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NOLA History: The Flags of New Orleans

Throughout history, flags have been used to mark all types of territory from castles and palaces, to cities and towns, to even sporting fields. New Orleans is no stranger to being marked as someone’s territory as it has been by many different people and places all for a different reason since 1764. The custom continues today every Jazz Fest when attendees stake their claim on a plot of land at the Fair Grounds with tall flags from the country or neighborhood they traveled from.

New Orleans historical flags

1. Flag of the Kingdom of France. 2. "Cross of Burgundy," Spain. 3. Spanish Royal Flag. 4. Flag of the French Republic

French-Spanish-French

While the Spanish were likely the first Europeans to set foot in Louisiana, it was the Frenchmen, de la Salle, who laid full claim to the Mississippi. As a subject of France, he flew the flag of the Ancien Regime (1), the Bourbon rulers of France. This flag, along with a later variant with three fleur-de-lis, flew over New Orleans at its founding by the LeMoyne brothers, all the way up to the French Revolution. When Louis XV transferred Louisiana to the Spanish in 1764, two flags were seen in New Orleans. The first was the “Cross of Burgundy,” (2) a variant of St. Andrew’s Cross. This flag was used regularly by Spanish ships, both naval and merchant. Additionally, the civil government in New Orleans flew the flag of the Spanish Bourbon kings, with its red-yellow-red field and the Spanish royal arms (3).

France was a republic by the time Napoleon placed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the throne of Spain. This enabled Napoleon to have Spain give Louisiana back to France in 1803.  When Louisiana was sold to the United States of America in 1804, the French hauled down the Tricolour (4), and the Stars and Stripes was raised in its place.

America-British-American

Historical New Orleans Flags

4. "The Star-Spangled Banner." 5. The British Union Jack. 6. The 20-star, 13-stripe US flag of 1818.

When Louisiana was sold to the United States in 1804, the 1795 version of the Stars and Stripes flew over the Cabildo. This was the “Star-Spangled Banner” version, with fifteen stars and fifteen stripes (4). In 1814 and January, 1815, St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes briefly saw the Union Jack of Great Britain (5) flying over the forts at the mouth of the river and advancing towards the city from Chalmette. The Battle of New Orleans sent the British packing once and for all. Louisiana got its star on the US flag on July 4, 1818 (6), when the twenty-star, thirteen-stripe flag began use (the thirteen-stripe flags date from here).

Secession, The Confederacy, and The War Between The States

Louisiana did not have an official state flag in the 19th Century, but there were a number of unofficial designs featuring a pelican, recognizing how common that bird was in South Louisiana.

Historical flags in New Orleans

7. The "Pelican" Flag of 1860. 8. The Louisiana State Flag under the Confederacy. 9. The "Stars and Bars" of the Confederate States of America.

When South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 21, 1860, others across the southern states raised banners in support of that action and defiance of Washington. One of the first flags raised in New Orleans was the “Pelican Flag,” (7) with its white background, central red star, and the now-familiar pelican. The pelican is feeding three of its young, hence the heraldic term “in its piety.” Given that this flag was in use unofficially since late 1860 until Louisiana joined the Confederacy on February 11, 1861. The state flag of Confederate Louisiana (8) had a red canton (top-left corner) with a single yellow star referencing Louisiana’s Spanish heritage, and thirteen stripes of blue, white and red, for the French Tricolour. This flag, along with the flag of the Confederate States of America (9 – the “Stars and Bars”) flew over the New Orleans until the Union Army occupied the city in 1862. The “stainless” flag, commonly known as the “Confederate Battle Flag,” never officially flew over New Orleans, since the city was already under Union control when it was authorized in 1863.

Modern New Orleans

Modern New Orleans Flags

10. The State Flag of Louisiana. 11. The Municipal Flag of the City of New Orleans. 12. A "Mardi Gras" Flag

After a century of unofficial “pelican” flags, Louisiana adopted the “pelican in its piety” on a blue background, as its official flag, in 1912 (10). To the pelican was added a scroll with the motto “Union Justice Confidence.” (Some flags will add the word “and” or an ampersand to the motto). In 1918, the City Council of New Orleans adopted an official municipal flag (11), with a small horizontal red stripe at the top of a white field, a small blue stripe at the bottom, and three golden fleur-de-lis in the center.

While there is no official flag for Carnival, the most common variation is a play on the French tri-colour (12), proudly displayed outside homes and businesses every Mardi Gras.

Do you fly flags at your home or business? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter!


When he’s not blogging for GoNOLA.com, Edward Branley is a computer consultant, educator, and principal with Yatmedia LLC, a local social media consulting company. Edward is the author of three books on the history of the city, New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores (available October 31st). He is active on Google+ and is @YatPundit on Twitter.