A Brief History of New Orleans

The City of New Orleans and the Hotel Maison de Ville have shared a long and colorful history.

New Orleans was founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, on a site that for centuries had been an Indian portage between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. He instructed that the city be laid out in a neat grid. In order to assure royal patronage, the city was named in honor of Philip II, Duc d’Orleans, the uncle of and regent for King Louis XV of France during his infancy. Most streets were named after members of the reigning Bourbon family, and the heart of the city was the Place d’Armes, or parade ground, now known as Jackson Square. The city was to become the capital of the Louisiana Territory, and extended France’s dominion along the Gulf of Mexico past the long-established colonies of Mobile and Biloxi.

As many colonists were lured to New Orleans, the city rapidly became the major settlement in French America, as it teemed with industry and bristled with political importance. At the end of the Seven Years War, in 1763, France ceded all her territory west of the Mississippi River, including New Orleans (which is actually on the east bank of the river), to Spain. The city remained under Spanish rule until 1800, when Spain was forced to return the Louisiana Territory to France by Napoleon Bonaparte. For this reason, and to the surprise of many visitors, most of the architecture in the French Quarter is actually Spanish.

Two devastating fires, in 1786 and 1794, destroyed almost the entire city. This is why most of the oldest buildings in what is now known as the French Quarter date from very late in the 18th century. An exception is the old Ursuline Convent, located at 1114 Chartres Street, a portion of which was constructed about 1750, and which is believed to be the oldest surviving structure in the Mississippi valley.

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Children and descendants of the early French and Spanish settlers, known as Creoles, kept their close ties with their European homelands. They resolutely continued using their original languages in business, newspapers and conversation. Families of means sent their sons back to Europe for their educations. Befitting their keen interest in the arts, fine cuisine, and society’s rituals, the Creoles considered themselves the pinacle of culture and elegance of the burgeoning American frontier.

Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, when New Orleans suddenly became a part of the United States, even if in name only, the Creoles continued to live their daily lives much as they always had. This change in nationality, however, predictably opened New Orleans’ doors to settlers from other parts of the New World, and even from all over the globe. Coming as a surprise to no one, there were frequent clashes between the Creoles and these (at least to the Creoles) unwelcome newcomers. Most Creoles simply retired behind the high walls of their private houses and courtyards.

Owing to their divergent lifestyles, most of the new settlers opted to live across Canal Street, in what is now called the Central Business District. The more wealthy of them created the section of New Orleans now known as the Garden District, and developed their properties in the “American style,” meaning surrounded by spacious yards and gardens, which placed these newcomers even further from the Vieux Carre (French Quarter), which was mostly inhabited by Creoles.