Craps: A New Orleans Creation

After the United States took control of New Orleans via the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, thousands of Americans migrated there to seek better opportunities.  Many of them moved into the emerging American sector of New Orleans as they did not mesh well with the already existing Creoles.  The Creoles looked at them as barbaric, but noticed that those from Kentucky were the most boisterous.  Creoles nicknamed them “Kaintock”, and the term eventually referred to all incoming Americans.  The resentment was mutual.  The Americans looked at the Creoles as snobbish and unwelcoming, and nicknamed them “crapaud”, meaning frog in French.  The bitter contrast between the two led to an agreement to build a canal on a major thoroughfare dividing them.  The canal was never built, but the street remained as Canal Street.  The median in the middle was dubbed the “neutral ground”, and to this day the medians in the New Orleans area are called “neutral grounds”.

The story of craps really begins with Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville, a wealthy Creole.  Marigny’s father, Pierre Marigny, made a deal with Louis Philippe, Duke of Orleans, and great-great-grandson of Philippe II, the prince New Orleans received its namesake.  During the French Revolution, Louis Philippe was in New Orleans waiting for the turmoil to dwindle.  He lost his fortune, and Pierre Marigny gave Philippe a large sum with the promise that Philippe pay him back when able.

Pierre Marigny died when Bernard de Marigny was only thirteen years old, leaving him a fortune.  Bernard de Marigny’s uncle, Louis Xavier Martin de Lino de Chalmette, became guardianship of the heir until Bernard de Marigny reached 18.  Chalmette sent Marigny to study in London in order to adequately prepare for ownership of the vast riches he would soon receive.  In England, Marigny discovered the game of “hazards”, a game of luck played with two dice.  He also learned English, which helped since knowing English was rapidly becoming the language of commerce and politics after the Louisiana Purchase.  When Chalmette learned of the vast amount of spending Marigny was doing in London, he forced him to return to New Orleans.

When Marigny returned, he taught his creole friends and acquaintances how to play his personal version of hazards, which was starkly different from the game he learned.  When Americans saw the game and adopted it themselves, they gave it their own name, crapaud, after the Creoles who played it.  The American accent eventually molded crapaud into “craps”.  Unfortunately for Marigny, he was dreadful at his own game and almost everyone he taught became better than him.

Portrait of Bernard de Marigny

After Marigny inherited his father’s fortune at the age of 18, his addiction with craps quickly started to take its toll on his finances.  Two years later, in 1805, he received a permit to subdivide his plantation into an urban neighborhood called Faubourg Marigny.  Marigny started selling lots and naming streets.  Because of his love for the game, he named one street Rue de Craps.  He made back most of his money lost by selling these lots to the booming population, but continued to lose it playing craps.  Much of Faubourg Marigny appealed to working class Creoles, free people of color, and incoming Haitian immigrants.

Marigny’s fortune increased again.  In 1830, Louis Philippe, the man Marigny’s father helped while in exile, eventually became the King of France for 18 years.  He repaid Marigny handsomely and Marigny accumulated even more wealth and capital.  Even though Marigny made money in a plethora of ways, his eccentric spending habits and love for craps ruined him.

By 1840, New Orleans was the third-largest city in the nation with a population of 102,193, surpassed only by New York City and Baltimore.  New Orleans also boasted the fourth largest port in the world, exceeded only by London, Liverpool, and New York City.  As the population boomed, people became increasingly confused as different sections of the city had different street names despite being one continuous street (we still see this today as street names change exiting the French Quarter and entering the Central Business District).  Because Rue de Craps had three churches on it, the congregations petitioned for its name change.  In 1850, they received their wish when City Ordinance Number 395 changed seventy-five street names.  Rue de Craps became Burgundy, and many other streets in The Marigny adopted their French Quarter complements as well.  The streets were still known by their original names for two or three generations after the name change.

And there it is.  One of the most famous gambling games was first brought to the country by an egotistical Creole teenager, who transformed it into something entirely different for his own pleasure.  It led to the creation of Faubourg Marigny, one of New Orleans’ most iconic and picturesque neighborhoods.  Ironically, it also led to the demise of the creator himself.  Like so many millionaires throughout history, Bernard de Marigny died penniless in 1868, but his game continues.


Source: Much of this information can be found in “Frenchmen, Desire, and Goodchildren… and other Streets of New Orleans!” by John Chase.

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