The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans

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Overview

This is the story of a city that shouldn't exist. In the seventeenth century, what is now America's most beguiling metropolis was nothing more than a swamp: prone to flooding, infested with snakes, battered by hurricanes. But through the intense imperial rivalries of Spain, France, and England, and the ambitious, entrepreneurial merchants and settlers from four continents who risked their lives to succeed in colonial America, this unpromising site became a crossroads for the whole Atlantic world.

Lawrence N. Powell, a decades-long resident and observer of New Orleans, gives us the full sweep of the city's history from its founding through Louisiana statehood in 1812. We see the Crescent City evolve from a French village, to an African market town, to a Spanish fortress, and finally to an Anglo-American center of trade and commerce. We hear and feel the mix of peoples, religions, and languages from four continents that make the place electric-and always on the verge of unraveling. The Accidental City is the story of land-jobbing schemes, stock market crashes, and nonstop squabbles over status, power, and position, with enough rogues, smugglers, and self-fashioners to fill a picaresque novel.

Powell's tale underscores the fluidity and contingency of the past, revealing a place where people made their own history. This is a city, and a history, marked by challenges and perpetual shifts in shape and direction, like the sinuous river on which it is perched.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This rich story of the emergence of the Crescent City from its unlikely floodplain site is the best history of early New Orleans ever written. Despite Powell’s claim that the Big Easy was an accidental, improvised city, in this respect it was not unlike many other human habitations. But from its origins in the late 17th century, New Orleans was unlike all others on this continent in its mixed population; its distinctive overlay of French, Spanish, African, and American peoples, languages, and ways; and its unfavorable location. “he place was cobbled together from the bricolage of cultural borrowings and solutions improvised on the fly.” Nothing in this book surpasses Powell’s portrayal of the city’s mixed American-born people and its free people of color. “Early New Orleans was a place of reinvented identities, a crossroads of improvisation. People came there to make themselves anew.” In Katrina’s aftermath and the shock of nature’s claims on our lives, this timely work brings out the complexities of New Orleans’s history as well as the rich tapestry of its gritty people. Scholarly but readable, this is a splendid telling presented in a clear, robust voice. 19 illus., 2 maps. (Mar.)
Washington Post

Should stand for years as the definitive history of New Orleans's first century...Powell's account of New Orleans's racial history is extensive; he is especially good on the subject of the black militias that formed during the Spanish rule and helped strengthen the city's community of free blacks.
— Jonathan Yardley

Wall Street Journal

The ebb and flow of cultures, and the way they melded and reshaped New Orleans in its first century, is the subject of Lawrence N. Powell's masterful history...It's an account of how an improbable city came to be and then survived through its own determination and the flexible social and political structures of its first inhabitants...In his telling, Powell deftly manages to bring historic personages to life with a few well-chosen words...Like the city itself, [the book] is a successful hybrid, filled with well-rendered writing that doesn't preen.
— Wayne Curtis

Dallas Morning News

A dazzler...This is a hellaciously good book about the founding and first few centuries of New Orleans that is so well-crafted that it reads like a fictional thriller. The rich history of the city and its swampy environs offers Powell an eclectic cast and a kaleidoscopic series of events to chronicle, and he takes full advantage. Here's a chance to learn critical American history and be brilliantly entertained at the same time...This book is a treasure, and essential reading for anyone who wants to know the why and how of New Orleans history.
— Jeff Guinn

The Australian

A superb book by one of America's foremost living historians.
— Simon Caterson

Times-Picayune
Filled with vivid characters and insights into the city's deep-rooted culture, this sweeping history traces the growth of New Orleans from swampy colonial outpost to strategic linchpin during the War of 1812.
The Daily

[The Accidental City] is one of the finest regional American histories I have encountered in a long time, a delight to anyone with even the faintest curiosity about how our nation became itself...[A] marvelous book.
— Charles C. Mann

Times Higher Education

[Powell's] book addresses the reasons New Orleans has survived and thrived, against impossible odds, and what makes this "accidental" city so fascinating and precious...Powell's brilliant study meticulously traces the story of the city's founding in a swamp and its first century of growth into an extraordinary hybrid Indian-European-Caribbean-African-American place...The narrative traces the early French settlers' conflicts and relationships with Indians, slaves and free people of color around the settlement and its architectural designs, through the short but significant period of Spanish rule, and finally to the famous Louisiana Purchase and American political, though never social and cultural, domination. It documents with compelling detail and anecdote the disputes and compromises involved in the settlement's design and post-conflagration rebuilt versions, and illuminates the complex history of the city's smuggling, tripartite racial order, slave and free population and African-American "cultural creation," metissage (race mixing), marronnage (fugitive slaves), Creolization and hybrid religions (notably Catholicism and voodoo)...This will become the definitive study of New Orleans' early history. When, I ask impatiently, can we read Powell on the next two centuries of this "accidental" city's life?
— Helen Taylor

New Orleans Magazine

Powell has composed a comprehensive early history of the Crescent City in The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans. Beginning with La Salle, Bienville and Iberville's early forays on the wild Mississippi River—the "Impossible River," as Powell christens his first chapter—he leads us through over a century of rambunctious colonialism, delving into trade disputes, shifting economies and race relations, all the way through the growing pains of the Louisiana Territory.
— Alex Gecan

Newark Star-Ledger

Most visitors to New Orleans know it is a magical city. But "accidental"? A strange word, but appropriate, according to this fascinating account of the origin and history of what the author describes as "America's only original contribution to world culture."...The heart of this story lies in the rich chapters devoted to the African-Americans who came as slaves. Many of them attained their freedom because they held the city together through their strength and ingenuity. From the three-tiered culture that developed—white planters, free blacks and slaves—grew the cuisine and music that make New Orleans the queen of the delta.
— Kathleen Daley

PopMatters

Written as a historical text in narrative form, Powell manages to unpack several different American and American-related histories into one, which is the great success of the book. He writes this history of New Orleans in the only way one can: carefully. Powell doesn't stick to one narrative because the history of New Orleans is an ever-changing confluence of events, people, and cultures that lacks the same kind of linear story of other cities...Weaving together events that range from international politics to the socio-cultural development of poor American families, Powell's comprehensive glimpse of the past is particularly important today.
— Sylvio Lynch

New Orleans Tribune

[The Accidental City] provided for me the back story to anything I've ever wondered about in our enigmatic city...[The book displays] Powell's copious research, his penetrating insights, his wry humor and poetic turns of phrase.
— Orissa Arend

Choice

Powell advances sympathetic understanding of what very well may be the U.S.'s most curious city. He traces the dynamics of politics and business that ultimately located a city in virtually uninhabitable swampland. The lively narrative continues from the French through the Spanish colonial periods, concluding with Louisiana statehood in 1812, all the while revealing the disparate forces that bound the city together just as they threatened to tear it apart. Consistent with the author's established interests, race and race relations remain central to this interpretation. Readers may not agree with all aspects of Powell's argument, but they are certain to find this an intriguing read that answers scores of questions about a complex city.
— S. C. Hyde

James Carville
There are bigger cities than New Orleans, more beautiful cities than New Orleans, and more important cities than New Orleans but there is no city more interesting than New Orleans. This is a fascinating book about a fascinating city.
John M. Barry
A masterful unfolding of the story of the most complicated and unusual city in the United States. This will become the definitive book on the early history of not only New Orleans but much of the Gulf Coast.
Tom Piazza
The Accidental City is a tour de force--engagingly written, broad in scope, precise in detail, and completely worthy of its fascinating, complex, soulful subject.
Joseph J. Ellis
An epic account of how America's most exotic city crept and clawed its way into existence. Powell evokes the swamps, sweat, misery, grandeur, and colorful and seedy characters that came together to create a place that Thomas Jefferson could never comprehend.
Nick Spitzer
Powell's fluid, pungent narrative and comprehensive interpretive reach argue powerfully for New Orleans' enduring cultural significance in America and globally.
Ira Berlin
The Accidental City is an extraordinary book--hands down, the best account of the first two centuries of the history of New Orleans.
Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley
Should stand for years as the definitive history of New Orleans's first century...Powell's account of New Orleans's racial history is extensive; he is especially good on the subject of the black militias that formed during the Spanish rule and helped strengthen the city's community of free blacks.
Wall Street Journal - Wayne Curtis
The ebb and flow of cultures, and the way they melded and reshaped New Orleans in its first century, is the subject of Lawrence N. Powell's masterful history...It's an account of how an improbable city came to be and then survived through its own determination and the flexible social and political structures of its first inhabitants...In his telling, Powell deftly manages to bring historic personages to life with a few well-chosen words...Like the city itself, [the book] is a successful hybrid, filled with well-rendered writing that doesn't preen.
Dallas Morning News - Jeff Guinn
A dazzler...This is a hellaciously good book about the founding and first few centuries of New Orleans that is so well-crafted that it reads like a fictional thriller. The rich history of the city and its swampy environs offers Powell an eclectic cast and a kaleidoscopic series of events to chronicle, and he takes full advantage. Here's a chance to learn critical American history and be brilliantly entertained at the same time...This book is a treasure, and essential reading for anyone who wants to know the why and how of New Orleans history.
The Australian - Simon Caterson
A superb book by one of America's foremost living historians.
The Daily - Charles C. Mann
[The Accidental City] is one of the finest regional American histories I have encountered in a long time, a delight to anyone with even the faintest curiosity about how our nation became itself...[A] marvelous book.
Times-Picayune - Chris Waddington
[Powell] catches all the high and low notes as New Orleanians improvised an American future--and he makes it clear that America would be a very different place without the city's contributions.
Times Higher Education - Helen Taylor
[Powell's] book addresses the reasons New Orleans has survived and thrived, against impossible odds, and what makes this "accidental" city so fascinating and precious...Powell's brilliant study meticulously traces the story of the city's founding in a swamp and its first century of growth into an extraordinary hybrid Indian-European-Caribbean-African-American place...The narrative traces the early French settlers' conflicts and relationships with Indians, slaves and free people of color around the settlement and its architectural designs, through the short but significant period of Spanish rule, and finally to the famous Louisiana Purchase and American political, though never social and cultural, domination. It documents with compelling detail and anecdote the disputes and compromises involved in the settlement's design and post-conflagration rebuilt versions, and illuminates the complex history of the city's smuggling, tripartite racial order, slave and free population and African-American "cultural creation," metissage (race mixing), marronnage (fugitive slaves), Creolization and hybrid religions (notably Catholicism and voodoo)...This will become the definitive study of New Orleans' early history. When, I ask impatiently, can we read Powell on the next two centuries of this "accidental" city's life?
New Orleans Magazine - Alex Gecan
Powell has composed a comprehensive early history of the Crescent City in The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans. Beginning with La Salle, Bienville and Iberville's early forays on the wild Mississippi River--the "Impossible River," as Powell christens his first chapter--he leads us through over a century of rambunctious colonialism, delving into trade disputes, shifting economies and race relations, all the way through the growing pains of the Louisiana Territory.
Newark Star-Ledger - Kathleen Daley
Most visitors to New Orleans know it is a magical city. But "accidental"? A strange word, but appropriate, according to this fascinating account of the origin and history of what the author describes as "America's only original contribution to world culture."...The heart of this story lies in the rich chapters devoted to the African-Americans who came as slaves. Many of them attained their freedom because they held the city together through their strength and ingenuity. From the three-tiered culture that developed--white planters, free blacks and slaves--grew the cuisine and music that make New Orleans the queen of the delta.
PopMatters - Sylvio Lynch
Written as a historical text in narrative form, Powell manages to unpack several different American and American-related histories into one, which is the great success of the book. He writes this history of New Orleans in the only way one can: carefully. Powell doesn't stick to one narrative because the history of New Orleans is an ever-changing confluence of events, people, and cultures that lacks the same kind of linear story of other cities...Weaving together events that range from international politics to the socio-cultural development of poor American families, Powell's comprehensive glimpse of the past is particularly important today.
New Orleans Tribune - Orissa Arend
[The Accidental City] provided for me the back story to anything I've ever wondered about in our enigmatic city...[The book displays] Powell's copious research, his penetrating insights, his wry humor and poetic turns of phrase.
Choice - S. C. Hyde
Powell advances sympathetic understanding of what very well may be the U.S.'s most curious city. He traces the dynamics of politics and business that ultimately located a city in virtually uninhabitable swampland. The lively narrative continues from the French through the Spanish colonial periods, concluding with Louisiana statehood in 1812, all the while revealing the disparate forces that bound the city together just as they threatened to tear it apart. Consistent with the author's established interests, race and race relations remain central to this interpretation. Readers may not agree with all aspects of Powell's argument, but they are certain to find this an intriguing read that answers scores of questions about a complex city.
Library Journal
Erected on infested swampland, New Orleans is a city that, in practical terms, never should have existed. However, its location at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi—the largest river in North America and fourth largest in the world—meant that this was a city destined to flourish. Profiling its founders, Powell (James H. Clark Endowed Chair in American Civilization & director, New Orleans Ctr. for the Gulf South, Tulane Univ.) details the late 17th-century birth and evolution of this diverse city that has a love-hate relationship with its residents. His research, which focuses on those emerging years rather than recent history, coupled with his profound understanding of his subject, deepens readers' appreciation and understanding of this city. VERDICT Though this volume, complete with illustrations and maps, could easily serve as a source for a sophisticated formal study of New Orleans/Louisiana history, it is also accessible to general readers seeking deep and contextualized information on this topic, especially if they're prepared to dive right into the subject without much lead-in. Recommended for all collections covering the early history of New Orleans and Louisiana.—Sonnet Ireland, Univ. of New Orleans Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
Powell (American Civilization/Tulane Univ.; Troubled Memory: Anne Levy, the Holocaust, and David Duke's Louisiana, 2000, etc.) returns with a dense, complex history of a dense, complex settlement. The author knows well the geographical and geopolitical history of the city where he teaches, and the complexity of this story would daunt a faint-hearted historian--which Powell manifestly is not. He dives confidently into the murky bayou of the region's story, and what a tangled tale he emerges to tell. The author begins with the explorers, provides geological history of the region and of the serpentine, intractable Mississippi River. Powell then narrates the stories of the French, Spanish, African slaves and British--all of whom settled, collided, mingled, married, reproduced and competed. The European colonial powers, especially France, attempted to impose on the area--a most unlikely spot for a settlement, as Powell continually reminds us--some sort of design, but the terrain, the weather and the unique human mixture imposed their own fluid economy and culture. After taking over, Spain found it more profitable to practice a more relaxed reign, especially with slaves, who enjoyed more freedom of movement, economic clout and opportunities for manumission than they did with the French, and than they would with the Americans. The author begins with initial settlements and ends with the War of 1812. Along the way he tells stories--sometimes too densely for general readers--of the well-known (John Law) and little known (an ineffectual Spanish governor, Don Antonio de Ulloa) and should-be-known (the organizers of New Orleans' capable black militia). Powell is brilliant at elucidating the city's intricate racial politics. Superior scholarship provides a sturdy foundation for a hefty narrative edifice that sometimes groans with the weight of detail.
Jonathan Yardley
Powell…has written in The Accidental City what should stand for years as the definitive history of New Orleans's first century, the period that he regards as central to the city's formation and its character.
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674059870
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/30/2012
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 627,698
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Lawrence N. Powell, former holder of the James H. Clark Endowed Chair in American Civilization, is Professor Emeritus of History at Tulane University.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 11: The American Gateway



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 and husbandmen, together with assorted merchants and town builders, and what they had to sell was bulky. Until canals and the east-west railway trunk lines pierced the Appalachian mountain chain, these late arrivals relied on flatboats and keelboats, and, after 1812, on steamboats, to float their harvests to market. The Mississippi was their economic lifeline. “It is the Hudson, the Delaware, the Potomac, and all the navigable rivers of the Atlantic States formed into one stream,” declared James Madison during his tenure as Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of state.1 Madison was only half right: equally important was New Orleans, which the rising American West regarded just as highly as the river. Enjoying unfettered navigation rights on that stream meant nothing without a port of deposit close to the mouth, where commodities such as grain and pork could be warehoused until oceangoing vessels carried the bounty to eastern or overseas markets. Through an accident of history, New Orleans had become that place, a strategic strait suddenly poised to command the commerce of a fabulously fruitful continent. The city’s magical charm affected empires young and old. The most venerable, Spain, was the first to be thrown off stride by the demographic pressure building in New Orleans’s Anglo-American hinterland. But not far behind was the newest empire, the fledgling United States, which President Thomas Jefferson, in the immediate afterglow of the Louisiana Purchase, was pleased to call “a great republican empire.” Neither government quite knew how to manage the population explosion in the Mississippi Valley following the American Revolution. Spain had reason to second-guess its intervention in the America Revolution against the British redcoats. The policy was supposed to be a low-risk strategy for pushing England off the Mississippi, a cheap way for Spain to rid itself of an ancient nemesis. But Madrid had merely exchanged one nemesis for a newer one, and a veritable Frankenstein’s monster at that. For all the danger England posed to the commercial integrity of the Spanish Empire, the British lion had kept its paws on colonial subjects milling impatiently behind the Appalachians. When the imperial grip was relaxed, throngs of American settlers burst through that mountain barrier, driven forward by “an intense materialism shot through with mystic exaltation,” to quote Arthur P. Whitaker. The new American government was too weak to hold them back. And state governments in the east that claimed those lands were too starved for cash to forgo the revenue from land sales.

The biggest losers were the Indian nations and villages in the pays d’en haut, the Great Lakes region of the French backcountry, plus the Mississippi Valley as a whole. The alliance system of gift exchange, intermarriage, and puffing on stem-feathered calumets, with its cycle of sudden warfare and rapid-response diplomacy, had given way to the assertion of one-sided power. The French never possessed the numbers to impose their will, and the English often declined to do so. But the American settlers who flooded into the region proved less interested in coexistence than in domination. They shoved aside the Indians, rein-vented them as the other, and forced those embattled people to live with the consequence of that definition.

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Table of Contents

1 An Impossible River 1

2 A Landjobbing Scheme 33

3 Utopian by Design 60

4 Improvising a City 92

5 Changing of the Guard 129

6 In Contraband We Trust 164

7 A Creole City 197

8 Slavery and the Struggle for Mastery 222

9 The Slaves Remake Themselves 249

10 A New People, a New Racial Order 277

11 The American Gateway 314

Epilogue 352

Notes 361

Acknowledgments 401

Index 405

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