New Orleans history is as colorful as the French and Spanish influences that molded it from a muddy shipping port in the 1700s to a world-class city whose acquisition by the Americans from the French government in 1803 essentially doubled the size of the United States.
That real estate deal -- The Louisiana Purchase -- and the history of New Orleans and Louisiana before and after that transaction are the focus of a multitude of exhibits, tours, lectures and research materials at The Historic New Orleans Collection (533 Royal St., 523-4662; www.hnoc.org). Galleries filled with art, artifacts, documents and maps as well as a museum, a residence open for tours and more are housed in a collection of seven architecturally significant 18th and 19th century buildings in the French Quarter. Materials held by the collection are available to anyone for research or viewing, usually free (docent-led tours of galleries upstairs cost $4) from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
In celebration of the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, the Collection has scheduled a range of exhibits and programs spotlighting personalities and events here and abroad that surrounded the real estate transfer. The first, A Fusion of Nations, A Fusion of Cultures: Spain, France, The United States, and the Louisiana Purchase, opens Jan. 14, 2003 and runs for six months. It will display key documents and artifacts, including a 1699 "prospectus" in which Pierre Le Moyne sieur d'Iberville proposed how France could settle and exploit the rich Louisiana territory and the letter that sold half a continent to the United States. About 100 other documents, letters, maps and more have been collected for the display from museums in France, Spain, the Netherlands and the United States.
"Our history is fascinating and had much more of an effect on the country than most people know," says Priscilla Lawrence, executive director of The Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC). "This exhibition will be the diplomatic history of New Orleans -- who we were before we were Americans -- drawing from European influences."
In conjunction with the Louisiana Historical Association, the HNOC also has scheduled a three-day bicentennial symposium that explores the impact the Louisiana Purchase had on American history. Scholars from across the nation will discuss issues such as culture clashes, the African-American experience during the 1700s and 1800s, Europeans in America and more. The symposium will be held at the Omni Royal Orleans Jan. 22-25. Call 523-4662 for information and registration.
In addition to the lectures, the symposium also will feature a concert at St. Louis Cathedral, which dates to 1720 when the French established it as a parish. The concert will reconstruct a Roman Catholic Mass as it was performed in the Spanish colony around 1803, replete with the music of a composer, Gregorian chants, and an organ. The concert, which is free to the public, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Jan. 25, 2003.
The goal of the symposium and the day-to-day workings of the Historic New Orleans Collection is to make people aware of the city's past and spark interest and understanding in how that history has made us the richly diverse culture that we are.
"We provide historical information to anyone, from the eighth-grade child who's doing a project to NOMA (New Orleans Museum of Art) to people doing research for movies," she says. "Because our collections are so extensive we have lots of things in storage, but it's easily accessible; we can go right to it."
In terms of the Louisiana Purchase's influence on the way we and the rest of the country live today, Lawrence says it was immeasurable. Acquiring the remainder of the continent to the west meant the United States had access to undisputed waterways for trade and transportation as well as providing land for what eventually would become 14 states. It also changed the complexion of the country, blending the established cultures of the French, Canadians, Spanish and even Haitians who lived here.
"The exciting thing about the Louisiana Purchase was that [the United States] became a large, diverse country," Lawrence says. "Before that time, Americans were the same; they all spoke English. But now there was a great diversity of people from France, Spain, Canada and elsewhere. And there was this vast area of land that seemed to have no boundaries. Thomas Jefferson had no idea of the western boundary (of the Louisiana Purchase); no one knew."
To further the mission of education, the HNOC, NOMA and the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts have developed a half-hour videotape about the Louisiana Purchase that will be distributed to eighth grade classes in New Orleans schools.
Wrapping Up Help
Patrons of Bridge House will wrap gifts at local bookstores this month to help raise funds for the group's substance abuse treatment program. Gift wrappers will be on hand at Bookstar (414 S. Peters St.) from noon to 5 p.m. Dec. 14 and 15 and at Barnes & Noble (3721 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Metairie) from 10 a.m. until closing Dec. 23. There is no charge for the gift-wrapping services, but donations are appreciated.
- Executive Director Priscilla Lawrence shows off dueling pistols (top right), serving pieces and other memorabilia from the beginning of Louisiana's history in one of the 10 museum galleries upstairs at the Historic New Orleans Collection in the French Quarter.