Founding Louisiana

Cavelier_de_la_salle
La Salle, as envisioned by the 19th Century. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Renee Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle hadn’t planned on claiming Louisiana for France. La Salle was a rare example of a proactive and self-made man in the era of the French monarchy. He had been granted land near Montreal in 1666, and had actually gone to great lengths to befriend the locals, and even learned Mohawk. From these local contacts, la Salle began to expand the control of New France, and learned about the Ohio and subsequently the Mississippi Rivers. Now ennobled by the King, la Salle embarked on a large expedition down the river in 1679 to find a western passage to China, in the grand tradition of misguided Europeans past.[1]

After three years of travel, one attempted mutiny, and a few awkward run ins with the annoyed tribes of the region, he managed to stumble into the Gulf of Mexico in 1682. Triumphant and lacking a suitable fire hydrant, he planted a cross and plaque to mark his newly French territory:

“I, René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle, by virtue of His Majesty’s commission, which I hold in my hands, and which may be seen by all whom it may concern, have taken and do now take, in the name of His Majesty and of his successors to the crown, possession of the country of Louisiana.”[2]

Jean Adolphe Bocquin La Salle plants a stake
La Salle stakes his claim. While these images are always a little romanticized, La Salle did a better job than many when it came to communicating rather than shooting at the locals. Photo Credit: Jean-Adolphe Bocquin

While La Salle might have expected a literal claim on the entire Misssissippi watershed to be a feather in his cap, reception in the French court was a little tepid. Louis XIV even outright dismissed the new territory as “utterly useless”, but out of respect for his court favorite, he agreed to let La Salle try to settle Louisiana. Bright and bushy tailed, La Salle returned three years later with four ships and 200 colonists, only to miss Louisiana entirely and land in Spanish Texas. After another few years of fighting pirates, natives, disease, and having to deal with their directionally challenged leader,[3] La Salle’s men finally shot the hapless explorer and hiked home. Still, Louisiana was now sort of marked for France.

New Orleans proper began a few years later when the much more competent Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville arrived in Louisiana. In 1699 de Bienville laid the groundwork for what became New Orleans. The location was perfect from a commercial standpoint. It had a wide harbor, easy access to the Mississippi, and a wetland area teeming with edible life. Unfortunately, as with so many other “perfect” locations, it was also located in the middle of a festering malarial swamp. Showing once again that human ingenuity will never bow to things like common sense, Bienville set up shop anyways, and began sending out some carefully edited tourist brochures to woo settlers. As with any seedy real estate deal, it didn’t take people long to realize that Louisiana was only a paradise for the disease carrying mosquito, and Bienville and his successors began to look elsewhere for “volunteers” in their quest to turn a profit on their struggling colony.

Deportation of comfort women library of france
The deportation of women to the New World, sometimes nicknamed the “Baleine Brides”, in a grotesque attempt to rebalance the male dominated gender of the colony. Photo Credit: National Library of France.

Subsequent groups from France who ended up in Louisiana were usually not there by choice. New colonists pulled from debtors’ prisons and jails, as well as convicted prostitutes, did little to improve the city’s already seedy reputation. Most egregiously, many women were deported to the new colony to live as “comfort women” for the settlers. By 1721 population by French deportation had brought the city up to 5,000 Europeans, only to have it plummet to under 2,000 by 1730 from disease and flight.

The many dead contributed to the city’s haunted feel. In another side effect of living in a wetland, bodies left underground rarely stayed there. It didn’t take too much of a flood for the buried dead to reappear above ground once again. After early efforts to keep the dead quiet with weighted coffins and stones failed, the residents gave up, and began to build their mausoleums above ground. These sprawling cities of the dead grew up right alongside the living. Everyone, from the richest aristocrat to the poorest pauper would find themselves in the Dead Quarter sooner or later.

Agostino Brunias free colored society dominica
Freed women and their families in the French Island of Dominique, ca. 1760’s. A similar imbalance prompted the French to more or less codify the relationships they saw springing up in their colonies. Photo Credit:

At least they all had more of a life to look forward to than the slaves from West Africa. Needed to solve the labor shortage, the African slave population grew in stuttering leaps. Those who survived their initial bouts of disease grew into a hardy subculture. It helped that the majority of slaves were pulled from the same portion of western Africa, along the modern day Ivory Coast. As a result, unlike many slaves there was at least a shared family of languages, customs, and beliefs to offer a sense of community. Nor was slavery in Louisiana necessarily permanent sentence, under both French and Spanish governors it was possible to purchase one’s freedom. Laws were in place to keep families from being sold separately, and thanks to the gender imbalance in the French population there were far more consensual romantic liaisons across the racial divide than in the colonies. Over time the system was socially codified as placage, or sometimes as “left handed marriages”, with its own rules on courtship, inheritance, and legal arbitration between family branches.[4] While many French settlers would ultimately return to France and marry formally, others would stay with their mistresses for their entire lives. By the time the War of 1812 roiled through, 63 percent of the city had some African heritage. As other groups began to pour in, the result was a fluid and comparatively more integrated society, where ideas, traditions, and belief began to mingle alongside the people of New Orleans.[5]

[1] His interest in finding a western passage was an obsession. His Montreal estate was even nicknamed “la Chine”.

[2] History Museum of Canada. “Virtual History of New France”. Available at: http://www.historymuseum.ca/virtual-museum-of-new-france/the-explorers/rene-robert-cavelier-de-la-salle-1670-1687/

[3] La Salle was a few curls short of a full wig when it came to exploration. A subordinate wrote of one of one of his earlier trips that he“was undertaking this journey almost in a daze, more or less not knowing where he was going.”

[4] Filan, K. The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook.

[5] Though as a point of comparison, being in more “lenient” slavery is still extremely cold comfort.

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