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First Mardi Gras: Not in New Orleans?

Some claim the earliest Mardi Gras celebration was in Mobile, Alabama, not New Orleans, but it depends on a few technicalities—and who's answering the question.

If you thought Mardi Gras—that annual celebration that marks the last day before the Christian season of Lent—began in New Orleans, you’re clearly not from Alabama.

Although The Big Easy in Louisiana is perhaps best-known for its Mardi Gras revelry, the port city of Mobile, Alabama, founded in 1702 by French settlers, lays claim to being the city that first observed the event, which means “Fat Tuesday” in French, and marks the the 40-day fasting season between Ash Wednesday and Easter.

Of course, this is up for some debate. Some point to 1699 as year the first American Mardi Gras was held, when French explorers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville landed about 60 miles south of present-day New Orleans near the mouth of the Mississippi River on the eve of the holiday that dates back to Medieval days. Le Moyne dubbed the spot Point du Mardi Gras.

But Donnelly Lancaster Walton, archivist with the W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library at the University of Alabama, says though the holiday’s origin honors may be complicated, they go to Mobile.

Women on a parade car

A flower decorated automobile for the Floral Parade at Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama 1905.

“Apparently, as early 1703, the French held a type of Mardi Gras celebration in Mobile,” she says. “New Orleans wasn’t founded until 1718. Therefore, strictly speaking, Mobile had the earliest celebration of the two cities.”

According to the Mardi Gras New Orleans, Mardi Gras celebrations were common in the city by the 1730s, although the first recorded Mardi Gras parade didn’t float through the New Orlean’s streets until 1857. Meanwhile, Alabama news site AL.com reports that the Boeuf Gras Society, a mystic society started in Mobile in 1710, kicked off a 1711 parade down Dauphin Street with a giant bull’s head on wheels (the fatted bull was used in ancient Carnival celebrations in France).

Early celebrations in Mobile were also tied to New Years until 1866, rather than the lenten season, when they were moved to Fat Tuesday.

“In 1830, cotton factor Michael Krafft and a group of revelers paraded through the streets of the city, carrying cowbells and rakes,” she says. “This celebration marked the foundation of the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, the nation's first mystic society. The society continued its annual parades on New Year’s Eve, and by 1837, the group was throwing small gifts to the crowds.”

Over the years, the Cowbellions ceased to exist, and, Walton adds, until the Civil War, mystic societies continued to hold their celebrations on New Year’s Eve. “These parties stopped during and immediately after the Civil War, until Joe Cain, dressed as the fictional Chief Slacabamorinico paraded by himself through the streets on Mardi Gras day in 1868. Incidentally, his observation of Mardi Gras in New Orleans had inspired him.”

Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orlean, circa the late 1800s.

Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orlean, circa the late 1800s.

Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street is known for booze, flashing and bead-throwing, while parades elsewhere in the city feature floats, doubloon coins and Moon Pies. At Mobile’s two-week celebration some 3 million of the chocolate-covered marshmallow and graham cracker treats are thrown annually. Both cities draw huge crowds: About 1.4 million people converge on New Orleans for the revelry each year, while Mobile draws 1 million.

“Although Mobile’s Mardi Gras history is more complicated than one would think,” Walton says, “Mobile’s claim as the ‘Mother of the Mystics’ is legitimate.”

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