This week we continue our series on ports beyond New York with five facts about the Port of New Orleans.
1. Return Trip Immigration
The city of New Orleans quickly rose to prominence as a commercial center as exports like cotton and other agricultural products from the South left for trade centers in Europe. On the return trips captains offered a cheaper passage than some other routes. Although the trip was longer than the journey to some other ports, the price was right for many Irish, German, and French immigrants.
In the early 1800s, steamboat travel enabled travel upstream from New Orleans through the lower Mississippi River Valley, and this provided a convenient route to the fertile lands of the Mississippi valley. The steamships brought produce from the interior to New Orleans for export and return trips northward brought many of the immigrants who had arrived through New Orleans into the American heartland on the next leg of their journey.
2. Peak Years
An estimated 550,000 immigrants passed through the Port of New Orleans between 1820 and 1860, making it the second leading port of entry in the United States by 1837. Of those 550,000 immigrants around 350,000 of them arrived between 1847 and 1857. In fact throughout the antebellum period, New Orleans drew more immigrants than the ports of Boston, Philadelphia, or Baltimore.
3. Civil War Years and After
With the blockade of Confederate ports during the Civil War, immigration through New Orleans was halted and never regained its momentum due to the rapid expansion of railroads that made travel from Eastern ports more appealing. Also, at this point more and more shipping companies were turning to the larger steamships that couldn’t reliably get into the port of New Orleans because of sandbars that often blocked the port. In 1879 a set of parallel dikes, or jetties, designed by James Buchanan Eads narrowed the mouth of the river, which cut a deeper trench that allowed for the passage of larger ships.
This helped the port regain its prominence as a world class trade center, but immigration never rebounded to its pre-Civil War levels. It did receive a small portion of the wave of eastern Europeans that began arriving in the U.S. in the 1880s, as well as a number of Italians (most notably from Sicily) and other Mediterranean immigrants. Due to its proximity to Cuban and Caribbean shipping lanes, New Orleans also drew a large number of Spanish and Latin American immigrants arriving in the U.S.
4. A Seasonal Route
Travel through New Orleans wasn’t without its risks. Yellow fever and malaria were recurring visitors between the months of May and November. Immigrants with little or no immunity to these tropical diseases were especially at risk, so travel guides recommended that immigrants avoid arriving in the city during those months.
In 1853, the city was hit with an epidemic of yellow fever that sickened 40 percent of the population, and it’s estimated that around 8,000 people succumbed to the disease that year. Wealthier residents often fled the city during the summer months to avoid the disease.
5. Looser Restrictions
Because of the lucrative nature of the port, the business community wanted an open, deregulated port. This made it an attractive port of entry for those who might be detained at stricter ports. For example, after the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the 1880s, some Asians still found their way into the U.S. through New Orleans due to the looser enforcement of immigration laws. The loose restrictions were also attractive to those with physical challenges that might jeopardize entry through other ports.
- Antebellum Louisiana: Disease, Death, and Mourning (Louisiana State Museum)
- M. Mark Stolarik, ed. Forgotten Doors: The Other Ports of Entry to the United States, Chapter 3, “Immigration through the Port of New Orleans,” by Joseph Logsdon (Philadelphia, Pa.: The Balch Institute Press, 1988.)
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