A City of Chameleons

New Orleans, 1780-1817

Early New Orleans, under both Spanish and American governance, was a city of chameleons: men and women who dressed themselves in an expansive variety of ethnic, racial, gender, business, religious, and personal clothing. The cliched historical popular view of a city populated by foppish French planters, cruel Spanish soldiers, naive young Americans, and groaning slaves simply is not the truth - not that there weren't some of each. New Orleans was also a city where French planters were getting muddy in the fields, Spanish officers were educating the populace (including free blacks and women) and boldly defeating the British Army, the arriving Americans were worldly, conniving, and corrupt, and free black militiamen drilled proudly in the main square.

The Irish and Jews and free people of color spoke Spanish, the Spanish spoke Italian, the slaves and old women spoke a quaint French: I would be as likely to find a white man speak Dutch or the tongue of the Danes as to hear my native English. I must insist this was a city of chameleons rather than men.

This website is meant to be the story of early New Orleans, a place which changed its loyalties, government, culture, and views on race and gender with notable speed. Not once, but twice, on two cold mornings, one in 1803 and 1815, the people of New Orleans were given a choice - which way to turn, which flag to stand behind, which language to speak. This is also a study of how those choices were made, not only by distant imperial governments, but by men and women in a muddy, cold, frontier city - how those choices were really made incrementally by a most chameleon-like populace, and where those choices would lead them into the 19th century and to this day.

The Annexation of Louisiana, 1803

The History

A small Spanish city becomes part of a new North American empire - grows stronger - and merrily joins in the destruction of the Spanish Empire and its own culture. Chameleons can be downright mean...

Dr. Montegut and his family, by Salazar
The redoubt at Chalmette, 1815, by Stoops
Reimagining New Orleans

Seeing history through paintings and screenplays.


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