Have you ever been to New Orleans? If not you'd better go, … It's a nation of a queer place; day and night a show!—Colonel James R. Creecy, Scenes in the South, 1860

New Orleans has a long and complex history. Occupation by France, Spain, and the United States provided a unique blend of languages, cultures, people, and traditions. Founded along a sharp bend on the east bank of the Mississippi River, the Crescent City's location influenced its planning, settlement, and expansion. Since 1718, New Orleans has spread beyond this original location. With saucer-shaped terrain lying up to 13 feet below sea level and an average rainfall of 57 inches (1425 mm), a levee system and proper drainage were crucial to the city's development.

A City Develops In Spite of a River

The truth is New Orleans appears to me to be at the extreme of everything … Changes take place here with almost the rapidity of thought. — Bishop Henry B. Whipple, Southern Diary, 1843-44

By the mid-seventeenth century, the French established themselves in North America, settling in the region now known as Quebec. Recognizing the importance of controlling the waterways, they sought to secure the mouth of the Mississippi River. On April 9, 1682, Robert Cavalier de La Salle claimed the Louisiana territory for France, naming it Louisiane for Louis XIV. By 1700, French soldiers occupied the region against the Spanish, who already had colonies in Florida and laid claim to the gulf coast of the North American continent. In 1717, John Law, a Scotsman, was given exclusive right to sell real estate and develop Louisiana for the French. Settlers from France and Germany were lured to New Orleans expecting financial opportunities and a healthy climate, but found an early demise in the mosquito and snake infested bayous.

Founded in 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, New Orleans' history and development have been inextricably linked to the Mississippi River, with its large delta of below sea level swamp and marshland. The city is located on a great bend in the Mississippi River and bounded by Lake Pontchartrain to the north. Location near the the mouth of the river and navigable bayous enabled establishment of a sheltered, deep-water port. The strip of land almost a mile wide along the river's bend was the best and closest area to the mouth of the river. Located on relatively high ground, this original crescent of land was the perfect site for shipping and control of the waterways, and the best location for building a new city. Despite the lack of local building stone and other resources, and almost yearly yellow fever epidemics and other plagues, New Orleans had become the wealthiest and third largest city in the United States by the Civil War.

The city's geography and constant battle with water, mix of French, Spanish, and American cultures, Creole society, large influxes of immigrants, almost yearly yellow fever or plague epidemics, the city's pattern of growth, and, of course, architecture, have all impacted the development of the cemeteries. See the Timeline for more events in history and the Project Bibliography for many excellent references on the history of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Growth & Expansion

In the first half of the nineteenth century, New Orleans grew from 8,000 to nearly 170,000. This huge population increase can be attributed to annexation of the area by the United States, the nation's continued expansion westward, and increasing industrialization. New Orleans' situation at the mouth of the Mississippi River established her importance as a trading and economic center.

Following initial urban development along the levee, the city's expansion continued outward. Arrival of the Americans after the Louisiana Purchase started the first big push upriver. Immigrants of different nationalities began their own communities in the less-settled areas in the late 19th century. During the 20th century, improvements to drainage systems made once swampy back areas available for new settlement. Arriving following 1803, Americans settled in an area to the south of the Quarter that eventually became known as the American sector. East of the Quarter, the Creole aristocrat Bernard de Marigny subdivided his large plantation to create the area known as the Faubourg Marigny. These two neighborhoods along with the French Quarter comprised the main sections of the city by the 1830s.

The city continued expansion westward along the river, with the Irish Channel south of the American sector. Irish immigrants working near the docks building the new canal established this area. Expansion continued westward as old plantations gave way to the villas of the Garden District in the 1830s and 1840s. Urban expansion continued upriver, spawning Lafayette and Jefferson City, which would eventually be annexed by New Orleans, and also toward the north as drainage improved and the marshy land was made inhabitable.

The development of the population and its growth did not proceed without problems. The climate, natural environment, and a lack of sanitation caused issues for many of the new immigrants and health epidemics broke out frequently. Yellow fever took its toll on the population on numerous occasions. 2,200 people succumbed to the disease in 1818, 2,800 in 1847, and 9,000 in 1853. Small pox and cholera also affected the population. This alarming surge in the number of deaths resulted in a dramatic demand for cemetery space and the untimely deaths of so many can be read on tomb inscriptions at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.

See the Timeline for more events in history and the Project Bibliography for many excellent references on the history of New Orleans, Louisiana.


… 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


The French had settled in the region now known as Quebec, Canada by the mid-seventeenth century. Controlling the mouth of the river in the Gulf of Mexico was essential to controlling the Mississippi and, hence, maintaining their presence on the continent. Unfortunately, the area of the delta consists primarily swamps, marshes, and water. As such, it lacked high ground. The site chosen for the city of New Orleans was far from ideal but was strategically necessary. New Orleans is situated on the east bank of a great curve in the Mississippi River, with natural levees averaging ten to fifteen feet above sea level and 200 feet at its deepest. The levees gradually drop off into the swamplands behind. 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 has been subject to flooding. At this time, the city consisted of what is now known as the Vieux Carré, or French Quarter. Adrien de Pauger and Pierre Le Blond de la Tour established the grid of the city, with a central location reserved for the parish church (later, St. Louis Cathedral).

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. 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.

Louisiana law is based on French civil law, The Custom of Paris, rather than British common law with the rest of the United States. 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, 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 Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1762 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. 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 Spain had been a welcome lifestyle that many were not happy to relinquish. 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. 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.

Immigration From Many Lands

Few towns in the world possess such a medley of population. — Alexander Mackay, Travels in the United States, 1846-1847

During the city's first forty years, French immigrants arrived in New Orleans from both Canada (from the area now known as Quebec) and France. The earliest to arrive were clergymen, administrators, and social outcasts: criminals, vagrants, and women "of immoral life." This latter group was sent, in particular, to make the colony appear prosperous by simply enlarging its population.

Around 1763, at the end of the French and Indian War, refugees fleeing the British from Nova Scotia began to arrive in New Orleans. These "Acadian" people became known as "Cajuns," as they settled and farmed in the bayous west of New Orleans. Settlers also came from the other direction, fleeing Saint Dominique (Haiti) after a slave uprising around 1790. This swell of refugees, along with the Americans who moved into the city and region after 1803, made the population of New Orleans rise dramatically to almost 25,000 in 1810. The population virtually doubled within the first decade of the nineteenth century.

Slaves were also brought into New Orleans, primarily from the western coasts of Africa and later from the French Islands to work the indigo and rice plantations. Slaves were used to mitigate the labor shortage due to slow immigration. This combination of slaves and free people of color contributed to blacks representing 50% of New Orleans' population by 1800.

The Spanish were the other major group to settle New Orleans beginning in the 1760s. The installation of the Spanish colonial government in 1763 brought many immigrants with it, and they continued arriving well into the nineteenth century. Post World War II, there was another influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants from Cuba, Honduras, and the Canary Islands.

There were fairly significant numbers of immigrants from other parts of Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Germans, Irish, and Italians founded their own churches, schools, social clubs, and other organizations, thereby adding their contribution to and influence on the city around them. In fact, there is an area upriver from New Orleans known as the "German Coast."

Historical Timeline

Few American cities have had as colorful a background as New Orleans. Its people have seen good days and bad since its founding in 1718, somehow carrying on through plagues, …floods and a hostile natural environment. The city has a history replete with stirring events and romantic incident. — Leonard V. Huber, 1971.

A graphical presentation of the events of New Orleans and at the cemeteries is in development. To view the research material, download the pdf file.

There is no architecture in New Orleans, except in the cemeteries… white roofs and gables stretching into the distance on every hand, the phrase "city of the dead" has all at once a meaning… — Mark Twain, 1875