Melting Pot In The Bayous


This is the part of Louisiana where the French element is most pronounced, ft is rarely that one hears French spoken in New Orleans anymore, but it is still possible to stumble upon certain out-of-the-way towns along Bayou Teche and Bayou Lafourche where the Acadian dialect is at least as common as English. You will even hear an occasional scrap of French as far west as De Quincy and Sulphur, near the Texas line, where it sounds odd in the mouths of cowhands wearing ten-gallon hats and western boots. Some twenty-five years ago, as an undergraduate at the state university, I more than once found, on taking a trip into the country around Opelousas, that I could not easily make myself understood in English. I doubt very much if it would be so today. In 1929, when the distinguished poet Paul Claudel, then French Ambassador to this country, visited southwestern Louisiana, he could not conceal his astonishment when he witnessed young people singing folk songs and dancing folk dances which were almost forgotten in France; here, in the isolation of the marshes, they had survived virtually intact. Today, the younger generation is doing the Twist—with one difference: the boys wearing side-burns, Levis, and black leather jackets take their chicks to the nearest jukebox in the dugout canoes called pirogues rather than on motorcycles.

A very intimate rapport existed also between Louisiana and the West Indian colonies, both French and Spanish. During the Spanish occupation the government was administered from Madrid by way of Havana; under French rule, ships stopping at New Orleans called also at other colonial ports in the West Indies, and planters from Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, and Santo Domingo frequently exchanged visits with the Louisiana settlers, comparing notes on agricultural and other problems. Following the successful slave uprising in Haiti and Santo Domingo, an off-shoot of the French Revolution, numerous French refugees came to settle in New Orleans, among them a group of actors who opened a theatre on St. Peter Street in 1792, where they presented the first professional performances in Louisiana. Later, when Napoleon invaded Spain, a large number of these refugees who had settled in Cuba were obliged to relocate because of anti-French feeling there, and they came to New Orleans; between 1805 and 1810 as many as 8,000 arrived in the city, the biggest wave in the spring of 1809, when thirty-four vessels containing 5,500 immigrants docked at the city wharves, causing a shortage in housing and food supplies.

French, Spanish, French Canadian, and West Indian were not the only influences in the shaping of southern Louisiana. It is easy to forget about the Indians, those aboriginal inhabitants who mixed their blood, legitimately and otherwise, with that of the early colonists. And yet no one reading contemporary accounts like those of Le Page du Pratz, who came to New Orleans from France in 1718, will make the mistake of underestimating the importance of the Indian influence, the Choctaw in particular. Some of the poorer colonists married Indian girls, and the wealthier ones frequently acquired Indian slaves of both sexes: one colonist, as du Pratz, records, even bought an entire village! Many words in the Louisiana-French dialects are of Indian origin: chaoui (raccoon) from shaui; choupique (bowfish) from shupik; mitasses (leggings) from mitas; pacane (pecan) from pakan; pichou (wild cat) from pishu ; plaquemine (persimmon) from piakimin; taïque (squaw) from tek. The Indians enjoyed a well-earned reputation for the practice of simple medicine and homeopathy: du Pratz, records instances where, the French physicians of New Orleans having failed to cure him, he was treated successfully by the Natchez. The Indians also cultivated aromatic herbs used in cooking, and as late as the beginning of the present century Choctaw squaws selling herbs and spices were a familiar sight at the old French Market. Even today, especially in rural Louisiana, it is no novelty to encounter the high cheekbones and straight, glossy black hair that suggest Indian origin.

The Negroes were another matter. As slaves, they had been present in large numbers almost from the beginning of the colony. The New Orleans census of 1721 places the white popidation at about 1,200 and the Negro at 523. But intermarriage was forbidden by Bienville’s Code Noir , issued at Versailles three years later: “Article VI forbids marriage of whites with slaves, and concubinage of whites and manumitted or free-born blacks with slaves, and imposes penalties.” It is interesting to note that the condition of color was apparently less important than the condition of servitude, since not even concubinage was tolerated between free Negroes and slaves. The implication is that marriage between them was also forbidden, yet Article X states that “if the husband be a slave and the wife a free woman, the children shall be free like their mother; if the husband be free and the wife a slave, the children shall be slaves.” For this the only explanation appears to be that a slave of either sex might occasionally achieve freedom after marriage, independently of his mate.