American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of The Southern States

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam' Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press
1900



NEW ORLEANS
"THE CRESCENT CITY"
By GRACE KING

SAIL across the blue waters of the Gulf and make your way up the mighty current of the Mississippi, like the leisurely traveler of yore, if you wish to approach New Orleans in the proper way and spirit; unless - which also furnishes a proper way and spirit-you wind your way down the mighty current, from some far northern starting-point. And for guidance provide not yourself with an up to date map of the United States, crisscrossed with railroads, and speckled with illegibly printed names of swarming towns. The pilot chart of the steamboat is the true informant here if you are not the fortunate possessor or borrower of some old print of the last century, one of those happy combinations of fact and imagination issued by the ancient cartographer in the effort to compromise old theories with new discoveries; charts tracked by the foot of the pioneer, not by the wheel of the locomotive, graded by the paddle of the canoe, not by that of the steamer; charts that bear record to the history as well as geography of a country and chronicle its ever-clearer and ever increasing vastness and importance. Upon such a map was the name New Orleans first written down. Naught to the north but Canada and the Great Lakes; to the east, the Atlantic seaboard with its mere fringe of English settlements fenced in by impassable mountains; to the west, mountains again, and illimitable prairies, covered over by bounding buffalo. South, lay the Gulf of Mexico with Florida on the one side, Mexico on the other. From one of the Great Lakes at the north, Lake Michigan, to the Gulf of Mexico at the south, comes through the blank expanse of paper, the huge, black serpent line of the Mississippi twisting and curving through, a triumph of the artist, its great valley, pictured from mountain range to mountain range, teeming with Indian villages, fields of waving corn, droves of innumerable deer, and illimitable forests. At the head of navigation lay the little village of Chicagou, about midway the little stronghold of St. Louis, at the terminus New Orleans; the three names linking together across the distance two hundred years ago even as today.

De Soto first conceived the project of founding a settlement upon the Mississippi River, his Rio Grande. As he lay stricken with fever upon its banks within sight of its majestic currents, his mind dwelt upon the glory of annexing the great stream and its territory to Spain, the souls of its peoples to the Catholic Church. From his couch, he urged forward the building of the ships to be sent to Havana for the necessary supplies; with dying ears he listened to the sound of the busy axes and hammers, and with dying voice he charged upon his men the accomplishment of what would turn all the suffering and loss of their expedition into brilliant success and ensure his fame and theirs to all time.

But the Spaniards, sinking the body of their commander beneath the turbid waters of the Mississippi, sank there too his plans and ambitions, and, turning their backs upon the river, reeked not that Spain should gain or lose it.

Over the burial spot of the Spanish explorer floated, a century and a half later, the boats of La Salle, the Canadian explorer. As he paddled his way down the gigantic stream, the like of which he had never dreamed existed in the world, he was, in thought, making that map of the country described above. And by the time his boats came into view of the Gulf, his scheme for affixing the great river and valley to France lay as clear in his mind as the blue expanse before his eyes. He would first build strongholds, settle colonies, and mass friendly Indians at the mouth of each tributary. French traders, coureurs de bois, and missionaries, with a free and secure route before them, would then ply their canoes backwards and forwards between Lake Michigan and the Gulf, where French vessels would be lying at anchor in the sheltered harbor of the commodious city he purposed to build. The French flag once securely established on the Gulf coast of the continent meant nothing less than the gradual elbowing of the English out of the country on the Atlantic side, and the capture of the Mexican gold mines from Spain whenever opportunity offered.

Like De Soto, La Salle proved only a forerunner in history. The brilliant scheme he conceived and failed to execute was carried to success ten years after his death by Iberville. He discovered the river from the Gulf, and, entering it, explored its course until he identified it as the river discovered from the Lakes by La Salle. And he it was who selected the site for the future city upon the Mississippi, the possession of which meant, to any power that held it, domination of the Gulf of Mexico and of the great waterway, the life artery of the American continent. When Iberville selected that site upon the narrow neck of land lying between the river and an equally navigable chain of lakes, he wrote the history of his city in advance.

The first year of the eighteenth century saw France indeed mistress of the Mississippi and of the Gulf of Mexico, but Iberville, like DeSoto and La Salle, was cut off in the prime of life and activity, and his work was left to another for accomplishment, to Bienville, his young brother.

One cannot think of New Orleans without Bienville, nor of Bienville without New Orleans. From the time he came into the country, a mere stripling, midshipman to Iberville, until he left it, a middle-aged man, the city upon the Mississippi was the star by which he guided all his hopes and ambitions, all his colonial ventures. For eighteen years, during which the seat of government was shifted from Biloxi to Mobile and from Mobile back again to Biloxi, through changes of king and ministry, and through all the personal political vicissitudes of an official dependant of those troublous times, he never ceased to urge upon the home authorities the founding of the city, all the while setting aside with unwearied patience the baffling objections against it in his own council boards.

His opportunity came at last, in 1718, when Louisiana was made over by contract to John Law and the Company of the West; then, as Governor, he had full authority to act with men and money at his disposal. He himself brought his axemen to the spot, saw the land cleared and laid off in lots, according to the map prepared by the royal engineers. A handsome little city, it was to be according to this map; with fair, square sides, straight streets; with a dace d' armes, parish church, cemetery, barracks; all complete, even to the naming of the streets- Chartres, Conde, Royal, Bourbon, Dauphine, Burgundy, Conti, St. Louis, Toulouse, St. Peter, Orleans, St. Anne. No nicknames were to be allowed here to chance and illiteracy, no plebeian "Broads," "Mains," "Highs" a right royal little city it was designed to be from the first, and one worthy its princely godfather, Law's patron, the Duke of Orleans.

Bienville himself piloted the first royal vessel of provisions and immigrants through the mouth of the river, and made the first landing at the levee bank, crowded to-day with commerce and shipping. Finally, in 1723, Bienville removed thither all the government offices and stores, and made New Orleans the capital of the colony. In a year, the city was in full tide of progress, and attaining its majority as a city among the oldest cities of the continent.

History and romance carry on the, chronicle of its life, for it is a place whose history has become romance, romance history, in our literature. The neat little square checker-board prepared by Bienville's engineers, has grown out of all regularity of proportion; unwieldy and awkward enough it is now upon paper, with its streets that vainly strive to run straight, as they follow the bend of the river, or "Crescent" as it is called. But the first map still represents the centre, the heart of the city, the source of its tradition and sentiment. And to the children of the city or, we should say, the descendants of the children of the first born of the city, there has been no change in this "mother" spot, save that of harmonious growth and age; at least so they think in tender reverence as they saunter through the old thoroughfares with the high sounding names.

The place d' armes has become Jackson Square; the public market, the French market; the parish church, the Cathedral; the Ursulines Convent, the Archbishopric; the cemetery is now the old St. Louis beyond Rampart Street, instead of outside the Ramparts, as it used to be called. The view carre, as the original city is affectionately called, has suffered its share of the vicissitudes of cities. More than once, tornadoes and fires have swept whole quarters of it bare of dwellings. Epidemics of yellow fever, then as now said to be brought in from Havana, decimated the inhabitants at recurrent intervals; while the river ever and anon rose up and overflowed its banks, producing a steady crop of domestic fevers. But the gay-hearted inhabitants - then, even as now - seemed to draw from their misfortunes only zest for greater energy of work and greater pleasure in life.

Every ship that arrived brought accessions to the population accessions, not immigrants, and therefore reckoned by quality, not quantity. Gay sprigs of the nobility were sent out to "la Nouvelle Orleans" to mend their morals; thrifty ones, to mend their fortunes; ambitious sons of the bourgeoisie came seeking opportunity for acquiring landed estate; old officers remained when their terms of service expired; new officers willingly grew into old ones in a place so near akin in society and elegance to Paris. For Paris was the arbiter and model of New Orleans, and never had the great city by the Seine an apter pupil than the little city by the Mississippi.

Social elegance and pleasure reached its standard height under the administration of the Marquis de Vaudreuil-" le grand Marquis," as he was called. His entertainments, banquets, balls, theatrical performances, his manners, dress, conversation, his etiquette, civil and military, furnished the code which, in a way, still governs social practice in the city.

When, in 1763, France, by the Treaty of Paris, signed away all her possessions east of the Mississippi to England, she yet retained her grasp on the jugular vein of the North American continent by reserving the Island of Orleans, as it was denominated - that is, the mouth of the Mississippi. And now the city, by right and title the sole French metropolis of North America, made so rapid and so great a stride forward in wealth, population, and commercial activity, that even its easy going, pleasure loving citizens began to feel the exhilarating reality of the possibilities of their geographical and political situation in the country; of their importance, not alone to France, but to the American continent. But the awakening of the people to the consciousness of their political virility was no better than an awakening by the hand of an executioner.

On a bright day in October, 1764, the men of the city were called together in the place d' acmes, to listen to the royal edict that transferred them, their families, and property; in short, all the territory and subjects yet possessed by France in America, to Spain. The consternation of the people, their indignation and excitement, their public meetings, address to the King, their repudiation of Spanish authority and Spanish government, the bloody punishment by O'Reilly, executing six and imprisoning in Havana five of the conspirators, as he called them, and, finally, the forcing of the colony under the domination of Spain all of this can but be enumerated here, but it forms a chapter in the history of New Orleans, the omission of which can be justified only by necessity.

The city became Spanish in language, law, manner, dress, in all externals, but its heart remained firmly French, as after events proved. It is ever acknowledged, however, in the history of the city, that the Spanish rule was a wise and just one; and, as is well said by all chroniclers, the Spanish found the city a city of wooden one-story houses, and left it a city of brick mansions.

It was during the Spanish domination that the great conflagration of 1788 took place, when the heart of the vieu carre was left a mere heap of rubbish and ashes. Bienville himself had not a barer spot before him when he laid out the first streets in his clearing than Don Andres Almonester, the Alferez Real had when, in the midst of the public sorrow and grief over the disaster, he offered to rebuild the religious and civil official edifices. His tombstone in the Cathedral gives the list of his claims upon the gratitude of posterity: founder and donor of the Holy Cathedral Church, founder of the Royal Hospital of St. Charles (the present Charity Hospital), founder of the hospital for lepers, of the Church of the Ursulines Convent, of a public school; of the Casa Curiel (Court House), in virtue of which munificence, Don Andres lies buried under the altar of the Cathedral, and a prayer is said for the repose of his soul every day at Vespers.

Following the example of the edifices of Don Andres, private buildings were constructed on a style grandiose beyond any that the city had seen before, and the manner of living imitated the manner of building. And now, under the well regulated, ponderous monotony of the Spanish domination, the city might have enjoyed a repose as immutable as that of her pious benefactor, had it not been for the great stream rolling past her to the Gulf.

No longer did the Upper Mississippi flow through virgin forests and savage villages. Out of the independence of the United colonies was born the "West," the great West as it was then and is still called, teeming with energy and hardihood, with fruitfulness and prosperity. Before the day of railroads rivers furnished the only outlet to commerce. The Mississippi, gathering up with the waters of its tributaries the harvests of their valleys, bore down to New Orleans a continuous line of flatboats laden to the edge. The cargoes found ready sale and were soon the main food supply of the city, and the sturdy flathoatmen returning to their farms were ever better and better satisfied with their market, and more and more discontented with the foreign ownership of it. In their parlance, the valley owned the river, and the river owned the mouth. Spanish obstinacy and American temper, concessions and evasions, threats and brawls, kept the city for a score of years filled to the brim with political excitement. Outside the wall and canal - the Canal Street of to-day - lay a new city, an American city, populated by flatboatmen and produce traders, against which the gates of the Spanish city were carefully closed and sentinels set at nightfall.

But it were as well to attempt to hold back the current of the river itself as the current of popular determination that flowed down with it from its great valley. As it came, so, by secret compact, the Spanish flag went-to be replaced not by the old Fleur-de-Lys, but by the Tricolor; the new and glorious banner of liberty, equality, and fraternity. It was easily made at home in a city whose republicanism under the pruning of Spanish rule had only rooted itself the more deeply.

For a short space, popular joy rioted in wild rejoicings. But it was only for a moment that the French flag fluttered over the place d' acmes, a bare three weeks. Then it descended its staff and the American flag rose in its place. In the Casa Real, the seat of the Spanish Cabildo, the ceremony of the cession of Louisiana to the United States took place, the most important event, judged by results, that has taken place in the history of the Republic, enlarging the United States in domain by a territory three and a half times as great as its original size, raising it in political sovereignty to parity with the greatest European powers. The Spanish walls were demolished, but the American domination made slow impression upon the vieu carre. It has never really altered the type. There was, correctly speaking, no American domination in the vieu carre until the term ceased to be used, when Louisiana was admitted as a State into the Union.

The memorable discussion in Congress over the admission of Louisiana need be recalled here only to introduce the next important event in her history, the great and glorious victory of the Battle of New Orleans on the 8th of January, 1815. That victory was the vindication of Louisiana's right to Statehood in the Union; it was New Orleans's dower gift to the Nation's history.

The American quarter, the new town, built by the flatboatmen outside the wall of the old town, is still called the American quarter by the old inhabitants. In architecture and physiognomy, in material prosperity and educational progress, it rightfully and justly represents the American domination. But for art, poetry, romance, sentiment, and inspiration the denizens of the new city flee into the old mother quarter as into a sanctuary, where in the quiet and gloom, it may be, of the past, they find refuge from the glare and incessant pursuit of activities of the present. It is the quarter that strangers love. Upon any one of the fine days of a New Orleans winter, a score or more of these visitors may be seen, strolling through the aisles of the Cathedral, or the halls of the old Cabildo, or sitting in the sun on the benches of Jackson Square watching the leisurely, picturesque procession of passers by, as the soft bells of the Cathedral mark the no less leisurely procession of the hours.

"Orleans, Gentilly,
D'Artaguette, Marigny,
Bourbon ! Bourbon !

Gayoso, Galvez, Bouligny,
Casacalvo, Derbigny,
Don Almonester's bells intone;

For Bienville and for Serigny,
For d' Iberville, for d'Assigny
They make incessant moan.

Orleans, Gentilly
D'Artaguette, Marigny,
Bourbon ! Bourbon !"

Historic towns of the Southern States

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