The Big Easy is known around the world, a name that immediately evokes images of smoky jazz clubs, lacy ironwork balconies, tropical patios, fine old Creole restaurants, riverboats, and Carnival parades. One of the oldest cities in the U.S., New Orleans was founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville. It was named for the French Regent, Philippe Duc d'Orleans. In the beginning, it was little more than a remote outpost set in swampland bounded by the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, a murky backwater plagued by yellow fever, hurricanes, floods, and fires. When it was named capital of the Louisiana territories in 1723, the total population numbered fewer than 500 European colonists and 300 slaves, but a gracious Creole society had already taken root. In 1762, when Louis XV of France ceded "the island of New Orleans" and all of the Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi River to his cousin, Charles III of Spain, aristocratic Spaniards continued the tradition of civilized life in the wilderness.
The sugar industry was booming, thanks to development of nearby plantations, and the city's already legendary taste for high living was raised to new heights in 1789 when it became a favored refuge for European nobles and royal sympathizers fleeing the French Revolution. France regained the territory briefly after the 1800 Treaty of San Ildefonso, but it was resold to the U.S. by Napoleon I in 1803 for $15 million, a part of a transaction known as The Louisiana Purchase.
Louisiana was admitted to the Union in 1812, and by 1840 New Orleans had become the fourth-largest city in the U.S., with some 100,000 residents. It was also the second-busiest port, with water traffic surpassed only by New York. Travellers arrived by steamboat to join the thriving social life enlivened by opera houses, restaurants, cafes, and bordellos. After Louisiana joined the Confederacy in 1861, New Orleans quickly fell to Union forces in 1862. The onset of the Reconstruction Era in 1865 caused tremendous political upheaval and social unrest. The state was readmitted to the Union in 1868 with a new constitution that granted voting rights to African-American citizens for the first time, but municipal government was not returned to local control until 1872.
By the 1880s, flooding and yellow fever epidemics had been greatly reduced by new drainage systems, and a deeper navigational channel allowed ocean-going freighters to travel up the Mississippi River. Around the turn of the 20th century, syncopated ragtime was evolving into jazz at local clubs, led by Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, and other home-grown musicians. In 1901 the first oil well was drilled upstate, a discovery that would eventually replace many of the great riverfront plantations with petrochemical plants. Louisiana had been dragged into the modern age.