French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville landed at a spot 60 miles directly south of present day New Orleans on March 2, 1699, the eve of that year’s Mardi Gras. In honor of the festive holiday, Bienville christened the plot of land “Pointe du Mardi Gras.” Three years later, Bienville established another locale calling it “Fort Louis de La Louisiane” which is the current site of Mobile, Alabama. By the time Mardi Gras rolled around in 1703, the tiny settlement had changed its name to “Fort Louis de la Mobile” and it was here the very first Mardi Gras was celebrated in the America’s.
It wasn’t until 1718 that Bienville established New Orleans and it was another 12 years or more before Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in that city. At the beginning, the celebration there did not involve the elaborate parades we enjoy today. Instead, it probably mimicked the procession originated by the “Boeuff Gras Society” (Boeuf Gras means “fatted calf” or "fatted ox") in Fort Louis de la Mobile. There, a large paper mâchè bull’s head on wheels was pushed by 16 men through the streets, signaling the coming season of Lent and its associated fast from meat. Mardi Gras literally means “Fat Tuesday” and gets its name from the custom of feasting on the day before Ash Wednesday when the fasting season of Lent begins.
Marquis de Vaudreuil, Louisiana’s governor in the early 1740’s is credited with establishing elegant society balls to celebrate Mardi Gras. Citizens and guests of New Orleans today continue to enjoy Mardi Gras balls which are modeled after Vaudreuil’s extravaganzas of his era.
It isn’t until 1781 that we find any reference to Mardi Gras “Carnival." In that year, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was among the first club and/or carnival organization formed in New Orleans. It would be yet another 49 years before street processions using “flambeaux,” or gaslight torches, would light up the way for revelers in carriages or on horseback became common. The first daytime parade occurred in 1872 which was also the first year a “King of Carnival,” Rex was selected by a group of business men to preside over the parade. (This was also the first year present Mardi Gras colors were used – but you’ll have to read about that in my next blog.) In 1875, Louisiana Governor Henry Warmoth signed the “Mardi Gras Act” which made Mardi Gras an official holiday in Louisiana, which it remains to this day.