Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, who is credited as the first explorer to cross the Mississippi River, arrived in what became Louisiana in 1541. When French explorer René Robert Cavelier de La Salle entered the territory over forty years later in 1682, he claimed the entire region for France and named it Louisiana in honor of  King Louis XIV. On March 9, 1699, French explorers and brothers Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville along with their crew entered the territory traveling the Old Portage with the help of a Native American guide. 

Iberville led them to a location along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where he built a settlement for Louisiana. In 1718, Bienville returned to the location at the end of the Old Portage, near the bend in the river and founded New Orleans.  

With a relatively small number of enslaved Africans along with enslaved Native Americans in the colony, the founders turned to the transatlantic slave trade (Also known as the Atlantic slave trade) for labor with the first ships arriving in 1719. The US ban on the international trade of enslaved Africans in 1808 profoundly increased the trade of enslaved people within the country known as the domestic slave trade. As the center of that trade, New Orleans became the largest port in the country. 

In 1724, Louisiana adapted the Code Noir, which had been decreed by King Louis XIV and previously implemented in French-ruled Caribbean colonies to regulate the operations of slavery. Article V of the code mandated that Sundays and holidays (holy days) were to be strictly observed and work-free for all residents of the colony. On Sunday afternoons, with the consent of their owners, enslaved Africans took the opportunity to gather in the ways of their traditions at various locations. In 1817, the city council and mayor moved to make the area known as Congo Square the sole official gathering place for such activities.  

More Information

Burns, Francis P. 1997. “The Black Code: A Brief History of the Origin, Statutory Regulation and Judicial Sanction of Slavery in Louisiana.” In The Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Series in Louisiana History, vol. XIII, An Uncommon Experience Law and Judicial Institutions in Louisiana 1803-2003 edited by Judith Schafer & Warren M. Billings, 305-311. Lafayette: The Center for Louisiana Studies.

Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. 1992. Africans in Colonial Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Pasquier, Michael T. 2011. Code Noir of Louisiana, In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.

Powell, Lawrence. 2013. The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans. Boston: Harvard University Press.