society built to survive the troubles of the future. New Orleans is a place where Africans, Indians and European settlers shared their cultures and intermingled. Encouraged by the French government, this strategy for producing a durable culture in a difficult place marked New Orleans as different and special from its inception and continues to distinguish the city today.

Like the early American settlements along Massachusetts Bay and Chesapeake Bay, New Orleans served as a distinctive cultural gateway to North America, where peoples from Europe and Africa initially intertwined their lives and customs with those of the native inhabitants of the New World. The resulting way of life differed dramatically from the culture than was spawned in the English colonies of North America. New Orleans Creole population (those with ancestry rooted in the city's colonial era) ensured not only that English was not the prevailing language but also that Protestantism was scorned, public education unheralded, and democratic government untried.

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Isolation helped to nourish the differences.

From its founding in 1718 until the early nineteenth century, New Orleans remained far removed from the patterns of living in early Massachusetts or Virginia. Established a century after those seminal Anglo-Saxon places, it remained for the next hundred years an outpost for the French and Spanish until Napoleon sold it to the United States with the rest of the Louisiana purchase in 1803.

Even though steamboats and sailing ships connected French Louisiana to the rest of the country, New Orleans guarded its own way of life. True, it became Dixie's chief cotton and slave market, but it always remained a strange place in the American South. American newcomers from the South as well as the North recoiled when they encountered the prevailing French language of the city, its dominant Catholicism, its bawdy sensual delights, or its proud free black and slave inhabitants; In short, its deeply rooted Creole population and their peculiar traditions. Rapid influxes of non-southern population compounded the peculiarity of its Creole past. Until the mid-nineteenth century, a greater number of migrants arrived in the boomtown from northern states such as New York and Pennsylvania than from the Old South. And to complicate its social makeup further, more foreign immigrants than Americans came to take up residence in the city almost to the beginning of the twentieth century.

The largest waves of immigrants came from Ireland and Germany. In certain neighborhoods, their descendants' dialects would make visitors feel like they were back in Brooklyn or Chicago. From 1820 to 1870, the Irish and Germans made New Orleans one of the main immigration ports in the nation, second only to New York, but ahead of Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. New Orleans also was the first city in America to host a significant settlement of Italians, Greeks, Croatians, and Filipinos.

African Americans compile about half of the city of New Orleans population to date. How did this come about? Well, during the eighteenth century, Africans came to the city directly from West Africa. The majority passed neither through the West Indies nor South America, so they developed complicated relations with both the Indian and Europeans. Their descendants born in the colony were also called Creoles. The Spanish rulers (1765-1802) reached out to the black population for support against the French settlers; in doing so, they allowed many to buy their own freedom. These free black settlers along with Creole slaves formed the earliest black urban settlement in North America. Black

American immigrants found them to be quite exotic, for the black Creoles were Catholic, French or Creole speakers, and accustomed to an entirely different lifestyle. The native Creole population and the American newcomers resolved some of their conflicts by living in different areas of the city. Eventually, the Americans concentrated their numbers in new uptown neighborhoods. For a certain period (1836-1852), they even ran separate municipal governments to avoid severe political, economic, and cultural clashes. Evidence of this early cleavage still survives in the city's oldest quarters.

During the infamous Atlantic slave trade, thousands of Muslims from the Senegambia and Sudan were kidnapped or captured in local wars and sold into slavery. In America, these same Muslims converted other Africans and Amerindians to Islam. As the great Port of New Orleans was a major point of entry for merchant ships, holds bursting with human, African cargo, the Port was also, unbeknownst to many, a major point of entry for captured Muslims (most often prisoners of local wars) who certainly brought with them their only possession unable to be stripped from them by their captors, their religion, Islamic.

The historical record of shipping manifests attests to the fact that the majority of slaving merchant vessels that deposited their goods at the mouth of the Mississippi took on their cargoes from those areas of West Africa with significant Muslim population. As the Islamic belief system forbids suicide and encourages patient perseverance, the middle-passage survival rate of captured African

Muslims was quite high. For example, one such courageous survivor was Ibrahima Abdur Rahman, son of the king of the Fulani people of the Senegambia region, named "The Prince" by his master Thomas Foster of Natchez, Mississippi. Abdur Rahman came through the Port of New Orleans, was sold at auction and became a man of renown on the Foster Plantation. He eventually petitioned his freedom via President John Quincy Adams and returned to Africa after 46 years of enslavement.

Free People of Color (f.p.c.) were Africans, Creoles of Color (New World-Born People of African descent), and persons of mixed African, European, and or Native American descent. In Louisiana, the first f.p.c. came from France or its Colonies in the Caribbean and in West Africa. During the French Colonial period in Louisiana, f.p.c. were a rather small and insignificant group. During French rule from 1702-1769, there are records for only 150 emancipations of slaves. The majority of slaves freed in Louisiana's Colonial period was during the Spanish reign from 1769-1803, with approximately 2,500 slaves being freed.

The majority of these slaves were Africans and unmixed Blacks who bought their freedom. Later on this initial group would be augmented by Haitian refugees and other f.p.c. from the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America, other parts of the United States, and from around the world.

Besides self-purchase and donation of freedom, slaves sometimes earned freedom for meritorious service in battle or saving the life of their masters. A significant amount of slaves became free because they were the children of white native born and European fathers who sometimes openly acknowledged their mixed offspring and who also usually freed the mother of their children. It would be several generations before mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon women would become the common-law wives and mistresses of white men.

The reason for the high number of f.p.c. in New Orleans was largely due to the influx of Haitian Refugees into the city in 1809. Approximately 10,000 people arrived in New Orleans with roughly a third being f.p.c., another third slaves, and the remaining were white. By the eve of the Civil War in 1860, the reported total population for f.p.c. in Louisiana was 18,647 people with the majority being in New Orleans with a census tally of 10,689 people.

Free People of Color were highly skilled craftsmen, business people, educators, writers, planters, and musicians. Many free women of color were highly skilled seamstresses, hairdressers, and cooks while some owned property and kept boarding houses. Some f.p.c. were planters before and after the Civil War and owned slaves. Although shocking and incomprehensible to many people today, the fact that some f.p.c. owned slaves must come to light.

In eighteenth century Louisiana, the term Creole referred to locally born persons, regardless of status or race, and was used to distinguish American-born slaves from African-born slaves when they testified in court and on inventory lists of slaves. They were identified simply as Creoles if they were locally born, or Creoles of another region or colony if they had been born elsewhere in the Americas of non-American ancestry, whether African or European. However, due to the racial and cultural complexity of colonial Louisiana, native Americans who were born into slavery were sometimes described as "Creoles" or "born in country."

After the United States took over Louisiana, the Creole cultural identity became a means of distinguishing who was truly native to Louisiana from those that were Anglo. Creole has to come mean the language and folk culture which native to the southern part of Louisiana where African, French, and Spanish influence were most deeply rooted historically and culturally.

The language too, represents these traits, whereas the vocabulary of Louisiana Creole is overwhelmingly French in origin, its grammatical structure is largely African. The early creation of the Louisiana Creole language and its widespread use among whites as well as blacks up until World War II is strong evidence for the strength of the African ingredient in Louisiana Creole culture. The widespread survival of Louisiana Creole until very recent times and its use by whites of various social positions as well as by blacks and mixed-bloods had, no doubt, a great impact upon Africanizing Louisiana culture.

The Louisiana Creole language became an important part of the identity, not only of African-Creoles, but of many whites of all classes who, seduced by its rhythm, intoxicating accent, humor and imagination, adopted it as their preferred means of communication. There is still a significant number of whites who only speak Louisiana Creole.


Many locals begin with a party on January 6 that includes a King Cake, a cake baked in the shape of a large doughnut, covered with icing and colored sugar of green, gold, and purple, the traditional Mardi Gras colors. Purple represents justice, green representing faith, and gold representing power. Inside the cake is a tiny plastic baby, meant to represent the Baby Jesus. Whoever gets the piece with the baby is crowned King or Queen ... and is expected to throw a party on the following weekend. Parties with King Cake continue each weekend until Mardi Gras itself finally arrives.

The name Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday in French. The day is known as Fat Tuesday, since it is the last day before Lent. Lent is the season of prayer and fasting observed by the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations during the forty days and seven Sundays before Easter Sunday. Easter can be on any Sunday from March 23 to April 25, since the exact day is set to coincide with the first Sunday after the full moon following the Spring Equinox. Mardi Gras occurs on any Tuesday from February 3 through March 9. The Gregorian calendar, setup by the Catholic Church, determines the exact day for Mardi Gras.

The celebration started in New Orleans around the seventeenth century, when Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville, and Pierre LeMoyne, Sieur de Iberville founded the city. In 1699, the group set up camp 60 miles south of the present location of New Orleans on the river's West Bank. They named the site Point du Mardi Gras in recognition of the major French holiday happening on that day, March 3.

The late 1700's, saw pre-Lenten balls and fetes in the infant New Orleans. The masked balls continued until the Spanish government took over and banned the events. The ban even continued after New Orleans became an American city in 1803. Eventually, the predominant Creole population revitalized the balls by 1823. Within the next four years, street masking was legalized.

But it must be remembered that although costumes are worn for both, Mardi Gras is not Halloween. Gore and mayhem may work for All Hallow's Eve, but for Mardi Gras, glamour is de rigour. Feathers, beads, glitter, spangles-all work well on Mardi Gras. Tuxedoes, ball gowns, and boas work. Fake blood and Freddie Krueger gloves do not.

The early Mardi Gras consisted of citizens wearing masks on foot, in carriages, and on horseback. The first documented parade in 1837 was made of a costumed revelers. The Carnival season eventually became so wild that the authorities banned street masking by the late 1830's. This was an attempt to control the civil disorder arising from this annual celebration.

This ban didn't stop the hard core celebrators. By the 1840's, a strong desire to ban all public celebrations was growing. Luckly, six young men from Mobile saved Mardi Gras. These men had been members of the Cowbellians, a group that performed New Years Eve parades in Mobile since 1831. The six men established the Mystick Krewe of Comus, which put together the first New Orleans Carnival parade on the evening of Mardi Gras in 1857. The parade consisted of two mule-driven floats. This promoted others to join in on this new addition to Mardi Gras. Unfortunately, the Civil War caused the celebration to loose some of its magic and public observance. The magic returned along with several other new krewes after the war.

Rituals and traditions have also evolved with non-krewe members as well. Those in the heart of Carnival often begin their celebrating on January 6, and don't let up until Ash Wednesday , remember, Mardi Gras is the peak of the Carnival Season, but it 's only one day. Therefore, New Orleans has officially established Lundi Gras on the Monday before Fat Tuesday because no one can get any work done as of the Friday before anyway.

Senegambia, where I noted earlier that a lot of the original blacks had come from, had long been a crossroads of the world where peoples and cultures were assimilated in warfare and the rise and fall of great empires. An essential feature of the cultural materials brought from Senegambia as well as from other parts of Africa was a willingness to add and incorporate useful aspects of new cultures encountered. This attitude was highly functional in a dangerous and chaotic world. New Orleans became another crossroads where the river, the bayous and the sea were open roads; where various nations ruled but the folk continued to reign. They turned inhospitable swamplands into a refuge for the independent, the defiant, and the creative "unimportant" people who tore down all the barriers of language and culture among peoples throughout the world and continue to sing to them of joy and the triumph of the human spirit.
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