This essay served as the culmination of four years of undergraduate studies in History at Elon University. A massive thank you to everyone who helped me get to this point! It’s a big read, so strap in ladies & gents.
Acadian to Cajun: Formation of a Cultural Identity out of Diaspora in Southern Louisiana
Rory Coleman | HST468A Race and Religion in US History | Dr. Charles Irons | May 5, 2020
While many are familiar with Cajun food or culture, especially as they relate to tourism in Louisiana, the story behind the evolution of the Acadian people into the Cajun cultural group we know today is a complex and intriguing one. The Acadians, French immigrants to Maritime Canada, became a diaspora people when they were forcibly removed by the British who had taken control of French Acadie. Over the span of forty years, starting in 1755, Acadian refugees made their way to Louisiana where they began to establish a series of linked settlements in the southern part of the colony. At the time, Louisiana was shifting between French and Spanish control, and British soldiers and traders also provided cultural influences as the United Kingdom claimed more and more of the continent. Despite the presence of colonial powers and Native communities, Acadians in Louisiana retained their culture over time to a remarkable extent, just as they had in Nova Scotia. The skills and traits Acadians demonstrated in their original colony were the same keys to the successful evolution of Acadian culture to Cajun culture, and the ultimate longevity and appreciation of the ethnic group. Louisiana, as a borderland French colony of the American continent, provided the ideal context for Acadian success when the immigrants eventually arrived.With French and Spanish leadership failing to support colonists in the area, there existed a space (both literal and figurative) for the Acadians to establish independent and self-sufficient colony. While Louisiana at the time was becoming a melting pot of Creoles, European settlers, free people of color, and Acadian immigrants, the latter’s ability to fit themselves anywhere but the bottom of the social hierarchy was likely the result of their Whiteness, engagement in slave labor, and — partially — in their French roots. The Acadians’ racial and linguistic background that situated them somewhere between insider and outsider with the Louisiana population, combined with weak colonial control of Louisiana, led to the success of the Acadian population and ultimately the prevalence of Cajun culture even today.
Over the course of a century of Acadian History, scholars have worked to clarify the tenets of Acadian culture that allowed the group to persevere through displacement and shifting governing powers. Acadians were largely illiterate, so the task of compiling a usable past is not easily undertaken. One of the brave historians to attempt such a task, Carl Brasseaux, is by far the most prolific author on Acadian history and dominates the field. He published two massive studies spanning one hundred years of Acadian history (1765-1877), as well as innumerable translations and articles or book chapters on Cajun history in journals such as The Attakapas Gazette, The Cajuns, and thirty additional books of his own. Despite Brasseaux’s exceptional labor in tying together Acadian history, the most popular piece of literature on the ethnic group is without a doubt Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Historians and scholars of literature alike criticize the poem for its inaccurate portrayal of the Acadian plight, but Evangeline does serve to introduce much of the public to the otherwise underrepresented ethnic group. While fascination with Acadians is in part due to their vast expulsion and “survival against great odds” it is also one based in “the phenomenon of national feelings,” as historian Naomi Griffiths puts it in The Acadians (1973).
A great deal of scholarship on Cajun people looks at the development of food, music, and settlement patterns among Cajuns past and present, but perhaps more surprising is the inclusion of scholars of literature in such topics. Due to the perennially popular Evangeline and its pervasiveness influencing perceptions of Cajun people over time, literary scholars have written extensively about Acadian/Cajun identity. Maria Hebert-Leiter, for examples, investigated the “in-between spaces” of Cajun identity and American identity, and argues that literature “reveals interesting assumptions about American racial and social structures that have allowed for Cajun Americanization in ways not always offered to other ethnic groups.” These “assumptions” make it clear that the Acadians and later Cajuns were a rare population in their ability to develop a “cultural dynamism” which led to the culture’s longevity and continued interest in a developing nation that would allow for their success. This aspect of Hebert-Leiter’s argument ended up becoming the catalyst for this study, examining how Acadian people were at an advantage not only because of their skills but because of the situation they encountered in Louisiana.
In order to develop this study, the scholarship of both Acadian history and colonial Louisianan history were considered, always under the shadow of Carl Brasseaux. Of the sources consulted for this study, more than half had drawn from his many works with a handful including his comments in their forwards, introductions, and evidence. This study takes into account his work, but builds more on the adaptability of Louisiana in the latter 1700’s and less on the Acadians’ qualities that set them apart, which are the principles at the foundation of the majority of his writings. To understand the full story of the evolution of Acadian culture to Cajun culture, his work and that of scholars like Virginia R. Domínguez are to be consulted.
In White by Definition (1986), Virginia Domínguez crafts a thorough background of social classification in Louisiana. The intersection between Creole Louisianans and Cajun Louisianans is incredibly important not only for the purposes of understanding the formation of these identities, but also for understanding their relationship to one another. Domínguez takes the vague Webster’s dictionary definition of Creole and expands upon the ethnic, racial, legal implications, and history of its use. Among other things, Domínguez shows how Cajuns adapted and shifted between Creole and distinctly not Creole spaces, in order to have a social advantage. She also proves that census takers did not always distinguish between Cajun and Creole and would regularly count Acadian neighborhoods as Creole, as both could be French speaking. Officials therefore skewed some estimates of White Creoles or those speaking Cajun French versus other variations. These findings illuminated a relationship between Acadians and Creoles that this study will prove made Louisiana the perfect home for Acadian immigrants.
Scholars emphasize that Acadians were dedicated to their “middle ground” diplomacy and their traditions despite losing everything. In this way, real-life Acadian resembled Longfellow’s Gabriel and Evangeline, who were dedicated to finding their lost loves over the course of a lifetime. Mark A. Rees engages with the arguments of Griffiths and Brasseaux, and agrees that the ongoing conflict between the French and British played a huge part in the development of the Acadian identity — an identity that was nominally neutral but effectively complex due to assistance to French forces in the French and Indian War. While many scholars are in agreement on the importance of neutrality in the Acadian world view, John Mack Faragher asserts in A Great and Noble Scheme (2008) that neutrality was “their greatest asset” and the trait that most defined them. Faragher engages with evidence from not only the Acadians themselves but also from the British Protestant point of view, setting him apart from many of his contemporaries. Griffiths writes of a “tremendous social cohesion” in Acadia, and Brasseaux focuses on how “group cohesiveness” and “fierce independence” contributed to the successes of Acadian society up until the turn of the nineteenth century. In summary, as Christopher Hodson writes in Acadian Diaspora (2012), “the Acadians of Louisiana had retained their idiosyncratic culture while tending to the reunification of their families, refusing to adopt the beliefs, practices, or identities of the societies they encountered in the diaspora.” Additionally, the colonial powers at play made evident by Brasseaux, Hodson, Rees and Faragher, are more accessible to modern researchers and provide a compelling argument toward the ability of Cajun identity to survive. While many historians argue that the Acadians were set up to succeed because of their enterprising attitude, their loyalty to one another and their agricultural skills, this study intends to prove that they were also at an advantage due to Louisiana’s embrace of French speakers, the incorporation of enslaved labor in Acadian societies, and the colonial government’s indifference toward the religiously and socially independent group.
In sum, it is evident that Cajun culture has survived at least partially as a result of the societal characteristics that Acadian people gained or refined in Nova Scotia and brought to Louisiana. This paper builds on this insight, but shifts the frame of reference to the impacts of the inconsistent colonial government on Acadian settler life. Specifically, this study looks at the impotence of the French and Spanish colonial governments that began shifting in 1765, as well as the distinct Acadian religious tradition, as the settlers began to adapt from Acadian to Cajun.
Acadian settlers demonstrated certain characteristics that helped them succeed in Louisiana. French colonization of the Americas began in May 1606 when the ship Jonas arrived in Port Royal, in what is now Nova Scotia, carrying forty men there to assess the land and participate in business transactions. Frenchmen had been fishing North American waters for decades but not until that year did they establish the first French agricultural colony on the North Atlantic Coast. Pierre de Gua, sieur de Monts, viceroy and captain-general of France, who had been gifted by the crown a monopoly on the fur trade between Delaware and Newfoundland, was unwilling to travel to the Americas himself but saw it necessary in order to increase commerce and profit. Under his direction, Jean de Biencourt, sieur de Poutrincourt, took on the challenge to “transplant to the New World a version of the rural landscape of Champagne, a society of seigneurs et roturiers, lords who ruled the roost and commoners who worked the land,” the establishment of which would not be funded by the royal treasury but was to be subsidized by the fur trade. Poutrincourt set up his permanent headquarters with the fur trade in mind, adjacent to a community of several hundred Mi’kmaq natives. The Mi’kmaq were familiar with the French, as they had been exchanging animal pelts for European goods for nearly a century by the time the Jonas arrived. The colony received its name through the blending of Míkmawísimk and French, a prime example of the cooperation between the groups in Acadie. The Míkmawísimk suffix –akadie means “place of abundance.” When combined with “Arcadia,” the name explorer Giovanni de Verrazano gave the North American coast, l’Acadie was born.
In 1632 more colonists, families who would settle permanently, arrived at the colony coming from the town of Loudun in France. The people, who called themselves Cadiens or Acadiens, were able to create and nurture a distinct cultural identity. The immigrants sought to escape violence in France as a result of religious conflict. Between the decades of civil warfare, the famines, epidemics, and a highly publicized witch hunt in Loudun, there was ample motivation to begin a new life in North America. The majority of the Loudunais were peasants, shown in the 1671 census of Acadia, and their relationships with one another and the land they began their new lives on became the foundation for their developing culture. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, English officials and French settlers were at odds, influenced by hostilities back in Europe. In 1647 Acadia was lost to the British in the Second Dutch War, but returned to France in the 1667 Treaty of Breda. When the French fully regained control of Acadia, their census showed that roughly sixty-seven families were living in Port Royal and perhaps another hundred métis, or part Mi’kmaq Acadians, lived among them as well. Twenty years later, the British regained control of Acadia, then given back to the French, then again volleyed between the two following Queen Anne’s war, ending in 1713. The Treaty of Utrecht, in that same year, solidified British control of Acadia, which at the time consisted of “2,500 conservative, Catholic, French-speaking” people. These fundamental differences would eventually lead to the British need to remove the Acadian people. The Acadians had settled along the banks of rivers and along the coast, where they were able to cultivate grass, wheat, rye, corn, cabbage, apples and livestock like pigs, sheep, and cattle. The people undertook every skill from carpentry to fishing, and were reliant only on their communities because France ultimately had neglected them, and Britain wanted nothing to do with them. The lineal settlement patterns seen in Acadia were well-established, and reappeared in lower Louisiana after the expulsion.
Again in 1744, at the beginning of the War of Austrian Succession, the Acadians provisioned a French fort in Nova Scotia while neglecting to assist British troops in the area, proving their willingness to break their stance of neutrality. The British therefore deemed the Acadians unreliable, and shipped 2,500 Protestant colonists to the province, in order to offset French/Acadian domination. After the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, the British demanded the Acadians take an oath of allegiance to the crown or be expelled within three months. This demand was forgotten for some time, but came to the forefront of Acadian and British tensions when the Acadians sided with the French during the French and Indian War, and became a threat to British sovereignty. Major Charles Lawrence, the new British military governor, decided it was then that the Acadians had to be deported. What many do not know is that the Acadians had taken various oaths of allegiance to the English crown over the sixty years of back-and-forth between England and France, but they were no longer to be trusted. The Acadians had been victims — caught at the crossroads of imperial conflict and discriminated against by the British for their language, religion, and cultural diffusion with the Mi’kmaq. In July of 1755 the deportations began, removing the Acadians from their communities and sending them to populate English colonies to become “proper British subjects.” Over the course of the next decade, many Acadian deportees returned eventually to different parts of Nova Scotia, or stopped in the West Indies or along the east coast of the modern-day U.S. before ultimately settling in Louisiana. In 1766 one ship departed from Halifax directly for New Orleans, but for the vast majority of Acadians who had either been deported or had escaped capture, they went through Saint Domingue (Haiti) before settling in the Bayou.
The French founded Louisiana in 1682 when Robert Cavelier de La Salle claimed all of the land along the Mississippi for King Louis XIV and established the colonial framework which the Acadians would later inhabit. The colonization efforts that followed were meager by any standard, and while some French settlers arrived, it was not a wise financial choice for many as investment was minimal and recruitment efforts were unsuccessful. The journey from France was long, the climate and wildlife of this subtropical environment were brutal, and as any new colonial undertaking would be, it was without the comforts of modern civilization that existed in France. Those who descended from these brave first settlers were known as Creoles, which at the time simply meant local. At the time, Creole distinguished the imported persons, objects, and habits from the homegrown and superior counterparts. This also applied to enslaved people born in the colony, and their Creole status made them more desirable than imported Africans. Creole slaves were less likely to attempt to escape as they had been born into slavery, and were less likely to die of disease. They also spoke Creole French, which eased communication with their masters. In the mid-eighteenth century, administrative control of Louisiana shifted from France to Spain, where the colony would begin to act as a “buffer” between the valuable precious metal mines of the Southwest and the English colonies along the East coast. Despite efforts by the Spanish to populate their colony, the Creole populations still dominated Louisianan society. While English, German, Irish, and Scottish immigrants arrived throughout the latter 1700’s, the largest group to find their home in Louisiana were the Acadians.
Le Grand Dérangement displaced about half of the Acadians living in the Maritime region. Those who were not rounded up and shipped off faced equal struggles at home, as the British had destroyed entire communities and disrupted social and economic relationships that the Mi’kmaq and Acadians had relied on for over a century. The deportation was by far the most dramatic event of Acadian history, but it could not have happened had there been no Acadians to deport. If the people of Nova Scotia in 1755 were simply French-speaking colonists newly under British control, the deportation may not have been necessary. The loyalty of the Acadian people to their culture, to their land, and to each other allowed for the devastating removal of their developing nation to become the catalyst for a new culture, one that incorporated American culture but was ultimately distinct from it. Instead of becoming American like the other European settlers in the colony, Acadians held on to their “tenacious sense of ethnicity,” even as their cultural group’s name became Americanized. Louisiana was already home to French Creoles, who had been in the colony since 1699, and had also developed their own sense of identity. While some Acadians were not content to resume their rural family-centric lives and instead climb the social ladder to the ranks of French Creole aristocrats, the vast majority led a simple “peasant” life. As the Acadians continued to intermarry, interact, and eventually communicate with their Anglo-American and Native neighbors, Acadian became Cadien, and Cadien became anglicized to Cajun. As Cajuns became a racially mixed population homogeneity was not the driving factor of their cultural distinction. The Cajun people embraced their cultural traditions as they reestablished their society in Louisiana, and did not truly begin to Americanize until the twentieth century. Even so, Cajun culture remains an unmistakable characteristic of Louisiana, due in part to the centuries of relative isolation and neutrality of the Acadian people up both in their first colony and in the Pelican State. One of the goals of the expulsion was to annihilate Acadian identity by destroying their communities, however Le Grand Dérangement served to heighten the Acadian sense of comradery. Without the dedication of generations of Acadians to the preservation of their culture, the imperial powers that sought to destroy their individuality would have succeeded. Cajun culture is the result of not only the shared cultural trauma of the expulsion experience, but also the many strengths of the Acadian colonists and the ideal political climate of their new home in Louisiana.
In considering methods for research, a variety of sources from the latter half of the 1700’s including militia records, personal letters, and census data were consulted. Some French sources were translated by history scholars, others through collaboration with French speakers at Elon University. Written sources for the aspects of this research based in Acadia are less accessible as a result of the online research environment, but also due to the independent nature of the colony and the near-constant shifting between British and French leadership. While sources like militia records and censuses are not without biases, such as Domínguez’s note on a lack of differentiation between Creole French and Cajun French, they provide some foundation for understanding the racial and ethnic climate in Louisiana and the Acadians’ relationship with their colonial neighbors. Letters between an Acadian father and son separated during Le Grand Dérangement may not represent the experiences of all Acadian immigrants, but can describe the treatment of at least one party of Acadians coming into Louisiana during this study’s area of focus. A Catholic History of Alabama and the Floridas authored by a nun may not accurately portray Catholic response to Acadian immigrants, but does illuminate similarities between Catholic Acadians and Catholic Creoles. Finally, many Acadians and enslaved people in Louisiana were not able to write or keep records, making complete narratives of their lives rather rare.
Acadians were able to retain their culture after their expulsion in part due to their cultural resilience and adaptability, but also because of the racial climate in Louisiana and the nature of the changing colonial government. While Acadians were prepared to work with neighboring communities and adapt for survival, as they had in Acadie, they were also fiercely loyal to their own people and traditions. In doing so, they were able to preserve Acadian and eventually Cajun ways of life that gave their culture the ability to be distinct and meaningful, while also outliving the last Acadians to leave Acadie. In contrast to the myth of Longfellow’s “Evangeline” in which the lovers are torn apart, nuclear families remained together following the expulsion. However, extended families, which Acadians considered to be just as vital as the immediate family, would often be separated. The dispersal of the Acadian kinship network added an obstacle in the survival of their culture, and forced the settlers to rely on one another and reform their communities. Following the expulsion, there emerged a minority status for Acadian people, who in Nova Scotia interacted almost exclusively among each other and the Mi’kmaq ignoring their French-speaking neighbors in Quebec. The Acadians, who now perceived themselves as victims of injustice, became “the perfect breeding ground for ethnic group solidarity.” When the first Acadians arrived in Louisiana in 1764, the colony was still under French administration albeit mostly insufficient. A few months later, more Acadians began to arrive from Saint Dominque, where many had spent the last several years. Another group of settlers who arrived in New Orleans in 1765 were sent to the Attakapas Post in western Louisiana, while also being provided modest material assistance by the interim Spanish government. Poste de Attakapas was in modern-day St Martin Parish, an area in which this study focuses heavily. Just as the Acadians had done in Nova Scotia, the settlers began to relocate in search of quality land for farms and vacheries (cattle ranches), and settled along riverbanks in south-central Louisiana.
These new settlements left the Acadians living among powerful Native American groups, a situation for which their earlier experience among Mi’kmaq natives in Port Royal had prepared them. In 1763, not long before the Acadians arrived, the Lower Mississippi Valley was home to approximately “four thousand whites, five thousand Negro slaves, two hundred mulatto slaves, one hundred Native American slaves, and one hundred free people of color,” which paled in comparison to local Native American population of approximately 32,000. Native tribes in Louisiana, like the Choctaws, Houmas, Chitimachas, and remnants of the Attakapas, were a powerful force in frontier and border relations. Attracting colonists to Louisiana had proven somewhat difficult for the French, and due to this, a large ratio of Native Americans to the colonial population of European and African origin and descent existed. In addition to isolation of Louisiana from the other American colonies, France’s sheer neglect of the people required successful diplomatic relations with Native Americans in creating a stable and survivable colony. In May of 1765, the final French governor of Louisiana wrote “[i] n order to establish Indian alliances and to make a good start in their new colony, they [the Spaniards] will have to bring along many presents for the Indians,” acknowledging the vitality of positive Native relations. In the colony there had been an economic system in which “native and colonial groups circulated goods and services.” With little to no support from the government, settlers and enslaved people had followed the examples of the Natives, providing for themselves through a combination of hunting, farming, fishing, and raising livestock. As French possession of Louisiana came to an end, the European population had been struggling in an attempt to order society while also relying upon networks of colonial populations for survival. These development patterns were familiar to the Acadian settlers, who had relied similarly on Mi’kmaq natives in their earlier colony and faced neglect from their mother country. The first Spanish Governor Don Antonio de Ulloa put off transfer of power between the French and Spanish for over a year, allowing for “administrative and financial chaos” to ensue. Ulloa was driven from the colony in October 1768 following massive disapproval from all Louisianans, but most notably by French citizens of New Orleans. Governor Ulloa’s incompetence was representative of the colonial government’s inability to support and maintain control over its constituents. This trend continued in the decades leading up to the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and was among the reasons Cajuns were able to maintain their independence and neutrality — characteristics that had led to their survival in Acadia.
The success of the Acadians in the rapid formation of their new colony was remarkable, and visitors to the area wrote of their unique abilities. In a 1790 Massachusetts Magazine report on the Mississippi from Thomas Hutchins, a Geographer to the United States of America, the Acadians receive a glowing review on their settlements. Hutchins wrote that the Acadians had utilized the Mississippi for “every purpose of trade and commerce” and “have attained a state of opulence never before so soon acquired in any new country.” Hutchins added that despite “the discouragements of an indolent and rapacious government” the Acadians created settlements “truly remarkable for the very great diversity and luxuriance of their productions.” The lands in the Mississippi Valley seemed far off to the Vermont audience who might read Hutchins report, but nonetheless their impression of the Acadians would be one of esteem. The Acadians’ unique ability to find this success is the result of their strategic interactions with both society and the government in the colony they were beginning to call home.
Another reason why Acadians were able to settle and rapidly establish a successful society was their extreme environmental and agricultural adaptability. What took the Creoles a generation to perfect, the Acadians figured out in a decade; In 1777 a typical Acadian in Southern Louisiana owned “14.7 cattle, 11.59 hogs, and 1.03 sheep” compared favorably to the averages of those found in a 1701 census in Acadie with “12.7 cattle, 8.95 hogs, and 12.04 sheep” per household. What was lost in sheep however was made up for in chickens, with an average of 22.2 per household in the Ascension Parish, where the 1777 numbers were averaged, in 1772. Only six years after the Acadians had begun their lives in Louisiana, they had already doubled their cattle herds from the last count recorded in Nova Scotia before the deportation. Considering the 35 years of development invested in the Nova Scotian herds, this comparison is staggering. The secrets to Acadian success in this area are the animal husbandry skills they had solidified in Acadie, the effects of the mild climate on the longevity of weak and aging cattle, as well as the flourishing grasslands of the Bayou region. Agricultural adaptation was not limited to row crops like corn and cotton however, as many Acadians maintained their tradition of orchard keeping, which had been established in Port Royal and Grand Pré over the course of Acadian history. While the apple tree would not survive in the subtropical climate, Acadians were able to cultivate fig, peach, and apricot trees as well as grapevines to supplement their farms.
While the Acadians’ ability to adapt to Louisiana’s climate and terrain was exceptional, it was by no means easy. This new ecosystem required “radically different planting techniques,” the treatment of relentless pests, and an understanding of the extended growing season that was often at the mercy of high precipitation levels. In a letter published in The New York Gazette in October of 1773, the writer mentioned the “Acadian plantations” north of New Orleans in “one contiguous settlement.” Hundreds of miles away, people had taken note of the settlement pattern of the Acadians, and their plantation economy. In this contiguous settlement, the writer described the entirety of the Lower/British region of the Mississippi, including the Acadians, Natives, and more. Between Acadian farms and their tables, there was the integration of Creole, Native, and African cultures in the development of what we know as ‘Cajun’ cuisine today. Replacing Acadian traditional wheat bread with Louisianan cornbread and cabbage or turnip soups with local vegetables, the journey from Acadian cuisine to Cajun cuisine was not without its major cultural influences. These soups would eventually evolve into filé gumbo, one of the quintessential Cajun foods. By 1804, gumbo included okra, which had been introduced to Louisiana by Africans via the West Indies, and the contributions by slave cooks in Acadian or otherwise White households could also be seen in ragu sauces still associated with Cajun food today. The Acadians were innovative and pragmatic, and their acceptance and enthusiasm for integrating the practices of other cultures into their own ultimately lead to their cultural endurance. While in Maritime Canada, the Acadians “married” traditional building methods standard of their birthplace with Mi’kmaq home insulation techniques. This was imperative for Eastern Canada’s brisk climate, but proved to be unable to support the heat of Louisiana. The effective and now staple ‘Acadian house’ blended Norman, Creole, and Native American architectural practices with their own. Interactions with Native people were imperative to the economic, agricultural, and physiological success of the Acadian people.
One result of the fierce loyalty Acadians felt towards their identity was their inability or unwillingness to assimilate, as they continued to petition British colonial officials even after dispersal. For example in Massachusetts, where some Acadian immigrants were indentured following their removal in 1755, the exiles petitioned the state on multiple occasions regarding aid and their servitude. Similarly in Pennsylvania, another destination for the Acadians who had been rounded up and shipped away from their home, the refugees also protested indenture and requested permission to leave the colony. They wrote to the government in Philadelphia that they would “never freely consent to settle in this province.” The exiles in both Pennsylvania and Connecticut petitioned their colonial governments collectively, and went so far as to call upon France for transport to its shores. The unity of the Acadian people in the British colonies laid the foundation for their later communities in Louisiana, and their defiance of imperial powers would be seen again in their dealings with the Spanish government of the late eighteenth century.
The continued defiance of imperial powers, which Acadians were involved in between French and British disputes in Nova Scotia, is exemplified through letters and newspapers from the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. In a letter from July 1775, published in Rivington’s New York Gazetteer, John McKesson describes to a British governor his view on Acadian resistance to Spanish colonial power. He writes that the Acadians, in addition to their French and German neighbors, are “determined to free themselves from the Spanish yoke,” avoiding the “oppressions and evil treatment they daily experience from their new masters” and the “jealousy and the tyranny of the Spaniards.” This must not have been immediately clear to the Spanish, as they continued to support Acadian immigration into their colony. More than ten years later, in a 1786 news article in The Pennsylvania Mercury and Universal Advertiser, one reporter wrote of the arrival of 1000 Acadian families to New Orleans. Upon their arrival the families were “allotted lands” in Louisiana by the Spanish government, which evidently signified tension between the French and Spanish governments, as the colony had been under Spanish control for some time but would later be transferred back to the French before the Louisiana purchase. Just as the Spanish were investing in their colony to the best of their ability, the Acadians were investing in themselves.
As Spain was beginning their transition to power in Louisiana, Spanish governors actually encouraged Acadian immigration to Louisiana between 1765 and 1790 due to their independence, political disinterest, and hardened frontier tradition which included a form of Catholicism. Between May and December of 1785 nearly two thousand Acadians immigrated to Southern Louisiana, where Acadiana still exists. The Acadian sense of a distinct ethnic identity, at the time of their expulsion in 1755, was reinforced through their years of exile and was at the forefront of their emerging culture in Louisiana. Among the characteristics of the Acadians that historians feel set them apart was their own frontier form of Catholicism. Acadian religion was a result of a lack of effective missionaries and clerics in French Acadie. In New France, the Mi’kmaq had been baptised in a way that the harder-edged Catholic French state considered superficial. When word reached France of the conversions, Jesuit missionaries from her court were sent to correct the improper missionary work. This was a short-lived mission, as traditional French Catholicism was not the way of the Acadian people. When the British took over, any form of religion not aligned with Protestantism was condemned, another factor in the mistrust the British had in the Acadians. The Acadian immigrants had experienced a great deal of religious strife back in France, leading to the exclusion of militant Catholic orders, particularly Jesuits, in early Acadia. The Acadians knew that if religious fractionalization were to become an aspect of their new colony, their economic well-being and ultimate survival would be at stake. Early Acadian Catholics “looked upon eclesiastical authority with as critical an eye as they viewed the secular,” likely as a result of Loudun being a town particularly at the center of religious conflict and therefore instilling a distrust of any religion upon the Acadian settlers. In the isolated American frontier Catholic Acadians became independent, as the area was mostly devoid of resident priests leading to a development of dedicated personal faith. This form of Catholicism persisted into their dispersal and eventual reestablishment in Louisiana.
The Spanish were interested in enforcing more serious religious practice, but yet again the Acadians maintained loyalty to their tradition. This led to violence throughout New Acadia, with Spanish missionaries instigating Acadian locals. However in Attakapas, which was much more isolated, early clerics had little interest or control over the scattered population. Great distances separated the two local churches from the Acadian settlers, which served as a physical representation of the disconnect between the cultures and ideologies of the priests and their local Acadians. The Spanish also made the mistake of sending priests who were receiving punishment to the colony, therefore allowing their apathy towards their duties, shown through ecclesiastical records proving that their greater concern was with maintenance and custodial duties. Brasseaux writes “Church registers reveal that the western Acadians, drawing on their collective religious experience in Nova Scotia, continued to turn to the church exclusively for basic services, particularly the sacraments that marked the milestones of life.” He also notes that missionary efforts to impose their morality on Cajun people was ultimately unsuccessful. The Acadian people’s engagement with the church changed very little, and when prompted with change elicited a dramatic reaction, despite the “sudden and drastic” expansion of the church’s presence. This shows not only their independence, but how the fragmented governmental state of Louisiana was not able to promote religious unity and strict Catholicism, therefore allowing Cajun people in places like Attakapas to retain their social institutions.
The Acadians were successful in continuing their homegrown tradition of settlements centered upon kinship, and their dedication to one another sometimes meant that their dedication to any cause other than their own was not popular. Acadian settlement, while Louisiana was still under French control, took place in two different areas, at Cabahannocé on the Mississippi, and the Opelousas and Attakapas Districts. In both locations, relations with the Creole population and Acadian participation in the colonial economy began to develop. This study focuses primarily on the latter districts, known as Attakapas and later St Martin Parish. In a Spanish muster roll from 1792, recorded in Attakapas, it is evident that combined forces of Creole, European, and Acadian residents worked with the Spanish. The very interesting part of the company lists is that there are relatively few Acadian militiamen compared to the number of Acadian residents. St Martin parish, where the first militia company was from, is so known for its Acadian population that one of its residents apparently inspired Longfellow’s Evangeline. Of the 62 infantrymen listed, only 6 are identified as Acadian. To this day St Martin Parish is among the most concentrated French speaking areas in the nation, with over 20% of residents claiming fluency in French. With a great number of Acadian people living in St Martin, the small number of Acadian volunteers in the Spanish militia says a lot about the Acadians’ indifference and lack of support for the colonial government. Despite it all, there was no consequence for their reluctance to volunteer. The Spanish government was entirely incapable of demanding anything of their Acadian subjects, which was evidenced as well in their inability to acquire church taxes from the people of Attakapas. It is also made clear through the letters of Jean-Baptiste Semer that he did not feel provided for by the French or Spanish colonial governments.
In a Philadelphia newspaper’s report on the command of Spanish Governor of Louisiana in 1779 in his pursuit against British encroachment, it is made once again clear that Acadians were not privy to support Spanish military campaigns. The Norwich Packet and the Weekly Advertiser reported that the Spanish General Don Bernado de Galvez had traveled from New Orleans to Acadian establishments in August in order to acquire militia members. Ultimately, the general left military forces in Acadian and German towns, and went on his way. The general’s choice to leave a garrison in an Acadian town implies that he was potentially unable to gather sufficient support, and due to his motive of the “custody and preservation” of the area, was clearly concerned about the loyalty of the Acadians. Loyal to their own preservation, culture, and economic pursuits, the Acadians did not bend to the will of the Spanish government and were not punished as a result of these choices. Had the colonial government been able to pressure the Acadians through military enforcement or withholding of resources, their pleas for additions to Spanish militia may have been met. However, the Acadians provided for themselves almost entirely after they had received their initial allotted lands, and did not feel threatened by the Spanish.
The aforementioned colonial governments were unable to force participation in the military or in the church, perhaps as a result of their inability to prove themselves worthy of Acadian interest through support for the settlers as they arrived. In a letter to his father in April of 1766, Jean-Baptiste Semer reported on the many ways in which the transitional government was failing to support the Acadian colonists. Semer himself had recently arrived in Louisiana, and was writing to his father who was a refugee in France. Semer had arrived in New Orleans in 1765 and received a letter from his father then, but went on to Attakapas to settle permanently. Semer writes of illnesses that his fellow Acadians faced in New Orleans, and the meager provisions given to the party he traveled with by the colonial governor. Charles-Philippe Aubry was the last French governor of Louisiana, and Semer writes to his father that Aubry did his best to help the Acadians but “he has not been in complete control” of the finances of the government. The colony was in a bit of a dire state, as the leadership was transitioning to the Spanish, and while Aubry had been a colonial administrator for some time he was ultimately powerless to assist the Acadians. The Acadians were given bread and some meat for pregnant women, as well as guns and powder, but without relying on the French governor for military protection they began to farm Attakapas. In the same way that the French had left the Acadians to begin their new life in Acadie independent from financial support, the immigrants were prepared to fend for themselves in Louisiana. Semer writes that the people of Attakapas had “the finest harvest” and bounced back despite disease and neglect. While during this period the area was in flux, the Acadians played both colonial governments getting what they could out of each.
While the colonial government’s failures were a major factor in independent Cajun development, the racial hierarchy of the colony incorporating Creoles, Europeans, Natives and more had a profound impact on the Cajuns’ ability to become a societally viable and successful population. The vast majority of Louisiana Acadians had between one and three slaves between 1790 and 1810, and their influence on Acadian culture is seen heavily through Cajun food and cooking habits. A census of Louisiana and Florida in 1803 reports that 818 enslaved people worked for the Acadian population of 1,382. While this could mean that relatively few Acadians owned many slaves or many Acadians owned very few, to see that Acadian immigrants opted into the slave economy rather early in their arrival to the colony does indicate their privilege to become economic agents. To own slaves was to participate in the growing economy available only to those who had the ability to own human beings as property. Acadians’ interaction with other races began in Acadia with their relationship with the Mi’kmaq, and translated to their egalitarian principles in Louisiana concerning their native neighbors. Acadian immigrants had no practical experience with slavery in their former colony, but the adapting people “established themselves as a new elite whose social position was based largely upon liquid capital and movable property.” Initially, most Acadians considered their Black and mulatto people as their equals, but by the early 1770s a handful of settlers in each Acadian neighborhood had purchased enslaved laborers in New Orleans. These proprietary acquisitions gave slaveholders an elevated social stature, appealing to the few Acadians who wished to join the Creole Aristocracy. While at the start Acadians utilized enslaved laborors for agricultural help, the growth of slavery in their parishes signaled a fundamental change in the acceptance of a racial, cultural, or social superiority. Had the buying and selling of enslaved laborers not been a generally accepted practice in Louisiana, the Acadians may not have been able to establish their place on the social ladder, and may have become a forgotten and fringe cultural group.
The Acadians, though distinct in their colonial traits and values, possessed a surface-level connection to French culture based on their ancestry that provided them another means of leverage upon their arrival in Louisiana. In A Catholic History of Alabama and the Floridas Vol. 1, Margaret Anne Carroll (under the pen name Austin Carroll) describes the warm welcome the Acadians received as well as the disputes between the French Louisianans and the Spanish government. Carroll wrote that Acadians arrived in 1765 to “open arms” and “deemed themselves fortunate to hear their native tongue once more,” despite the differences between New Orleans and Acadie, “the home of the happy.” While the existing French colonists and the Acadians may have differed in many ways and, moving forward, would not usually interact based on their locational and behavioral differences, the ability of the Acadians to communicate with the people of New Orleans allowed them a more comfortable transition. The Acadian women and children were provided shelter in a convent, and “every house opened its doors to the rest.” While Carroll’s account of the Acadians’ arrival is no doubt biased in favor of the humanity and generosity of the French Catholics in New Orleans, it is clear that shared ancestry was a small factor of the embrace of Acadian people in Louisiana.
Having begun their ascent in society through independence from government intervention, slave acquisition, and their French language giving them the ability to communicate with ‘superior’ Creoles both free and enslaved, by 1803 the Acadians were beginning their period of development from transplanted immigrants to Louisiana Cajuns. This trend was made possible as a result of the seemingly incompatible stances of Acadian adaptability and Acadian cultural conservatism. The interaction between these historical principles allowed for the group to remain distinct while also giving them the ability to ‘blend in’ and resist destructive political forces by allying themselves with insiders in America. As cultural diversity grew in Acadian communities between interbreeding with Native and enslaved African or Creole populations, the Cajuns maintained their distinctiveness in less immediately evident ways. As their values of equality and neutrality were eroded with the gradual incorporation of enslaved labor into their communities, the Cajuns maintained their remaining values. As Americanization began and Acadian became Cajun, the heart of the culture did not melt into the great American melting pot.
Historian Leanna Thomas’ view that Acadians “did not perfectly fit in the definition of ‘nation’”does not have to be mutually exclusive with the ability of the population to utilize their similarities as a weapon against imposing imperial powers. Whether or not ‘Acadian’ is a national identity continues to be a topic of debate in the world of Canadian studies, and becomes even more complex when considering Cajun as a separate entity or as an extension of Acadian immigrants.
The debate took the national stage in James Roach v. Dresser Industries (1980), when Judge Edwin F. Hunter classified Louisiana’s 500,000 Acadians as a national minority, in the case of discrimination based on their culture. The plaintiff, Dresser, argued that because “Acadia had never been an independent country” it was incapable of producing a national minority, which Judge Hunter declared to be false, entitling the Acadian and Cajun communities to full protection as ethnic minorities. This was the first time on a federal level that Cajun Americans were recognized for their distinct cultural belonging; a belonging that many historians agree contributed to the effective immigration of the Acadian people. Acadian culture has been so well preserved that under House Concurrent Resolution No. 81 of July 20, 1968 of the Louisiana legislature Acadiana is a twenty-two parish region with its own flag, folkloric language, and distinct heritage. Without a doubt Cajun culture has persisted and even thrived throughout the past hundred years, as a result of the dedication of its Acadian ancestors’ to the preservation of their way of life and their effective strategies in their dealings with colonial powers both in their native Acadie and in French and Spanish Louisiana.
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