While Mardi Gras has become a fixture of New Orleans culture, the holiday does not have its earliest roots in the city. The Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday tradition began centuries before in Rome as a religious holiday that marked the last day before Lent, or Ash Wednesday.
The custom spread to France where it then traveled to the French American colonies at the tail end of the 17th century. On March 2, 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville set up camp about 60 miles south of New Orleans. Knowing that March 3 was being celebrated as a major holiday back in France, Bienville named the spot “Pointe du Mardi Gras.”
In 1703, the first Mardi Gras in America was celebrated in what is now Mobile. In 1704, the secret society Masque de la Mobile was founded as a precursor to today’s Mardi Gras krewes. In 1710, the Boeuf Gras Society was established and paraded from 1711 through 1861.
New Orleans was founded in 1718, and by the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in the form of elegant society balls, which became the basis of today’s Mardi Gras ball tradition. In 1781, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was the first of hundreds of New Orleans’ carnival organizations.