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.
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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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.
Powell's fluid, pungent narrative and comprehensive interpretive reach argue powerfully for New Orleans' enduring cultural significance in America and globally. Nick Spitzer, producer of public radio's American Routes
The Accidental City is an extraordinary book--hands down, the best account of the first two centuries of the history of New Orleans. Ira Berlin, author of Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves
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. John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide and Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul
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.
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. Tom Piazza, author of Why New Orleans Matters and City of Refuge
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. Joseph J. Ellis, author of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
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