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Arts & Culture

NOLA History: The “Not-So-French” French Quarter

New Orleans Historic Collection features exhibit on Spanish Influence in New Orleans
French Quarter sign commemorating the Spanish period in Louisiana colonial history. (Edd Scorpio photo)

We call the oldest part of New Orleans, the “French Quarter,” but in many ways, it’s not as French as one would think. The proximity of New Orleans to all of the Spanish colonies in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, along with a few historic events along the way, injected a sizeable amount of Spanish influence into the city.

Visitors and locals alike can learn more about the Spanish influence on New Orleans through two exhibits at The Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC). The HNOC has teamed up with the New Orleans Museum of Art (@NOMA1910) to present artwork from the Spanish colonies in an exhibit at the HNOC Gallery, 533 Royal Street. The exhibit, entitled “The Golden Legend in the New World: Art of the Spanish Colonial Viceroyalties,” starts tomorrow (May 26th) and runs through August 14, 2011. In conjunction with the exhibit, “The Threads of Memory: Spain and the United States” (running through July 10, 2011), visitors to the HNOC will be able to view paintings, maps, documents, and other articles from both NOMA’s and HNOC’s collections to develop a better appreciation for the impact of the Spanish on the city. Read on for a bit of New Orleans history that will prepare you for these incredible exhibits.

The New Orleans Historic Collection teams with New Orleans Museum of Art for Spanish exhibit
Arms of Louisiana as part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Photo: HNOC)

While it is true that New Orleans began as a French colony, those Frenchmen were immediately influenced by outside factors. Native Americans most certainly were the first “locals” they encountered. It wasn’t long before the Spanish, coming up from Mexico and over from their colonies along the Gulf Coast, found the French colony. Trade and commerce developed, and New Orleans rapidly became quite the cosmopolitan town.

The circumstances that led to the Acadians being expelled from Canada also led to Spanish control of Louisiana. France was defeated by the British and Prussians in the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War), which ended in 1763. Knowing that the war was going against France, Louis XV transferred Louisiana to his cousin, Charles III of Spain, in 1762. When peace was negotiated between France, Britain, and Prussia in 1763, Louisiana was out of play. The Spanish placed their newly-acquired colony of Louisiana in the “Viceroyalty of New Spain.” Specifically, Louisiana was placed under the jurisdiction of the Captain-General of Havana, and in 1766 Spain appointed Antonio de Ulloa as Governor of Louisiana. A naval officer and scholar, Ulloa arrived in Louisiana without bringing a large garrison of troops. Ulloa took up residence in La Balize, located at the mouth of the Mississippi in what is now Pilottown. Rejecting any notion of Spanish governnment, Creoles from the city organized against the Spanish and evicted Ulloa, who returned to Spain.

Historic New Orleans Collection features Spanish art, photography, artifacts
Field Marshal Alejandro O'Reilly, second Spanish governor of Louisiana (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Spanish then appointed an army officer, Field Marshal (later Count) Alejandro O’Reilly, who was adjutant and second in command in Havana at the end of the war, as governor. O’Reilly, who was born in Dublin but had long served in the Spanish army, arrived in Louisiana in July, 1769, with 2,000 troops. He put down the rebellion and executed its leaders. O’Reilly spent the next year establishing the Spanish rule of law, returning to Spain in October, 1770. Spain continued to appoint governors for Louisiana, but they did not interfere with the colonial way of life, other than do make sure taxes were collected and order maintained. Havana being the senior city and colony as far as the military were concerned, they continued a very hands-off policy towards Louisiana.

New Orleans Museum of Art displays Spanish artifacts
Archangel Michael Triumphant, 17th century; Viceroyalty of Peru, Cuzco School (NOMA Collection)

Lasting only 39 years, the Spanish takeover of Louisiana might not have been as significant had it not been for two events that shook the basic fabric of life in New Orleans, the massive fires of 1788 and 1794. Between them, these fires destroyed a major portion of the city. When the fires were extinguished and property owners prepared to rebuild, they were now regulated by Spanish building codes which were much more specific and restrictive than the French. Spanish regulations required that buildings be re-built with brick, and that firewalls and other protective measures be part of the construction. This was in contrast to the French buildings which were made of wood and whose design was not well-regulated. The wealthy Spaniards, who had moved to New Orleans in the years prior to the fires, rebuilt their properties in Spanish styles centering their homes around courtyards with stone walls facing the streets. The combination of style and regulation gave New Orleans an incredible Spanish “look” within a matter of just a few years.

New Orleans Historic Collection features Spanish paintings, photos and artifacts
Portrait of a Gentleman, July 1797, by José Francisco Xavier de Salazar y Mendoza (HNOC)

Even if the fires had not forced such dramatic changes in the city’s buildings, the Spanish Colonial influence would still have been felt in a big way in New Orleans. Artists like the creator of the St. Michael sculpture shown above would still have brought their work to the city, in the hopes of finding buyers, as well as patrons who would commission portraits such as the gentleman shown here.

Check out the Historic New Orleans Collection’s exhibit to gain deeper insight into the rich history of New Orleans and to view incredible art, maps and documents of Spanish colonial influence.

Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, and Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, both books in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is partner at @Yatmedia and on Twitter as @YatPundit.

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