Frenchmen Street, located in the historic Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, is famed for its intimate jazz lounges. Locals and discerning visitors alike prize Frenchmen as an escape from the touristy haunts of Bourbon Street in favor of a more authentic New Orleans experience. As you admire the street’s signature Creole cottages and tap your foot to the nearest band, however, you might notice that Frenchmen Street, despite its name, isn’t particularly packed with, well, French men. It’s not even in the French Quarter!
In a city known for its easy-going spirit and never-ending parties, the origins of the name “Frenchmen” are unusually gristly.
The main villain of this tale is an obscure historical figure named Alejandro O’Reilly. He was born in Ireland in the 1700s and, although we don’t know what his birth name was, I’m going take a wild guess that no Irish mother named her kid Alejandro. He rebranded when he moved to Spain to enlist in the Spanish army, where he could fight for a Catholic monarch instead of England’s Protestant king. Alejandro shot through the ranks and was appointed colonial governor of Louisiana in 1769.
When Alejandro arrived in the Crescent City, New Orleans was in shambles. The French majority population was still salty about losing the city to Spain just seven years prior, and they’d united with the city’s German and English communities to stage a rebellion. Alejandro’s predecessor had tried to put down the uprising by force, but he had only managed to anger the agitators and was forced to flee the city.
Alejandro learned from his predecessor’s mistakes and came up with a different strategy: diplomacy. He invited twelve of the rebel leaders to dine with him, voice their grievances, and discuss peace terms.
At least that’s what Alejandro told the rebels. When the insurgents arrived, Alejandro ordered them to be chained and dragged into the middle of the street. There, he executed half of them and sent the survivors back to their men to tell them what had happened. The rebels were appropriately terrified and wisely decided to lay down their arms and accept Spanish rule.
For his role in the massacre, Alejandro earned the charming nickname “Bloody O’Reilly.” And the street where the French rebels had been executed would henceforth be known as Frenchman Street—a permanent reminder of the high cost of high treason.
Written by Chris, a local expert guide for New Orleans Crawling. A historian on the lam from the world of academia, Chris enjoys gardening, hiking, and playing at open mic nights after one too many beers. Want to learn more about New Orleans’ hidden history? Join us on an Irish Channel Pub Crawl!