Mardi Gras 2017 is Tuesday, February 28th
A Brief History of The French Quarter in New Orleans
Mardi Gras, Music, Food, History, Art and Architecture in the Vieux Carre (French Quarter)
Known by most as party central during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the French Quarter is in fact a deeply rooted part of the community with history, and cultural roots dating back to the early French and Spanish settlers.
Though the limits tend to stretch a bit during Carnival season, Jazz Fest, and at other festive times of year, officially, The French Quarter is defined as the area bordered by N. Rampart St. (To the north), Canal St. (on the west), and Esplanade Ave. (to the east), inclusive of about 80-90 small city blocks running down to Decatur St. and the Mississippi River.
French Quarter History
Also known as the Vieux Carre (Old Square), the French Quarter, is not just New Orleans’ most well known district; it’s also the oldest “neighborhood” in the city. Founded by the French in 1718, the city was named after the Duke of Orleans. The French then gave Louisiana (and, by extension, New Orleans and the French Quarter) to the Spanish in 1762 as part of the Treaty of Fontainebleau. Then, in 1800, the Spanish returned Louisiana to the French, who didn’t really take administrative control until 1803, just before the Louisiana Purchase gave control of Louisiana, and much the rest of what we now think of as the western states to the United States.
As part of Louisiana, the only state to have been ruled by three countries (Spain, France, and the United States), the French Quarter has seen its share of ups and downs, its fortunes rising and falling with the changers in government and the whims of society. When Jackson Square was a parade ground, the area was favored by the military. Later, when the land around the parade ground was deeded to wealthy businessmen and city founders, the area became the home of aristocrats. As a result, new buildings went up and others were well maintained, including two apartment buildings (flanking the main square). Built by Baroness Michaela Pontalba (daughter of a Spanish official) they’re still standing, and are said to be the “oldest apartment buildings in the United States”.
In the early to mid-1800s, the French Quarter underwent a kind of renaissance, as riverboats brought cotton and sugar through the city. American, Irish, German, and “foreign French” immigrants poured in, creating a creolized mix of cultures, language, food, religion, music, dance, art, and architecture. To this day, the French Quarter is filled with French, Spanish, “native”, and Creole architectural reminders of the area’s grand past. But times were not always so grand in the heart of the Big Easy.
ARCHTITECTURE BUFFS: For visitors it’s possible to take in the architectural wonders of the French Quarter through home and dedicated architectural walking tours, which are offered year-round, and with greater frequency during the busiest times of year.
In the late 19th Century hard times fell on the French Quarter as the Garden District and other parts of town came into favor, and a largely immigrant population came to live in the city’s oldest neighborhood (the French Quarter). It wasn’t until roughly 1936 (and formation of the Vieux Carre Commission) that historic preservationists began to revive the French Quarter as a reminder of the city’s struggles and successes. Their work continues to this day, and is largely responsible for the French Quarter’s visual character, and numerous galleys, and antique stores.
The French Quarter is also renowned for its musical offerings. But the area has been a haven for creative types of all stripes. From Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams to John James Audubon, writers have docked to the French Quarter, drawn by its intimate spaces, colorful characters, and stories. And it goes without saying that the French Quarter has been inspiration, training ground, and venue for Jazz and Blues musicians from the earliest days of those genres.
Mardi Gras In The French Quarter
While New Orleans is known for Bourbon Street, Jackson Square, St. Louis Cathedral, and hosting the most well known Carnival celebration in the United States, it was not the home of the earliest Mardi Grads tradition. Mobile, Alabama first celebrated Mardi Gras in the early 1700s. By contrast, the earliest reports of Mardi Gras in New Orleans put the date around 1730, but the first documented (official) “masking event” (a procession of masked revelers) was held in 1837. But, as will happen during Carnival, events soon escalated, and within a decade Mardi Gras merriment was so frenzied that some citizens lobbied for a ban on all Mardi Gras events.
Despite the complaints, six men from Mobile and thirteen New Orleans locals banded together and formed the "Mistick Krewe of Comus" (a reference to a John Milton poem), New Orleans’ first parading society. And in 1857 they held their first Mardi Gras parade (two carts). Later they added a secret ball to their Carnival lineup. To this day, secret (invitation only) balls and parades are the real mainstay of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The French Quarter is a complex hive (historically and physically) in the heart of New Orleans. It’s rich and complex history, varied architecture, and legendary literary and musical lineage make it the ideal place for The Big Easy to take it easy. It hosts Mardi Gras every year, but, for good or for bad, is an anchor point in the community all year round.
Sources (and External Links)
The author/editor is indebted to others for the content in this article. While the final product on this page is ours, and we claim full ownership and responsibility for same, what you read here is based on our research, which led us to the following sources of information:
4. Fact Monster
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