As 2018 comes to a close, I can’t help but reflect on this year and its meaning for a place that has become near and dear to my heart (and in-progress dissertation): New Orleans. Founded by the French in 1718, Louisiana’s largest city has been celebrating its tricentennial for months and in a way that only New Orleans can. Ranked number one on the New York Times “52 Places to Go in 2018” list, New Orleans continues to attract first-timers curious to discover “America’s most foreign city.” Repeat visitors, myself included, just can’t get enough, although my trips have taken me beyond Bourbon Street, from the attic of the city’s colonial-era Ursuline convent to the notarial archives of Orleans Parish, hidden within a twenty-story office building a stone’s throw from the Superdome. My own excursions aside, how exactly have we gone about celebrating, remembering, and thinking about the history of early New Orleans in 2018? What does the future hold?
In honor of its tricentennial, New Orleans has reclaimed this history in different ways that stand to interest early Americanists. In May, the Junto covered New Orleans, the Founding Era, an exhibition curated by Erin M. Greenwald at The Historic New Orleans Collection. Focused on the early years of settlement, The Founding Era addressed topics including Franco-Amerindian relations, forced immigrations to Louisiana, and the monopoly of the French Company of the Indies. Located in the Warehouse District a few blocks from the French Quarter, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art unveiled Salazar: Portraits of Influence in Spanish New Orleans, 1785-1802 in March as an introduction to the city’s first documented painter, Josef Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza. A Mexican immigrant from the Yucatán, Salazar worked in New Orleans on the eve of the Louisiana Purchase, receiving commissions from the Roman Catholic Church and painting private citizens such as the free woman of color Marianne Céleste Dragon, public officials including Don Andrés Almonester y Roxas, and even Anglo-American interlopers like James Wilkinson. The stories of Salazar and his diverse clientele were recounted through a compelling corpus of surviving works and archival documents from multiple repositories, many of them in New Orleans.
Other public history highlights took shape at the New Orleans Cabildo, built on Jackson Square from 1795 to 1799 and now a property of the Louisiana State Museum. The Cabildo fittingly played host to Recovered Memories: Spain, Louisiana, and Support for the American Revolution in the spring and summer. It again provided the backdrop for an exhibition of historic proportions this month with the opening of The Baroness de Pontalba and the Rise of Jackson Square, a new look at the life of Micaela Almonester y Roxas, baronne de Pontalba, which runs through October of 2019. Although born in New Orleans at the tail end of the colonial period in 1795, Micaela followed in the footsteps of her Andalusian father Don Andrés Almonester y Roxas, who financed the reconstruction of buildings including the Cabildo, Saint Louis Cathedral, and the Presbytère after disastrous fires decimated the city in 1788 and 1794. Represented in the exhibition by his impressive full-length portrait by Salazar, Don Andrés provided an example for his daughter as she made her own bid to beautify New Orleans in a most prominent place: Jackson Square. The former French and Spanish colonial parade ground beloved by tourists today received its iconic look after two flanking brick rowhouses were built at her behest from 1849 to 1851. Although Almonester’s cathedral was largely destroyed to create the present-day Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis in 1850, his Spanish colonial Cabildo and Presbytère survive, framed by his daughter’s four-story “Pontalba Buildings” and their distinctive cast iron railings bearing the monogram AP for Almonester and Pontalba.
In addition to temporary exhibits, the tricentennial also bore witness to permanent commemorative interventions addressing more painful chapters in the history of New Orleans. An initiative of the 2018 Tricentennial Commission and chaired by Erin Greenwald, the New Orleans Slave Trade Marker and App Project installed interpretive markers across the city that lay bare its undeniably prominent participation in the trans-Atlantic and domestic slave trades from 1718 to 1865. A free app provides a route for visiting these markers, which indicate spots and extant structures with specific connections to slavery; the app also delivers access to an array of interactive primary sources including manuscripts, maps, and newspapers. Beginning in front of Jackson Square along the Mississippi, the tour directs participants to look across the river to Algiers Point, where enslaved Africans were unloaded and held for sale in New Orleans beginning in 1719. Signage along the riverfront interprets the trans-Atlantic slave trade to Louisiana and continues across the French Quarter and adjoining neighborhoods to discuss the domestic trade in human chattels. The second stop on the tour is the Merieult House, built by French merchant and slave trader Jean-François Merieult in 1792 and now a part of the Historic New Orleans Collection. A new plaque on the house’s Royal Street façade recounts Merieult’s involvement in the slave trade from 1794 to 1818, including financing voyages to and from West Africa that in 1803 alone brought over 750 enslaved people to Louisiana.
Especially exciting for the future of Louisiana’s early history, the Louisiana Colonial Documents Digitization Project was completed just in time for the tricentennial. Administered by the Louisiana State Museum since 1906, these records from the French Superior Council and the Spanish Cabildo of Louisiana span 1714 to 1804 and number over 200,000 pages. The collection encompasses a truly staggering variety of judicial and notarial records, from marriage contracts and probate inventories to criminal investigations, bills of lading, petitions, declarations, and even personal letters. Most of the documents are in French and Spanish, a reminder of the city’s Latin heritage that shaped its laws and social order, including local hierarchies of race and gender. The new database offers numerous options for searching, whether by keyword, person, profession, ethnicity, gender, or enslaved states. With high resolution scans available online, free of charge, and from anywhere in the world, access to this archive stands to revolutionize scholarship in the fields of Louisiana history, Southern history, and Atlantic world studies more generally.
For all this, the question of why New Orleans and its milestone birthday matter remains. It’s perhaps unfair to compare 2018 in New Orleans to 2007 in Virginia. Likewise, it’s too soon to tell what 2020 will bring in Massachusetts. Of course, Jamestown and Plymouth have nearly a century on New Orleans in terms of chronology, and both are firmly integrated as part of the standard Anglo-centric American origin story. Although a steadily growing body of scholarship demonstrates how we’ve moved past reducing early New Orleans to some colorful prelude animated by convicts, pirates, and rogues, the Crescent City is far from finished in revealing its hidden histories. At the Junto, recent posts on topics including child trafficking, the intersections of fashion and race, slavery, horticulture, and the American War of Independence in the Gulf South remind readers that New Orleans offers multiple avenues for rethinking its own past in addition to increasing the larger stakes of early American history. In 2019, the Omohundro Institute and University of North Carolina Press will publish Caribbean New Orleans Empire, Race, and the Making of a Slave Society by Cécile Vidal and Intimate Voices of the African Diaspora: Narrating Slavery in French Louisiana by Sophie White. As these exciting titles indicate, there is still much more to discover and contemplate. I might have already begun to mentally prepare myself to see my calendar change over from 2018 to 2019, but I look back on the last twelve months as motivation to keep momentum going and enthusiasm up for the study of this extraordinary early American creole town. The tricentennial has offered the opportunity to sustain a more nuanced dialogue on the multifaceted legacies of a stubbornly resilient, multiethnic, and polyglot community created by indigenous peoples, Europeans, and Africans on the banks of the Lower Mississippi. New Orleans matters precisely because it prompts us to reconsider traditional narratives and paradigms of colonialism, regionalism, empire, and identity in an early America that was truly vast, and in more ways than one.
Philippe Halbert can be found on Twitter at @plbhalbert.