Walking tour unveils city’s history

NEW ORLEANS—  “My name is Patricia Corral and, today, I will be taking you on a tour along the Mississippi. I hope you’ll learn something about the history and culture of our city.”

It was another normal overcast day in New Orleans and Patricia Corral was starting what was becoming her favorite part of her new job.

“I’m not quite a fully qualified ranger yet, but I soon will be,” she tells a group of 20 or so tourists at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park Visitor Center here. “The tour should last about an hour and a half, but sometimes it runs a little over if I get too excited, I have so much to tell you guys!”

 Click on the video at right to view an audio slide show about the National Park Service’s guided French Quarter walking tour photographed and narrated by writer Carly Mills.  

The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park Visitor Center is located on Decatur Street, in the heart of the French Quarter. The Visitor Center holds a tour everyday along the Mississippi River about the history of New Orleans and how the city began.

A ranger will begin the walk at 9.30 a.m. at the Visitor Center, starting with how many different cultures come together in New Orleans.

Local residents, she said, like to use the metaphor of a gumbo— a popular and well- known combination of food thrown into a type of stew. New Orleans, guides explain, is much like a gumbo, with every culture having its contribution. The Africans added Okra, the natives added sassafras, the French put in roux, the Spanish threw in tomatoes, and the Germans included sausage.

At left, the statue of Bienville, founder of New Orleans, placed at the in the French Quarter. Standing behind him is a priest, and to his right is a Native American (Photographs by Carly Mills).

“Gumbo is highly representative of New Orleans culture,” said Corral continued.

The tour then goes to a series of photos that describe the founding of the city. John Baptiste Bienville founded it in 1718. He and his brother were French Canadians, and had travelled to France to get soldiers to come to the Mississippi River Region to find a place to colonize.

The photos and descriptions then tell how they began to build up a new community. New Orleans is at the base of a bowl and, with the amount of floods, hurricanes, yellow fever, and other such disasters, people didn’t build houses to last. They started off being built of wood, wooden posts making the walls, beams acted as a roof, and mud was used as plaster.

In 1720, Bienville decided he wanted more permanent housing, in more of a grid system, so he asked engineer Adrien Du Pogee to oversee the layout.

At right, the Jean Lafitte Natonal Historical Park and Preserve Visitor Center walking tour concludes at Jackson Square. Below next, the statue built in memory of immigrants, many of whom died from sickness or natural disaster. Next, a painting that served as an advertisement. Last, a map of the settled tribes in the Louisiana area.

The people of New Orleans however, refused to knock down their houses in favour of this idea, and it was only when there was a hurricane in 1722 that the city was destroyed. Houses were rebuilt in blocks, with two storeys a common design.

The bottom storey would be open and breezy, allowing it to cool down the floor of the second storey where people lived. Living mostly on the second floor also meant possessions were not destroyed when there were floods.

The tour then continues on to a statue right at the head of the French Quarter. The statue is of three figures, the tallest of which is Bienville.

While his brother had wanted to settle further down river, Bienville believed it uninhabitable and natives led him further up river to New Orleans. He immediately began to clear it and colonize it. The second figure is a priest, who has come on the journey with them, and the third crouching figure is from Chitimacha Tribe, one of the last surviving tribes in Louisiana. Many of them have died out, or intermarried.

“There are only a handful of federally recognized tribes left in Louisiana,” said Corral.

King Louis XIII of France realized he needed to populate the colony— it was he who had sent the soldiers with Bienville and how he feared the British or Spanish might come down and take the territory.

He also found it difficult to get people to come. Who wanted to leave France to live somewhere that was more water than land? Or that had diseases that killed hundreds of people at a time? So, he emptied the prisons, sent the homeless, sent people from the asylums, as well as women of ill repute, anyone he didn’t want in France.

There is a statue on the banks of the Mississippi dedicated to the immigrants. Gradually more began to come to New Orleans, but there was a lot of false propaganda about the area such as pictures that were distributed in newspapers depicting people surrounded by gold, a lush blue Mississippi River in the background, with natives as slaves.

The colonists tried to make slaves of the natives, but of course, they just ran off, so gradually the colonists started bringing in slaves from Africa.

The Cajuns were from French Canada, originally the Acadians. When the British had taken control of Canada, the French Canadians had refused to pledge allegiance to them, so the British governor had them sent away, some to France, some to the Caribbean and some to New Orleans.

Soon, Irish, Greeks, Italians, and Jews all flocked there and New Orleans became the second biggest port in New Orleans.

The final stop on the tour is the Place D’Arms opposite Jackson Square on the river. The area was heavily influenced by Spanish people, primarily Cauildo Andreas. He came to Spanish New Orleans and invested in real estate around French Quarter. He rented it out, and invested the money back into the economy, funding the first public school for boys.

Slaves began to get more rights, and were allowed to buy their freedom. Andreas’ daughter, Michaela also had a huge influence on the city. She was known for being extremely headstrong and stubborn and, at 18, married a French man.

She moved to Paris with him, but didn’t get on with his father after telling him she would sign her wealth to him in the event of her death. She had a son, and their relationship worsened.

“The story goes, she and her father in law were having a fight over her sons education, when the father in law, goes, gets a gun, and shoots her four times before killing himself,” said Corral. “She lives though and is nursed back to health by her husband before divorcing him and returning to New Orleans.”

She found her precious city in disrepair, and began putting her wealth into restoring the city.

She re-landscaped the square, put the wrought iron fence around it to protect it, and renamed it Jackson Square after Gen. Andrew Jackson, and partially funded the statue in the square in his honor.

“And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes the tour,” said a breathless Corral at the end of our story.

But how did our fellow tourists take it?

“I found it very informative. Once you do tours like these, you get a much better feel of the city,” said Natalie Sacaritas, a tourist from California.

“I learned a lot about the architecture and the people,” said John O’Connell from Ireland.

“It gave me an interesting view of the City,” said Trisha Thompson who was visiting New Orleans from Georgia.

To fully understand then how the city came together, and the huge amount of interesting history it holds, the Jean Lafitte Visitor’s Center tour is not to be missed on a trip to New Orleans.

If You Go…

The tour is free, and leaves everyday at 9.30 a.m. (excluding Dec 25 and Mardi Gras).

The tour has a limit of 25 people each day, so an early arrival is recommended.

Tickets are dispensed at 9 a.m. The walk lasts about an hour and a half. It leaves from the Jean Lafitte Visitor Center at 419 Decatur St., New Orleans.

Telephone 504-589-2636.

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