Although the French explored the area that now encompasses coastal Louisiana as early as 1682, settlement of Louisiana did not begin until 1718, when Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, founded the city of New Orleans. Despite the richness of the Louisiana territories, France never exploited the region to its fullest, leaving New Orleans and most of Louisiana a sparsely settled backwater.
Although it was not the first French settlement in the region, New Orleans became its capital in 1722, since it controlled access to the largest water route into the American interior. The original layout of New Orleans was a gridiron (see plan on page 608) that fell within a bend of the Mississippi River. This area, now called the Vieux Carré, or French Quarter, formed the main city limits until the nineteenth century.
The Louisiana colony was first proprietary and then a corporate colony before becoming a royal province in 1732. The population of French Louisiana was remarkably diverse, ranging from French settlers and soldiers to German immigrants to Native American slaves and hunters and, finally, African slaves, who, by the early 1730s, clearly outnumbered the Europeans colonists. The settlers around New Orleans raised tobacco and indigo as cash crops, but the main economy depended on the work of a combined group (European, Native Americans, and African), who farmed, herded, fished, hunted, and traded with nearby natives for deerskins.
Spain won control of the city after the Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War in America), and it remained in their possession until 1800, when it was ceded back to France. In 1803, New Orleans was sold to the United States by Napoleon Bonaparte as part of the Louisiana Purchase. In 1815, British military forces under General Edwin Pakenham attempted to seize New Orleans, but they were defeated by Andrew Jackson and a combined force of frontier militiamen, Creole aristocrats, free blacks, and pirates.
Like other Southern cities, New Orleans experienced a substantial growth in its population of mulattos and other free persons of color, which became a serious problem due to the inability of its white leaders to deal fairly with racial issues. Although New Orleans had always had a very diverse population, the result was the nineteenth-century emergence of highly delineated segregation. Those with white skin held the top tier, while blacks, regardless of condition, were pushed to the bottom. Mulattos became a virtual third caste within society, precariously stationed in an ambiguous position somewhere in between, not quite white and not quite black.
Most free blacks and many mulattos were skilled artisans (blacksmiths, carpenters, cobblers, and so on), farmers, or common laborers. Others supported themselves and their families as fishermen or hunters. A few New Orleans mulatto families became quite rich, generally operating businesses such as stores, hotels, and barbershops that served whites exclusively. Some free blacks, like Cyprien Richard, even became slaveholders. Solomon K. Smith
French colonial New Orleans was one of America’s first planned cities, laid out by military engineers in 1718. The simple rectilinear pattern remains visible today in the Vieux Carré, or French Quarter. (Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library) See also: French; French Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology); Louisiana; Mississippi River; Spanish Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology). Bibliography Ingersoll, Thomas N. Mammon and Manon in Early New Orleans: The First Slave Society in the Deep South, 1718–1819. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999. Montero de Pedro, Jose, marques de Casa Mena. The Spanish in New Orleans and Louisiana. Translated by Richard E. Chandler. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 2000. Usner, Daniel H. Indians, Settlers, & Slaves: In a Frontier Exchange Economy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.