The Cabildo of New Orleans: A Standing Fortress of New Orleans’ Spanish Heritage

Hispanic Heritage Month

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA–Despite its moniker of being the French Quarter, much of the iconic ironwork and design is of Spanish influence. Jackson Square was once the Plaza De Armes. The Cabildo was built in 1799 and controlled by Spain until 1803. Today it is part of the State Museum.

Eileen Tomczuk is the Education Coordinator for the Louisiana State Museum and says, “though we have so many different things in the Louisiana State Museum’s Collection, just the fact that the building is here and it has history written in all of it’s rooms and details, makes it a never ending document to learn about the history of New Orleans.”

Since 1911, the Cabildo has been part of the nine buildings that comprise Louisiana’s State Museum. The rooms inside the Cabildo are home to many artifacts, stories and exhibitions, but the rooms themselves had different functions over the years. The building over the years was home to the police department, a jail and city hall and during the time of the second French rule, the Louisiana Purchase ceremony was held within the walls of the cabildo.

The Cabildo’s main powers came from it housing the Spanish City Council, in fact, Cabildo means town hall in Spanish.

Eileen Tomczuk says, “the Spanish City Council established laws, regulated commerce and served as the judicial system.  They ruled on both civil and criminal cases from throughout Louisiana.  The Cabildo touched all aspects of human life because they touched issues of public health, public safety and infrastructure, they did everything from repairing the levies to establishing a public dance hall.”

Councils or Cabildos, where everywhere that Spain settled. In Cuba, Cabildos de nación were structures intended to be a way for the enslaved to connect with African customs and culture. In New Orleans, the Spanish Cabildo had decided on a different type of allowance for the African enslaved called coartación.

“For the process of coartación, the enslaved had to raise the funds themselves, or obtain funds from third parties, which allowed them to purchase their freedom at a set price and then they had to submit a petition to the Cabildo to grant their freedom,” says Eileen Tomczuk.

Over the years, the Cabildo became a fortress that not only housed artifacts but was a priceless Spanish artifact itself.

“The building was called the Casa Capitular by the Spanish, which means Capital House.  Cabildo is just the name that stuck to the building in later years and it’s what we still call it today,” says Eileen Tomczuk.

Eileen says that the Cabildo is currently working on a new exhibition that will be ready next year and is all about the building’s history.

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