Melting Pot In The Bayous

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Louisiana was America’s first melting pot. Here the mixing of races and nationalities from the four corners of the globe, which began early in the eighteenth century and continued well into the beginning of the present one, has resulted in a region that is absolutely unique in the United States. Nowhere, perhaps, has the triumph of the Great American Experiment been demonstrated more vividly.

The mixture occurred mainly in the southern part of the state, which accounts for the tact that today northern Louisiana (which is predominantly AngloSaxon and Protestant) is closer culturally to the adjacent states of Arkansas, Texas, and Mississippi. The speech you will hear from, roughly, Alexandria up to the Arkansas line will be very similar to that of the rest of the Deep South—a lazy drawl, with hillbilly overtones. And the food in a town such as Shreveport will not vary considerably from that in Little Rock or Houston or Hattiesburg, where (if you escape the levelling influence of the Howard Johnsons) the chances are that you will be served fried chicken, butterbeans stewed with corn and tomatoes, mustard greens, hot breads, and a peach or blackberry cobbler—and, of course, grits tor breakfast. Even the topography of northern Louisiana is unlike that of the southern part, for around Alexandria the flatlands change to hills and the soil takes on a deep red color.

Northern Louisiana is all of a piece, but southern Louisiana exhibits an ethnic and cultural heterogeneity that is nothing short of bewildering. The biggest and oldest influence is, of course, the French, and this influence came from two sources: directly, from France, and indirectly, from French Canada. The indirect source was actually the earlier, for the First permanent settlement in what is now Louisiana was begun in 1718 by Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, a member of a prominent Quebec family which had been raised to petty nobility by Louis XIV. The settlement was located on the Mississippi about 115 miles from the Gull and five miles from Lake Pontchartrain, at a point where the river described a semicircle, and it became the city of New Orleans.

An intimate rapport existed between French Canada and Louisiana from the very first; a considerable number of Canadian woodsmen, some of whom had married fndian women and made the long trip south by way of the Mississippi, had already settled in Louisiana when the first shiploads of immigrants began to arrive from France. Their motives in leaving Canada were often dubious: as early as 1714, four years before the founding of New Orleans, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, Louisiana’s fifth governor (the same who founded Detroit and gave his name to that expensive automobile) complained that some of these early settlers were “the very scum and refuse of Canada, ruffians who have thus far cheated the gibbet of its due, vagabonds who are without subordination to the laws, without any respect for religion or for the government, graceless profligates, who are so steeped in vice that they prefer the Indian females to the French women!”

After 1718, however, the colony was mainly populated by Frenchmen who had been lured to Louisiana by the propaganda of John Law’s Mississippi Company, a dubious enterprise which enjoyed the backing of the French government. They came mostly from the south of France, and their surnames—Bordenave, Capdevielle, Cazenave, Cieutat, D’Abbadie, Labat, Lapeyrouse, Oubre, Peyiefitte, Pujol, and Sabatier, to name a few—are still common in southern Louisiana. Unlike the Canadian aventuriers de bois , these Frenchmen appear to have preferred the comforts of city life, such as they were, to the vicissitudes of a forest existence, for they settled mainly in New Orleans. Too, as it became increasingly difficult to attract settlers to Louisiana (word having reached home that things there were not exactly as Law had depicted them), this original contingent came to be augmented by a less desirable element: fugitives from justice both in France and Canada, and even the inmates of prisons and brothels.

Such, then, were the beginnings of Louisiana and her largest city. During the Spanish occupation, which lasted some thirty-seven years (1766-1803), there were occasional migrations of Spanish-speaking people from the West Indies, from the Canary Islands, and even from Spain herself. Perrin du Lac, in 1800, reported that one fourth of the white colonists were Spaniards, “generally from the province of Catalonia.” This is perhaps an exaggeration; in any case the majority of the population remained French, and the Spanish language, while spoken by the governors and their assistants, never supplanted French as the popular tongue. Moreover, the people were loyal politically to France rather than to Spain, as Governor Manuel Gayoso de Lemos admitted when he wrote home: “I fear that if war were declared on France, we would find but few inhabitants of Lower Louisiana who would sincerely defend the country from any undertaking of that nation.”