Bienville and the founding of New Orleans

this year, our Homecoming tradition took us for the first time to a city where none of us have ever lived, and two-thirds of us had never been: the Crescent City, the Big Easy, home of the cocktail, voodoo, jazz, and beignets — New Orleans.

we were up early the first morning to explore the city, heading first to the French Quarter the oldest and possibly most atmospheric of the cities sections. initially, I was taken aback by how little of the city’s early history I knew — first settled by the French, then taken over by the Spanish and returned to the French only to be sold to the fledgling United States. up from the Louisiana Purchase I have a vague understanding of how things operated, but I was delighted to discover a much more layered and rich history than I’d ever anticipated.

one of the first plaza statues we encountered was of Bienville, one of the founders of New Orleans and early governor of the French colony. born in Montreal, he was appointed to the position for the first time in 1701 and established several settlements, including a deep water port at Dauphine Island, what is now Mobile, Alabama, and ultimately New Orleans. the slight elevation made it far more practical than other sites along the flood-prone river and delta and was convenient to important trading positions. with permission from the company directors, he established New Orleans in 1718 and the heart of it — what is now known as the the Vieux Carre or French Quarter — was drawn up between 1720-21. the proposed grid pattern was largely overlooked by settlers initially, but when a hurricane flattened most of the existing structures in 1722, the new pattern went into effect, as we see it today. it became capital of the new colony, named for the Duc d’Orleans, in 1723.

the land had been inhabited for thousands of years by native peoples and, generally, the original inhabitants welcomed and aided early settlers, such as French trappers and traders traversing the Mississippi River. Bienville was known for his cordial relations with Native Americans, one of few early governors who could communicate without the use of an interpreter and, moreover, willing to aid local tribes against opposition tribes. many of the settlers were unsavory types and the governor complained frequently in his letters back to the central government. his relationship with administrators of the Company of the Indies, which controlled the colony, was fractious and resulted in him being recalled to France in 1725. he returned some 8 years later and severed as governor officially and focused on fortifying the settlement. all told, he served 30 years as governor over a 42 year period and retired to live in Paris for more than twenty years.