New Orleans was initially settled by Woodland and Mississippian Native Americans. The governor of French Louisiana, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, founded Nouvelle-Orléans on the first crescent of high ground above the Mississippi's mouth in 1718.
De Soto (1542) and La Salle (1682) passed through, but few permanent white settlers lived there before. He moved Louisiana's capital from Biloxi in 1722. A hurricane destroyed much of the new city, which was reconstructed in the French Quarter grid the following year.
New Orleans Spanish Rule and Louisiana Purchase
France ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1762 and 1763. Spanish New Orleans traded significantly with Cuba and Mexico and adopted Spanish racial regulations that permitted free people of color for 40 years. Fires in 1788 and 1794 destroyed the city, although brick structures and a church survived.
French reclaimed Louisiana in 1803 and ceded it to the US 20 days later in the Louisiana Purchase. Colonel Andrew Jackson commanded pirates, previously enslaved African Americans, and Tennessee Volunteers to beat a British army outside New Orleans in the concluding combat of the War of 1812.
New Orleans became America's wealthiest and third-largest metropolis in the first half of the 19th century. The Caribbean, South America, and Europe received much of the nation's produce from its port. Though its marketplaces sold thousands of slaves, its Black community prospered. French was spoken by most inhabitants until 1830.
New Orleans was the largest city in the Confederacy at the commencement of the Civil War, but Union soldiers conquered it unchallenged a year later after capturing its downriver fortifications. Race became a powerful political factor during Reconstruction when liberated slaves and free people of color were drawn into politics and then driven out by the White League and the Ku Klux Klan in the 1870s. New Orleans was a large and significant port even when railroads made Mississippi cargo less important.
New Orleans jazz was born in clubs and dance halls around 1900, when streetcars were electrified. The city grew. New pump technology ambitiously drained the low-lying swampland between the city's riverbank crescent and Lake Pontchartrain. New levees and drainage canals allowed many inhabitants to live below sea level. However, hurricanes in 1909, 1915, 1947, and 1965 did not destroy the city.
Many white citizens left the city after World War II due to suburbanization and school integration disputes, leaving an African-American and poor core. Despite these societal changes, the city attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists each year for Mardi Gras and the culture that inspired Tennessee Williams, Louis Armstrong, and Jean Galatoire.
Hurricane Katrina hit haphazardly evacuated New Orleans on August 29, 2005. The Category 3 hurricane's winds tore roofs off and caused a storm surge that broke four levees, flooding 80% of the city. The deluge killed hundreds and stranded thousands for days before state and federal rescuers arrived.
A year after the floods retreated, just half the city's people returned. Within five years, 80% were back. Today, the city continues to thrive as one of America's greatest cities.