Why the Culture in New Orleans is Unique

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New Orleans has been a prominent city in the state of Louisiana. It is situated on a bend of the Mississippi River, 100 miles from its mouth. The city was founded by the French and thereafter ruled by the Spanish for 40 years. After this, it was bought by the United States in the famous Louisiana Purchase. New Orleans is steeped in history and has a rich cultural legacy. Being a melting pot of cultures, it offers an atmosphere that is a mix of French, African-American, Spanish, Caribbean, Italian, Irish, Haitian, Vietnamese and German cultures. The diverse history and traditions of the region are the reason why it is considered to be one of the most distinctive cultural centers of North America. To understand the true essence of its cultural heritage, we must examine the history of the New Orleans area.


History of Louisiana


The state of Louisiana was first explored by the Spanish in the early 1500s, however, it was claimed by the French in 1692. The state was named after King Louis XIV. Louisiana has strong French influences, so much so that it has parishes instead of counties. It is also known as the Pelican State, with the pelican being the state bird.


French Influence in New Orleans

The earliest residents of New Orleans, even before the French, were the Native Americans of the Mississippian and Woodland cultures. Initially, there were very few white settlers who lived there permanently, even after the French claimed the territory after the expeditions of De Soto and La Salle. It was in 1718, that the city of Nouvelle-Orléans was founded by the governor of French Louisiana, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. He also transferred the capital of Louisiana from Biloxi to the city of Nouvelle-Orléans in 1722. The city was named as such to honor the Duke of Orleans, who was France’s ruling regent at the time.


The French influences are quite evident in the city, in the names of the streets, neighborhoods, and even in its gastronomic traditions. The French Quarter we know now was established by two French engineers, who laid out the first 66 squares of a walled village, calling it the Vieux Carré or Old City. Meanwhile, the streets like Bourbon, Bienville and Iberville were named after lesser royalty in the Duke’s court. The French Market we know today is where the German farmers and Indian hunters traded their goods.

French words are entrenched in the speech of the locals, whose mantra for life is “laissez les bon temps rouer”, which means let the good times roll. The influence of the French habits in the dining culture of the city is quite evident, with many restaurants in the city like Antoine’s and Galatoire’s featuring traditional French menus. The city also celebrates many French festivals like Mardi Gras and Bastille Day to this date.

Spanish Influence in New Orleans


It was in the 1760s that Louisiana was handed over to Spain, and for around 40 years, New Orleans was a Spanish city. The city adopted the Spanish racial rules, which allowed free colored people. It also started trading heavily with Mexico and Cuba during this time. The city witnessed huge fires in 1788 and 1794, after which it rebuilt the buildings and cathedrals. Thus, the trademark charm of New Orleans’ architecture seen now can be credited to the Spanish rebuilding effort.


The Spanish rule was short-lived, and Louisiana was given back to the French in 1803. Thereafter, it was sold to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. However, there is no denying the effect of Spanish influence in the city. Many buildings like the Cabildo, Presbytere, and St. Louis Cathedral were built during the Spanish era. The Cabildo, which is a museum now, is a landmark of Spanish influence, as it served as the administrative headquarters of Spain. One can even find many streets in the city which were named in honor of Spanish historical figures like Ulloa, Galvez, Gayoso, and Miro.

The festival of Running of the Bulls, which is held every year in New Orleans, pays homage to the world-famous Spanish tradition of Encierro at the San Fermin Festival. Spanish influence can also be seen in the many Spanish restaurants of the city, which offer everything from paella to tapas.


New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase


After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, New Orleans was handed over to the United States. It quickly became the third-largest and also wealthiest city in America. The port of this city was used to carry out most of the trade activities with the British Empire, South America, and the Caribbean. This meant that a lot of enslaved people were brought here for trade. However, the free black community in the city still thrived. New Orleans was the largest city in the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War. However, it could not fight back the Union troops.

New Orleans gradually became a strong political force in the Reconstruction era, as it tried to emancipate the enslaved people. Although sometimes impoverished, the city has a thriving African-American community. One of the most significant contributions of this community to the American culture is music. The 1900s saw the birth of jazz music in the clubs and dance halls of the city. African-American musicians from New Orleans have also been leaders in creating the blues style and the distinctive rhythm, which helped in the birth of rock ’n’ roll, funk, hip-hop, gospel, and brass band.


The 20th and 21st centuries brought many changes in the social fabric of the city, as America opened up to the world. New Orleans became a major immigrant destination for the Germans, Irish and Italians. This led the city to adopt the cultural traditions of the different nationalities it came in contact with. New Orleans is the best representation of the cross-pollination of different cultures, which mixed to create something new and contributed to the unique cultural ethos of the city.