History and Literature in the Big Easy
European City | Old Hickory and
the Pirate | King Cotton | Civil
Nineteenth Century Culture | Big
in PBO | Related Online Resources | Selected
New Orleans: The Civilized and Lively City
New Orleans has
a rich and storied past, dotted with exciting events and
intriguing people. It is no wonder that scholars,
travelloggers, and cookbook writers have turned out volume
upon volume capturing the Crescent City’s history
and culture, and novelists have penned countless tales
portraying its romance and mystery.
The Big Easy also was
a hub for media and literature during America’s early
centuries. Its publishing houses produced numerous books,
including works of southern fiction
By the start of the publishers’ binding era, New
Orleans had been around for a full century and part of
an American territory for more than a decade. It already
knew great fame, and readers yearned for stories–fact
and fiction–about Louisiana’s great enigma.
Publishers met the demand, in the process creating covers
that illustrate the city’s history and literature
for a modern audience.
The Louisiana Purchase, and the Exploration,
Early History and Building of the West
America’s Most European City
The only American
state that was a French colony, Louisiana was claimed for
Louis XIV in 1699. Nineteen
years later, Jean
Baptiste Le Moyne founded “La Nouvelle
Orleans” on a bend of the Mississippi
city remained alternately under crown and proprietary rule
until 1762, when Louis
XV secretly gave Louisiana to his
cousin, Spanish King
Charles III. News of the transfer,
and a new Spanish governor, took two years to reach the
Spanish culture never fully pervaded New Orleans. Spanish
influence is most obvious in the city’s architecture,
because the Spanish rebuilt after devastating
most of the original French structures in 1788 and 1794.
However, throughout its forty-one-year rule, Spain never
was able to curb French immigration and culture. The
city retains a distinctly French flavor to this day,
and the entire original city is known as the French
French customs also intermingled with Spanish to create
a new Creole society.
La Cuisine Creole: A Collection of Culinary
Recipes from Leading Chefs and Noted Creole
Housewives, Who Have Made New Orleans Famous
for its Cuisine
(W. H. Coleman, 1885)
When Spain found Louisiana too expensive
to maintain, France regained control of the territory.
By the time New Orleanians
learned in 1803 that French rule had resumed, Napoleon already
had negotiated the sale
of Louisiana to the United
States for four cents per acre. Without European trade
restrictions, commerce exploded, aided by the city’s
unique position near the mouth of the Mississippi River.
European influence remained, as the Creole and French dominated
the original core of the city, while Americans built their
own section of town in what now is known as the Garden
District. Meanwhile, Acadians (or
Cajuns), who had begun migrating from Nova Scotia in the
1760s, pursued their
own unique way of life on the bayou.
As its population and
economy grew during the nineteenth century, New Orleans
swelled geographically, growing not
only along the Mississippi River but also across it. By
the time Louisiana became a state in April 1812, New Orleans
had become a successful city. Another turning point came
after Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson protected
the city from British invasion in 1815.
Jackson and New Orleans: An Authentic
Narrative of the Memorable Achievements of
the American Army, under Andrew Jackson, before
New Orleans, in the Winter of 1814, '15
(J. C. Derby, 1856)
Old Hickory and the Pirate
Several interesting characters have
their way into New Orleans’ history and folklore, and two of the
most prominent became icons during the War
of 1812. Congress
declared war at President James
after several failed attempts to change British and French
policies that had hampered foreign trade. After two years
of battle along the Canadian border, the shores of the
Gulf of Mexico, and at sea, the war officially ended with
the signing of the Treaty
of Ghent on Christmas Eve, 1814.
word of the treaty was slow to reach the United States,
and fighting continued for several weeks. The final
and most notorious battle took place from late December
1814 to mid-January 1815 across the grounds of several
Orleans plantations. Major General Jackson led a
motley crew of 3,000 U.S. soldiers, local militiamen, Choctaw warriors, free blacks and Baratarian pirates to save
city from 8,000 troops that included British Napoleonic
War veterans, West Indians, and escaped slaves.
Jackson’s military genius enabled
his mismatched army to hold its ground, suffering less
than 100 casualties
while killing, wounding, or capturing more than 2,000 enemy
men. Although the Battle
of New Orleans had no impact on
the war’s outcome, it boosted American morale and
signaled the country’s true independence from Europe.
Americans celebrated January 8, the date of Jackson’s
astounding victory, throughout the nineteenth century.
The battle also boosted Jackson’s reputation, making
him a national–and local–hero. In 1851, New
Orleanians dedicated part of the French Quarter as Jackson
Square, which includes a large equestrian monument
in his honor (sculpted in 1855).
Lafitte, the Pirate
Jackson may be the most famous
figure from the Battle of New Orleans, but Jean
Lafitte is the most infamous.
From 1803 to 1814, the privateer of mysterious origins
operated a smuggling ring that worked out of an island
Bay, at the mouth of the Mississippi. Although
Louisiana military, under orders from Governor William
Claiborne, had destroyed his Baratarian post, Lafitte offered
General Jackson his band of pirates and vast stores of
ammunition hidden in nearby swamps. Lafitte’s flint
chips and gunpowder filled the empty muskets of Jackson’s
men, and his pirates fought alongside American troops during
the decisive battle at Chalmette plantation. Lafitte himself
commanded a brigade of sharpshooters who held back a British
regiment attempting to join the main attack. For years,
New Orleans treated Lafitte like a celebrity. He remains
a legend, and the Chalmette
Battlefield and Barataria
Preserve are part of a national park named for him.
Bonaventure: A Prose Pastoral of Acadian
(International Association of Newspapers
and Authors, 1901)
years between the Louisiana Purchase and Civil War comprised
a golden era for the Crescent City.
By the 1861, it was America’s wealthiest city, thanks
in large part to slave-driven
tobacco, and foodstuffs contributed to the export business
that boomed in the early nineteenth
century, cotton comprised
more than half of the New Orleans economy. Demand for
cotton had increased worldwide, and
large, efficient plantations rose
to meet it. Plantations owners grew wealthy, and they
found a diverse opportunities
for spending their new money, thanks to the vast commercial
culture of retailers and artisans that developed. The
new wealth also contributed to New Orleans' distinction
as a banking
and financial center.
Life for New Orleans locals revolved
around the cotton seasons. Cotton was picked from September
to December and
shipped from October to January. The metropolitan area
became a hubbub of social activity in the winter months
as the agricultural elite migrated from their plantations
for shopping, business meetings, and after 1827, Mardi
Gras. French immigrants brought Mardi
Gras to New Orleans
in the 1700s, but Spanish rulers outlawed the festival
during their regime. Americans restored the revelry and
made it their own.
Winter Journeys in the South: Pen and Camera
Impressions of Men, Manners, Women, and Things
All the Way from the Blue Gulf and New Orleans
through Fashionable Florida Palms to the Pines
(J. B. Lippincott, 1916)
During the 1850s, the celebration was
split between the elite’s elegant balls and the commoners’ wild
street parties. The Mystick
Krewe of Comus formed in 1857
to organize, plan, and manage the festivities, and they
originated the famous Mardi Gras parade.
atmosphere that cotton wealth created drew a number of
visitors to the city, and a luxurious hospitality
industry was born. Two opulent hotels, the St. Charles
and St. Louis, each consumed an entire city block with
their bars, shops, and guest rooms for 1,000. Other restaurants
and entertainment venues filled the French Quarter, offering
a range of exotic international and local cuisines.
city offered plenty for both locals and visitors to do.
New Orleans became the musical center of America, including
operas performed in the country. In addition
to such sophisticated entertainment, an industry of vice–featuring
drink, gambling, and prostitution–blossomed.
encapsulated the Old South but took it to another level,
adding its own distinct flavor. Like the
rest of the South, the city would suffer immensely during
and after the Civil War.
Advance and Retreat: Personal Experiences
in the United States and Confederate States
(New Orleans: G. T. Beauregard, 1880)
The election of Abraham
subsequent secession of South Carolina encouraged Louisiana
(which at first opposed secession 3-1)
to withdraw from the Union on 26 January 1861. For the
rest of that year, New Orleans led
Confederate manufacturing. However, the city’s vital
ports made its occupation strategically important to both
militaries. The national government created the military
of the Gulf to repossess the Crescent City,
along with Mobile, Ala., Baton Rouge, and Galveston, Texas.
Land and naval forces arrived in New Orleans
in April of 1862. Forts
Jackson and St. Philip fell on
after one week of battle. Union possession of the forts,
which the Confederates had believed infallible, made
occupation of the city inevitable. Chaos ensued as panicked
fled. Locals carried 15,000 bales of cotton to the levee,
where they torched it and more than two dozen ships.
Farragut held the defenseless city until
May 1, when
F. Butler took formal control. New Orleans
thus holds the distinction of being both the first Confederate
city captured by Federal troops and the city occupied
longest by enemy forces during the Civil War.
Dixie After the War: An Exposition of
Social Conditions Existing in the South, during
the Twelve Years Succeeding the Fall of Richmond
remained until 1877, well after the war’s
end. Locals called Butler “Beast.” Men openly
defied his occupation regime, until Butler made an example
of a New Orleanian named William
Mumford. Mumford was hanged
for lowering the Union flag Butler’s men erected
over the Louisiana branch of the U.S. Mint. Butler silenced
the city’s women by issuing an order stating
that any woman who showed contempt for him or his soldiers
be prosecuted as if she were a prostitute. Butler ordered
all citizens who wished to remain in New Orleans to swear
allegiance to the Union and banished all who refused. However,
Butler was not all bad. He distributed food to the poor
massive efforts to clean up the city.
Union occupation and
the eventual abolition
of slavery devastated the city’s
economy. The freedom of blacks created another problem
after the war. New Orleans served
as a testing ground for Reconstruction policies,
at the same time that the Louisiana government passed Black
Codes calling for the reestablishment
of the plantation economy by using poorly-paid free blacks
for labor. Violent disagreement
between Radical Reconstructionists and white supremacists
led to bloody riots,
lynchings, and organized battles
between local militia and a combined force of Federal
troops and Metropolitan police–two at the Cabildo and
one at Liberty
Place. Peace finally was restored to New
Orleans when Louisiana regained
rule in 1877.
Stand Pat, or Poker Stories from the Mississippi
(L. C. Page, 1906)
By 1880, social life in the
city had returned to its pre-war
state. Port activity picked up, railroads offered a new
means of transporting people and goods, and locals were
making money again. Mardi Gras had been restored; shopping,
theater, and restaurants regained their status as New
Orleans institutions. Bars, gambling halls, and houses
of ill repute
were once more overflowing with patrons.
citizens sought to curb the reputation New Orleans was
gaining for open vice, without completely
doing away with the profitable enterprises. In 1897, City
Councilman Sidney Story moved all of the scandalous activities
to a district between North Rampart and North Claiborne,
which became known as Storyville.
Before long, pleasure-seekers could purchase a Blue Book
listing more than 700 prostitutes–many
in elaborately decorated “sporting houses.” Illegal
activities continued for twenty years, until the Navy closed
Storyville down in 1917. All of the fancy bordellos disappeared.
the buildings that stood in Storyville are gone, the district
did leave a lasting legacy: jazz. African-American
and Creole musicians developed the jazz genre by combining
elements of ragtime, brass bands, gospel, blues, and African
tribal music. Jazz historians place the beginning of the
genre in 1895, only two years before Storyville formed.
The “red light” district became a haven for
jazz, and important musicians such as Jelly
Sidney Bechet, and King
Oliver frequently performed in
the brothels. Thus, New Orleans came to be known as the
birthplace of jazz, and the genre dominates the entertainment
scene in the Crescent City to this day.
(H. S. Stone, 1899)
Big Easy Publishing
Scholars of New Orleans literature point
out that writers frequently have latched on to
romantic notions about the city and propagated the myth
of "moonlight and magnolias" through poetry and prose.
Visions of Old South New Orleans appear frequently in
contemporary fiction, such as the vampire books of Anne
Rice. This trend began when the city's storied history
still was unfolding, during the publisher's binding era.
Among the most famous of these earlier
works is Kate Chopin's The
Considered scandalous in its time, this 1899 novel tells
of a woman married to a conventional Creole man she does
not love. Her actions shocked not only fellow characters
in the book but also readers of the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries. Other Crescent City fiction
of the time
period includes Harris Dickson's Children of the River (1928)
Into the Night (1909) by Frances Nimmo Greene
(author of Legends of King Arthur and His Court).
Not only was the city a frequent subject
of books in the publisher's binding era, but it also was
a publishing center for the South. New Orleans was one
of two southern cities to issue penny newspapers, which
were popular in northern metropolitan areas in the 1830s
and '40s. Publishers such as T. Fitzwilliam, A. T.
Penniman, and L. Graham specialized in books about the
South, both fiction and non-fiction.
the PBO database for books related to New Orleans
Related Online Resources
A History of New Orleans
History of New Orleans and
Surrounding Area, Gateway New Orleans
In-Depth History of New Orleans,
Manuscript Resources on the
History of New Orleans in the Civil War, Louisiana State
Two Centuries of Louisiana
History, Louisana State Museum
Asbury, Herbert. The
French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans
New York: Pocket Books, 1949.
Bryan, Violet Harrington.
The Myth of New Orleans in Literature: Dialogues of
Race and Gender. Knoxville: University of Tennessee
Capers, Gerald Mortimer.
Occupied City: New Orleans under the Federals, 1862-1865.
Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965.
Carter, Hodding. The
Past as Prelude: New Orleans, 1718-1968. New Orleans:
Tulane University, 1968.
Castellanos, Henry C. New
Orleans as It Was: Episodes of Louisiana Life. Baton
Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.
Garvey, Joan B. and Mary
Lou Widmer. Beautiful Crescent: A History of New Orleans.
New Orleans: Garmer Press, 1984.
Martinez, Raymond J. New
Orleans: Facts and Legends. New Orleans: Hope Publications,
Reid. All on a Mardi Gras Day: Episodes in the History
of New Orleans Carnival. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1995.
Reinders, Robert Clemens.
End of an Era: New Orleans, 1850-1860. New Orleans:
Pelican Publishing Company, 1964.
Starr, S. Frederick. Southern
Comfort: The Garden District of New Orleans, 1800- 1900.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989.