2016 Sunset Report

OLG & DCRT Strategic Plan
2020-21 through 2024-25


Did you know?
Introduction Native Americans Colonial Louisiana The Louisiana Purchase Territory to Statehood Battle of New Orleans
Antebellum Louisiana I Antebellum Louisiana II Antebellum Louisiana III The Civil War Reconstruction I Reconstruction II

Most of the goods that passed in and out of Louisiana and the entire Mississippi Valley region came through New Orleans. During most of the antebellum period it was the United States' second leading port, behind only New York City. In the 1840s New Orleans was the fourth leading commercial port in the world in value of exports, which consistently exceeded imports.

Nouvelle Orleans/Nueva Orleans
T. H. Miller
c. 1850

Antebellum New Orleans was the transfer point for American and foreign goods. Wheat, corn, lard, pork, furs and hides, whiskey, hemp, and lead from the upper Midwest and cotton, sugar, molasses, and tobacco from the South flowed down the Mississippi River and its tributaries on steamboats, flatboats, and keelboats to New Orleans. These products were offloaded and stored in warehouses or transferred directly to oceangoing vessels, and then shipped to the Northeast, Europe, and the Caribbean.

In reverse, manufactured and luxury goods, salt, coffee, West Indian and Brazilian sugar, gold and silver, and a wide variety of items entered the Crescent City from foreign and United States ports. They were distributed in New Orleans or shipped upriver.

Most river trade was conducted by steamboat. The first steamboat to come down the Mississippi arrived in the Crescent City in 1812, and by the 1850s around 3,000 steamboats docked at New Orleans each year. A British traveler to Louisiana in 1849, Lady Emmeline Stuart Wortley, related the nighttime wonder of:

  • the magnificent "floating palaces" of steamers, that frequently look like moving mountains of light and flame, so brilliantly are these enormous river-leviathans illuminated, outside and inside.

In the 1820s canals, and later railroads, more closely linked the Northeast and the Old Northwest (upper Midwest) and siphoned off trade from New Orleans. By 1845 direct trade between the two northern regions of the United States was well established and broke the Louisiana river monopoly on western trade. Ever-increasing imports of southern cotton, however, helped New Orleans retain its status as a leading antebellum port.

Although most transportation in antebellum Louisiana was by water, residents also traveled and traded by overland road and railroad. The Pontchartrain Railroad was the second completed in the United States. It began operation in 1831, carrying passengers and goods between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. A few years later developers of the West Feliciana Railroad began building a line between Woodville, Mississippi, and St. Francisville, Louisiana. Railroad travel was not always reliable, and passengers traveling to New Orleans from Lake Borgne on the Mexican Gulf Railroad often arrived with clothes muddy from their efforts to lift the train back onto the track.

Norman's Map of New Orleans
B. M. Norman

Note the numerous markets and businesses shown on this map.

Commission Merchants
The most influential, powerful, and prosperous businessmen in New Orleans were the factors, commission merchants who acted as agents for planters in Louisiana and surrounding states. There were more than 450 commission merchant and cotton factor firms in New Orleans in 1861, handling transactions for over 9,300 planters in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas alone. Louisiana exported such large quantities of cotton and sugar that some factors specialized in these products alone and were often the most wealthy of all commission merchants.

St. Louis Hotel
J. W. Orr
From Jewell's Crescent City Illustrated

Commission merchants often gathered to conduct their business dealings at the city's numerous coffeehouses and hotels.

Bankers, lawyers, and insurance agents provided services that helped make planters' and merchants' commercial dealings more profitable and less risky. New Orleans law firms, numbering seventy-five in 1855, tried to keep their clients' business affairs operating within the limits of the law, and its six insurance companies assumed some of the risks--and profits--associated with shipping large quantities of slaves, agricultural products, and manufactured goods.

New Orleans was the financial center of the Mississippi Valley. From 1835 to 1842 its banking capital exceeded that of New York City, the financial leader of the United States in most years during the antebellum period. The Crescent City's twenty-six banking companies in 1855 loaned money for the construction of railroads, expansion of plantations, purchase of goods, and many other enterprises.

Because the state's conservative banking rules promoted stability rather than speculation, Louisiana suffered much less from economic downturns than did neighboring states. Louisiana's Bank Act of 1842 was the first law passed in the United States requiring banks to keep a gold or silver reserve against notes and deposits.

Ten Dollar Note
National Bank Note Company

The reverse side of this note bears the French word dix, meaning ten. Non-French speakers called the notes "dixies." This is one possible explanation for the origin of the term Dixie, popularly applied to the southern United States.
Gift of the Friends of the Cabildo

Wholesalers and Retailers
Wholesale merchants imported goods into Louisiana from foreign countries and other parts of the United States and sold them to retailers in New Orleans or neighboring cities and country towns.

Large-scale retail merchants bought great quantities of goods from wholesale and import merchants and sold them to the public in their New Orleans and Baton Rouge stores. They also supplied smaller urban retailers, country shopkeepers, planters, and peddlers with merchandise. As with wholesalers, some large retailers sold only one or two types of merchandise, while others offered more selection.

In New Orleans many retail shops were located along Canal Street and between the levee and Bourbon Street, one of the city's most active commercial districts.

Canal Street
William D. McPherson
Loaned by Alice Bordes

This view of Canal Street shows the D. H. Holmes dry goods store, the original store of the same name.

Small retail shops and groceries could be found in almost every antebellum Louisiana city and town. They drew customers and suppliers from the nearby countryside, in addition to catering to urban dwellers. Several small shops were often located next to each other in a row or in one large building, a forerunner of today's strip and shopping malls.

Small retailers also sold their goods in large urban marketplaces or hawked their wares on city streets and door to door. Most market and street vendors were women, African American and American Indian in particular. In much of Africa women conducted local and regional trade, a practice they continued when brought to the Americas, including Louisiana.

Poydras Market, Meat and Vegetable Market, St. Mary's Market, and Washington Market
Reproduced from Gibson's Guide and Directory of the State of Louisiana

Several businesses manufactured items and sold them in one location, with their main activity the conversion of raw materials into finished products. Among these producers/retailers were bakers, butchers, clothiers, shoemakers, furniture makers, silversmiths, tobacconists, lithograhers, daguerreotypists, printers, and bookbinders.

Many New Orleans shoemakers, cigarmakers, ironworkers, furniture makers, and lithographers were free African Americans. Among the most prominent daguerreotypists and lithographers was Jules Lyon, a free man of color who was born in France and spent most of his adult life in New Orleans. When Lyon returned from a trip to France in 1839, he introduced the daguerreotype process, an early form of photography invented in Paris by Louis Jacques Daguerre.

View of Camp Street
J. W. Clark
c. 1858

Camp Street scene showing early ambrotype and daguerreotype studios.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. A. J. Duffy

The large market for silver goods kept New Orleans silversmiths busy. They supplied fine silver products to wealthy urban dwellers and to planters throughout the Mississippi Valley region. In addition, some silversmiths contracted with large retail establishments, like Hyde and Goodrich and D. H. Holmes, to provide them with merchandise. Many leading Louisiana silversmiths were German immigrants.

Furniture makers also flourished in New Orleans, supplying a large urban and agrarian market.

New Orleans was home to many skilled workers during the antebellum period, among them native whites, immigrants, free blacks, and slaves. Demand for skilled labor was high, as were wages. Free blacks dominated such skilled trades as carpentry, masonry, and barrel making, and male slaves were highly skilled in these and other trades, such as bricklaying, painting, blacksmithing, shoemaking, and baking. Several free black and slave women plied their trade as seamstresses.

Although many city slaves were skilled workers, most were domestic servants. They cared for their masters' homes, families, gardens, and animals, shopped and sewed for the household, and ran numerous errands. The number and appearance of one's servants indicated the urban resident's wealth and social standing. Thus, many prominent whites and free blacks in New Orleans and Baton Rouge outfitted their domestics in great finery when making public appearances.

Like many of the city's skilled laborers, domestics were sometimes hired out and earned extra money for themselves as well as their masters. Masters also occasionally gave their favorite servants monetary or material presents. With these earnings domestic slaves purchased their freedom or more commonly bought items not supplied by their masters, such as gold jewelry and other luxury goods.

Servant of the Douglas Family c. 1850

Individual portraits of domestic servants, like this one of a Douglas family servant, are extremely rare.
Gift of the Douglas Family

Growth and Diversity
Throughout the antebellum period New Orleans was the largest city in the South, the fifth largest in the United States, and the nation's major urban center on the western frontier. It was a commercial rather than an industrial city and had few districts where only one ethnic or economic group lived and worked. Although some neighborhoods had distinguishing characteristics, in general, blacks and whites, natives and foreigners mingled in the city's shops, streets, and residential areas.

Canal Street
c. 1849

This is the oldest known photographic view of Canal Street.
Gift of the Friends of the Cabildo

For the first four decades of the nineteenth century blacks, both slave and free, made up a majority of the New Orleans populace. In 1810 nearly two-thirds of all New Orleanians were black. By 1840, however, the percentage of African Americans in the Crescent City dropped to two-fifths and declined even further over the two decades preceding the Civil War, primarily because more whites moved into the city and more slaves were needed in rural cotton and sugar fields.

A few masters, like New Orleans commission merchant and real estate investor John McDonogh, freed their slaves on the condition that they leave Louisiana or the United States entirely. McDonogh worked with the New York City and the American Colonization Societies to send freed slaves to Africa. McDonogh's slaves worked for their freedom, gradually over many years amassing enough earnings to be applied to their purchase price.

Free blacks composed about forty percent of the African-American population in New Orleans, reaching a high of forty-six percent in 1820, although their number was greater in 1840 than in any other decade: almost 20,000 out of a total New Orleans population of slightly over 100,000. A growing slave and white immigrant population in the 1830s reduced the proportion of free blacks in the total populace.

In response to increasing discrimination, oppression, and restrictive legislation in Louisiana and throughout the South, several free black New Orleanians moved to Haiti, Mexico, France, and other foreign destinations. Some returned to Louisiana after the Civil War.

Free blacks played an important role in the New Orleans economy, where labor was often in short supply. Many owned successful businesses or engaged in the professions and amassed substantial estates that included real, personal, and slave property. Among free blacks women outnumbered men two to one and often established long-term relations with white men. United States laws--unlike those of France, Spain, and their former colonies--prohibited interracial marriages. In response, whites and free blacks or slaves formed common-law unions or traveled to France, Mexico, and the Caribbean to wed legally.

Julien Hudson, Self-Portrait 1839

Julien Hudson, a free man of color, had a successful career as a painter and an art teacher. His father was an English merchant, and his mother was a free woman of color from New Orleans. Hudson was one of many free men of color during the antebellum period who worked as professional artists, writers, and musicians in New Orleans. Only four signed oil paintings by Hudson have been identified, two of which are owned by the Louisiana State Museum.

Antebellum New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and surrounding plantations boasted many large public and private buildings in the Federal, Tudor, Italianate, and Greek, Egyptian, Roman and Gothic Revival styles. Among the many types of residential houses built in the Crescent City during this period were creole cottages, shotgun and double shotgun houses, and camelbacks.

Municipal Services
New Orleans officials provided residents with some services, many at the taxpayers' expense. The city maintained a police force, jails, courts, schools, waterworks, and a gas-lighting system. City workers and hired slaves also cleared roads, drained swamps, and collected garbage.

Authorities commissioned architect Benjamin Latrobe to design and build a system to supply water to New Orleans houses and businesses in 1811. The War of 1812 and other commitments delayed Latrobe's project until 1819, and he had not finished construction when he died of yellow fever in 1820. The city took over Latrobe's waterworks and completed them in 1822. Average daily consumption of water by 1837 was 250,000 tons, carried through 18 miles of cast-iron pipe.

Many residents were not connected to the city's waterworks, its expense making access to all a difficult task. Others preferred not to drink water taken from the Mississippi River. They relied on water collected in cisterns to supply their drinking and washing needs.

Because city services did not meet the needs of most New Orleanians, some established benevolent and voluntary associations to provide mutual support and defray the costs of living and dying in the Crescent City. Poor and working-class people, religious groups, immigrants, and people of like occupation pooled their resources to benefit needy members with such expenses as medical bills, funeral and burial costs, and support for widows and orphans.

Often excluded from white unions, skilled free black workers and upper-class professional free blacks formed their own associations.