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The French Creoles of Louisiana Research Paper


Introduction

The story of the United States of America reveals a loaded history of different individuals who came here to start a new life; therefore, this has made the country to be composed of a marriage of cultures. Those who came to this continent were driven by different reasons. Some migrated willingly in order to look for new opportunities while others were forced to come here as slaves or as prisoners. The mixing and blending of these cultures has contributed to the unique American culture.

Among the states of U.S., a rich distinctive multilingual and multicultural heritage distinguishes the state of Louisiana since it is has been the home of many ethnic groups of people for a long time. “Gens de Couleur Libres,” the Free People of Color, which are today commonly referred to as “Creoles” or “Creoles of Color” are dominant in the Southern Louisiana state and have distinct cultures (Cable, 1).

Even though some of them no longer embrace their heritage left behind by their ancestors, some have preserved it until today. This paper focuses on the French Creoles of Louisiana and their unique lifestyle.

In contrast to other ethnic groups in America, the Creoles never came from a native country. The word Creole was initially employed during the 1500s in reference to the descendants of French, Spanish, or Portuguese settlers. Most of these settlers were living in the West Indies and Latin America.

The word Creole is borrowed from the Portuguese word crioulo, which refers to a slave born in captivity. During the early years of European colonial rule, only a single definition of the term was acknowledged. However, as the Creole people embraced differing social, political, as well as economic distinctiveness, the term was used to refer to other things as well. In the West Indies, Creole means descendants of the European settlers.

However, some individuals of African descent are also referred to as Creole (Hall, 283). In the state of Louisiana, it refers to the French-speaking people of French or Spanish descent whose ancestors were upper class whites, many of whom served as officials during the colonial reign of the French and the Spanish.

In the 1700s and the 1800s, the Creoles established a different caste that used the French language and held on to the traditional cultural attributes of related social groups in France. Most of them were Catholics. However, they were the first French group to lose their culture to a more “American” way of life and in the late twentieth century, they had lost most of their values as a people. Caver and Williams note, “Creoles of color, the descendants of free mulattos and free blacks, are another group considered Creole in Louisiana (para. 1).

History of Creoles

During the 1600s, a number of French explorers and settlers arrived in the U.S. where there dominant presence continued until late 1700s when France ceded Louisiana to Spain. In spite of the coming of the Spanish, French customs and language were still dominant in the continent. The majority of the Creoles, however, are the descendants of French colonials who fled the slave revolt, which took place in 1791 to challenge the oppressive French authority.

During the slave revolution, the French ran away from Haiti to other areas which were safer and most whites either were killed or fled, many with their slaves. Many mulatto freemen also suffered the same fate. These events led to the establishment of an independent country named Haiti. By 1815, more than eleven thousand migrants had found a new home in New Orleans.

When Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743-1803), a self-taught slave, became the ruler of Haiti in 1801, he sent more exiles to the Gulf Coast whereby some settled in the current state of Louisiana while others in Cuba. Among the ones who fled to Cuba, most of them came to New Orleans during the early nineteenth century. This took place after the U.S. bought the Louisiana territory in 1803. The movement of refugees from Haiti and Cuba to St. Martinsville, Napoleonville, the rural areas outside New Orleans, and along the Mississippi waterway led to the doubling of the population of New Orleans.

In the state of Louisiana, the word Creole started to be used in reference to descendants of Africans or those from racially mixed mothers and fathers. French and Spanish descendants who were not born in the colonies were also being referred to as such.

Caver and Williams note, “Persons of French and Spanish descent in New Orleans and St. Louis began referring to themselves as Creoles after the Louisiana Purchase to set themselves apart from Anglo-Americans who moved into that area” (para. 5). Presently, the word Creole can be used to refer to many things.

One of Louisiana historians called Fred B. Kniffin has emphasized that the term Creole “has been loosely extended to include people of mixed blood, a dialect of French, a breed of ponies, a distinctive way of cooking, a type of house, and many other things” (as cited in Caver and Williams, para. 5). According to this definition, it implies that the term is not specific and one should not attempt to define it as such.

Louisiana Creoles of color were regarded as dissimilar and detached from other people. As much as these Creoles of color were different from both blacks and whites, they never stayed away from active public life. They formed a component of the elite society. In the 1800s, they were leaders in commerce, agricultural production, politics, and as slaveholders.

Nevertheless, by 1724, the Code Noir (Black Code) had described their legal standing and they were given the mandate to own slaves, own real estate, and be recognized in the courts. However, they were not allowed to vote or marry white people. On any official document, they had to identify themselves as either f.m.c. or f.w.c. (free man or woman of color).

The term Creole was mainly used as an expression of parochial and colonial administration during both the French and the Spanish rule and the people of the colony forged a new local identity.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that those who were born in the New World, as opposed to Europe, were called Creole (Logsdon). The language of the colony was Parisian French; however, afterward it was modified to incorporate some local words. The white French Creoles talked in the Colonial French since it started to become different from the original version of French as spoken in France.

Africans who were born as slaves were also called Creole. This was to differentiate them from the new African arrivals. With time, the black Creoles and Africans formed a blend of a French and West African language referred to as Creole French or Louisiana Creole French, which was used in some situations by slaves, farmers, and free people of color alike and it is still being spoken today in central Louisiana. Creole French is no longer spoken in New Orleans but only certain words and expressions are still present.

Similar to other regions within the American continent, which were being ruled by foreigners, the Louisiana region also had a mixed-race group, of which there were several free people of color. During the early years when the colonialists settled in the region, the free people of color resulted from the relationship between the colonialists and the local women.

This is because there were a less number of European women in the colony. In most cases, French males took slaves to be their mistresses, or common law wives, and at times married them, which led to the increase in the number of free people of color (gens de coleur libres).

Even when more European women came into the colony, an informal union between gens de coleur libres and the whites was still practiced. This system was called placage and it served the purpose of benefitting both the parties. This arrangement was practiced since it was against the law for any woman of color to enter into a marriage relationship with a white man.

A free woman of color who was fair to look at was presented at “Quadroon” balls. This is similar to debutante balls commonly practiced in our society today. The woman’s mother and some close relatives would accompany the beautiful woman to the balls so that she can meet with her potential protector.

Once the woman had danced with the man, and she got interested in him, the relatives would then enter into discussions in order to find something that the young man would give them in exchange for their daughter. The man was to be capable of providing the young woman with a well furnished home having an adequate number of servants and every child resulting from the relationship had to receive proper treatment until adulthood.

The sons were to be sent to France for better education leaving their sisters behind to receive teachings from the local convent institutions. The children from such unions would benefit from the transfer of social capital from their parents once they died. Such kind of marriage arrangements would most of the time last for the entire lifetime of both the parties involved. Sometimes, the union culminated upon the marriage of the man.

It was a common practice for white Creole males to marry in their thirties to their fellow white Creole females. Since family members arranged most of these marriages, the Creole man’s union with the free woman of color would be maintained; however, if it were not maintained, the woman would be obliged to look for other means of taking care of herself and her family.

This would include, but not limited to, business projects and activities such as hairdressing and sewing. The system of placage was not the only way that the free women of color could earn a living since most of them were married and had typical households throughout their lifetime.

As a group, the free people of color started to acquire education and skills while preserving their French social customs, which they changed with some components of their ancestry as well as with the Louisiana culture.

As their population increased, the French –speaking mixed race or mulatto population practiced intermarriages within themselves for sustaining their class and social culture. Eventually, they came to be referred to as Creoles of color and they were more affluent and better established than the Africans in other parts of Louisiana were.

The settling of the Americans from New England and the South triggered a cultural conflict since some of them were not pleased with elements of cultural and linguistic climate that was prevalent in their newly acquired territory. These issues were related to the dominance of French language and Catholicism, the free class of mixed-race individuals, and the strong African customs of the slaves; therefore, they made concerted efforts through the U.S.’ first Louisiana governor, W.C.C. Claiborne, to reverse the trend (Bell, 9).

Claiborne eventually gave in due to the pressure from the Americans and made a fast decision to make English the official language in the region. However, the French Creoles of New Orleans were not pleased with the decision. They went to the streets and protested against the initiatives that the Americans were making to change aspects of their lifestyles.

Moreover, upper class French Creoles viewed the Americans as uncivilized. This was in particular to the ill-mannered Kentucky traders who often visited Louisiana with flatboats having goods for sell. Efforts by the Americans to enforce a binary culture that was dividing the people into black and white were greatly opposed by the natives. This is because the locals were accustomed to one, which had a fluid upper class of mixed-race individuals.

Upon recognizing that the inputs of both the white ancestry and the free people of color were essential for development to be achieved in Louisiana, the governor reinstated French to be used as an official language throughout the state.

Consequently, the language was the medium of communication in state functions, community meetings, as well as in the Catholic Church. Of much essence is that both the Colonial French and Creole French were maintained as the language of most people in Louisiana, which enabled the emergence of affluent and educated group of mixed-race Creoles.

New Orleans was separated into Latin and American populations in which the former were found east of Canal Street whereas the latter were found left of it up to the late nineteenth century. Out of a total number of eighteen governors that served from 1803 to 1865, a third of them were French Creole and they new no other language apart from French.

During the times when the Americans started to arrive in Louisiana in the early nineteenth century, the locals distinguished themselves as French Creoles in order to differentiate themselves from the Americans who were new in the city since they wanted to protect their identity with an iron fist.

During the French and Spanish government, Louisiana was recognized as a three-tiered society and it enabled the gens de coleur libres to have the necessary identification that they needed. During this time, In Louisiana, the majority of the free people of color were of mixed race and they worked hard to obtain education, wealth and essential skills in artistry in the colony.

In attempts to preserve their social and political identity, the previous free people of color started to use the term ‘Creole’ and they were native speakers of both Colonial French and Louisiana Creole. The gens de couleur libres were threatened with the outbreak of the American Civil War (Sybil, 301).

This is because the outbreak of the conflict was intended to end slave trade and ultimately end a three-tiered society, which made them to be rich. The promised rights and opportunities for the slaves brought considerable threat to the identity and position of the gens de couleur libres. After the defeat of the Confederate forces, the Americans slowly watered down the Louisiana three-tiered society.

The Americans had embraced the idea of the binary division of individuals according to their races. By the late nineteenth century, more and more people migrated to New Orleans and Louisiana. Since most of them were English-speakers, French was no longer recognized as an official language in the areas. Currently, French or Louisiana Creole is mainly spoken in the rural areas and both the white and mixed-race Louisiana Creole peoples are still being influenced by the French way of life.

Traditions, customs, and beliefs

White Creoles imported most of their household equipment from France. This made them to be immersed in an entirely French atmosphere. A major component of Creole social life has been built around the French Opera House. From the mid nineteenth century to early twentieth century, the operas were great social and cultural affairs. The French Opera House, which had the capacity of 805 people, had a beautiful interior design.

The Creoles loved the opera music and were elated in attendance since they were renowned for spectacular get-togethers and impressive partying. The white Creoles did not want to give up on their individualistic lifestyles. They rejected any proposals for intermarriage with the Anglo-Americans and they turned down the idea to learn English as a second language. More so, they were bitter and scornful at the Protestants.

They regarded them to be irreligious and wicked. In New Orleans when the French were governing the city, public balls were scheduled to take place at least two times per week. The practice did not stop even when the Spanish took control of the territory. Prominent free people of color and white creoles attended these events on a regular basis.

In general, the Creoles were successful in preserving their traditions in the rural sections. However, they gradually lost ground in New Orleans. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the population of the Creoles was seven times more than the population of the Anglo-Americans in New Orleans.

However, by the mid of that century, the Creoles population had dwindled to twice that of the Anglo-Americans. The Anglo-Americans responded by hating the Creoles with equal enthusiasm and steadily, New Orleans started to become two cities in one.

Canal Street was the dividing line. To walk across it in either direction, one was heading to a different territory. These distinctions are still evident today. Older Creoles nowadays claim that most of their young people have failed to hold on the basic tenets of social etiquette. They complain that most of them do not observe the use of proper language when talking to others, particularly the adults, and they often greet others hurriedly in an inarticulate fashion.

Economic and political impact

The gens de couleur libres played a pivotal role in building the economy of the slave societies. In many places, they did various jobs. For example, some worked as artisans and others as small-scale businesspersons in the towns. In several colonies, particularly in the U.S., the creoles were not permitted to own slaves and agricultural land; however, some of them lived in the countryside where they became major slaveholders and owned agricultural land.

Most of the free people of color resided on or close to the agricultural estates where they or their ancestors had served as slaves. The plantation owners in most occasions employed the free people of color to manage their farmland. This was more evident in a situation in which there was a family relationship among them.

The free people of color were also given positions in the government. Most of them served as rural police officers. Their duties entailed looking for runaway slaves and keeping law and order among the slave population. Their role was important especially in places where the population of the slaves was more than that of the whites.

In places where the laws of the land allowed it, the free people of color enjoyed various privileges. They obtained fertile land for practicing agriculture and owned slaves. In nearly every slave society in the United States, the free people of color were well-recognized planters. In some states like Louisiana, they owned most property. Some masters who were engaged to women of color also divided some parts of their possessions to them. This was done in at least two ways. First, is under the arrangement of placage.

In this case, the mother would solicit for a piece of land or property from the slaveholder. Second, the wealthy slaveholder would make arrangements so that an apprenticeship would trade for his mixed-race children. This gave the children the opportunity to make a skilled living. In the Haiti, the free people of color possessed approximately thirty percent of the entire land and approximately twenty-five percent of the slaves during the late colonial period.

Even after the American Civil War that brought the end to slavery, the difference between former free people of color and former slaves was still evident. Since they were better placed in terms of educational achievement and experience, the free people of color were very much instrumental in offering the much-needed leadership for the newly freed.

For example, Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution, and most of the officials of the newly found government, were free people of color. The same situation was evident in the U.S. in which many of them were given the opportunity to serve as local officials during the Reconstruction period.

Family and community dynamics

In the free people of color homes, men were considered as the heads of their families. On the other hand, women devoted their lives to the service of their families. They met the needs of the widowed and the children among them and sometimes gladly welcomed them to be part of their families.

Currently, the free people of color are still a closely-knit group and tend to marry within their community; however, most of them are also getting into relationships outside the group and losing their Creole ways. In the old days, the relatives who wanted to preserve the old family trees closely scrutinized Creoles marriages.

Therefore, the young people were confined to marry within their own class and every meeting their attended was sternly chaperoned by the older members of the family. Before being formally engaged, a suitor had to seek the consent of the woman’s father. Weddings were opulent affairs that every relative was obliged to attend.

The creoles often baptized their children when they were approximately one month old. During baptisms, a godfather (parrain) and a godmother (marraine) gave gifts to the kid. It was a costly honor to be selected as a parrain since one was required to pay for the celebration that followed the baptism. In the old days, when someone passed away, notices were put in the neighborhood to inform people of the funeral service to be held in the home of the deceased.

Conclusion

The free people of color are an exceptional example of a group, which has historically self-constructed a community identity based in part on social and economic situations and concurrently from a common history, culture and geography (Jolivette, 4).

Although the American Civil War affected them, most of them have remained in New Orleans and have introduced their unique culture and heritage to other regions across the United States. From planters to hairdressers, the gens de coleur libres have left a lasting imprint in New Orleans. The beautiful scenery across the state, which is a major tourist attraction, is due to the relentless efforts of the Creoles of color.

Works Cited

Bell, Caryn C. Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, 1718-1868. London: Louisiana State University Press, 1997. Print.

Cable, George W. The Creoles of Louisiana. Gretna, La: Pelican, 2000. Print.

Caver, Helen B., and Williams Mary T. “Creoles.” Countries and their cultures. Advameg, Inc. 2010. Web.

Hall, Gwendolyn M. Africans in Colonial Louisiana: the Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1995. Print.

Jolivette, Andrew. Louisiana Creoles: cultural recovery and mixed-race Native American identity. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007. Print.

Kein, Sybil. Creole: the History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ., 2002. Print.

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IvyPanda. "The French Creoles of Louisiana." September 17, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/creole-people/.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "The French Creoles of Louisiana." September 17, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/creole-people/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'The French Creoles of Louisiana'. 17 September.

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