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Reading 1: The History of Settlement in Louisiana
In 1682 the French explorer La Salle journeyed down the Mississippi River to its mouth and claimed for France all the lands drained by the river and its tributaries. The area was named Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV, the reigning French monarch. Later, the French began extensive explorations of lower Louisiana with the aim of establishing a permanent settlement.
As the Mississippi River nears the Gulf of Mexico, it curves and bends through the flat, marshy land of Louisiana’s Delta Region. Outside one of these turns the French chose in 1718 to establish their new city. Despite its precarious location, surrounded by swamps and subject to flooding and storms, New Orleans was the gatekeeper to the vast Mississippi Valley. From this location the French hoped to secure control of the river and any traffic on it.
In 1722 the French military engineer, Adrien de Pauger, laid out the streets of the city in a grid pattern, forming what is now known as the Vieux Carré, or French Quarter. Settlers were recruited from France, African slaves were brought into the colony early on, and even a contingent of German settlers migrated into the area during French rule. Growth of the city was slow, but de Pauger’s grid gradually filled in.
In 1762 as a result of the French and Indian War (known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War), Louisiana was divided and New Orleans came under Spanish control. Under the Spanish, growth and prosperity increased as the city’s promise as a great world port came to be realized. During this period, 1788 to 1794, two great fires swept the city, and the rebuilding reflected some Spanish influence. Spanish immigration into Louisiana was limited, however, so the French cultural presence remained strong.
In 1800 the French under Napoleon reacquired New Orleans by secret treaty. The Americans eventually learned of the treaty and were alarmed that Napoleon was now in control of the Mississippi River. It had become critical to American interests in the West that they be able to move goods on the river and through the port at New Orleans. President Thomas Jefferson instituted negotiations with the French to purchase New Orleans, which led to the acquisition of the entire territory in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. With the Louisiana Purchase, the colonial period of New Orleans history came to a close. The city became a focus of the general westward expansion of Americans in the 19th century, but it was far different from any other settlement they encountered in their westward movement.
Questions for Reading 1
1. Why were the French interested in establishing control of the land drained by the Mississippi River and its tributaries?
2. Who were the early settlers in New Orleans?
3. How long did Spain have control of the region?
4. Why was the Louisiana Purchase a good buy for Americans?
Reading 1 was adapted from Tom Ireland, Vieux Carré Ethnographic Overview, National Park Service, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, 1978.