City Guide to New Orleans

City Guide to New Orleans

Your guide to finding relatives in the Big Easy.

If your ancestors called New Orleans home, you may wonder whether their records exist after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Amazingly, most historical records survived—even those in the public library’s subbasement. Better yet, plenty of genealogical data have been indexed and much of it, digitized. Hurricanes notwithstanding, tracing your ancestors in the Big Easy can be, well, relatively easy.
Creoles to Katrina
Nearly 300 years ago, the French founded La Nouvelle-Orléans on the Mississippi River Delta. The city grew slowly, hampered by storms, fires and disease. In 1763, the French ceded the town to the Spanish as part of the Seven Years War fallout. It was secretly returned to the French in 1801. Two years later, the United States acquired New Orleans in the Louisiana Purchase.

Uncle Sam divided the Territory of Orleans into 12 counties, which in 1807 were redistricted into 19 parishes corresponding with existing Catholic parishes. Orleans Parish included New Orleans; the two have shared the same boundaries since the city annexed Carrollton, La., in 1874. New Orleans originally had nine wards; higher-numbered wards were annexed after 1852. (Read more on ward boundary changes at nutrias.org/facts/wards.htm.) Adjacent parishes are St. Bernard, Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. Tammany.

New arrivals inundated resident Creoles, the colonial term for American-born residents of Spanish or French descent. Unrest in the Caribbean brought Europeans and Africans from Haiti and Cuba in the early 1800s. German and Irish settlers helped double the population in the 1830s. Immigrants gradually intermingled despite cultural taboos: The phrase “Creole of color” originated in the 1800s to describe the resulting Caribbean-European mix.

By 1860, New Orleans was a wealthy—yet wild—metropolis of nearly 170,000 people. Yellow fever epidemics hit regularly. After the Civil War (during which New Orleans was captured but not destroyed), the city grew again. African-Americans endured public hostility, yet built thriving businesses, colleges and arts scenes. Immigrants poured in, particularly after 1880: Albanians, Chinese, Filipinos, Germans, Greeks, Italians and others.

Growth leveled out in the 20th century, though World War II brought shipbuilding work. Postwar, suburbs expanded as swamps were drained. In recent decades, immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Cuba, Central America, Hungary, Ireland and Vietnam have come to call New Orleans home. After Hurricane Katrina, the city lost about 90 percent of its residents, but five years later, the population had recovered to 70 percent of the nearly 500,000 inhabitants it claimed in 2000.

Bayou bloodlines

Start your New Orleans research with these records:
  • Colonial records: French and Spanish documents are archived at the Louisiana State Museum Historical Center, the Historic New Orleans Collection at the Williams Research Center (WRC), and the city archives in the New Orleans Public Library (NOPL) Louisiana division. Also look to Early Louisiana Settlers (Genealogical Publishing Co.), a multivolume compilation on nearly 60,000 settlers available in print and on CD.
  • Vital records: City and parish vital records indexes date to the 1700s, but original records aren’t consistently available. The Louisiana State Archives (LSA) has online indexes of city and parish births from 1790 to 1907, marriages from 1831 to 1914 and 1936 to 1957, and deaths from 1804 to 1960. Certified copies cost $5. Indexes to city births from 1796 to 1900, marriages from 1800 to 1936, and deaths from 1804 to 1907 are at www.usgwarchives.net/la/orleans.htm. Subscription site Ancestry.com has an index to city/parish births from 1790 to 1899; marriages from 1831 to 1925 and 1734 to 1900 (in a statewide index); and deaths from 1804 to 1949. Also check the Louisiana Biography and Obituary Index (1804-1972) at www.nutrias.org/~nopl/obits/obits.htm.
  • Church records: The Archdiocese of New Orleans will search its archives by mailed or emailed request, but only immediate family can access records after 1930. You must provide detailed information and pay a fee; see www.archdiocese-no.org/archives/genealogy.php. Baptismal records for slaves and free people of color (1777–1805) are indexed at www.archdiocese-no.org/archives/sfpc.php. Some compiled diocesan records are available through the Family History Library (FHL), WRC and other repositories. Scattered records of other faiths are at the LSA and FHL. 
  • Censuses: The first New Orleans enumeration was taken in 1791 by the Spanish, and the French followed suit in 1804. Find the English translation of the 1791 census and the 1804 census at the city archives. Ancestry.com has an index of the 1791 data, and the FHL has the 1804 census on microfilm. US federal censuses for New Orleans begin in 1810, with records on subscription sites Ancestry.com and Archives.com, some free on FamilySearch.org, and on microfilm at the National Archives, FHL and many large research repositories.
  • City directories: Listings of some names and addresses begin in 1805. Find fairly full runs of city directories (in book or on microfilm) at the NOPL, FHL and WRC; the LSA has microfilms of 1805 to 1860. No city directories were published during the Civil War.
  • Land records: Look to the Orleans Parish Notarial Archives for land records from 1735 to 1970. Before 1769, records are in French; records from 1769 to 1803 are in Spanish; and those from 1803 to 1830 are in French and English.

US land records begin in 1803, when existing owners registered claims from France and Spain and remaining property entered the public domain. The Louisiana Office of State Lands has sources of title for every acre in Louisiana. The Bureau of Land Management’s search includes Orleans acreage as early as 1821. Map your family’s land with the Louisiana State Museum’s map collection, and check street name changes at nutrias.org/~nopl/facts/streetnames/namesa.htm.

  • Probate: The court of probate originally handled will books, succession records (the term for probate in Louisiana) and estate inventories. In 1846, the second district court took over. In 1880, district courts were rearranged into their current form. Orleans Parish Civil District Court, Docket 1, now handles successions. You can use microfilmed succession records (1805-1926) at NOPL and the FHL. Search an index to court of probate records at nutrias.org/~nopl/inv/probates/probias.htm.
  • Immigration: Documents exist for more than a million New Orleans passengers, many of whom spent time in the city. The National Archives has passenger lists for most of 1820 through 1952. The LSA and WRC have copies of most, plus indexes and abstracts. Ancestry.com has an index to passengers from 1820 to 1945.
  • Naturalization: Records for New Orleans (1827-1906) and an index to statewide naturalizations (through 1985) are at the NOPL. Look in the same place for New Orleans voter registrations (1891-1978), many of which contain naturalization information. LSA has declarations of intention for 1813 to 1906, and some naturalization petitions for 1838 to 1860.

Fast Facts

  • Settled: 1699
  • Incorporated: 1718
  • Nicknames: The Big Easy, Crescent City
  • State: Louisiana
  • Parish: Orleans
  • Parish Seat: New Orleans
  • Area: 350 square miles
  • Primary immigrant or ethnic groups: African, German, French/Creole, Irish, Italian, Sicilian, Jewish
  • Primary historical industries: shipping, fur trade, sugar, cotton, tourism
  • Famous residents: Louis Armstrong, Truman Capote, Harry Connick Jr., Kate Chopin, Ellen DeGeneres, Emeril Lagasse, Lee Harvey Oswald, Richard Simmons, Reese Witherspoon
  • Population:  1800– 116,375; 1900– 287,104; Current: 354,850
  • Timeline

    • 1718 French found LaNouvelle-Orleans
    • 1763 Treaty of Paris gives New Orleans to Spain
    • 1788 Fires destroy over a thousand buildings
    • 1803 Napoleon sells Louisiana Territory to United States
    • 1812 Louisiana becomes a state
    • 1849 Mississippi River floods, leaving 12,000 homeless
    • 1853 7,849 residents die of yellow fever
    • 1857 First Mardi Gras parade
    • 1890 Anti-Italian sentiment leads to Chief Hennessy Riot
    • 1984 New Orleans hosts the World’s Fair
    • 2005  Hurricane Katrina devastates New Orleans

    Toolkit

    Websites
    Publications
    • Beautiful Crescent: A History of New Orleans by Joan B. Garvey and Mary Lou Widmer (Garmer Press)
    • Early Louisiana Settlers (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
    • A Guide to Printed Sources for Genealogical and Historical Research in the Louisiana Parishes by Yvette Guillot Boling (Louisiana Genealogical and Historical Society)
    • New Orleans: A Pictorial History by Leonard Huber and Charles Dufour (Pelican)
    Archives & Organizations
     
  • City of New Orleans, 1300 Perdido St., New Orleans, LA 70112, (504) 658-4000
  • Genealogical Research Society of New Orleans, Box 51791, New Orleans, LA 70151
  • Historic New Orleans Collection, Williams Research Center, 410 Chartres St., New Orleans, LA 70130, (504) 523-4662
  • Louisiana Historical Society, 5615 Perrier St., New Orleans, LA 70115
  • Louisiana State Archives Research Library, 3851 Essen Lane, Baton Rouge, LA 70809, (225) 922-1000
  • New Orleans Public Library, Louisiana Division, 219 Loyola Ave., New Orleans, LA 70112, (504) 596-2610
  • Orleans Parish Civil District Court, 421 Loyola Ave., Room 201, New Orleans, LA 70112, (504) 592-9155
  • Orleans Parish Notarial Archives Division, 1340 Poydras St., Suite 360, New Orleans, LA 70112, (504) 568-8577
  • Vital Records Registry, Box 60630, New Orleans, LA 70160, (504) 593-5100
  • Records at a Glance

    Birth records
    • Begin: parish index in 1790, certificates in 1819
    • Privacy restrictions: 100 years
    • Research tips: Request records older than 100 years from the Louisiana State Archives; certified copies cost $5. Contact the state vital records office for certificates less than 100 years old. Various indexes are at www.usgwarchives.net/la/orleans.htm and Ancestry.com.
    Marriage records
    • Begin: parish index in 1831, certificates in 1870
    • Privacy restrictions: 50 years
    • Research tips: Request marriage records older than 50 years from the Louisiana State Archives. Request records less than 50 years old from the state vital records office. Various indexes are at www.usgwarchives.net/la/orleans.htm and Ancestry.com.
    Death records
    Deeds
    • Begin: 1735
    • Research tips: Request through Orleans Parish Notarial Archives.
    City directories
    • Begin: 1805
    • Research tips: Fairly complete collections are available through the FHL and major repositories in the region. No directories were published during the Civil War.

      Top 5 Historic Sites

      • Save Our Cemeteries Tours, 504-525-3377. The city’s oldest cemeteries host rows of aboveground crypts—so built because of the high water table—resembling “cities of the dead.” Visit Lafayette Cemetery or any of the three St. Louis cemeteries with a guided group tour, both for safety and the fascinating history.
      • Williams Research Center, 410 Chartres St., New Orleans, LA 70130. The Historic New Orleans Collection features changing exhibits on Louisiana history in the heart of a larger complex of historic buildings filled with related art and artifacts.
      • The Cabildo, 701 Chartres St., New Orleans, LA 70116. This circa-1799 Spanish colonial government building is the site of the transfer of the Louisiana Purchase. It now houses exhibits on the people and history of Louisiana.
      • St. Louis Cathedral and Old Ursuline Convent, 615 Pere Antoine Alley, New Orleans, LA 70116. The oldest US Catholic cathedral in continuous use and the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley together form the Catholic Cultural Heritage Center of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
      • French Quarter Visitor Center and Walking Tours, 419 Decatur St., New Orleans, LA 70130. Learn the history and traditions of the city through exhibits, film and an information-rich daily walking tour of this historic heart of New Orleans.

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      From the January 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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