Early History of Louisiana – the Pelican State

By James S. Zacharie, 1885

The City Of New Orleans

New Orleans, Louisiana 1851

New Orleans, Louisiana 1851

It is often said that Paris is France, and it may also be said that New Orleans is Louisiana, for the history of the city is the history of the State.

The first mention of Louisiana, and of the Mississippi River being traversed by white men was in 1536, when a remnant of the ill-starred expedition of the Spaniards, under Panfilo de Narvaez, in the vain attempt to conquer Florida and seek gold, escaped in the west in direction to the Pacific Ocean. Narvaez had been put in command of the territory extending west to the River of Palms, which was probably the Colorado River.

Hernando de Soto

Hernando de Soto

Notwithstanding the failure of Narvaez, other adventurers were ready to follow. In 1537, Hernando de Soto, a native of Xeres, Spain, the favorite companion of Pizzaro in the conquest of Peru, sought and obtained at Valladolid, from King Charles V., permission to conquer Florida at his own cost. Landing on that coast on May 31, 1539, his well-appointed army was almost annihilated before he reached the Mississippi River two years later. In May 1542, Hernando DeSoto died at the mouth of Red River, and, according to tradition, was buried in the waters of the Mississippi River. The miserable remnant of the expedition descended the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico in July 1543, after enduring great hardships and privations. Thus does the discovery of the Father of Waters belong to the Spaniards, and no record of other white men visiting it for 130 years is in existence.

In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette, a missionary monk, and the Sieur Joliet, from Picardy, France, with a small party from the French possessions of Canada, entered the upper Mississippi River, descended it to a point below the mouth of the Arkansas River and returned.

French Take Possession

Adventures of Sieur de La Salle

Adventures of Sieur de La Salle

In 1682, Robert Cavalier de la Salle, then of Fort Frontenac, Lake Ontario, was the next to descend the great river in company with Chevalier Ilenry de Tonti, an Italian veteran officer, under the patronage of King Louis XIV. On April 9, 1682, LaSalle halted on the banks of the Mississippi River, above the head of the passes, erected a cross, and, calling a notary to witness, he took solemn possession of the country in the name of his sovereign Louis XIV and named it after him — Louisiana.

In January 1699, an expedition composed of 300 men was sent out to colonize Louisiana. The expedition was commanded by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, and with him were his two brothers, Sauvolle and Bienville, all sons of Charles Leinoyne. A landing was made on the Bay of Biloxi and a fort built on a small point of land that extends out into the bay. In February, Iberville and his brother, Bienville, accompanied by Father Athanase, who had formerly been with La Salle, went in small boats to the Mississippi River, which they ascended first to the village of the Bayagoulas, where these Indians handed them letters and other relics of La Salle and Tonti. They then moved on to Pointe Coupee, which they named, and to the mouth of Red River. Returning, they traversed Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain, naming one after Count Maurepas, who held office under their sovereign, and the other after Count Pontchartrain, who was the Minister of Marine. On December 7th of the same year, another fleet arrived, bringing letters appointing Sauvolle as the first Governor of the Colony, and Bienville as the first Lieutenant-Governor. In 1701, Governor Sauvolle died of fever and was succeeded by Bienville. On September 14, 1712, King Louis XIV granted to Anthony Crozat a charter for 15 years, with the exclusive commerce of the whole Province, from the Gulf to the Great Lakes, and from the Alleghany Mountains to the Rocky Mountains on the West. By the terms of the charter, Crozat was to send, every year to Louisiana, two shiploads of colonists, and, after nine years, to assume all the expenses of the Colonial administration, including those of the army, in consideration of which he was to have the privilege of nominating the officers to be appointed by the King.

In 1717, Crozat, finding this colonial scheme a failure, voluntarily surrendered his charter to the King. On August 13, a Council of State was held at Versailles, presided over by the Duke of Orleans, Regent of France during the minority of Louis XV, at which, it was decided that as the colonization of Louisiana was a commercial undertaking, it should be confined to a company, and then a charter was granted and registered by the Parliament of Paris on September 16, 1717, under the name of the Company of the Indies. To this Mississippi Company, as it was sometimes called, was granted the exclusive privilege of trading with Louisiana for 25 years, to administer the colony, appoint officers, and maintain an army. Its leading spirit was John Law, a smart and scheming Scotchman, long domiciled in Paris. All the lands, coasts, harbors, and islands in Louisiana were granted to the company on the condition of furnishing to every King of France, on his accession to the throne, a crown of gold of the weight of 30 marks. Louisiana was supposed to be a Garden of Eden, with the most useful fruits, and a new Eldorado, teeming with mines of gold, silver, and precious stones. As such, the Province was placed before the public, and vast sums of money were invested in the shares of the company, with the expectation of a rich harvest of dividends. However, poor administration, disease, and wars with the Indians caused the scheme to result in a failure, and the Mississippi bubble burst, scattering ruin on all sides. On November 15, 1731, the Mississippi Company, finding the colony, not a success, after existing 14 years, surrendered their charter to the King.

Founding of New Orleans

Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville

Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville

Sailing along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain in 1718, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville discovered the small stream now called Bayou St. John, and ascending it, encamped for the night on the Metairie Ridge. The tract of country lying between the headwaters of Bayou St. John and the banks of the Mississippi River was selected as the site of the future city. This space was then covered with a primitive forest, and, owing to the annual inundations of the river, was swampy and marshy and cut up with a thousand small ravines and pools of stagnant water when the river was low. Bienville and 50 soldiers started to clear the ground of its primitive growth, and, unmolested by the Indians, whose sole representative was an old Indian woman, who sang a chant. “The Spirit tells me,” she sang, ” that the time will come when, between the river and the lake, there will be as many dwellings for the white men as there are trees standing now. The haunts of the red man are doomed, and faint recollections and traditions concerning the very existence of his race will float dimly over the memory of his successors, as unsubstantial, as vague and obscure as the mist which shrouds, on a winter morning; the bed of the Father of Waters.”

Bienville undoubtedly chose the site on the narrowest strip of land between the river and the lake, hoping that someday in the future the capital would have a lake and riverfront. Two plans for the city seem to have been executed, one in 1719 by Louis Henri De la Tour, Chief Engineer of the Province, and the other by Adrien de Pauger, a royal engineer employed by the Western Company. The land was laid off into 66 squares of 300 feet each which were separated by streets and were each divided into 12 lots. The lots were divided among the resident population. In 1719, an inundation drove the inhabitants from the infant city, and for a time it was abandoned.

However, just a few years later, in 1722, it became the capital of the colony, and at that time it contained 200 inhabitants and the buildings consisted of about 100 log cabins, placed without much order, a large wooden warehouse, two or three dwellings, and a storehouse which served as a chapel. The whole city was surrounded by a large ditch and fenced in with sharp stakes wedged close together. In 1727, Governor Etienne de Perier built in front of the city, a levee or embankment, 1800 yards in length and 18 feet in width on top, which served to protect the city from the annual overflows of the Mississippi River.

Lousiana Ceded to Spain

The colony of Louisiana continued for several years to belong to France until King Louis X., in return for her services as an ally during the French and Indian War, ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1762. This cession was accepted by Spain, and Antonio de Ulloa was sent out as Governor to receive the transfer of the colony. The cession of the country was violently opposed by the colonists, and De Ulloa never formally took possession, but departed with his troops, after contenting himself with only hoisting the Spanish flag on the fort at Balize and remaining there for some time. The state of affairs was reported to the Spanish king, Charles III, and his council, led by the Duke of Alba, decided on taking the colony by force. A second expedition, consisting of 24 man-of-war ships with a large force of troops commanded by General Alexander O’Reilly, a Spanish officer of renown, was sent in 1769, to take possession of the country.

Spanish Take Possession

On August 15, 1769, the French Governor, Charles Aubrey, went down the river to offer his respects to the new Spanish Governor, Alejandro O’Reilly, who was on his way up, and to come to an understanding with him as to the manner and time of taking possession of the colony. On consultation, they fixed the August 18th for that ceremony. On the 16th, Aubrey returned to New Orleans, and issued a proclamation, enjoining the inhabitants of the town, and the most respectable among those of the neighboring country, to be at the ceremony and to be ready to present themselves to His Excellency Don Alexandro O’Reilly, in order to assure him of their entire submission and of their inviolate fidelity to His Catholic Majesty. On the morning of the 17th, the whole Spanish fleet, numbering 24  ships appeared in front of New Orleans. Immediately all the necessary preparations were made for landing, and flying bridges were dropped from the vessels to the bank of the river. On the 18th, early in the day, the French Governor with a numerous train of officers came to compliment the new Governor, who went ashore in company with his visitors and proceeded with them to the house which was destined for him. But, before 12 o’clock, O’Reilly returned to his fleet in order to prepare for the landing of the whole of his forces.

At 5 o’clock in the afternoon, a gun, fired by the flagship, gave the signal for the landing of the Spaniards. The French troops and the militia of the colony, with Aubrey at their head, were already drawn up in a line parallel to the river, in front of the ships, in that part of the public square which is nearest to the church. On the signal being heard the Spanish troops were seen pouring out of the fleet in solid columns and moving with admirable precision to the points which had been designated to them. These troops, numbering some 2,600 men, were among the choicest of Spain and had been picked by O’Reilly himself. With colors flying and with the rapidity of motion of the most practiced veterans, they marched on, battalions after battalions, exciting the admiration and the awe of the population by their martial aspect and their brilliant equipment. The heavy infantry drew themselves up in perpendiculars, on the right and left wings of the French, thus forming three sides of a square Then came a heavy train of artillery of 50 guns, the light infantry and the companies of mountain riflemen, with the cavalry, which was composed of 40 dragoons and 50 mounted militiamen from Havana. All these corps occupied the fourth side of the square near the river and in front of the French, who were drawn up near the Cathedral. All the vessels were dressed in their colors, and the riggings were alive with the Spanish sailors in their holiday apparel. On a sudden, they gave five long and loud shouts of “Viva el Rey—Long live the King,” to which the troops in the square responded in a similar manner. All the bells of the town pealed merrily; a simultaneous discharge from the guns of the 24 Spanish vessels enveloped the river in smoke; with emulous rapidity the 50 guns that were on the square roared out their salute, making the ground tremble as if convulsed with an earthquake; all along the dark lines of the Spanish infantry flashed a sheet of fire, and the weaker voice of musketry, also shouting in jubilation, attempted to vie with the thunder of artillery. All this pomp and circumstance of war announced that General O’Reilly was landing.

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