Brief History of the Cajun People
The Cajun people trace their lineage back to France, and more specifically to migrations that occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries. Small exploratory and settlement groups left France for New France (present day Canada) in the years leading up to 1600. After the turn of the century in 1605, the first stable colony established itself at Port-Royal along the coast of present day Nova Scotia. They named the colony La Cadie, later to be called Acadia.
The exclusively male settlers were led by Pierre du Gast, Sieur de Monts. The colonists of Acadia were laboureurs, a peasant aristocracy who owned enough land to make a living using their own tools and animals. They were also known for their industriousness, which served them well in Acadia. These people had left France to escape the violent religious upheaval in their provinces, as well as epidemics and famine ravaging the nation at the time. They survived in the new land by befriending the local Micmac natives and supported themselves by trading fur, cutting timber, fishing, and hunting. The newly established colony was forced to be self-sufficient, since it received only sporadic support from France due to economic strain intensified by constant war with Great Britain.
Though the area was settled by the French, the British made vague claims to Acadia and other land along the Atlantic coast based on the explorations of John Cabot in 1497. This disagreement between the British and French crowns led to the colony changing hands seven times from 1620-1713. In 1620 King James I of Great Britain issued a Royal Decree which formally extended the British claims on the North American continent to include Canada. This decree emboldened the British American colonists to send Scottish settlers north to Acadia. The Scottish settlers named the island Nova Scotia, as it is known today. Regardless of the new Scottish settlers, Acadia and Canada were returned to French possession in 1632 by the Treaty of Saint-Germaine-en-Laye.
From this point, the colony blossomed under the leadership of Charles d'Aulnay and Isaac de Razilly, leading to the arrival of the first French families in 1636. The Acadians managed to flourish despite perpetual fighting on the European continent. Distinct customs soon evolved among the isolated Acadians. If a priest was unavailable, they would still hold mass, often letting the oldest member of the congregation lead the service. They constructed wooden homes that they sealed with moss and clay, and they also made their own wooden furniture. To prevent their homes and farmlands from constantly being swept away by disastrous floods, the Acadians built levees. For entertainment they raced horses, went fishing, sang old French songs, and told stories of hunting and pirates at parties. Since there were not many roads, they traveled mostly by birch bark canoe. Enduring bonds were built amongst the Acadians as a result of their isolation, hardships, and marriages.
The Acadians decided to remain, and the British insisted they swear allegiance to Great Britain. Standing together, the Acadians refused, because they believed Acadia might return to French power again, they were afraid they would lose rights under British authorities, and they were allies with the Native Americans who were enemies with the British. Instead, they took an oath declaring that in the event of war they would not take up arms against Great Britain or France.
Despite the agreement, the British found it difficult to cope with the Acadians. The British considered the continued practice of Roman Catholicism by the Acadians as well as their trading of goods and intelligence with French Canadians and Indians as subversive behavior. Led by Colonial Governor Charles Lawrence, in 1755 the British authorities decided to drive the Acadians out of the country. The British seized their firearms, ammunition, and boats. Over twenty ships were arranged to deport the thousands of Acadians to various British colonies - Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and Boston. In the confusion of boarding the ships, many families were separated from one another. Believing they would be able to return to their homes, the Acadians left their most valuable possessions hidden in their homes, and so arrived in the British colonies in a state of poverty. Those Acadians who escaped deportation lived in the woods of Nova Scotia for almost four years. Led by Joseph Brossard (now Broussard), they eventually gave up their resistance due to eminent starvation. These Acadians soon settled in Louisiana, then a French colony, launching the beginning of the Acadian migration to the area. Those that had been forced to settle in the British colonies made their way south to Louisiana.
Even after the territory of Louisiana was ceded to Spain in 1762 by the Treaty of Fontainebleu, the Acadians continued to flock there; spurred by the letters they received from family members who were already settled. Spanish control changed little in Louisiana except to alter names to reflect a Spanish quality. The main areas of Acadian settlement were Bayou Teche, the Attakapas area, St. Martinville, Lafayette, Iberia, Vermilion, St. Mary, St. Landry, the Opelousas area, and Bayou Lafourche. These areas were ideal in creating the isolation the Acadians desired from government so they could preserve their culture and family ties. The Acadians became prosperous on the rich Louisiana soil; they raised livestock and grew sweet potatoes and sugarcane. A few even bought slaves.
As the Acadian population increased, the Spanish authorities gave them more and more land, provision, rations, and tools for building and farming. The last large influx of Cajuns came in 1785 from France. Acadians who had ended up back in France after the 1755 deportation had remained landless and poverty stricken. French authorities convinced King Charles III of Spain to pay the passage for the Acadians to Louisiana. This arrangement was agreeable for the Spanish since they needed sturdy family groups to populate the new territory. Neither French nor Spanish citizens wanted to move due to the horror stories they heard of the frontier populated mainly by vagabonds, beggars, and other nonviolent criminals from France. Eager to rejoin their families and make a living, the Acadians lined up to immigrate. With the influx of 1,500 Acadians, their settlements expanded until they spanned the entire Mississippi River Delta all the way to the Texas border.
Louisiana colonists altered the name Acadian to Cadian, which soon evolved into the accepted name of Cajun. In the social hierarchy, white French-Creoles perched higher than the Cajuns. Cajuns who aspired to move up the social ladder tried to mimic the lifestyle of the white French-Creoles, but most remained small-scale farmers. Poor white and mixed-race Creoles often assimilated themselves into the Cajun culture. Pleased with their resource-rich land and left on their own, the Cajuns remained apolitical. Despite an aversion to politics that many Cajuns fostered, distinctive individuals were often elected to government offices. Alexander Mouton, a Cajun, was Louisiana's first elected governor in 1843. The first notable participation in politics by a significant part of the Cajun community was in 1845, when they voted to ratify the state constitution establishing universal white male suffrage. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, few Cajuns volunteered for the Confederate Army. The general population was largely unaffected until the next year when the struggling Confederate Army conscripted Cajun men, and the government confiscated livestock and grain. Many conscripted Cajuns deserted and returned home, welcoming the Union forces when they arrived. Unfortunately, the Union's strategy was to destroy the South, leaving no resources for the Confederacy. This treatment by the government during and after the Civil War reinforced Cajuns innate wariness of government.
After the war, the educated elite turned their backs on the Cajuns. Even the newly freed slaves, reflecting the discrimination of their previous masters, viewed Cajuns with contempt. Ruined by the war, many Cajuns were forced to take jobs as lumberjacks, fisherman, and trappers. Unable to retain possession of their land, Cajuns often became tenants, living alongside black tenants. These close quarters led to the blossoming of the modern Cajun music and cuisine known today. The Cajun culture and community absorbed African, Spanish, French-Creole, and Native American elements as well.
Educated Cajuns who made it into the urban arena assimilated into the merchant class. Contact between the general American population and the urban Cajuns brought to the government's attention the need to educate the illiterate, French-speaking Cajun community. Up until that time, Cajun education had been practical, with fathers teaching their sons farming and herding skills while the mothers taught daughters sewing, cooking, and other domestic chores. Children learned religion at church and history through the nightly stories told by their grandparents. When the Louisiana Compulsory Education Act of 1916 was passed it changed the subject of education for the Cajuns. The Act was soon followed in 1921 with a provision in the state constitution that all education was to be in English. Cajuns were chastised and publicly humiliated for speaking French at school. In December of 1923, circulation of the last French language newspaper, L'Abeille de la Nouvelle Orleans, was so low it was forced to stop publication. Learning English became even more of a necessity for the Cajun community with the advent of movies and radio programs that were broadcast only in English. Employment opportunities in Louisiana's growing oil industry run by Texan and Oklahomans required a basic understanding of English as well. Older Cajuns who once only spoke Cajun-French were now minimally bilingual, and their children were learning to speak only English.
The influx of American culture affected other aspects of Cajun life as well. The introduction of western and swing music in the 1930s and 1940s changed Cajun music and led to more songs being sung in English. New machines and electricity ended the need for the traditional communal harvest and butchery, so that they were nearly defunct by 1960. Televisions made traditional veillees (evening visits) come to a halt. These traditions had solidified group bonds and gave the community strength. Cajun children born between the onset of the Great Depression and the end of the Baby Boom were often given English names. These children were also encouraged to make the most of educational opportunities.
Newly educated Cajuns moved away from their rural homes to urban areas. There, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, theses urban Cajuns were still discriminated against by their neighbors and colleagues. Instead of backing down, speaking English, and homogenizing into American culture, these Cajuns took the resentment they felt for being made to feel ashamed of their heritage and established the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) in 1968. CODOFIL introduced French language programs to the schools. These programs were a huge step forward in promoting the language, but they were not perfect since most of the French teachers were brought in from Europe and spoke a very different type of French than the Cajuns. None the less, CODOFIL made great strides, especially under the former Cajun congressman Jimmie Domengeaux. CODOFIL brought a sense of pride to the Cajun community that had been absent for decades.
The Louisiana oil boom at the end of the 1970s meant that blue-collar workers, especially welders, pipe fitters, roustabouts, mud engineers, and drillers could make more money than a person with a high school diploma. Many teenage Cajuns left school to work, and as a result Louisiana had the nation's highest high school drop-out rate by 1980. These jobs brought an immediate economic boost to the Cajun community, but when the oil depression hit in 1985, they found themselves uneducated and unemployed. The following year, tens of thousands of Cajuns left Louisiana for job prospects in Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida. The majority of Cajuns remained in Louisiana as witnesses to the decline of CODOFIL and French language programs in the schools.
The grim outlook for Cajun culture is slowly changing. A bit of a renaissance has occurred, with CODOFIL attempting to resurrect the French language programs and the Cajun community holding fast to its Acadian roots. The Cajun community holds its own version of Mardi Gras that is vastly different than the televised festivities of New Orleans. People remain suspicious of government and are anticlerical, just as they were when they arrived in Canada during the 17th century. They still live in wooden homes with steeply pitched roofs to ward off the rain. Even though encroachment of American culture and life has brought roads to almost all rural areas, they often travel by boat, particularly the flat-bottomed pirogue. Children who once went to school by school boat now go by school bus. French is again taught in schools, though experts say not enough children are learning the language to ensure the future of Cajun-French. Many Cajuns still make a living trapping, fishing, and cutting lumber as their ancestors did, though it is now on a much larger mechanized scale. The advent of electricity and mechanization means that Cajuns have more free time.
To fill their time, men go hunting, fishing, and trapping, while women weave, quilt, and bake homemade bread. These things are no longer done out of need as they were in the past, but with the intent of preserving their culture. One traditional pastime that never lost its hold is gambling. Gambling takes up a large part of the men's leisure time, whether it is bourre, bingo, or betting on horses or fighting cocks. Cajuns young and old still enjoy dancing and regularly show up for a fais do-do. Family life has also remained relatively unchanged and still revolves around a closely knit, extended family. Newly married couples usually set up home near their parents, so they can make regular visits during the week. The Cajuns are still closely linked to their community.
Recently, people all over the United State have started taking an interest in Cajun culture. Conflicting ideas of Cajuns permeate the American conscious. On one hand, the Cajuns are seen as backwards, ignorant, superstitious swamp dwellers living in squalor in a moss-draped, reptile-infested wilderness. On the other hand, the Cajuns are seen as simple people with solid virtue who consume large amounts of beer and boudin sausage, while inhabiting a timeless land of natural beauty. A more comprehensive understanding of Cajun culture is possible through contemporary Cajun artists, writers, and historians who have sought to share their heritage, folklore, and customs with the rest of the world. Modernization has allowed more people to learn and appreciate Cajun culture, but unfortunately modernization is also one of the biggest threats to the traditional Cajun way of life. Hopefully, the efforts of the Cajun community combined with the efforts of organizations such as CODOFIL to preserve their culture will be met by an enthusiastic audience in the future to insure the survival of one of Louisiana's richest cultures.
Written by Kali Forbes
Louisiana's Official Bicentennial Poster
Poster created by high school junior Katie Atkins for our 2012 Art Contest