Many visitors to New Orleans are familiar with the song “The House of the Rising Sun,” made popular by the English band The Animals in 1967. The song itself has roots far back in English folk balladry, long before any association with New Orleans. While many places in New Orleans have made claims to be the ‘Rising Sun’, archaeological investigations at 535 Conti Street, a place identified in documentary records as the location of the “Rising Sun Hotel” in the 1820s, have added just a bit more information to the debate over the origins of the New Orleans variation of the song.
In 2005, an archaeological investigation took place at 535-537 Conti Street as a joint project between the Historic New Orleans Collection, Earth Search, Inc., and the University of Chicago, led by Dr. Shannon Dawdy. According to census records and other archival data, multiple renditions of boarding houses and hotels existed on this site through the latter part of the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century. While the association of the lot with the ‘Rising Sun’ garnered the most attention, archaeologists identified material remains of a rich history spanning many eras of occupation at the site.
Prehistoric Native American Settlement
Dawdy and her team found Native American pottery sherds in layers predating the French settlement of the city, thus providing direct evidence for indigenous occupation of the natural levee in the French Quarter area. While there is no record of a Native American encampment in this area, Iberville’s journal notes that members of a Quinipissa village would walk from the mouth of Bayou St. John to the Mississippi River, as a connection to Lake Pontchartrain, presumably passing by this site.
1730 – The Mandeville Family
The first recorded French occupation of the site dates back to the early 1730s. The Mandeville family owned the property, and it is believed they used the site as a garden based on the abundance of organic material found during excavation, including crushed shell and coral used as fertilizer. Census records from 1726 indicate the Mandevilles enslaved two African people and one Native American person while they owned the Conti Street property. Archaeology from this period has been used to inform researchers about sustenance patterns in the early French colony.
1760 - 1820 The Chabot Women & The First Rising Sun Hotel
Between 1760 and 1790, the house switched ownership multiple times and the property was subdivided into lots, which were later rejoined. In 1791, a man named Louis McCarty purchased the property and all extant structures, but a fire destroyed it in 1794. Following this fire, a wooden structure was rebuilt and the property was sold to an Irish immigrant woman named Madame Margaret Clark Chabot shortly after her French husband died. The title transfer document from August 22, 1796, states that Ms. Chabot was illiterate when she purchased the property already owning the materials needed to run a boarding house, including multiple walnut tables, 5 dozen chairs, and 25 new mattresses. Ms. Chabot owned the property for approximately 28 years, and under her management, the boarding house shows up in a number of historical accounts.
In 1821, L.S. Hotchkiss and Co. purchased an advertisement in the Louisiana Gazette for a “Rising Sun Hotel” on Conti Street. The ad claims that the new Rising Sun Hotel would maintain the best entertainment, “which this house has enjoyed for twenty years past,” referring to Chabot’s period of ownership. With the modern association of the ‘Rising Sun’ with prostitution, some of the language of the ad sounds suggestive, as it states things like “Gentlemen may here relay upon finding attentive servants.” However, Rising Sun was actually a common name for taverns in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
The Rising Sun Hotel burned to the ground in a catastrophic fire in 1822. It was replaced with a new, more upscale brick hotel, referred to variously as the Richardson Hotel, the Conti Hotel, and the Veranda Hotel. Later, the building was reused for various commercial ventures, before falling into disrepair after another fire in the late nineteenth century.
The different fires that affected the lot made it possible to stratigraphically separate different periods of occupation at the property in some detail. Artifacts from the 1822 Rising Sun Hotel fire were of particular interest, as they included fancy glass tableware, wine bottles, items of jewelry and personal adornment, and numerous tin-enameled rouge pots or galley pots. Such items initially suggested that there might be a connection between the hotel and sex work, as high incidences of rouge pots have elsewhere been associated with brothel assemblages. However, other corroborating historical evidence is lacking, and Dawdy and Weyhing have noted that cosmetics like rouge was as associated with single men and ‘dandyism’ as with women in the 1820s.