New Orleans, a City Ruled by a River

Bus in the background of oak alley in Oak Alley Plantation

New Orleans is a city, which is much older than its own country and it definitely shows. While it is geographically and politically part of the USA, it feels million miles away.

New Orleans, which celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2018, was founded in 1718 by French who explored today’s North America starting from Canada and traveling all the way down to Louisiana following the Mississippi River. There were two different periods of French ownership before the entire state of Louisiana was sold to USA in in 1803. Still clearly visible in the architecture of some of the neighborhoods, there was also a period of Spanish ownership that lasted for 40 years. 

Craftsman working in a lighting shop in New Orleans

What makes New Orleans special is the unique culture that the city is home to – influenced by but identifiably independent from all the nations that have had ruled the city.  The Mississippi River, the fourth longest river in the world, is also a major character in the history of New Orleans and still has a hand in almost everything that concerns this enigmatic city.

This is the diary of the four days that I spent in New Orleans exploring the city and the plantations of Louisiana.

New Orleans, ruled by Mississippi River

For my second visit to New Orleans, I took the night plane from another relatively old state of the USA – New Mexico. It was one of those flights during which I rarely shut off my eyes. As the first ray of morning light started to appear, I looked down and saw the river, which seemed to be moving around like a snake – the magnificent but also troublesome Mississippi River.

I was  yet to learn that Mississippi River ruled almost everything in New Orleans including how its deceased should be buried – not below but above the ground.  That is maybe why New Orleans is also known as the city of ghosts with reference to its locals who love the city and have had so much fun that they regularly visit even after their death. Some also claim that only those who have unfinished business in the world would appear as ghosts. And New Orleans is with no doubt the city of unfinished businesses. It was also once the capital city of one of the most shameful periods in the history of humankind – the slavery.

Bikers riding through French Street in New Orleans

My first trip to New Orleans was barely enough to introduce me to the better known side of New Orleans – the fun party town. I was this time determined to go deeper and dig into the history of this remarkable city. In order to do that, I first had to travel outside of New Orleans to the Louisiana countryside.

Visiting old plantations in Louisiana

The Mississippi River played a key role in the transportation of goods during the period when there was no rail infrastructure. New Orleans was the most important port town located along the Mississippi River, which was also used for slave transportation. As a result, New Orleans quickly became the capital of slavery in the early 1700s. The expression used to signify the biggest betrayals – “sold down the river” – was born out of the tragedy of the slaves sold during the auctions held in New Orleans. Once purchased by their owners, the slaves would be taken to the sugarcane plantations for heavy work. Some of these plantations are today open to visitors. You can visit the living quarters of the plantation owners as well as the cottages that once hosted the slaves under unimaginable conditions.

Laura Plantation, the story of Duparc Family depicted in a diary

My first stop was Laura Plantation, which once belonged to creole Duparc family.  What creole means is a matter of debate and the answer may depend on the person addressing the question or even the historical period that is in question. But according to the most common definition, the term creole refers to the people who are originally French or Spanish but born in Louisiana.

Two empty chairs in Laura Plantation in Louisiana

The owners of Laura Plantation were originally French but born in Louisiana. Based on the more common definition of the term, they are creole. What makes Laura Plantation an interesting place to visit is the discovery of a diary kept by Laura Duparc during her youth and before she inherited the plantation from her parents. Thanks to her diary, the quality of information that is now available about the daily life in Laura Plantation is significantly higher than what is available for the other plantations that you can tour in Louisiana. The experience allows you a more intimate glimpse into a daily life during one of the grimmest periods of human history. The Laura Plantation visit stands out compared to museum-like experiences offered by some other Louisiana plantations.

Guided tours at Laura Plantation

In order to visit Laura Plantation, you need to join the tours given by the in-house guides. I really enjoyed the company of a guide as his explanations really helped me to better understand and visualize the daily life once led in the plantation.

The tour starts with a visit to the family’s living quarters where a relatively high degree of wealth is on clear display. As expected, many of the anecdotes and stories are very difficulty hear – especially those touching on the living conditions of the slaves. Our guide also occasionally shared some happier stories, which may briefly make you think that there was actually a friendship between some of the slaves and certain members of the Duparc family only to be diligently reminded that “integration never meant equality“. 

Laura Plantation - Louisiana

Once we left the main house and got to the section of the plantation used as housing for the slaves – the idea of equality never popped up in my mind again. We visited the exceptionally small cottages that hosted up to 20 people at a time. It felt more like a stacking room, rather than a home. We were quickly reminded of the notoriously humid summers of the south adding just another unbearable layer of difficult to the living and working conditions. 

In addition to inhumane living conditions, the work imposed on the slaves was also very challenging. The sugarcane plant, the main product of the plantation, was also among the primary reasons leading to the early death of the slaves. The height of the plant made it difficult for the slaves to see the other slaves working next to them and it was unfortunately very common for the slaves to kill each other by accidental machete strokes. The average life expectancy of the slaves was 35 at the time. On the other hand, the plantation owners lived up to their 60s or 70s.

Civil War comes, and Civil War goes

Among all the stories that I listened to in Laura Plantation, the most poignant one concerned the story of the last slave family who left the Laura Plantation in 1977, more than a century after abolishment of the slavery in the USA in 1866 after the Civil War. The tragedy that these two dates underline tells so much about the devastating effects the slavery had on those people. Our guide, with a disappointed tone, noted that “the Civil War comes and then the Civil War goes but nothing changes for these people ”. It was not easy for the former slaves who had no connection with the society during their lives and just treated them as goods to find a place in the society and the means to make a living for their family. As a result, the slave families chose to return to the plantations to work under horrendously low wages even after the abolishment of the slavery. They were no longer qualified as “slaves” but there was no significant improvement in their living conditions.

Oaky Alley Plantation

My next stop was another plantation, which is surrounded by oak trees believed to be at least 300 years old. Stewarts family, the last owners of this plantation, turned the house into a museum to keep the memory of this horrific period in the human history alive. Similar to Laura Plantation, one again needs to be accompanied by a guide to tour the house but there is a catch. The guides at Oak Alley Plantation dress up in period clothes in order to pass on to you the sense of time. I, however, found the costume dressing too distracting. I better appreciated the simplicity and the intimacy of the tour in Laura Plantation that did not feel performative.

Oak Alley Plantation is also famous as a film location – one of the most well known ones being the Interview with the Vampire, the famous movie featuring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, which is based on the famous novel by Ann Rice who was born in New Orleans. The house was used as the residence of the leading vampire in the movie  – Louise.

After a busy and emotionally charing day – everyone was quite in the bus during the drive back to New Orleans. We passed by large fields of of sugarcanes and swamps – which sure now had a much deeper meaning beyond their visual beauty.

New Orleans where the dead still live

One of the main streets in New Orleans – Canal Street used to divide New Orleans into two sections; the American side and the French side. I this time stayed at the wonderful Ace Hotel New Orleans  located in the former American part of the city.

While the neighborhood takes its name from the French, the influence of Spanish on the architecture of the famous French Quarter is undeniably visible. While the city is commonly associated with French, New Orleans also had a Spanish phase that lasted for nearly forty years (starting in 1763). The city was in the beginning of the 19th century was returned to French, which almost right away sold it to the USA as a result of the Louisiana Purchase. The purchase price was set as USD 250 million with today’s currency and covered the entire state of Louisiana. 

French Man Street - New Orleans

New Orleans is a city which manages to absorb all these different cultures and blend it into a unique culture of its own. The colors of the city and the energy of its people feel contagious. It is also a city with unbelievable stories yet with an enigmatic power to make you believe in those stories. When I hear a story about a deceased restaurant owner who had to hand over his restaurant due to the financial difficulties and his ghostly appearances at his old restaurant, the whole ordeal sounds perfectly normal and realistic to me. Likewise, the solution that the current owners of the restaurant found to keep his ghost away also sounds to be a genius idea – setting up a permanent table for him. An idea that, according to the current owners, finally stopped the ghostly appearances. After all, recognition was all that this unlucky restaurant owner had ever needed.

New Orleans

The Canadian author Michael Ondaatje makes a great use of the city’s story loving culture. In Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje tells the story of New Orleans native Buddy Bolden. Bolden was born in 1877 – 24 years earlier than one of the most famous jazz figures of our times who was a New Orleans native – Louise Armstrong. According to some sources, Buddy Bolden was the original creator of jazz music. While very little is known about the life of Bolden, the lack of sources does not discourage Ondaatje who takes the liberty to fill in the gaps with fictionalized stories.

Ondaatje focuses on Bolden’s friendship with another famous figure of the time – the photographer  E. J. Bellocq. Bellocq is known with his photographs of the Storyville district of New Orleans, which was once the legalized red light district of the city. The narrator in Ondaatje’s book frequently changes and the story moves without obeying any known rules of literature just like its subject-matter, the jazz music. Bolden works at a barbershop in the mornings and its patrons usually try to get their haircut first thing in the morning since Bolden cannot be trusted to not be drunk later in the day. Once his shift is over, he later in the day moves on to his real passion and performs music at the famous Frenchman Street where today many jazz bars line the street. I visit or stop by the window of almost every jazz bar on the street. New Orleans is such a welcoming and relaxed city where you do not feel any pressure to walk into the bars and get a drink in order to listen to music. You are free to listen to music wherever you deem to be fit. 

New Orleans

Even though the ghosts of the city are much more popular – New Orleans is also the city of death who are in their eternal place of rest visited by millions of people each year. While the cemeteries of New Orleans are also home to some historical figures, the interest is driven primarily by the burial procedures observed in New Orleans, the coffins are not buried below but above the ground. Just like many other things in New Orleans, the Mississippi River also has a hand in this tradition. Since the majority of the land in New Orleans was positioned below the sea level, it was common for the coffins to be filled in with water and even float during the floods, which frequently hit the city. You may recall the images of floating coffins shown in the media during the hurricane, which hit Louisiana in 2016. 

New Orleans is not only home to many cultures but also to many different emotions, pain, rebellion, happiness and joy. It is a city like no other.