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Old Records Reveal a New Story About The Crescent City

A few years ago I was present at the taping for the History Channel where several historians were being interviewed for a show that a friend of mine was in town producing. I’ll never forget when one historian in talking about New Orleans said it is a historian’s paradise.

I mean those that live here know that we are surrounded by history on all fronts, cultural, architectural, culinary and musical. But I don’t think we understand the extent of the depth of it. I began to realize that not only is the history of New Orleans wide in that it affects so many aspects of life here but it’s deep too. We are just beginning to see how the history of the city in its early days has affected the history of the entire United States.

Now a new project is turn thousands of 18th century Spanish and French documents recently discovered in a vault in a New Orleans museum into digitized form is underway at the Old United States Mint Museum.

Old 18th Century Records Reveal a New Story About The Crescent City

18th century new orleans

View of New Orleans in the 18th century. Notice the barricades around the city.

An article on Art Daily explains the project

Yellowed page by yellowed page, archivists are scanning the 220,000 manuscript pages from the French Superior Council and Spanish Judiciary between 1714 and 1803 in an effort to digitize, preserve, translate and index Louisiana’s colonial past and in the process help re-write American history.

“No single historian could ever live long enough to write all the books that are to be written from all these documents,” said Emily Clark, a Tulane University historian who has worked in the papers.

The few historians who’ve pored over the unique archive say it’s pivotal because it connects early America to the broader history of the Atlantic slave trade. It’s at the heart of a wave of research tracing American roots beyond the English colonies and into Spain, France and Africa.

“We don’t think of American society simply built from east to west, but we think of it as built from south to north,” said Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland historian.

“As you begin to think of a different kind of history, you’re naturally looking for new kinds of sources to write that history.”

The hope is that digitization will change everything: literally allowing researchers to look at the fibers in a page and open up the collection for all to see and interpret.

Some of what we know about slavery today largely comes from myth and today’s political correctness. But this doesn’t really tell the full story. For instance, engaging in slavery was not just a white man’s privilege. Not many know or will even want to admit that free blacks in New Orleans owned slaves.

Now it’s come to light through research into these old records that even slaves owned slaves. Of course, all this flies in the face of conventional wisdom.

A project like this is important. We need to bring to the light of day the details of our past so we can understand our present. It’s like the old saying goes, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. This project shows even more just how deep the past in New Orleans goes.

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Posted in New Orleans Culture, New Orleans History, New Orleans Life, New Orleans News.

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