New Orleans was founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, commandant general of the Louisiana Colony, then controlled by the French Company of the West, as a trading post on the Mississippi River. The city was named for the French Regent Philippe, the Duke of Orleans. In 1821, Adrien de Pauger laid out the grid that became the French Quarter or Vieux Carre. He named Bourbon Street in honor of the French royal family.
New Orleans became part of the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The transfer was completed at the Cabildo, now part of Jackson Square, at a price of $15 million or less than 3 cents an acre.
The city’s best known landmark is St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. The cathedral was built in 1727 to honor Louis XIV of France and has been rebuilt twice since that time, most recently around 1850 when the three main towers were reconstructed. It is the oldest continuously operating Catholic cathedral in the United States.
Jackson in New Orleans
In front of the cathedral is the famous statue of Andrew Jackson on horseback commemorating his victory in the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815. The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, had actually been signed in December 1814, but word did not reach New Orleans until February.
The statue of Jackson was erected in 1856 and is the first equestrian statue to have more than one unsupported leg. The famous inscription at the base of the statue, “The Union must and shall be preserved,” has little to do with Jackson. It was placed there in 1862 by General Benjamin Butler after the Union took New Orleans.
Jackson scored a great victory in New Orleans, but he wasn’t alone. He had help from pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte. Jean and his brother Pierre ran a smuggling operation in a swampy area outside of New Orleans called Barataria. But when Pierre was arrested by local authorities, Jean chose to aid Jackson in return for a pardon. Eight hundred of Lafitte’s men fought on the American side, and their effort is now commemorated by Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.
Cities of the Dead
Because some parts of New Orleans are 5 feet to 10 feet below sea level, the dead are often buried above ground in stone tombs or mausoleums. New Orleans cemeteries are sometimes called “Cities of the Dead.”
St Louis cemetery No. 1, close to the French Quarter, is the resting place of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen. Voodoo, whose practices derive from a mixture of African and Caribbean traditions, was an integral part of life in 19th century New Orleans. Its roots were in Africa but were mixed with local culture in New Orleans.
Marie Laveau was a practitioner of ritual and ceremony. Many people still visit her tomb, marking Xs or bringing gifts in the hope that her spirit can still perform its magic. Her legacy was carried on by her daughter, Marie Laveau II, whom many thought was a reincarnation.
New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, and the rhythms and sounds of voodoo ceremonies helped contribute to its development. Over the years, many well-known jazz artists—including Sidney Bechet, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, and Ellis, Wynton, and Branford Marsalis—have come from New Orleans. The most famous, of course, is Louis Armstrong, also known as “Pops” or “Satchmo.”
Armstrong was born poor in New Orleans and taught himself to play the cornet, an instrument similar to the trumpet. He worked with local bands and on riverboats before achieving fame as a soloist and mainstream musician. Even though he lived in New York for most of his professional life, he is still remembered in New Orleans. Louis Armstrong Park in the Treme, one of America’s oldest black neighborhoods, is dedicated to his memory, as is Louis Armstrong New Orleans
Armstrong, at 63, was the oldest artist to have a Billboard No. 1 single; his rendition of “Hello Dolly” in 1964 knocked the Beatles from the top spot.
Armstrong took the gospel and spiritual tune “When The Saints Go Marching In” and made it popular as a jazz piece. The piece has been performed by many New Orleans musicians and is often played as part of a jazz funeral march.
Marching with the Saints
Today, New Orleans’ most famous “Saints” play in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Superdome was rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina in 2006 and now has a capacity of 76,468. It is the largest sports venue with a fixed dome in the world. The Superdome has hosted five NCAA Final Four tournaments and a record six Super Bowls.
The fleur-de-lys on the Saints’ helmet is emblematic of New Orleans. The symbol, an artistic version of a lily flower, was an emblem of the French royal family, and flags were planted with a fleur-de-lys when Louisiana was settled. It appears on the official flag of New Orleans and in 2008 became the official symbol of Louisiana. To many, the fleur-de-lys symbolizes the city’s recovery after Hurricane Katrina.
Stuart J. Fischer, MD, is a member of the AAOS Now editorial board.