Taken From Writer’s Almanac 25 August.
On this day in 1718, French immigrants founded the city of New Orleans. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville named the new settlement for Philippe II, the Duke of Orléans. The duke was the regent of France, ruling in place of King Louis XV, who was only a boy. The French had claimed the Louisiana Territory in 1682, and the location of New Orleans – at the mouth of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers – meant that it was prime real estate for anyone who wanted to control America’s large interior waterway. Though the city never lost its French character, it was blended with elements of Native American, African, and Spanish cultures.
To get things started, France sent a starter population of prisoners, slaves, and bonded servants. They arrived in New Orleans to find a mosquito-ridden swamp that was surrounded by hostile Native Americans, and prone to hurricanes. The new settlers threatened to revolt, so the French government sent 90 female convicts straight from the Paris jails. These ladies of questionable repute were chaperoned by a group of Ursuline nuns until they could be married off to the men who awaited them.
Two engineers laid out plans for a the original walled village, which later came to be known as the French Quarter or the Vieux Carré – the Old City. Though it’s called the French Quarter, the architecture of the area is mostly Spanish in influence, since fire destroyed most of the original buildings in the 18th century. By that time, the city was under the control of the Spanish, who rebuilt the quarter. New Orleans became an American city in 1803, when Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States government.
Tom Robbins wrote, in Jitterbug Perfume (1984): “Louisiana in September was like an obscene phone call from nature. The air – moist, sultry, secretive, and far from fresh – felt as if it were being exhaled into one’s face. Sometimes it even sounded like heavy breathing. Honeysuckle, swamp flowers, magnolia, and the mystery smell of the river scented the atmosphere, amplifying the intrusion of organic sleaze. It was aphrodisiac and repressive, soft and violent at the same time. In New Orleans, in the French Quarter, miles from the barking lungs of alligators, the air maintained this quality of breath, although here it acquired a tinge of metallic halitosis, due to fumes expelled by tourist buses, trucks delivering Dixie beer, and, on Decatur Street, a mass-transit motor coach named Desire.”