Saturday, October 6, 2007

A Bit of New Orleans History

New Orleans is a city surrounded by water. It is one of the few cities in the world that is in such a situation but is not an island. The land where New Orleans was to be built was a mosquito infested, swampy, hurricane-prone, flooded landscape. Why would anyone in his or her right mind built a city in such a place?

It is hard today to fathom why. After Katrina and the devastation it caused, many people wondered why build a city in a bowl. The answer lies in its position between land, river and ocean.

New Orleans (Louisiana.)  Lewis, Henry, 1819-1904.
Photo Courtesy of Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

When New Orleans was founded, and for several hundred years afterwards, shipping was the most efficient method of moving goods from one place to another. Even today, that still holds true for international goods. In the mainland of the US, trains have replaced shipping but for many years, ships provided good everywhere.

The Mississippi river connects Canada and the interior of the US to the Gulf of Mexico. Anyone who could hold (militarily) the mouth of the Mississippi would control the shipment of goods throughout the US. Thus, New Orleans, with its strategic location would become one of the premier cities of the United States. It was even considered as a Capitol city at one point, but that is a different story.

Jumping ahead to 1800, Spain controlled a vast territory in the New World called Louisiana. The small, at that time, US had no particular interest in buying that land. That land which ran from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. The US and Spain had a treaty, the Pickney Treaty of 1795, that allowed American navigation of the Mississippi River and access to the Port of New Orleans. More than a quarter of everything produced in America traveled to the Gulf via the Mississippi River.

In 1801, France resumed control of Louisiana and America's views on that changed. President Jefferson was concerned that France would try to block American use of the river stangling American growth. France at that time was the traditional American enemy. To make matters worse, Napoleon made public his intentions to occupy Louisiana and make that land the bread basket of France in America.

Many in the US wanted to declare war on France. Not just for this but it added fire to the flame. The Federalists had wanted war for a long time and this gave them added impetus. Jefferson did not want war and struggled for a way out. He wrote to the US ambassador to France and said (I paraphrase), "The day that France takes possession of New Orleans is the day we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation." Meaning that he was willing to go to war over New Orleans. He also instructed the ambassador to make sure that the French, in particular, Napoleon, understood that.

France was facing a slave revolt in the Caribbean. Between fighting and yellow fever, Napoleon lost over 40,000 soldiers. He could not afford a war with the US and Britain. The US wanted to purchase New Orleans for $10 Million. Napoleon sold all of Louisiana for $15 Million, only 3/4 of which they were required to pay (the rest went to reparations to the US government).

In one fell swoop, the US doubled its land by acquiring Louisiana. The purchase was ratified in 1803 and Louisiana was admitted to the Union in 1812.



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