New Orleans’s history has always been multiethnic. Founded by the Canadian Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville on behalf of the French Mississippi Company in 1718 and named after the French Duc d’Orléans, the swampy city at the mouth of the Mississippi soon became a new home for settlers from diverse European, Caribbean, and (though mostly not voluntarily) African regions. After the Seven Years’ War, the vast Louisiana Territory that reached from Canada in the North to the present-day states of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Oklahoma in the West was ceded to the Spanish kingdom in the Peace Treaty of 1763. After a temporary return under French control in 1800, Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory including the city of New Orleans to the young American republic in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Due to its ethnic multiculturalism, New Orleans has often been characterized as rather “un-American.” From language, architecture, music, and food to religion, judiciary and political culture, “NOLA” has been signified as the “American Other” (Möllers 2008: 53-73). With its mixture of European, African, and Caribbean influences, New Orleans has created an image of itself as the ethnic “gumbo,” named after the famous Creole stew dish. In fact, ethnic diversity is the constitutive factor of New Orleans’s identity as a city that is extensively used, reproduced, and performed by its gigantic tourism industry. Capitalizing not only on its multicultural heritage, but also playing with its image as “un-American,” “mythic,” and quite simply “unique” on the North American continent has become an absolute imperative. The city’s tourism marketing corporation also jumps on this bandwagon, when it comes to characterizing New Orleans on its official website:
The peculiarity of New Orleans’s culture and heritage as alluded to in this text written by two eminent historians at the University of New Orleans, already had an enormous appeal with visitors in the nineteenth century. After it became “American” with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, many reporters and literates traveled the newly acquired region eager to decode the city’s mythic nature. For them, the “Otherness” of the Gulf city was particularly “embodied” in the many multiethnic individuals going about their daily business in the crowded streets of the French Quarter. Feeling caught in a limbo between Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean, the New Yorker bookseller and travel reporter Will H. Coleman recorded his bewilderment at the sight of this ethnic “hodge-podge” in the following way:
Especially contributing to the ambiguous and irritating ethnic and racial mixture were the Free People of Color-or Creoles of Color-who had occupied the middle space in the three-tiered social system during the French and Spanish colonial period between a dominant white society of Creole and American background, on the one hand, and a large black slave population, on the other. The Latin colonial population’s laxer attitudes toward interracial sexual relations, the lack of white marriageable women, relatively generous Spanish manumission laws, and a high number of immigrants in the wake of the Haitian Revolution had resulted in a large group of Free People of Color, making up 18 per cent of the entire free population in Louisiana in 1810. In New Orleans, Free People of Color even accounted for over 30 per cent of the free population in 1805 (Cummings 1968: 45, Hanger 1996: 57). Often well-trained and educated, the Free People of Color constituted a distinctive economic, social, and cultural class in the multicultural community of colonial and antebellum New Orleans. French-speaking, Catholic, wealthy, and in some instances slaveholders, these Creoles of Color identified with the white Creole Latin population.