Ah, New Orleans — such a curious, exotic place. The streets are bad, the music good. Mosquitoes are an unceasing aggravation, drainage a constant challenge. The locals have a strange way of talking and don’t work too hard, but they do like to have their fun.
Two years after the turn of the century, even the president of the United States looks fondly upon New Orleans. He recognizes that for all the city’s eccentricities, its port on the Mississippi River is vital to the nation’s economy.
This is New Orleans, but it is not our New Orleans. There is no Superdome. No Endymion. No Jazz Fest. No Al Copeland. This is the New Orleans of 1802, not 2002, and to President Thomas Jefferson and other citizens of the United States, it is a remote, foreign city.
For all its peculiarities, though, it also is strategically located, near the mouth of the mighty Mississippi, at a time when much of North America is not yet settled. What evolved into the Louisiana Purchase began when Jefferson dispatched his best diplomats to France for the specific purpose of buying New Orleans, to secure access to its port for the fledgling American nation.
The French emperor Napoleon ultimately made the Americans a counteroffer they couldn’t refuse: the entire Louisiana territory, about 828,000 square miles extending from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, for the bargain-basement price of $15 million, or about 4 cents an acre.
When the transfer took place amid pomp and ceremony in New Orleans on Dec. 20, 1803, America suddenly doubled its size. In time, all or parts of 13 states would be carved out of the territory, beginning with Louisiana in 1812. The acquisition also provided the United States with instant cachet as an international power, and it set the stage for the country’s eventual expansion across the continent to the Pacific Ocean in the name of Manifest Destiny.
Louisiana officials Friday kicked off a yearlong, statewide celebration of the 200th anniversary of the purchase, with plans to re-enact the transfer at the Cabildo on Dec. 20, 2003.
The Louisiana Purchase was, by any reasonable measure, was one of the most important events in our country’s history. As the bicentennial of that defining moment is commemorated over the next 12 months, it is worth recalling that its catalyst was curious, exotic New Orleans.
A French colony
The vast, roughly defined Louisiana territory was claimed as a French colony by the explorer Iberville in 1699. New Orleans, the colonial capital, was founded in 1718, and its unique flavors would begin to coalesce over the rest of the 18th century as French, Spanish, slaves from Africa and the Caribbean, free people of color, Native Americans and Acadians were tossed into the region’s first melting pot.
At the turn of the 19th century, “It was an alien city in almost every sense of the word, ” said Arnold Hirsch, professor of history at the University of New Orleans.
Its rich ethnic diversity would have made for unusual environs under the best of conditions, but the effect was heightened by hardships that the locale imposed. Below sea level, hemmed in by the river on one side and swamps on the other three, teeming with vermin, this was no place to grow a city.
About 8,000 people lived in New Orleans then. The extent of the city was the modern-day French Quarter, where the distinguishing features were the Place d’Armes, the military parade ground that eventually would become Jackson Square; St. Louis Cathedral; the Cabildo, home of the Spanish governing body of the same name; and the convent of the Ursuline nuns. Inside the gated entrances to the city, the narrow dirt streets were pockmarked by crawfish holes in dry weather, all but impassable as a messy grid of mud when it rained or flooded, and more congested with wandering livestock than with horses and carriages.
It was a smelly place, with poor drainage rivaled by poor sanitation, especially along the riverfront. Appointed Louisiana’s first American governor in 1803, William C.C. Claiborne soon would decry “the long-standing custom among New Orleanians of throwing their garbage, refuse and privy contents into the river.” In springtime, high water could be counted on to carry the discards downstream, but later in the year the fish heads, game entrails, “privy contents” and other trash would just wash up onto the batture and fester in the hot, humid conditions.
Mosquitoes thrived in the ever-present stagnant water, and disease was a frequent companion. The first yellow fever outbreak was recorded in 1796, killing 300 residents. A few years later, Gov. Claiborne would lose his wife and daughter to the “saffron scourge, ” leading him to describe the local climate as “a wretched one, and destructive to human life.”
The first smallpox epidemic occurred in 1778, followed by serious outbreaks in 1787 and 1802, killing hundreds of New Orleanians.
The epidemics did not necessarily spread across the territory, but news about them did. In July 1802, Armand Broux, an Acadian farmer in the Vacherie area, sent to the Rev. Thomas Hassett in New Orleans a request for permission to marry his widowed distant cousin, Celeste Landry of Lafourche. Catholic practice required the bishop to conduct a hearing on the “impediment” to such a marriage prior to granting a dispensation, and Hassett was serving as administrator of the Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas since the former bishop had been transferred to Guatemala and no successor yet appointed.
Broux asked Hassett to allow the pastor of St. James Church far upriver from New Orleans to take the testimony in his case “since it is well-known that an epidemic of small-pox is raging in the city and some who are fearful of contagion do not wish to expose themselves by going down to the capital.”
Hassett concurred. Later that month, after reviewing the findings of the local priest, he approved the union “under certain conditions of penance, ” which typically included donations to the parish church and to the orphanage run by the Ursuline nuns in New Orleans.
The Ursulines also had been educating girls and young women of all social strata since soon after they arrived in 1727. Sons of the city’s elite were sent abroad for their educational training. Formal schooling wasn’t available to many residents, though, and at least half the city’s population was illiterate.
Louisiana’s first Catholic bishop, the Cuban-born Luis Penalver y Cardenas, arrived in 1795 to find his new diocese “completely depraved” and rife with “(p)rostitution, adultery, miscegenation and riotous living.” Other observers, though, found in New Orleans an intriguing appeal.
As travelers came and went, word spread of New Orleans as a place in which balls, parades, dancing and even funerals — all accompanied by music — were partaken by all, from the well-to-do to the poor to the slave population. Opera arrived before the turn of the century. Ballrooms flourished like barrooms. People danced almost anywhere in town, at almost any time.
Connie Atkinson, associate director of UNO’s Center for New Orleans Studies, has a theory on why dancing was so popular from New Orleans’ earliest days.
“For a far-flung colony, made up of émigrés from many cultures, where a variety of languages was spoken, a dance was an activity in which all could participate, ” Atkinson said. “The French settlers brought with them their love and knowledge of dances, as did the Spanish and the West Africans.”
The French influence was predominant at the city’s frequent masked balls and in virtually every other aspect of everyday life. The local Creole population still spoke French, behaved as Frenchmen — no Puritan work ethic here — and considered France the homeland, even though Spain had won control of New Orleans and lower Louisiana from France almost four decades earlier.
Complementing its allure as a peculiar intersection of cultures was its burgeoning reputation as an important commercial setting.
“New Orleans was in the midst of significant change as it entered the 1800s, ” said Wilbur Meneray, director of special collections at Tulane University. “The city had burned down in 1788 and again in 1794, so at the turn of the century, it was rebuilding and re-establishing itself as a new-built city.”
At the same time, new economic influences were taking root.
Local planter Etienne de Boré successfully granulated sugar in 1795, launching Louisiana’s sugar industry.
That same year, a treaty with Spain gave Americans the “right of deposit” in New Orleans, thereby allowing Americans unfettered access to the city’s port facilities.
As “western” areas of the Ohio Valley, Tennessee and Kentucky were settled in the late 1700s, farmers and other producers there had difficulty getting their crops, livestock and other goods overland across the Appalachian and Allegheny mountains to East Coast markets. In time, they came to rely on New Orleans as a transfer point for shipping their cotton, hams, whiskey, hemp and other products via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico to reach the cities of the Eastern Seaboard.
That, in turn, induced American merchants to set up shop in New Orleans to coordinate or otherwise cater to the blossoming American shipping trade. John McDonogh, who eventually would endow the city’s school system, arrived in 1800 as a 20-year-old representative of a Baltimore brokerage house.
Thus was a pungent new spice added to the melting pot. Eastern merchants and western boatmen spoke English, spent American money, did business “the American way” and introduced other new customs to the Eurocentric locals. They didn’t Americanize New Orleans then and there, but they gave the locals an insight into what was to come.
‘A howl on the frontier’
Under a secret treaty struck in 1800, Spain returned the Louisiana territory to France. French officials would not show up in New Orleans to take control of the territory until 1803, and the Spanish would continue to govern Louisiana until then, but rumors soon began to wash ashore that the transfer was in the offing.
By this time, the Spanish were growing increasingly concerned about America’s expansionist tendencies, and in 1802 they closed the New Orleans port to American cargo in an effort to restrict the young nation’s westward growth. This threat to U.S. commerce sent shock waves from the New Orleans riverfront all the way to Washington. President Jefferson was alarmed, and he wasn’t the only one.
As Tulane University’s Meneray described it, “There was a howl on the frontier.”
Jefferson dispatched representatives to France to bargain with Napoleon for New Orleans and, secondarily, what was then western Florida, adjacent to New Orleans. Back in New Orleans, many residents reveled in the prospect of being reunited with France, for all intents and purposes their mother country, while Spanish authorities in the city anxiously awaited their fate.
At a time when Spanish civil authorities and priests worked in concert as minions of “his most Catholic majesty” the king, who appointed and paid clergy and built and maintained the churches, the prospect of the French reclaiming control of Louisiana influenced even their most mundane stewardship of everyday life in the city.
The roof of St. Louis Cathedral was in poor condition at this time, and repairs were pondered. Masons Josef Guillot and Jose Gourlier were enlisted to examine the building and provide an estimate for the repair work.
“They reported that in the false roof of the church they found many pieces dangerous from the wind or artillery fire, ” cathedral maintenance man Antonio Morales reported to Father Hassett on Nov. 10. “The builders offer to make all necessary repairs and to whitewash all the church for 500 pesos, furnishing all the materials.”
Eight days later, after consulting with Manuel de Salcedo, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Hassett informed Morales that the necessary roof repairs were authorized, but the additional expense of whitewashing the church was not, “since the rumors may be verified that this province is to be returned.” In other words, let the French governor worry about whitewashing the church next year.
The rumors proved true, and in the spring of 1803 Pierre Clement de Laussat arrived as the French prefect to await the formal transfer. Meanwhile, back in France, American diplomats were striking their deal with Napoleon for the entire Louisiana territory. Within three heady weeks near year’s end, control of Louisiana passed from Spain to France and then to the United States.
With the resultant influx of American merchants and settlers and immigrants from Ireland, Germany, other European countries and Latin America, New Orleans would retain the character of a foreign city for years to come. Still, its gradual Americanization couldn’t be contained.
If the Louisiana Purchase was the crowning achievement of Jefferson’s presidency, New Orleans was the jewel in the crown. He might have overshot the mark a bit when, in an 1804 letter to Claiborne, he predicted, “The position of New Orleans certainly destines it to be the greatest city the world has ever seen, ” but his prescience in ensuring that it become an American city was right on target.
Originally published in The Times-Picayune, December 22, 2002, launching the one-year countdown to the Louisiana Purchase bicentennial.