(by Kristina Kay Robinson for Curbed) – New Orleans is an ancient city. Three hundred years into its colonial settlement, even an accounting of history dating from that settlement must acknowledge this fact. The French, it turns out, did not impart a novel idea of building a city in the swamp onto the landscape as much as they imposed their idea of what a city should be onto a complex network of Native nations and villages. Key to the settlement of New Orleans is a path, formed 4,300 years ago and used by Native populations in the area, known today as Bayou Road.
Traveling the Mississippi River in order to reach its mouth could prove an unsuccessful venture when its waters were low, sometimes causing boats to be stuck until the waters rose again. Native peoples were the first to figure out a way to avoid this, sailing in from other parts of the Gulf Coast and Lake Pontchartrain through the connection at Bayou St John, offloading their goods at the historic beginning of Bayou Road and walking them to the river at what is now the French Quarter. If not for this narrow ridge of elevated dry land in “Balbancha” (the Mobilian/Choctaw name for New Orleans), leading to the Mississippi River, the city of New Orleans might have never existed.
Bayou Road Origins
Bayou Road is the oldest road in the city and among the oldest in the country. The site of rapid demographic change and new development, it has managed to maintain its feeling of timelessness and its character as a multiethnic crossroads of cultures and aesthetics. Walking its path, both historic and modern, through the Sixth and Seventh wards of New Orleans transports both the native-born New Orleanian and the visitor back and forth between history and the present day.
The historic Bayou Road begins at the corner of Bell and Moss streets. The Old Portage is now marked with a historical placard indicating its importance to the beginnings of both the ancient and colonial city. Letters from Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and other French explorers describe the round, dome-shaped homes of Native peoples, with their closable skylights and thatched roofs, that occupied the bayous of Louisiana. From the French verb “to carry,” the portage marks the place where Native peoples would unload their cargo off boats they had sailed from Lake Pontchartrain and through the bayou that remains today as the fragmented lagoons of City Park. From here it would be possible to walk through the swamp to the Mississippi River on a slightly elevated ridge of land.
Read the full story here.