La Nouvelle-Orléans (New Orleans) was founded May 7, 1718, by the French Mississippi Company, under the direction of French Louisiana Governor Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, on land inhabited by the Chitimacha.
The first known residents of the New Orleans area were the Native Americans of the Woodland and Mississippian cultures. The expeditions of De Soto and La Salle passed through the area, but there were few permanent non-native settlers before 1718.
Louisiana was claimed for France in 1682, and the decision to found New Orleans was made in Paris in 1717 by John Law’s Company of the West, which had taken control of Louisiana that very same year.
In 1718, La Nouvelle Orléans was named in honor of the Duke of Orleans, France’s ruling regent until the young Louis XV could take the throne, but the French name was also chosen to encourage French settlers who would have been discouraged to come to a place with an Indian name like Biloxi or Natchitoches.
The same year a hurricane destroyed most of the new city, which was rebuilt in the grid pattern of today’s French Quarter and streets were named after lesser royalty in the Duke’s court. Then in 1722, New Orleans was made Louisiana’s capital. Biloxi had originally been the capital.
In 1762, France signed over Louisiana to Spain. For 40 years New Orleans was a Spanish city, trading heavily with Cuba and Mexico and adopting the Spanish racial rules that allowed for a class of free people of color. The city was ravaged by fires in 1788 and 1794 and rebuilt in brick with buildings and the St.Louis Cathedral that still stands there today.
In 1803 Louisiana reverted to the French, who sold it to the United States 20 days later in the Louisiana Purchase. The city developed a unique outlook from its early beginnings, even after the city’s close relationship with France had ceased, the French attitude even today has continued in the city’s culture and traditions.
During the first half of the 19th century, New Orleans became the United States’ wealthiest and third-largest city. Its port shipped the produce of much of the nation’s interior to the Caribbean, South America and Europe. Until 1830, the majority of its residents still spoke French.
By 1900’s the city’s streetcars were electrified, and New Orleans jazz was born in its clubs and dance halls. The city grew. New pump technology drove the ambitious draining of the low-lying swampland located between the city’s riverside crescent and Lake Pontchartrain. New levees and drainage canals meant that many residents could live below sea level. Hurricanes in 1909, 1915, 1947 and 1965 damaged the city, but never catastrophically. Not until 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit.
The city has continued to grow as a major tourist attraction, with hundreds of thousands of annual visitors drawn to Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, and to the many other events and its wonderful culture.