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...chronicled the names of the French and Canadian first settlers; the Spanish names and Spanish epitaphs of that domination; the names of the émigrés from the French revolution; ... the first sprinkling of American names;

Grace King, 1895

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
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The French had settled in the region now known as Quebec, Canada by the mid-seventeenth century. To continue their presence on the continent and minimize that of the British, the French determined the need to control the Mississippi River and its tributaries. To do so, they would need to control the mouth of the river in the delta at the Gulf of Mexico. The problem with this site was the lack of high ground. The area of the delta was, and is, primarily swamps, marshes, and water. The site chosen for the city of New Orleans was far from ideal but was strategically necessary. New Orleans is situated on the northern bank of a great curve in the Mississippi River, with natural levees averaging ten to fifteen feet above sea level and only one to two miles in depth. The levees gradually drop off into the swamplands behind.1 While the oldest parts of the city rest on these levees, the greater part of the modern city rests at or below sea level and is subject to flooding. At this time, the city was the size of what is now known as the Vieux Carré, or French Quarter. The city was founded in 1718 and by 1720, Adrien DePauger and LeBlond de la Tour had drawn up plans for the city in the traditional gridiron pattern. A central location was reserved for the parish church, later to become St. Louis Cathedral.2

In 1731, a governor appointed by the King was the representative and executive of the colony. The governor exercised dictatorial, judicial, and legislative control over the city.3 During this time of French rule, development of New Orleans was rather slow. Immigration was not encouraged except among Catholic Frenchmen, who usually preferred to remain in France. There was also a distrust and dislike of Englishmen and Protestants.4

Current Louisiana law has its basis in French civil law, The Custom of Paris, different from British common law that formed the basis for the rest of the United States.5 One of the most influential laws was the Black Code, or Code Noir, which dealt with slavery and racial issues. While some of the codes were quite severe, many others were lenient compared with other colonies. Slaves could be educated, baptized and married with the church's recognition, and sue their masters for abuse. Free people of color could own land and run businesses. Much of this changed once Louisiana passed into the hands of the United States.

The economic policy of Louisiana at that time was to benefit the mother country, France. Raw materials were transported back to France, while the colony provided a market for finished materials. This emphasis on containing commerce between the mother country and the colony prohibited growth and development. The French basically considered Louisiana as a buffer zone to English and Spanish expansion and dominance in North America.

This changed when John Law, a Scotsman, gambler, and financial advisor to the Duc d'Orleans, created a plan to operate Louisiana as a colony by his newly formed Mississippi Company. Sales of shares in the company would pay off France's debt and increase Louisiana's appeal as a place to live and do business. The plan failed due to the lack of profits and the territory reverted back to the crown's control. After this debacle, France did little to encourage development of the colony. The shortage of immigrants led to large importation of slaves, causing the population in 1800 to be approximately 50% African-American.6


The Treaty of Paris in 1763 transferred Louisiana and New Orleans from France to Spain. It was not until 1764 that news of the transfer reached the French officials in New Orleans. This confusion characterized the first few years of Spanish control and resulted in much animosity to the new administration. The French population refused to acknowledge Spanish rule until 1769 when faced with the arrival of the Spanish military. Eventually, the Spanish gained a firm control. The French law and system of government were abolished as the Spanish instituted the Cabildo, a legislative and quasi-administrative council, as well as having a governor. Trade increased dramatically during this time, largely due to English and American settlers further up river in the Ohio Valley. The city grew during this time as well in order to better accommodate such commercial enterprises as were necessary for businesses. Due to Spanish administration during the great fires of 1788 and 1794, much of the architecture in the old city has Spanish influences of brick, stucco and spanish tile.7 New Orleans remained under Spanish rule until 1803 when the French momentarily returned to power before the Americans bought the land.

United States

Louisiana was ceded back to France in 1802, but the news traveled slowly to the colony. New Orleans did not hear of this transaction until 1803. Peace under the Spanish had been a welcome lifestyle that many were not happy to relinquish.8 A mere three weeks later, New Orleanians were informed that they were, yet again, under a different country's flag. The United States, under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, purchased a large tract of land to the west of the Mississippi River from the French in 1803. The "Louisiana Purchase" included New Orleans and was one of the greatest real estate deals in history. This event brought an end to French and Spanish rule but not to the influence of the two cultures. In fact, many New Orleanians were as dissatisfied with this transfer as they had been with the previous ones, especially since English became the official language, and the culture of the area was not well represented in the new government.

New Orleans was incorporated as a city in 1805 with a mayor, recorder, treasurer, and council of aldermen who acted as the legislators of the municipality.9 Louisiana became a state in the Union in 1812, with New Orleans as the capitol. The British tried invading the city during the War of 1812 after the attack on Washington D.C. The Battle of New Orleans, the last of the war, in January of 1815 was a decided victory for the United States, under the leadership of General Andrew Jackson. This successful battle helped make the New Orleanians more comfortable with their place in the United States. 

Opening quote: King, Grace. New Orleans: The Place and the People. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1895, 401-402.

1. Donnald McNabb and Lee Madere, A History of New Orleans (New Orleans: Lee Madere, 1997), 5.

2. McNabb, 6-7.

3. Federal Writers' Project, New Orleans City Guide, revised by Robert Tallant, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1952), p.11.

4. McNabb, 7.

5. Robert Florence, City of the Dead: A Journey Through St. Louis Cemetery #1 (Louisiana: The Center for Louisiana Studies), p.34.

6. McNabb, 9.

7. William P. Spratling, “The Architectural Heritage of New Orleans.” The Architectural Forum Volume XLVI No. 5 (May 1927):412.

8. Federal Writers' Project, 15.

9. Ibid, 19.


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Historic Preservation Program, Graduate School of Fine Arts
University of Pennsylvania, Copyright 2002/2003