Melting Pot In The Bayous

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Other Europeans besides the French and Spanish came early to Louisiana; John Law’s propaganda also attracted many Englishmen and Germans. In 1723 about 250 of the latter settled some thirty miles upriver from New Orleans in what are now St. John and St. Charles parishes (counties in Louisiana are still called parishes, an interesting vestige of ecclesiastical influence), where their farms soon aroused the envy of the countryside. They intermarried with the French, whose language and customs they eventually adopted: many of the French names in southern Louisiana are of German origin, like Trosclair (from Troxler); Oubre (from Huber); and Hymel (from Hummel). The extremely cosmopolitan nature of New Orleans in 1800 was noted by Berquin-Duvallon. “It is,” he wrote, “a confused mixture, a shapeless composition of people of all countries and of all professions: créoles of the country, French, Spanish, English, Americans, Germans, Italians, etc., a veritable tower of Babel. Here one can scarcely be understood by his neighbor; and the only language intelligible here to these diverse beings is that of self interest.”

The American element naturally increased after 1803, the date of the Louisiana Purchase. The newcomers poured in from Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, and even from east of the Alleghenies. They came to trade as well as to settle, their merchandise piled high on Hatboats and keelboats (the steamboat had not yet been developed), and at first they were feared and despised by the Creoles—often with good reason, for some of them were professional rowdies. Those who remained in the city—respectable businessmen for the most part—concentrated across Canal Street from the French Quarter. Thus, in time, there came to be two cities, one American and the other Creole. It was not until the Battle of New Orleans, when Creoles and Americans fought side by side under Andrew Jackson against a common enemy, that they began to settle their differences. In certain proud old Creole families, however, the prejudice against les Américains (or “Kaintucks,” as they were sometimes called with indiscriminate contempt) lasted right down to the present century.

A rather singular group assisted Jackson in his brilliant defense of New Orleans: the pirates who, under Jean Lafitte’s leadership, infested Barataria Bay and the labyrinth of bayous flowing into it. These men, whose activities had long been a source of embarrassment to the new government, were pardoned by President Madison as a reward for their part in the battle. As vicious a band of cut-throats as ever assembled in the New World, they were of all races anil nations. Some of their descendants live today on Grand Isle, where there is perhaps a greater mixture of blood than anywhere else in Louisiana.

As the nineteenth century advanced, New Orleans lost much of its Creole character (by 1820 the Americans outnumbered the Creoles three to one), but it became, if possible, even more cosmopolitan. About 1850, groups of Dalmatians began arriving. The men came lirst, settling along the bays and lakes east of the Mississippi and south of New Orleans. They became oyster fishermen—the best in Louisiana—and eventually they were able to send for their wives and sweethearts. A few of them married French-speaking girls from the bayous. The villages of Olga, Empire, Ostrica, and Oysterville were built up almost entirely by Dalmatians, and in time they were joined by other Balkan immigrants from Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and Albania. The oyster industry, one of the most profitable in the delta, would not be what it is today had it not been for the Dalmatians, who have permanently identified themselves with it in Louisiana. Some of them, such as the Popiches and the Jurisches, moved to New Orleans to become oyster wholesalers; others started restaurants there which are still thriving.

Later on in the century a colony of Spanish-speaking Filipinos gathered in the Terre aux Boeufs area along Lake Borgne. No one knows exactly how they got there—there was a rumor that they had deserted from ships in New Orleans—but their number increased until they constituted a substantial settlement. For many years, before liaisons were formed with Spanish girls from New Orleans, it was a place utterly devoid of women. Lafcadio Hearn, who visited the Filipino colony in 1883, wrote that it was “as dead to the civilized world as the heart of Cambodia.” These men were shrimpers, and they came to be identified with the shrimp industry in much the same way as the Dalmatians had with the oyster industry. Later they formed another and larger settlement across the river, Manila Village, which attracted immigrants (many of whom entered illegally) from China and the Malay Peninsula as well.