Melting Pot In The Bayous

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But on the whole the French got along well enough with the Spanish, as numerous marriages would testify. Nevertheless, the effect of Spanish rule was mainly external; after the disastrous fires of 1788 and 1794, which destroyed most of the original dwellings, New Orleans was rebuilt with relatively permanent houses in the Spanish manner. It was rather singular, this typically Spanish architecture in a city that remained essentially French. Today, in the American city, it is of course even more singular, and constitutes one of the many paradoxes of the place. AIany of the buildings of the socalled French Quarter are indistinguishable from those constructed in the West Indies, Mexico, and Central and South America during the Spanish colonial period, which explains the resemblance of this part of the town to the older sections of cities like Havana and Mérida.

The descendants of these early French and Spanish settlers are called Creoles.‣ The word, spelled with an acute accent over the first e , is standard French, and exists also in Spanish, from which it derives, as Criollo . Since in those languages it refers to colonists of French or Spanish ancestry anywhere in the New World, Louisiana has no monopoly on the term: the natives of French descent on Martinique are Creoles, as were also the natives of Mexico and Cuba when those countries were under Spanish rule.

‣ This is the original sense of the word and the one in which it is still commonly used in Louisiana. A secondary meaning, unacceptable to many Louisianians hut allowed hy Webster’s Third International Dictionary, is “a person of mixed French and Negro or Spanish and Negro descent speaking a dialect of trench and Spanish—used especially in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.” The omission of Louisiana from this group of states is probably significant.

The second great migration of French-speaking people to Louisiana occurred shortly after the middle of the eighteenth century. In September, 1755, the British ordered the deportation of the entire French population of Nova Scotia. The process took over a decade, and it is estimated that more than 8,000 Acadians, as these unfortunate refugees were tailed, were driven from their homes, loaded onto overcrowded ships, and banished into exile. Nearly half of them died at sea of smallpox and other contagious diseases, a few went to France, and the remainder scattered along the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Maryland. They concentrated in the latter colony, which was the first to receive them hospitably, and from here they began their journeys island and to the south; Longfellow has recorded the heartbreaking story of their wanderings in his poem Evangeline .

The date of their arrival in Louisiana is uncertain—Charles Gayarré, the dean of Louisiana historians, plates it as late as 1765, but there is evidence pointing to an earlier date. At any rate, they were welcomed enthusiastically by the French governors: they were given land, seed, and’ temporary provisions. Very few of them settled in New Orleans; they were mainly farmers, trappers, and fishermen, to whom the rich alluvial soil of the Mississippi Valley, the variety of fur-bearing animals, and the teeming waters of the nearby Gulf of Mexico (readily accessible by means of winding streams called by the French bayous, from the Choctaw bayuk , or creek) were infinitely attractive. What they must have thought of the midsummer climate they wisely kept to themselves.

Unlike the settlers svho came directly from France—and chiefly, as we have seen, from the southern region known as the Midi—the Acadians had emigrated to Canada from the northern, central, and western parts of France, especially from the provinces of Normandy, Brittany, and Picardy. They retained the patois of these regions, which formed the basis of the Louisiana dialed known as Acadien , corrupted by the Americans to Cajun , a word with somewhat pejorative connotations. Needless to say, the Acadian language in Louisiana has many affinities with modern French Canadian. But the linguistic resemblance is not the only one: with a few concessions to the local climate, the refugees built their new homes of the same sturdy materials and in the same style as their old ones. I have seen, scattered along the St. Lawrence between Montreal and Quebec, and north of Quebec as far as the Sagucnay, wooden farmhouses with sloping shingle roofs that exactly resemble those in the vicinity of Lafayette and St. Martinville.