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Bayou St. John Neighborhood Snapshot

Census 2000 Data Tables: People & Household CharacteristicsHousing & Housing Costs, Income & Poverty, Transportation, Employment, Educational Attainment, Immigration & Language, Disabilities, Neighborhood Characteristics

Stretching along the western border of the Bayou St. John neighborhood, the bayou has been a central part of the life and development of this community that obtained its name from this waterway.

Native American settlement

The word bayou comes from bayuk, meaning minor streams in the language spoken by the Choktaw, believed to have been one of the Native American nation-groups that inhabited this area before the Europeans settled here.

The Native Americans called the bayou area Bayouk Choupic, after the mudfish, and built thatched homes near its bank.

© GNO Community Data Center

  "Old Portage" sign along Bayou St. John

Groups from the Chapitoulas nation are thought to be the first to inhabit the area. Another nation-group, the Choctaw had noted the advantages of living near this waterway and transported food and other goods on the bayou. They also traveled to the Mississippi River, by way of the bayou and a path now called Bayou Road. Ultimately, a trading village was established at Bayouk Choupic and Bayou Road.

Europeans' arrival

The French were looking for shorter routes from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi River. In 1699, some of the Choctaw showed them various routes, including where Bayou Road met the river. The French decided to build a city at that site, the present day French Quarter.


Special Collections of the Tulane University Library

  Carlos Trudeau's Map shows how Bayou St John extended to the river  

They renamed Bayouk Choupic Bayou St. Jean, and by 1703 were using the bayou as a shipping channel. After the arrival of the Spaniards, the two groups battled for trading control.

Europeans soon began bringing enslaved Africans into the area as unpaid laborers, many stripped of their self-respect and identity and separated from their families. The Choctaw people had long before left the area and are thought to have settled in Houma.

The Old Portage sign is "the historical marker on Moss Street [that] marks where goods were unloaded from the bayou and carried along the overland 'portage' to the river."

During the 18th and early 19th centuries the land along the bayou became a place for recreation. The Tivoli Amusement Park, where the Pitot House now stands, was a popular entertainment center. Dances were held on Sundays in an octagon-shaped pavilion in the park.

Taste of Voodoo in New Orleans

The first noted Voodoo queen of the area was thought to be Sanite Dede. Those who presided over the Voodoo ceremonies were always free women of color. (Voodoo uses a matriarchal line.)

Europeans were frightened of the powers of this religion and its practitioners. "As an example of the fear that some had for Voodoo, in 1782 during the Spanish regime, Governor Galvez forbade the import of slaves from Martinique in the Caribbean to New Orleans because the slaves' belief in Voodoo made them too dangerous."

Police often raided Voodoo gatherings that took place in the city. Many practitioners and their followers moved out to the Bayou St. John area in order to freely express their religious beliefs.

Learn more about Voodoo at the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

  Famous portrait of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau by Charles M. Gandolfo (available for viewing at the Voodoo Museum in the French Quarter)  

Marie Laveau

One of the most powerful and influential Voodoo priestess of the time was Marie Laveau, called Voodoo Queen on Bayou St. John. She was so respected that thousands are said to have attended her rituals at the "Wishing Spot" on the bayou.

Read more about Marie Laveau

Marie Laveau Biography at the Voodoo Dreams web site at Arizona State University

Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen on Bayou St. John article at Louisiana Lagniappe web site by Windy Rachal

The neighborhood

Bayou St. John is full of historic houses, including cottages, bungalows and colonial style homes. The oldest house in the Bayou St. John neighborhood is the Old Spanish Custom House built in 1784.


Image courtesy New Orleans Public Library ( Permission for reuse required.

"The old draw bridge across Bayou St. John at Esplanade Ave. which was changed to a rigid bridge with its roadway widened." [WPA Photograph Collection: Bridges]  

Construction of the Pitot House, now a museum, began in 1799 and was completed in 1805 by another owner. James Pitot, second mayor of New Orleans, bought this French Colonial/West-Indies architectural style plantation home in 1810. Today Louisiana Landmarks Society uses it as its headquarters.

In 1804, Daniel Clark bought a large portion of land from many of the plantation owners, mapped out Faubourg St. John, where most of the present-day Bayou St. John neighborhood exists, then sold parceled lots. Barthelemy Lafon designed the plan for the area in 1809, which resulted in a suburb of thirty-five irregularly shaped blocks. He drew a fan-like composition whose focal point was at Place Bretonne, where Bayou Road and Dorgenois Street met just under Broad Street.

In 1855, Esplanade Avenue was constructed splitting through established streets and causing the removal of old houses in its path. A few years later, Ursuline Avenue was laid the same way. In the 1860s and 1870s French Creole families built homes along Esplanade Avenue.

Image courtesy New Orleans Public Library ( Permission for reuse required.
  Bayou St. John at Esplanade Bridge after WPA cleaned and beautified the bayou, 1938 [WPA Photograph Collection: Drainage]  

Transportation and drainage improvements increase population

By 1857, due to the wet conditions of the land, there were not a significant number of houses in the neighborhood. However, improvements in drainage systems and transportation services contributed to the increase of neighborhood development.

The Rodriguez Bayou Road omnibus started in 1857, the Rampart-Esplanade Railroad in 1861 and the Esplanade Bayou Bride Line in 1863, which ran until 1913. Additionally, the bayou remained an important passageway for freight transportation in the 1800s.

In the 1930s, families built houseboats along the bayou. But as the neighborhood developed, other residents complained about their unkempt appearance and called for the cleaning up of the bayou, including the prohibition of houseboats on the waterway. In 1936, Congress ended navigational use on the bayou. Beautification projects were implemented along the bayou, the earliest being by WPA workers who dredged and cleaned it in the 1930s. Today rules for using the bayou have been established and it is well-maintained.


© GNO Community Data Center
    Our Lady of the Rosary dome over Bayou St. John

Some of today's landmarks

One of the architectural attractions to the area is the European dome of Our Lady of the Rosary, whose church faces Esplanade Avenue. Cabrini High School, a Catholic school for girls sits nearby and faces the bayou. The New Orleans Krishna Temple, a Swiss Mountain structure on Esplanade Avenue, is one of the temples of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

For more information:

Louisiana Lagniappe: Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen on Bayou St. John

Bayou St. John/City Park. Tommy Crane, Inc

Chappaquiddick on Bayou St. John, Bayou St. John -- New Orleans, Louisiana, Web Site of Cookie and Bill Haensel

Crescent City Memory--Part Six

Louisiana Images and Guide: Plantation Houses

Neighborhood Profiles Project Document prepared by the City of New Orleans Office of Policy Planning and the City Planning Commission. Published December 1980. Study available at the Williams Research Center (non-circulating collection).

Census 2000 Data Tables: People & Household CharacteristicsHousing & Housing Costs, Income & Poverty, Transportation, Employment, Educational Attainment, Immigration & Language, Disabilities, Neighborhood Characteristics

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Last modified: October 10, 2002