Bayou St. John could be considered the cradle of New Orleans. Indian tribes, including the Chapitoulas and the Choctaw, lived along the bayou, or Bayouk Choupic, In 1699, the Indians showed French explorer Pierre Le Moyne Sieur d’Iberville the portage route between the bayou and the Mississippi River, and as early as 1703, the French, who renamed the bayou Bayou St. Jean, were using it to move goods. French settlers lived along the bayou’s edge.
For more than 100 years afterward, development along the bayou was limited, as the surrounding land was swampy. In 1784, a Spanish Custom House was built at the corner of what is now Moss and Grand Route St. John streets and is standing as the oldest home in the area. The Pitot House, built nearby, was completed in 1805 and today is the home of the Louisiana Landmarks Society.
In 1809 Barthelmey Lafon designed a plan for the Faubourg St. John, centered around the focal point of Place Bretonne where Bayou Road and N. Dorgenois Streets meet.
In 1855, Esplanade Avenue was built as a thoroughfare from the Vieux Carré, and soon after the land around Bayou St. John was drained and more development occurred.
Rail lines began traveling to the area in 1857.
About this time, the use of steamboats along the river negated the need to use the bayou for commerce. Families began building and living in houseboats on the bayou. That ended in 1936 when Congress formally ended navigational use of the bayou. The Works Progress Administration drained and cleaned the bayou in the 1930s. For years the bayou was stagnant because it was largely cut off from Lake Pontchartrain by gates. In 2013, however, a project to help restore some of the bayou’s natural flow was completed.