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The Accidental City – Improvising New Orleans – An Early New Orleans History

The first 100 years of New Orleans history is told in beautiful prose and in rich detail in The Accidental City

Being from The Crescent City I am always interested in reading books our history and culture. The Accidental City – Improvising New Orleans by Lawrence N. Powell is an eye-opening account of the city’s early days.

Most folk from here know some of our history but the knowledge of its founding and years of its early development usually are made up of these few facts: Bienville founded it on Mardi Gras point in 1718, a bunch of stuff happened for a while until Spain took it over, the French Quarter burned and was rebuilt in the image and likeness of Spanish architecture, there were some hurricanes, it was muddy sometimes, the port became the most important one in early America, something happened where France took it back and then sold it and the entire Louisiana territory to America during the presidency of Jefferson.

For most folks these first 100 years seem to be obscured in the same kind of swampy fogs that surround the city in early spring.

The First 100 Years of New Orleans History as told in The Accidental City – Improvising New Orleans

Powell’s new book shines a light on these important early years and suddenly the once murky foundations of New Orleans are clearly exposed. What the author has done is give us a recounting in lively and at times stunningly beautiful prose of the trials and tribulations of what’s considered by many to be America’s most interesting city.

For instance, I never realized that Bienville was from a French Canadian family and practically forced France to recognize the spot that he chose as the place where the city should be settled. There were better spots near Manchac that would have been more appropriate and not as water-logged with better access to the gulf. In fact, there was a settlement that started there that tried to force Bienville’s hand.

But the explorer had claimed much of the land around the city as his own and as such was set to make a killing if New Orleans was planted in the spot where it now stands. Through the force of his character and political finagling he was able to succeed.

Also, the settlement was seen as an opportune spot to be able to ship tobacco back to France since the French were having to get their tobacco from England by way of the Chesepeake a prime spot for growing high quality tobacco. They wanted their own supply and they looked to the land around New Orleans as the perfect place to begin cultivation.

Only problem was, as they later found out, the area is too hot and wet for tobacco. Although it was grown and exported the quality of it was inferior to Chesepeake colony’s so it was never a very successful cash crop.

But New Orleans remained and grew in importance to the burgeoning American continent and to Caribbean trade eventually being handed over to Spain much to the displeasure of the French-Creole inhabitants.

Sunday at the market in New Orleans in the early days saw a mix of multiple cultures, ethnicities and social strata – slaves, owners, Creoles, Indians, and free people of color.

Race relations warrants a whole three chapters and makes for some of the most interesting reading of the entire book. Seems that the idea of slavery is not all black and white as current history would like you to believe. At least slavery in New Orleans was different from rest of the United States.

Yes, there were enslaved people but what’s not mentioned from other sources is some of the slaves were allowed to carry firearms, get private jobs and work for themselves, have their own plots of land to grow food that they could sell in the open market. This being a port city it was not unusual to find them cavorting with with free people in the dance halls and taverns.

Sometimes they could actually buy their way out of slavery and become part of the class of gens de couleur libres, the free people of color, and if successful eventually purchase their own slaves. All of this made for a very complicated social structure many feeling, owners, slaves and free people alike, not knowing exactly where they stood.

Here are some examples of a few of his beautiful passages that had me thinking to myself, ‘Gee, I wish I could write like that.’ Every page had at least one of these striking passages, some so beautiful they gave me goosebumps.

Here are a few:

“Racial purity was hard to enforce on a fluid frontier where proletarians from three continents came and went like the squalls from the Gulf.”
“…their town was taking on an African tinge, at a time when revolutionary waves were dissolving empires with the ease of a spring flood washing out weakened levees.”
“There was the swampy ecology through which New Orleans slavery twined like wisteria through a trellis.”

And he sums up the city with this eloquent paragraph:

New Orleans developed into something greater than a mere entrepôt for a continent. It became a state of mind, built on the edge of disaster, where the lineages of three continents and countless races and ethnicities were forced to crowd together on slopes of the natural levee and somehow learn to improvise a coexistence whose legacy may be America’s only original contribution to world culture. For that legacy alone, we owe Bienville some measure of gratitude.

The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans is a thoroughly researched, well-crafted addition to books about New Orleans. Reading it would be a worthy, eye-opening trek for anyone who loves New Orleans history and its unusual, and beautifully quirky culture.

Through this link you can get The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans

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  • Santha

    Sounds great! As a new resident to the city I am eager to learn all I can about its history. I can’t wait to read it.

  • Richard Bienvenu

    It’s a great book and if you are new to the city certainly helps to explain a lot about our culture.



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