Imagine being an American citizen. Maybe you are one already, so that makes it easier. One day, people show up to your town and tell you, “You’re Spanish now! Your government is now all in Spanish.” If you lived in New Orleans in 1763, this kind of thing would have actually happened to you. And that’s just one chapter in the story of New Orleans, which is one of the world’s hotspots of language exchange.
New Orleans is one of the most important cities in the United States thanks to its strategic location near the mouth of the Mississippi River. It was a major hub for immigration, war and the slave trade, which meant people from all over the world would pass through the city. And while there are many ways to slice up a city’s history, we wanted to look at one angle that’s not adopted too often: languages. Diving into the multilingual history of New Orleans alone provides a fascinating story of politics and change.
Beginnings As A French Colony
During the 17th and 18th centuries, North and South America were the subject of constant European land grabs. Louisiana, with its prime location in the Gulf of Mexico, was prime real estate. The original residents of Louisiana were, of course, Native Americans, but that didn’t stop the Spanish, French, English and others from claiming the territory.
Spain was the first to lay claim to the region that would be New Orleans. But because the Spanish people didn’t actually build anything, the French came in at the turn of the 18th century and took over. The city of La Nouvelle-Orleans was founded by Governor of French Louisiana Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne in 1718 and it was made the capital in 1722, but the city did not get off to an auspicious start.
The area around New Orleans, despite being home to a now-successful city, was not exactly ideal. For one, it’s a bayou, and it’s not easy to build on such marshy land. And despite early optimism among the French, Louisiana did not offer up minerals or resources that could make the land valuable. A man named John Law devised a plan to make New Orleans a center for the tobacco industry, but struggled to attract willing workers to the swampy city.
In a last-ditch effort to populate languishing New Orleans in 1719, France offered male prisoners the option to marry female prisoners (mostly sex workers) and be shipped off to Louisiana rather than serve out their sentence in prison. This may not sound like a great formula for starting a city, and it really wasn’t. Most reports from the time describe a disordered and crime-ridden situation in New Orleans. But after the prison program ended in 1722 and the city recovered from a hurricane, New Orleans slowly became a typical French colonial city.
Forfeiture To Spain
If you go to the French Quarter — the oldest part of New Orleans — you may notice something: it doesn’t look French at all. And that’s because France gave its colony to Spain in 1763. Why would it do that? Well, you see, they’d just lost the Seven Years’ War. To the British. Instead of giving away all their land in North America to the British, France decided to secretly give some of its territory to the Spanish.
The residents of New Orleans didn’t really have a say in any of this. It took three years for the Spanish to even send a new governor to let all the French citizens (and Germans, because Germans had also immigrated to the area) know that they were now Spanish. People weren’t particularly happy with being Spanish, but they didn’t riot in the streets, either. At one point, a small group of locals made the Spanish governor flee in what was the bloodless Rebellion of 1768. The Spanish governor came back and killed a few of the members of the rebellion, and that was that.
Spain controlled New Orleans for just about 40 years — almost the same amount of time that France did — but left much less of a mark on the city than the French. Spain’s primary legacy is the architecture; after the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 and subsequent fires, the city had to be almost entirely rebuilt. That’s why the old parts of the city now have almost exclusively Spanish architecture. This period was also when New Orleans established itself as a trading post, becoming a major part of the growing sugar industry and home to enslaved Africans, who brought their language with them.
The people of the city, despite increasing outside influence, remained pretty French. The citizens continued their lives as before, though Spain did get rid of some French traditions (most notably Mardi Gras, which certainly upset the Louisianans). Most importantly, the Spanish didn’t send over a huge number of people, and the people that did go to New Orleans from Spain were almost entirely men. This meant that when Spanish men did marry a New Orleans local, the children would be raised with French traditions and language. There were definitely Spanish influences that stuck around — New Orleans food, for example, has clear Spanish influences — but the city stayed predominantly French.
Back To French With Napoleon
At the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon was building his French Empire. In a trade with Spain, France regained control of Louisiana in exchange for territories in Tuscany. And just like that, New Orleans was officially French again! For about 20 days.
After that, the whole French territory in North America was sold to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Napoleon wanted money to fight his wars in Europe, and the United States just wanted as much land as possible.
And Then The United States
French — more specifically Louisiana Creole French — remained the most common language in New Orleans for a few decades after becoming part of the United States. But in 1830, a huge influx of new settlers, mainly from Ireland and Germany, knocked French out of first place, and English became the dominant language. As part of the United States, that was only a matter of time.
Since then, New Orleans has been dominated by English, but it has never quite shaken its past. French is only the third most-spoken language, behind English and Spanish, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t kept its French spirit. Travelers will note that, especially when compared to other American cities, New Orleans feels like an entirely different place; more European than American. The city owes its culture to a huge array of immigrants — Africans, the Irish, Germans, the Spanish and more.
New Orleans is one of the most history-laden cities in the United States. Because we focused on language, we didn’t even mention the time Aaron Burr tried to steal the Louisiana Purchase or the time Andrew Jackson placed the whole city under martial law for far longer than necessary. History is often told through the lens of people or events, but that’s just two options among many. Looking at local languages can reveal so much about the history and culture of a place over time.