In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Atlantic New Orleans: 18th and 19th Centuries

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Archival Repositories in New Orleans
  • Archival Repositories outside of New Orleans
  • Digital Archives and Projects
  • Memoirs and Personal Narratives
  • Colonial Life, Politics, and Economics
  • Frontier City, Exchanges, and Migrations
  • Race, Material Culture, and the Making of a Slave Society
  • Early American New Orleans
  • The Saint-Domingue Connection
  • “Creole New Orleans”
  • New Orleans, Slavery, and Capitalism
  • Slave Culture and Slave Resistance in New Orleans
  • Fighting for Black Rights (1850–1896)
  • Conclusion: New Perspectives

Atlantic History Atlantic New Orleans: 18th and 19th Centuries
Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec, Nathalie Dessens
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 May 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0337


Founded in 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, the city of La Nouvelle-Orléans was named in honor of the French Regent Philippe, Duc d’Orléans. In 1722, it became the capital of the then-French colony of Louisiana. After four decades of French rule, it was ceded to Spain, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, in 1762. Almost four decades later, in 1800, it was briefly (and secretly) retroceded to France before the latter, faced with defeat in neighboring Saint-Domingue, sold it to the United States in 1803, turning La Nouvelle-Orléans into New Orleans. Throughout the eighty-five years of its colonial history, it remained a small frontier town, with a population of about 8,000 in 1805. Its integration to the United States marked the beginning of its expansion, favored by its ideal position at the mouth of the Mississippi River, at the confluence of the main riverway of the young American republic and the Gulf of Mexico, a position which permitted exchanges of products and people between the United States, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic. Receiving large contingents of migrants (free and forced) from the eastern part of the United States, the Caribbean (especially the “refugees” from the Haitian Revolution), Europe (France, in particular, throughout the first half of the 19th century), and Africa (until the closing of the Atlantic slave trade), it grew to 102,193 inhabitants by 1840, then becoming the third-largest city in the United States. Its specific colonial past and singular evolution in the early American period account for its complex status in the 19th-century United States. Because it relied on the institution of slavery, it was a city of the South in the forty-year sectional confrontation that eventually tore the country apart in 1860. The presence of a significant population of free people of color, often educated, politically conscious, and socially and economically active, however, made it depart from the usual Southern pattern. Moreover, its existence as one of the main port cities of the United States, its cosmopolitanism, and its multilingualism made it follow a development pattern closer to that of the Atlantic port cities of the northeastern United States. After the Civil War, it became the spearhead of the civil rights movement, under the lead of the politically conscious, culturally, socially, and sometimes economically influential population of color that had been free before the Civil War. When the 19th century closed, New Orleans became an American city of the segregated South and its Atlantic destiny ended.

General Overviews

Historians of New Orleans (many of them working within an Atlantic perspective) have recently opted to refute the long-asserted breaches supposedly caused by the transfers between the French and Spanish colonial empires and then the purchase of Louisiana by the United States. They insist more on continuity than rupture between the various periods (“French,” “Spanish,” and “American”). Very few books, however, cover the history of New Orleans between its founding and the end of its Atlantic period in the late 19th century, two relative exceptions being the powerful, synthetic narrative of Powell 2012 and the useful narrative of Sublette 2009, although neither covers the whole 19th century. Though not technically overviews, a number of recently edited collections of essays have attempted to breach national divides, from Bond 2005 and Boelhower 2013 to the recent Vidal 2014 and Dessens and Le Glaunec 2016. The bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase and the tricentennial of the founding of New Orleans have been marked by the publication of useful reference works including Lemmon, et al. 2003 and, more recently, Greenwald and Colomer 2018. The key overview guides to the “French” and “Spanish” periods are Havard and Vidal 2008 and Din 1996, respectively.

  • Boelhower, William, ed. New Orleans in the Atlantic World: Between Land and Sea. London: Routledge, 2013.

    Reprint of a 2008 special, double issue of the journal Atlantic Studies (“New Orleans in the Atlantic World,” vol. 5, no. 2 and 3). Eleven contributions from historians, geographers, anthropologists, and American studies specialists. Includes contributions from Adam Rothman, Markus Rediker, Walter Johnson, Douglas Chambers, and a very useful historiographical essay by Mark L. Thompson.

  • Bond, Bradley, ed. French Colonial Louisiana and the Atlantic World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

    A collection of twelve chapters by historians of Louisiana studying French colonial Louisiana under various perspectives, Native Americans being granted more space than in most historical works on Louisiana. The topic is larger than New Orleans, but the resolutely Atlantic focus sets a very good contextual and theoretical framework for a study of New Orleans’ connections with the Atlantic world.

  • Dessens, Nathalie, and Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec, eds. Interculturalité: La Louisiane au carrefour des cultures. Collection « Les Voies du Français ». Quebec: Presse de l’Université Laval, 2016.

    This collection of thirteen chapters (in French), written by Canadian, French, and American historians, linguists, and specialists of popular culture, is a study of intercultural New Orleans during its three centuries of existence. From religion to material culture, politics, celebrations, linguistic practices, and even zydeco, it partakes of the Atlantic turn that has marked the history of New Orleans since the early 2000s.

  • Din, Gilbert C., ed. The Spanish Presence in Louisiana, 1763–1803. Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana, Center for Louisiana Studies, 1996.

    This key reference book (composed of over thirty essays and articles) is the second volume in the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial series, the project of which was launched in 1992. It is not technically an overview, but it is the starting point for anyone hoping to get a comprehensive grasp of the principal research and historiographical questions related to “Spanish” Louisiana up until the early 1990s.

  • Greenwald, Erin M., and Henry Colomer, eds. New Orleans, The Founding Era. New Orleans, LA: Historic New Orleans Collection, 2018.

    Companion guide to the eponymous exhibition displayed at the Historic New Orleans Collection for the tricentennial of the City of New Orleans. Organized in two parts. Part 1 is made of nine contextualizing essays written by Robbie Ethridge, Cécile Vidal, Erin Greenwald, Gilles-Antoine Langlois, Emily Clark, Yevan Terrien, Daniel Usner, and Shannon Lee Dawdy. Part 2 is the exhibition checklist. The book is beautifully illustrated.

  • Havard, Gilles, and Cécile Vidal. Histoire de l’Amérique française. Paris: Flammarion, 2008.

    This now-classic overview of L’Amérique française is a starting point for anyone trying to figure out how the different pieces of the French North American empire (including, of course, New Orleans and Lower Louisiana more generally) interacted in the longue durée of its history. Indeed, “French” New Orleans and its hinterland were intimately connected to the Pays des Illinois and New France more generally.

  • Lemmon, Alfred E., John T. Magill, and Jason Wiese. Charting Louisiana: Five Hundred Years of Maps. New Orleans, LA: Historic New Orleans Collection, 2003.

    Published to coincide with the bicentennial of the vente de la Louisiane/Louisiana Purchase, this monumental book brings together almost 200 maps tracing the development of Louisiana from its beginnings to the present.

  • Powell, Lawrence. The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674065444

    There are few overviews of the birth and development of the city of New Orleans across time from the “French” to the “American” period. Powell’s elegantly written synthesis of the first century of New Orleans history is one of them. Although it does not cover the 19th century as such, it closes with an epilogue that extends to the Civil War period.

  • Sublette, N., ed. The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2009.

    A useful overview of New Orleans’s history from its founding to the 1820s. The book pays particular attention to the various social, ethnic, and racial groups that made the city over the first century of its existence.

  • Vidal, Cécile, ed. Louisiana, Crossroads of the Atlantic World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

    A collection of nine essays, written by Guillaume Aubert, Alexandre Dubé, Sylvia L. Hilton, Sophie White, Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec, Cécile Vidal, Mary Williams, Emily Clark, and Sylvia R. Frey, looking at Louisiana from a Cis-Atlantic world perspective (à la David Armytage). The book, concluded by Sylvia R. Frey’s “Revising Atlantic History,” signals an important historiographical shift toward a better understanding of Louisiana’s Atlantic dimension.

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