Every street and house tells a story, but we begin in the old French Market where the Spanish erected the first building in 1791. However, Choctaws and other Native American tribes began trading some of the same goods you see here today with the early French. The French explorer, LaSalle, raised the standard of France and named a vast region "Louisiana" in 1682. But La Nouvelle Orleans was not founded until 1718... earlier attempts to do so were thwarted by these same Native Americans. Apparently it is one thing to buy a few beads from a fellow, but quite another to have him moving into your backyard.
Fifteen years of Indian wars notwithstanding, the French began building the city in earnest, laying out the same streets and banquettes or sidewalks you walk today. Hundreds of buildings went up and business in the early eighteenth century was booming. But by mid century, European matters being what they were, the French had more pressing concerns such as war with the English, and as a result, New Orleans and the unexplored area west of the Mississippi were ceded to Spain in 1762.
The transfer of power did not go well or quickly, but the Spanish finally installed themselves in the city. It was on their watch that much of the city's Versailles inspired architecture was destroyed in the fire of 1788. Over 850 structures were leveled when a candle set fire to a window curtain at 538 Chartres.
Although the Spanish are responsible for the proud style of brick and plaster buildings... courtyards and balconies which so dominate the French Quarter today, some predominately French buildings remain. The Ursuline Convent, said to be the oldest building in the city, was erected between 1727 and 1734.
The first church in New Orleans was destroyed by a hurricane in 1722. The second, a brick church, was destroyed in the fire of 1788. Thus the present structure, known as the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, or St. Louis Cathedral, reflects its Spanish benefactors, as does the rest of the French Quarter. The cathedral was dedicated in 1794. Incidentally, some of the damage done to the city by the fire in 1788 might have been foregone had the bells in the church rung as warning... but religious reasons at that time prevented that. Additional changes to the cathedral were made, but the present form with its three distinctive steeples and façade dates from 1850. The life and canonization of St. Louis is depicted in six stained glass windows and will forever be the oldest cathedral in the nation.
The dominant though by no means the only cultural influences of the French, the Spanish and early Americans are most evident in Jackson Square, the former Place d'Armes. Laid out by the city's original French architect, Adrien de Pauger, it is the heart of the heart of the city, solemnized by the spiritual beauty of the Spanish style cathedral; yet it was renamed to honor the American Major General Andrew Jackson, without whom New Orleans would have been destroyed by the British. General Jackson amassed an unlikely army of French and Spanish planters, merchants and clerks from Royal Street, allies from Mississippi and Tennessee, freed slaves, Choctaw braves, and the pirate band of Jean and Pierre Lafitte, who only hours before were prisoners in jail, to rip the British in a battle which took place ten days after the end of the war of 1812. If New Orleanians had not taken well to the American purchase of the area in 1803, all was forgiven by this time and the citizens, whose allegiance had been heretofore to their countries of origin, now gave their allegiance to New Orleans.
The statue of Jackson was erected in 1856, and during the Union occupancy of the city during the Civil War, General "Beast" Butler had the inscription "The Union Must And Shall Be Preserved" cut in the statue's granite base. General Butler earned his nickname as a result of General Order #28, which held that any woman in New Orleans showing disrespect for the Union flag or uniform should be treated as a "woman of the town, plying her trade." Union occupation and the reconstruction were especially stormy for the proud New Orleanians, but by 1876, government was fully restored to the citizenry and the French Quarter had survived once more.
These few sites may be the most famous concrete reflections of the history of the French Quarter, but they are by no means the most interesting. Walk down any street, gauging your whereabouts by the original Spanish tile street markers, and at every turn lies a story.