Although the Mississippi was one of the first great rivers of North America to be discovered and explored by Europeans, and although every other important stream on the Atlantic seaboard had a fortified settlement erected at its mouth shortly after its discovery as a safeguard against inland exploration by rival European nations, it was not until almost a hundred and fifty years after the discovery of the Mississippi that an attempt was made to establish a settlement at the mouth of the river. For that purpose Louis XIV sent out an expedition under La Salle in 1684; but sailing too far westward, he landed at what is now Matagorda Bay, Texas, in the belief that he was entering the western channel of the Mississippi. Convinced of his error after landing, he sought the Mississippi in vain, and was finally forced to abandon the project and attempt an overland journey to Canada, during which he was treacherously killed by one of his men.
A more successful attempt to rediscover and secure the mouth of the Mississippi was made in 1698, when Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville, sailed from Brest with four ships and the wherewithal of colonization.
In February, 1699, the French arrived at Mobile Bay, where they learned from the Indians that the Mississippi was a short distance to the west. Proceeding to Ship Island, the fleet anchored and Iberville set out in small boats in search of the entrance to the river. The mouth of the Mississippi, lined with mud-coated tree trunks, which they mistook from afar for rocks, was found on March 2. Running their boats ashore, the party sang a Te Deum in honor of the occasion, and the next day, Shrove Tuesday, began the ascent of the river, the appropriate name of Mardi Gras being given to a bayou twelve miles upstream. Farther on, Indians of the Bayagoula and the Mongoulacha tribes were met, and on the following Friday the party arrived at the present site of New Orleans, where a buffalo was killed, a cross erected, and some trees marked. The expedition continued as far as the Red River and made its way back to the convoy by way of Bayou Manchac and Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas, which were named after the Minister of Marine of France and his son, respectively.
The following year Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, Iberville's brother, left the fort at Biloxi for further exploration of the river. He ascended as far as the Ouchas and on his way back met an English frigate of sixteen guns which had anchored twenty-eight leagues from the mouth of the river. Bienville adroitly dissuaded the English captain from proceeding up the river by informing him that his was but a small detachment of a large French force stationed upstream. The English, being taken in, weighed anchor and, turning about, sailed to the Gulf; thus giving rise to the name English Turn, a part of the river not very far from New Orleans, which has been particularly unlucky for the English, since at the Battle of New Orleans, a century later, they were turned back again a short distance from the same spot. By a slim margin -- the difference between the personalities of two men -- was the founding of New Orleans accomplished by the French rather than the English.
For twenty-four years ( 1699-1723) the capital of Louisiana remained on the Gulf Coast. Because of the belief that ships would find difficulty in gaining entrance to the shallow and débris-obstructed mouth of the river, no attempt was made to establish a settlement on the lower Mississippi. Adrien de Pauger urged that a narrowing of the channel through the construction of jetties would increase the current and make the river a self-dredging agent, but his advice was not heeded for more than a century. In the meantime, exploratory work in the vicinity was carried on by Jesuit, priests, voyageurs from the Great Lakes, and coureurs de bois, traders who did business with the Indians.
It being ascertained that suitable passage could be made for vessels at the mouth of the river, Bienville decided upon the settlement of New Orleans. A spot thirty leagues from the mouth, where Bayou St. John ran from Lake Pontchartrain to within a short distance of the river, was selected as the location, the place having been used by the Indians, long before white men invaded the region, as a portage offering a short cut between the Mississippi and the coastal waters to the east. An additional advantage afforded by the site was the relatively high land found there, a consideration not to be overlooked in that annually flooded region where the land hugged the sea in an endless labyrinth of cypress swamps, sluggish bayous, and coastal bays.
The exact date of the founding of La Nouvelle Orléans, named in honor of the Regent of France, Philippe, Duc d'Orléans, has been disputed, though most historians agree upon the year 1718, at which time, in February, Bienville entrusted his engineers with the plotting of the town, the exact location of which corresponds to the French Quarter of today.