Before the founding of the City, Native Americans of the Woodland and Mississippian cultures lived in the area that is now Greater New Orleans. Explorers passed through in the 16th and 17th centuries, but it was not until 1718 that Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville founded New Orleans on high ground 100 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The original City was centered around the Place d’Armes, which is now Jackson Square. A hurricane destroyed most of the young City in 1722. It was after this that the streets were laid out and rebuilt in a grid pattern, creating what we now call the French Quarter. The colonists who populated New Orleans in those early days contended with many adverse circumstances, such as illness, swamp land, and intermittent supplies. The colonists also brought with them the practice of slavery, and enslaved not only the local indigenous population, but also imported slaves from Africa.
Today, African Americans and numerous people from various walks of faith gather for the annual Maafa event in New Orleans which commemorates the tragedy of the transatlantic slave trade, honors progress and celebrates hope for the future. The Maafa also seeks reconciliation of the fleur-de-lis, which was used as a branded symbol of chattel for slaves, and traces it back to its symbolic roots in Egyptian culture as a symbol of life. More information on Maafa and the fleur-de-lis can be viewed here.
The French ruled over the city until 1763, when they ceded the territory to the Spanish. Another 40 years later, the French regained control of the colony in 1803, and shortly thereafter sold it to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.
By the middle of the 19th century, New Orleans had grown to a population of 170,000, become the wealthiest city in the United States, and was a bustling port of strategic importance. The city was also home to many free people of color, a business and property owning population, unique in the United States.
During the Civil War, New Orleans was captured by Union forces only a year into the conflict. During Reconstruction, New Orleans was still a vital port and economically important to the United States. However, there was conflict between newly emancipated slaves and free people of color and white supremacy groups such as the White League over the issue of participation in government.
The twentieth century brought on a new era, notably in music. As the birthplace of early jazz in the 1900s, New Orleans became a cultural beacon throughout the United States as jazz music swept the nation in the next few decades. The city also expanded its footprint using new technology to drain swamps and wetlands. After World War II, the city became a tourist destination and remains so to this day, drawing millions for events such as Mardi Gras and the Jazz and Heritage Festival.
In 2005, the city was hit by Hurricane Katrina and Federal levee failures devastated vast areas of the city with flooding. However, in the years that have passed since that event, the city has rebuilt and recovered, its culture and attractions more vibrant than ever. As the city approaches the Tricentennial, it celebrates the resilience and resourcefulness of its people.