Given the history of English and Spanish colonial expansion into North America, it’s easy to forget New France, a vast territory where the French had a significant stake in the New World. The Louisiana city of New Orleans still retains much of its French-infused heritage, and many of its residents hold on to aspects of French and European culture that date back to colonial times, including language, culture and cuisine.
New France-the North American territories claimed by France-once extended from Hudson Bay in present-day Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the shores of the North Atlantic to the Great Plains.
In 1682, the French claimed what came to be known as the Louisiana Territory or “La Louisiane,” an immense parcel of land named in honor of King Louis XIV.
Quickly recognizing the possibilities for shipping at the Mississippi Delta (where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico), the early settlers from France founded the city of New Orleans 17 years later. Engineers designed 66 squares of a walled village, naming the streets after French royalty.
The streets they created—and named—comprise what is today known as the “French Quarter” section of New Orleans.
The city quickly grew into a rich port city, shipping timber, minerals, agricultural products and, perhaps most notably, high-quality furs from the Mississippi Valley and the interior of the still-unexplored continent, transported downriver to New Orleans for quick delivery to Europe.
Religious Differences, Cultural Differences
Unlike the Puritans who first settled in New England in the 17th century, the French colonists were Catholic and, though still religious, they had a flair for fine living and dining.
New Orleans quickly developed a unique, French-infused cuisine and, years later, it grew into a music mecca with a rich African American culture, spawning its own take on jazz and blues music in the 20th century.
The Crescent City, as it is now sometimes called, also became known for its festive spirit, culminating in Mardi Gras, which, in French, means “Fat Tuesday.” Mardi Gras celebrates the beginning of Lent, a Catholic observance that serves as the lead-up to Easter.
The Treaty of Fontainebleau
In 1762, following the brutal French and Indian War, the government of France negotiated the Treaty of Fontainebleau with their counterparts in Spain. The treaty effectively ceded the territory of Louisiana and the island of Orleans—essentially what is now New Orleans—to the Spaniards.
The French saw the move as an inducement designed to persuade the Spanish to end the Seven-Years War. Ultimately, they feared the English would win the conflict, and French influence over New Orleans and the surrounding territory would come to an inglorious end.
The Treaty of Fontainebleau was kept secret for nearly a year, and once the French colonists learned of its existence, they revolted. Essentially, they didn’t take kindly to the thought of Spanish rule.
With an already diverse population of French, Creole and Africans (both slaves and free settlers), the Spanish had a difficult time governing the colony. Although they afforded settlers there more freedom than they did those of their other colonies (in South America, for example), there were significant restrictions imposed on trade.
Their time in charge of the region was marked by armed uprisings, and strained relations between the governor’s office and the citizenry.
New Orleans and the Louisiana Purchase
Less than 40 years later, perhaps weary of governing a troublesome colony, and feeling the threat of an ambitious French military leader, the brash young Napoleon Bonaparte, Spain relinquished the Louisiana Territory and New Orleans back to France via another secret treaty, the Treaty of San Ildefonso, in 1800.
However, faced with a slave uprising on the island of Saint Domingue (what is now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) and the specter of a war with Great Britain over control of Louisiana, Napoleon had a decision to make: Rather than send troops to defend New Orleans, which the British saw for its value as a port, and the surrounding territory, the military leader dispatched 20,000 soldiers to Saint Domingue to quell the slave revolt, leaving New Orleans and French Louisiana essentially defenseless in the event of a British attack.
Seeing an opportunity, Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States at the time, and his Secretary of State James Madison, decided to fashion an alliance of sorts with the French government. Part and parcel of this relationship was the future governance of Louisiana.
Eventually, they negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, a deal that included the huge 828,000 square mile-territory that includes New Orleans and the Mississippi River Valley, for $15 million.
French Influence in New Orleans Today
It may be more than 200 years since the French have controlled New Orleans, but their influence is obvious in the city to this day—in culture, cuisine, language and geography.
The French Market, an artist and farmer’s market in the French Quarter, is a prime example—a European-style, open-air market with cafés selling French-style pastries (beignets) and other goods.
And, of course, there is the French Quarter itself, with its streets still bearing the names given them by the early French settlers and its French- and Spanish-influenced architecture.
French restaurants, with a decidedly Louisiana twist, also abound in New Orleans, including the famous Café du Monde (Café of the World).
Finally, there are the obvious links between the French and the Cajun and Creole cultures. Cajuns and Creoles are two distinct groups, with long histories as Louisianans, who can trace their roots to France and Quebec, though Creoles can also cite Spanish, African and Caribbean influences as well.
These two cultures have their own languages (Cajun closely resembles French), cuisine, music and traditions, and are part of what makes New Orleans a unique city today.