French Creoles in Louisiana: An American Tale
by Harriet J. Bauman
Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute
The story of America reflects a rich history of the many peoples who came to this continent to begin a new life. Some came willingly, looking for the challenges and the rewards; others were sent, in shackles, from prisons or as slaves. Their origins notwithstanding, these immigrants' contributions to American culture have created a unique nation. America is not a melting pot, but a marriage of cultures. These cultures mix and meld, share and exchange, adapt, adopt, and reject aspects of the foreign cultures which help the immigrants forge an American identity.
The different ethnic groups and their contributions to the mosaic of American life are fascinating to study. As a French teacher, I enjoy learning about French Americans, their history and culture. The French Americans are descendants of French explorers and settlers who were resilient and creative in adapting to their new environ-ment, and, in adapting their new environment to their way of life. They took advantage of natural resources, in particular, to establish their claim to certain areas of the New World.
This unit focuses on the French Creoles of Louisiana, their history, holidays and customs, music, dress, food, and language. Creole life today will be mentioned as evidence of the Creoles' tenacity and interest in holding on to their heritage.
History of Louisiana Time Line
Louisiana's beginnings are crucial to the study of the Creoles. Creoles began to have an influence on the territory in the 1760'8 with the help of O'Reilly and Unzaga who included them in the government and encouraged marriages between the French Creoles an Spanish soldiers. The Creoles kept their languages and customs throughout their early history and well into the present century.
1519-Alonso de Pineda sailed the Gulf Coast and discovered the mouth of the Mobile River.
- 1528-Panfilo de Narvaez landed in Florida to establish a colony. Most of his men died fighting Indians. He tried to sail to Mexico along the coast. Near the mouth of the Mississippi River he lost all of his ships. Some men escaped. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca was one of them. He and some of the other men traveled across Louisiana to Mexico. This trip took eight years.
- 1539-Hernando de Soto landed on the west coast of Florida. He heard about a rich Indian nation and searched for it unsuccessfully for four years.
- 1608-The French founded Quebec in Canada.
- 1658 (approx.)-Pierre Esprit Radisson reached the western area of Lake Superior. He and his men learned of a great river which ran south to the Gulf of Mexico.
- 1682-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and Henri de Tonti who were living in Canada, decided to explore the Mississippi River accompanied by fifty-four French and Indians. When they reached the mouth of the river, La Salle planted a wooden cross in the ground and took possession of the territory in the name of Louis XIV of France. He called it Louisiane , land of Louis.
- 1684-La Salle left France with four hundred colonists to establish a colony in Louisiana. He couldn't find the mouth of the Mississippi River 80 he founded the colony in Matagorda Bay in Texas. The settlement failed.
- 1687-La Salle was killed by his own men. France controlled the St. Lawrence River Valley in Canada, the area of the Great Lakes, the Ohio and Upper Mississippi River Valleys. France wanted to keep the lower Mississippi Valley from the Spanish and English.
- 1694-98-Various books were written about founding a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
- Oct. 24, 1698-The Sieur d'Iberville and three hundred men left Brest, France to establish a settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
- Feb., 1699-Iberville landed and set off to find the ideal spot for a settlement.
- March, 1699-Iberville and his men found the mouth of the Mississippi. They continued up the river past what is now Baton Rouge, turned around and came back to the Gulf Coast.
- May 1, 1699-A small fort was established on the eastern side of Biloxi Bay. It was called Fort Maurepas in honor of the French Prime Minister.
- 1702-Iberville moved the survivors of Fort Maurepas to Massacre Island now called Dauphin Island. A new, larger fort was built on the western side of Mobile Bay about thirty miles from the Gulf. It was called Fort St. Louis de la Mobile.
- April 27, 1702-Iberville left Louisiana for the last time.
- 1712-The Louisiana colony was firmly established.
- Sept., 1712-Antoine de Crozat, a French merchant received a royal charter granting him the Louisiana colony for fifteen years. He received all of Louisiana south of Illinois; all the privileges and rights which used to belong to the King; all the land he could cultivate; mines; importing and exporting goods; exclusive right to import slaves from Africa; the King would pay the soldiers for nine years and about $2,000 a year to Crozat to pay the officers; Crozat had to rule the colony under French law. He also had to send two ships from France every year with colonists and supplies.
- 1713-Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac arrived in Louisiana as governor. He tried all kinds of economic ventures to help Louisiana become self-sustaining.
- 1714-Louis Juchereau de St. Denis established a post in northwest Louisiana on the Red River near Natchitoches.
- 1716-Forts were built at Natchez, on the Alabama River and the Wabash Rivernorth of the Ohio for protection from the English and Spanish. Black slaves from the Caribbean were brought to Louisiana. Cadillac was dismissed as governor. Bienville became acting governor.
- March, 1717-Chevalier de Lepinay arrived to become governor and was dismissed in August, 1717.
- 1717-Louisiana was given to the Company of the West organized by John Law, a Scotsman. Shares of stock in the Company were sold to all Frenchmen. This Company had the same rights and privileges as Crozat had.
- 1718-Bienville established a new town, New Orleans.
- 1719-All the French trade and colonizing companies merged into the Company of the Indies. The Company of the West was included in this merger.
- 1717-1722-Many settlers arrived: Germans, Swiss, French, and others.
- 1721 Louisiana was divided into nine districts, each governed by a Commandant and a Judge.
- 1722-Three religious parishes were created by the Jesuits, Carmelites and Capuchins. The capital of Louisiana was moved to New Orleans.
- 1724-The Code Noir (Black Code) was written. It dealt with slaves, restricted the activities Of Free Negroes, ordered the Jews out of the colony, and insisted on only one religion- Catholic.
- 1726-Jesuit Father Ignatius de Beaubois secured permission for Jesuits to establish a headquarters near New Orleans as a way station for missionaries working in the Mississippi Valley. Also, Ursuline Nuns were to do educational and medical work.
- 1727-The first group of filles ˆ la cassette (casket girls), each with a small trunk of possessions, arrived to find husbands. They were selected by the Company and stayed with the Ursuline Sisters until they married.
- 1729-Natchez Indians massacred almost three hundred people at Fort Rosalie because the Commandant of the fort wanted their land for his plantation. He told the Indians they had to leave. The French fought the Indians.
- 1731-The French attacked the Natchez again. They killed most of the Indians; the rest were sent to Santo Domingo as slaves. The Natchez were no longer an Indian nation. Directors of the Company asked the King to take back their charter.
- 1736-Governor Bienville and Pierre d'Artaguette gathered an army to fight the Chickasaws. The French were defeated. D'Artaguette and his men were burned to death by the Indians.
- 1740-The Chickasaws and the French signed a treaty. Bienville was discouraged about his failure and asked to be relieved as governor.
- 1743-Pierre Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil became the new governor of Louisiana.
- 1747-The Chickasaws raided along the Mississippi south of Baton Rouge.
- 1748-The Chickasaws raided again.
- 1752-The Chickasaws were finally defeated.
- 1753-Louis Billouart, Chevalier de Kerlerec was appointed governor. He was a soldier and a disciplinarian. There were lots of problems: the Indians, trade, etc.
- Nov. 3, 1762-France ceded Louisiana to Spain in a secret treaty. England took Spanish Florida and the French territory north of the Isle of Orleans and east of the Mississippi River.
- 1763-The Jesuits were banished from Louisiana.
- March, 1766-Don Antonio de Ulloa, the Spanish Governor arrived in Louisiana. He made many mistakes but he tried to govern well.
- Spring, 1768-Spain ordered the colonists to use only Spanish ships for trade in only Spanish ports.
- Oct., 1768-Some rebels plotting a revolution against the Spanish called a convention to condemn Ulloa and commanded him to leave Louisiana, which he did fearing for his life.
- Oct., 1769-The rebels were executed by Spanish troops led by Lieutenant General Alejandro O'Reilly who had arrived to become the new governor of Louisiana.
- Spring, 1770-O'Reilly had reorganized the Louisiana colony politically and economically.
- Dec. 1, 1769-Colonel Unzaga became governor of Louisiana. He appointed Creoles to important government positions as had O'Reilly before him. Unzaga initiated the planting of tobacco in Louisiana, granted land to immigrants, made treaties with Indians, and encouraged trade.
- Jan., 1777-Don Bernardo de Galvez became governor because Unzaga retired.
- 1778-Americans and British came to Louisiana to find refuge from the RevolutionaryWar. They were welcome as long as they were willing to obey the laws of the territory.
- May, 1779-Spain declared war against England. By the end of August, Galvez and the Spanish troops had captured Baton Rouge from the British. This battle was important because the British were unable to gain control of the territory.
- Jan., 1780-Galvez and his troops laid siege to British-held Mobile and forced the British to surrender in March, 1780.
- May 10, 1781-Penascola and West Florida surrendered to the Spanish troops.
- 1785-Galvez was appointed Captain General of Cuba and Governor of West Florida and Louisiana. In addition, he was made Viceroy of New Spain which included all of Spain's territories north of Central America.
- 1785-1803-Louisiana had five different governors during this time who tried to rule it as a colony of Spain: Colonel Don Estevan Miro who was a progressive governor in the style of Unzaga; Don Francisco Luis Hector, Baron de Carondelet who was a good administrator and would not allow the Creoles to imitate the French Revolution and overthrow the government; Don Manuel Gayoso de Lemos was well respected; Marquis de Casa Calvo was the governor when the French reclaimed the territory of Louisiana with the Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800; Brigadier General Juan Manuel de Salcedo governeduntil November 30, 1803 when he turned Louisiana over to the French.
- March 26, 1803-Pierre Clement de Lausaat arrived in New Orleans for the transfer of Louisiana back to France.
- April 30, 1803-The United States and France concluded the Louisiana Purchase Treaty in which France sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States for about $11,250,000. There were additional costs and interest payments so that the total amount owed was almost $27,000,000.
- Dec., 1803-Louisiana officially joined the United States.
- March 2, 1805-Louisiana became an "organized" territory. This meant that the President of the United States named a Secretary of the Territory, a thirteen member Legislative Council, a federal District Judge, and three judges of the Superior Court. In addition, a Legislature was appointed by the President. The people were allowed to elect a twenty-five member lower house, as well.
- 1804-1805-Louisiana was divided into twelve counties and the Territory of Orleans into nineteen parishes (following an old Spanish custom).
- 1808-A civil law code was adopted.
- April 18, 1812-Congress approved a state constitution.
- April 30, 1812-Louisiana became the eighteenth state of the United States.
- 1812-The United States declared war on Britain.
- 1814-Battle of Lake Borgne won by the British.
- Jan. 8, 1815 Battle of New Orleans won by the Americans and led to the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812.
Definition of "Creole"
A Creole is a n 'white person descended from the French or Spanish settlers of Louisiana and the Gulf States and preserving their characteristic speech and culture.' . . .
We find that the meaning of the word may be further explained; that the Spanish verb criar, meaning to bring up, was the root from which criollo (creole) sprung, and that it was the French who changed this spelling to Creole, which distinguishes the progeny of the Spanish- and French created natives from those of an unknown or doubtful origin." (Herrin, pa 28)
New Orleans is so rich in Creole history, with its ancient landmarks, . . . that it is difficult to delve into the rich and romantic background of the Creole without including . . . the city itself. (Herrin, p. 49)
New Orleans used to be called Vieux Carré (Old Square). It was the capital of the area which now includes the states of Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Minnesota. New Orleans was a Creole city founded in 1718 by Sieur de Bienville. The Spanish helped build it. The Americans came in 1803.
The city is divided into three sections: Vieux Carré (Old Quarter) the "bastion of the established Creole families," (Crété, p. 56); the Faubourg St. Mary, a growing American district; and the Faubourg Marigny built by the Creole Bernard de Marigny on land across from the Esplanade on the banks of the Mississippi. The river was deep here and docks could be built for boat traffic. Marigny wanted to make his area the center of the town but merchants didn't want to move their businesses, so this area became the home of the poorer Creoles and French.
The Vieux Carré as the heart Of New Orleans was composed of eight streets in a square. As new streets were added, the square became a rectangle surrounded by a wall. After a while the walls were removed and three large avenues bordered the city. Fifteen streets left Rampart Street and ended at the river, and seven streets went from Canal Street to the Esplanade. In the center was the Place d'Armes surrounded by an intricate wrought iron fence. The streets were straight and wide, with brick sidewalks called banquettes. The houses sported decorative balconies and iron grillwork. The Cathedral, City Hall, and the Presbytery were all magnificent buildings located here. To the southeast was found a levee which served as a port of export for products for the West.
Between Levee and Bourbon Streets was located the best commercial and residential area. The houses had court-yards with fountains and tropical plants. The main entrance or porte cochEre was a wide gate behind which was kept the family carriage. Beyond the gate was a wide staircase that led to an upper apartment. Wide windows opened to the patio. There were iron balconies. There was no cellar. The first floor was raised above street level and was used for storage.
From Bourbon to Rampart Street the houses were low and made of mixed brick and woods There were some simple wooden houses as well The roofs were made of tile or shingles and extended over the sidewalks. The two front rooms opened into the street with French glass doors. One room was the dining room and the drawing room. The other was bedrooms.
There were excellent street lights in New Orleans dating from 1796. Oil lamps hung on chains at every street corner. They were lit at sundown and extinguished at dawn. The lights were financed by an annual chimney tat of nine reales per chimney per owner.
The Saint Louis Cemetery was originally Catholic. Eventually it allowed Protestants and Blacks to be buried there in their own sections of the cemetery The cemetery was established during the early days of the Spanish settlement. The tombs were placed above the ground because of the water level.
The marketplace was located near the Place d'Armes-. All kinds of food was sold there. A little something extra, lagniappe, was given with every purchase: a rose, a bunch of radishes, etc. There were makeshift stands selling refreshments like gumbo, or flowers. There were street vendors too.
Mansions in and near Natchez are representative of Creole architecture, in particular "Bontura" at Natchez and "Cottage Gardens." They had large spacious rooms with high vaulted ceilings, arched doorways, overhead fanlights, and wrought-iron railings. There were tall white columns, broad galleries, and large entrances on the outside of the houses In back of the mansion was the kitchen and further back were the slave quarters. The mansion's grounds were gorgeous with magnificent old trees and Spanish moss, tons of flowers, and gracious lawns.
The inside of the mansions reflected the plantation owner's wealth; hand-carved rosewood furniture, mantles, stairs, etc.; winding mahogany staircases, decorated ceilings, etc.
There were three general groups that made up Creole society: 1) whites who were Creoles, Americans, and inhabitants of European origin made up the highest class; 2) free Blacks, emancipated slaves and their descendants made up the middle class; and 3) slaves who were household property, were the lowest class. The Creoles were the majority of the white population. They had a complex social organization which included foreign groups such as Germans, Irish, and Spaniards whose names were given a French accent.
The people who could trace their noble ancestors called themselves "Creole." Others were "chacas" or tradesmen, "chacalatas" or countryfolk (peasants), or "chacumas" for anyone with Black blood. All Creoles, no matter what level of society they were in, including slaves, looked down on the Americans.
The Creole Family
In the Creole family the father was dominant. His word was law. He was not always a faithful spouse, but he was an indulgent parent. If he was a planter, he ruled his estate like a king. He had a large house, large crops, and a large family. He was a dutiful husband and accompanied his wife to balls, the theatre, and social events. He would go to the cafes to discuss business, play dominoes, and have a drink.
Young men were given their own quarters for entertainment purposes. They had mistresses who were Black or mulatto, but they couldn't marry them. Having a mistress was an accepted custom because marriages were usually business arrangements, not for love, and the men expected their wives to be passive and innocent lovers.
A gentlemen took fencing lessons, went horseback riding, dancing, or played cards. He would fight duels if necessary and preferred to die rather than be dishonored.
Girls needed a dowry and had to marry before they were twenty-five years old. They usually had a "coming out" during an evening at the Theatre d'Orleans which marked the beginning of their search for a husband. The whole family attended the performance and sat in a box. Young men who were interested in the girl stopped by the box to pay their respects. They had intermediaries talk to the father 80 that they would be permitted to call on the girl at home. The first formal visit was brief, with the girl' 8 mother and perhaps other relatives in attendance who would find out the young man's intentions. After four home visits the father asked the young man if he was serious about his daughter. If the young man wanted to marry the girl the two fathers negotiated the dowry. A notary came to write a list of the couple's possessions and drew up the marriage contract. Once the contract was signed, the families announced the engagement.
The girl's family gave a big dinner at her house where the young man gave her an engagement ring. As a fiancee the young man could visit the girl whenever he wanted and take her out, but they were always chaperoned.
A few days before the wedding, the young man gave his fiancee a wedding basket with lacework (handkerchiefs, mantilla, fan), a cashmere shawl, gloves, jewelry. She could not wear the jewelry before the wedding, nor could she leave the house for three days before the wedding.
The Creoles liked to have weddings on Mondays or Tuesdays in Saint Louie Cathedral in New Orleans in the late afternoon. The bride wore a silk dress with pearls and lace. The veil was held in place with a crown of orange blossoms. The bride carried the same flowers in her bouquet. Later she left the bouquet in the church, put it on a relative's grave, or sent it to the convent where she studied.
After the ceremony the members of the family signed the register. The guests then went to the bride's home for the banquet. The bride cut the cake and gave pieces of it to single girls to put under their pillows. When the guests began to dance, the bride and her mother went to the bridal chamber where she took Off her wedding clothes and changed into her nightgown. The bride and groom spent their honeymoon in her parents' house. They were expected to stay in the bedroom for five days or more.
For ordinary people, their clothing was made of cotton, wool, or linsey-woolsey (a mix of linen and wool). Women wore simple "dresses of homespun cloth, sunbonnets reinforced with split-cane ribs, and crudely made shoes. The men wore pants of cottonade cloth, sewed with alternating blue and white thread, shirts and jumpers; heavy shoes; and straw, split-cane, or reed hats." (Davis, p. 187)
Wealthy planters and townspeople dressed as if they lived in London or Paris. "The men wore tightfitting pants, waistcoats, high and pointed shoes, and high hats. The women were dressed in full skirts with hoops, tight bodices, fragile shoes, and well-trimmed hats. Their accessories included ribbons, parasols, and much jewelry." (Davis, p. 187)
Pleasures and Pastimes
The Creoles loved to dance and they attended many balls. Society balls were usually sponsored by a group of bachelors and young married men. There were different committees for various aspects of the ball: renting the hall, selling tickets, etc. Tickets were sold by subscription. A subscriber would by a series of tickets for a certain number of balls for himself and his family. Balls were held for holidays or in honor of a famous person's visit to the area.
The King's Ball opened the Carnival season. It was held on January 6, Epiphany. Special pastries were made. A King and Queen were chosen. Admission to this ball was limited to the elite. The people who were left out ran their own balls.
Public dances were very frequent. They were inexpensive and lasted long into the night. From January 1 through Mardi Gras masked balls and costume balls were held often.
Two other kinds of dances were incorporated into the social season. Black and White balls were held with the lowest elements of society. Dance hall girls, call girls, and kept women, usually dark or lighter skinned, would attend to dance with the white men. The Quadroon's Ball or Blue Ribbon Ball was held for Black women and white men.
Other social evenings included the soirée dansante or dinner dance which was held quite often. At-homes on Sunday evenings included a big dinner and dancing. On plantations the guests stayed for several days after the balls.
Other entertainments included attending the opera or the theatre, vaudeville shows, concerts and parades. The men liked to gamble, play billiards, backgammon, checkers, dominoes, or attend cockfights, horse races, dogfights, and bullfights.
Material above is Copyright ©1998Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute and used here by premission.