French Colonial New Orleans

The French established the colony of Louisiana in 1699 and laid out its capital city of New Orleans in 1718. Despite the elaborate maps drawn by colonial engineers in the 1720s, the city was a small, rather rough frontier outpost during French rule, which effectively lasted until 1769. The French hoped that Louisiana could be turned into a profitable enterprise through the cultivation of a staple crop. The Lower Mississippi Valley was not tropical enough to sustain the kind of sugar cane cultivation that made the French island colonies of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Saint-Domingue wildly profitable for the mother country. Tobacco, however, seemed a good bet. French people consumed loads of it, almost all of it sold by the British colonies of Virginia and Maryland. If tobacco could be successfully grown in Louisiana, money that was going into the pockets of British merchants and tax agents could be diverted to France.

The tobacco plan didn’t work. Louisiana’s climate produced leaf that was of very poor quality. And the enslaved labor that was deemed essential to the cultivation of any stable crop was hard to come by. Slave traders could make far more money selling their cargos in the Antilles, where the sugar boom created an insatiable market for laborers. New Orleans got the leftovers and after 1731, only one shipment of new captive Africans arrived at the port. Among the results of this turn of events was the creolization of the enslaved population. Without the arrival of continuous waves of newly enslaved Africans, the children and grandchildren of the first generation of captives grew up and created a culture shaped significantly by their experience in Louisiana.