New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans was one of the most important ports of entry for immigration to the United States during the 19th century, mainly because of its location at the mouth of the Mississippi River, which provided ready access to the interior of country. For the same reason, New Orleans became the premier port of shipment for southern cotton and other commodities and thus developed a large shipping trade. Between 1820 and 1860, more than 550,000 immigrants entered the United States through the port of New Orleans, making it second only to New York City (see New York, New York) in terms of numbers. By 1850, about one-quarter of Louisiana’s and the majority of New Orleans’s white population was foreign born. Though it declined dramatically as a port in the 20th century, its immigrant heritage—particularly French and African—remained a distinctive and appealing feature of the city’s character. In 2000, the metropolitan population of New Orleans was 1,337,726. The largest immigrant groups had come early in the 19th century and were, therefore, thoroughly assimilated, most notably French and French Canadians (211,000), Germans (139,000), and Irish and Scots-Irish (122,000).
In 1682, René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle claimed the Mississippi River Valley for France, naming it Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV (r. 1648–1715). Attempts by Scottish investor John Law, who had been granted a commercial monopoly by the French government, to colonize the region failed between 1717 and 1720, though the founding of New Orleans in 1718 was a lasting result despite little French help in the endeavor. Although the geographic situation of the city was of the utmost importance, the land itself was swampy and ill suited to development, and the city grew slowly. From a population of 250 early in the 18th century, it grew to 4,000 by 1760 and to 8,000 by 1800. The French government was fearful of allowing Protestants and potential adversaries in, and few French citizens wished to settle in the Mississippi delta. Law brought about 2,000 Germans into the area north of the city, but the Mississippi Company he formed to promote immigration failed in 1720. About 4,000 French colonists from Acadia migrated to Louisiana following the capitulation of Montreal, Quebec, in 1760, mainly settling outside New Orleans, but they too were intensely hostile to outsiders. Disappointed with the little income from the region, France secretly ceded Louisiana to Spain (1762–1800); Spain did not gain firm control of the region until 1769. During the 1790s, the sugar industry was established, and the colony began to flourish. In addition to a few Spanish settlers, during the American Revolution (1775–83), a significant number of Americans also came to New Orleans, which had been granted to the Continental Congress as a base of operations during the conflict. The demand for laborers, however, was never adequately met, leading to a steady increase in the importation of African slaves throughout the 18th century (see African forced migration). By 1800, more than half of the region’s population was African American, though the percentage was smaller in New Orleans itself.
In 1800, Napoleon coerced Spain into ceding Louisiana back to France, though a full transfer of control was never effected. Badly needing funds for his conquests in Europe, Napoleon sold the entire Mississippi Valley to the United States in December 1803 for about $15 million, a transaction known as the Louisiana Purchase. The territory was divided during the 19th century, with New Orleans and the state of Louisiana being admitted to the Union in 1812. With a potential British impediment having been thwarted at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and the advent of the commercial steamboat after the War of 1812, a great period of economic expansion in the region began. From the first steamboat that plied the Mississippi in 1812, the number regularly calling at the port grew to 3,000 by the 1850s. The great port and its fertile hinterland were now joined under one government and linked by a natural water highway. The population rapidly grew from about 8,000 in 1803 to 170,000 in 1860, with immigrants pouring into the region. Between 1810 and 1840, it was the fastest-growing large city in the United States, and in 1830 was the third largest city, behind New York and Baltimore, Maryland.
In 1860, about 86 percent of the population of New Orleans was white, and another 6 percent were free blacks. Overall, about 78,000 were native born, but there were large numbers of Irish (24,398), German (19,675), and French (10,564) immigrants and significant numbers of Britons, Spaniards, and Italians. New Orleans had the largest Jewish population in the South, with 8,000.
New Orleans was an attractive port of entry for a number of reasons. Because ships carrying southern cotton returned with manufactured goods that took less space, shipping companies often offered bargain fares to passengers. New Orleans was also closer to the western interior than eastern ports were, and it was readily accessible by steamboats that plied the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Because of Louisiana’s French culture, a small number of French-speaking settlers were attracted to the city, and because of its proximity and trade connections with Central and South America, it also became the first center of Hispanic immigration to the United States.
After the Civil War (1861–65), the number of immigrants coming through the port of New Orleans dropped dramatically. Federal blockades and Union occupation had disrupted trade and passenger service during the war, and completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 opened the West to cheap overland transportation that competed with the traditional ocean and river routes. There were relatively few industrial jobs to attract unskilled workers. Also, as the steamships grew larger, fewer of them could pass through the sandbars at the mouth of the Mississippi. As late as 1900, however, New Orleans was among the top dozen cities in population, though it rapidly declined with the massive influx of “new immigrants” into East Coast ports (see new immigration).
Tensions between whites and blacks in New Orleans ran high throughout much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leading to the passage of Jim Crow laws and an increasingly segregated society. This erupted in deadly riots in 1866 and 1900, as black citizens seeking to assert their constitutional rights were set upon by angry whites. Many of the city’s educated black Creoles who had not been slaves were dismayed to find themselves lumped socially with the freed slaves. After the riot in 1900, African Americans fought a slow battle for civil rights. Creole activist A. P. Tureaud helped establish the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1920s.
Ethnic communities remained strong in New Orleans until World War II (1939–45). Between 1950 and 1975, developers used modern technology to drain marshlands, enabling New Orleans to double the geographic size of the metropolitan area. This led to the flight of much of the white population and the gradual dispersion of the previously confined cultural mix. The city lost much of its tax base and many jobs as whites fled to the suburbs and surrounding areas. As a result, New Orleans was not highly popular as an immigrant destination after World War II. In 2000, the largest of the new Hispanic and Asian immigrant groups that dominated after the Immigration and Nationality Act (1967) were Vietnamese (16,000), Central Americans (16,000), about half of whom were Honduran, and Mexicans (10,000).