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The Accidental City

The Accidental City: improvising New Orleans

LAWRENCE N. POWELL
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 448
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jbxrj
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  • Book Info
    The Accidental City
    Book Description:

    America’s most beguiling metropolis started out as a snake-infested, hurricane-battered swamp. Through intense imperial rivalries and ambitious settlers who risked their lives to succeed in colonial America, the site became a crossroads for the Atlantic world. Powell gives us the full sweep of the city’s history from its founding through statehood.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06544-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. 1 AN IMPOSSIBLE RIVER
    (pp. 1-32)

    There’s a place on the Lower Mississippi, twelve miles below the French Quarter, or Vieux Carré, where the serpentine river makes an abrupt westward shift before curling back on its southeasterly course toward the Gulf. The horseshoe bend got the name “English Turn” shortly after the Canadian-born Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, bluffed an English sea captain into turning around and sailing out to sea in mid-September 1700. A former midshipman and now a lieutenant in the French navy, Bienville was only nineteen years old at the time. He had been descending the river with five men in two...

  4. 2 A LANDJOBBING SCHEME
    (pp. 33-59)

    Bienville responded swiftly to the windfall that John Law was about to send Louisiana’s way. For the Canadian no less than for the struggling colony, Law’s scheme meant a new beginning. Bienville’s years on the infertile Gulf Coast, in and around Mobile, had been filled with frustration. The colony’s settlers nearly starved to death during the War of Spanish Succession (1702–1713), when supplies shipped from France and Saint-Domingue slowed to a trickle, ceasing altogether for one three-year span. The economy was propped up by occasional barter with the Spanish garrison at Pensacola. A real lifesaver was the thriving wheat...

  5. 3 UTOPIAN BY DESIGN
    (pp. 60-91)

    If the city’s ultimate placement on the Mississippi was more afterthought than design, this was hardly true of the first blueprints. Early New Orleans may have been one of the most deliberately planned towns in all of colonial North America. Its designation as the capital came at the acme of enlightened absolutism, when crown and court were experimenting with visionary projects for reorganizing the economy and addressing the “social” problem (read: too many rootless poor people). John Law’s debt management scheme was one of those projects, but so was the design of the city.

    You can glimpse these visionary origins...

  6. 4 IMPROVISING A CITY
    (pp. 92-128)

    By the time Bienville returned to France for good, even New Orleans’s most starry-eyed boosters had soured on the town’s possibilities. Visionary projects conceived in Paris and London didn’t travel well, especially across the Atlantic. The aims of the metropole were always being overridden by local purposes. But in New Orleans, utopianism collapsed into a puddle. The spongy environment posed all kinds of problems. It was hard to police boundaries that kept dissolving into cypress and hackberry trees. The diverse types of people who filled New Orleans’s urban spaces and worked its nearby plantations—the elites and the commoners, les...

  7. 5 CHANGING OF THE GUARD
    (pp. 129-163)

    Throughout 1765, New Orleans’s governing class had been squirming on tenterhooks, waiting to see whether His Most Catholic Majesty, Charles III of Spain, would take possession of a colony that Louis XV had secretly bestowed on his Bourbon cousin three years earlier. The cession expressed gratitude for Madrid’s agreement to enter the Seven Years War on the side of France.¹ But a year and a half would pass before Louisianans learned of their vassalage to a different sovereign, and another sixteen months would rush by before Don Antonio de Ulloa y de la Torre Guiral sent word from Havana that...

  8. 6 IN CONTRABAND WE TRUST
    (pp. 164-196)

    Among the great powers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, peace treaties were often breath-catching pauses in an ongoing struggle for empire. Following the Treaty of Paris (1763) at the end of the Seven Years War, England and Spain (but less so France, which had taken a drubbing) set out to overhaul their imperial administrations in order to pay for the last war and get ready for the next one. As every schoolchild knows, things didn’t work out well for England. Its Stamp Act and Tea Act reforms provoked thirteen of its North American colonies to revolt and win independence....

  9. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  10. 7 A CREOLE CITY
    (pp. 197-221)

    In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, disasters both manmade and natural pummeled New Orleans as predictably as summer downpours. One year the river would overtop its banks; the next it would crash through weakened levees, engorging bayous and streams. An extraordinary flood in 1782—the worst in living memory, according to old-time inhabitants—turned much of Lower Louisiana into a forested lake, save for the occasional hillock crowded with starving deer. Then there were the hurricanes—three major and several minor ones during the Spanish period alone. The tempests tore off roofs, sent schooners to the bottom, caused General Bernardo...

  11. 8 SLAVERY AND THE STRUGGLE FOR MASTERY
    (pp. 222-248)

    One thing was certain about slavery in colonial New Orleans: it was never static. It had a history—which is to say, it changed over time. The change was uneven, though. It was shaped by the environment, as well as by political and demographic factors. There was the swampy ecology through which New Orleans slavery twined like wisteria through a trellis. There were the never-ending backdrafts of international conflict unleashed by an imperial foot-race to control a continent. And there was the multicultural arena in which slavery along this stretch of the Lower Mississippi first played out. For almost overnight,...

  12. 9 THE SLAVES REMAKE THEMSELVES
    (pp. 249-276)

    Just when slaveholding elites of New Orleans thought they could exhale, political storms whipping off the coast of Saint-Domingue sent black waves of panic lapping at their levee. During the campaign against grand marronnage, the threat of slave insurrection had always seemed overblown. But the reports issuing in the 1790s from France’s fabulously rich sugar and coffee colony, home at the time to 450,000 slaves, 40,00 whites, and 28,000 gens de couleur libres (free people of color) portended real and present danger. A spillover from revolutionary developments in France, the island’s upheavals culminated in the world’s first black republic. The...

  13. 10 A NEW PEOPLE, A NEW RACIAL ORDER
    (pp. 277-313)

    Above and beyond decimating New Orleans’s housing stock, and strewing the homeless in lean-tos and tents all up and down the levee, the Good Friday fire of 1788 sent a considerable portion of the town’s inhabitants packing for good. Some were slaves reassigned by masters to neighboring plantations. The transients that port cities like New Orleans commonly attracted cleared out as well. There was also an exodus of long-time white residents, and several years would pass before many of them (or replacements) returned to town. Three years after the big blaze, for example, New Orleans’s population was still struggling to...

  14. 11 THE AMERICAN GATEWAY
    (pp. 314-351)

    For a city that was never supposed to exist—at least not on the sodden ridge where Bienville’s inveigling succeeded in planting it—New Orleans by the end of the eighteenth century had developed an almost talismanic power to sway empires, call forth new economies, and stir up intrigue. Much of its influence was due to land-hungry Anglo-Americans who had been pouring into the eastern half of its drainage basin since the outbreak of the American Revolution. They weren’t the trappers of yore carrying pelts to market by flattening them inside their canoes. For the most part, they were farmers...

  15. EPILOGUE
    (pp. 352-360)

    On Christmas Eve, 1814, in Ghent, Belgium, while American and British peace ministers were signing the treaty that ended the War of 1812, their respective armies on the other side of the Atlantic were taking up final positions on the plains of Chalmette, just east of New Orleans. The confrontation was shaping up as the war’s climactic showdown, which the British high command was convinced would be the prelude to the capture and plunder of the Mississippi River’s fastest-growing city, and possibly to the rupture of the new American Union itself.

    But the battle proper didn’t come off until January...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 361-400)
  17. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 401-404)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 405-422)