I have, during my short life, been blessed to visit wonderful places from California to the Bahamas, but there is not a better place than Opelousas, Louisiana.

Opelousas is a little place but it is filled with great culture from the Zydeco music to the traditional Creole eateries. Throughout my 7-year genealogical research, I discovered and learned some amazing and interesting facts about the City of Opelousas.

Alex Lee

Theresa and her sister Julie Simon looking at Alex’s picture collage. Photo: Robyne Larking-Damond

Indians, French militiamen

The name Opelousas itself derived from the Appaloosa Indians that once inhabited Opelousas. The French immigrants established it as a trading post in 1720. This stimulated a large migration of French settlers to occupy Opelousas, one being my ancestor Donato Bello who acted as a commander over the militia of Opelousas Post. For many years, militiamen, whose families would later have a great influence on the area, controlled Opelousas Post. Nearly 90% of my St. Landry genealogy focuses on these militiamen with many being a direct ancestor or once owned my African ancestors that rather gave me reason to explore more sides of the Opelousas area.

My mixed ancestry

I can never forget the first time I went to Opelousas by myself. A cousin relative who knew about my research became intrigued enough to let me stay over so that I could scan photos of her family and so that she could introduce me to more relatives. Her husband had red beans and rice and the smell of her home had me feeling as if I had walked into the home of my paternal grandparents.

My cousin made a big glass of homemade lemonade and then she showed me four old photographs of my ancestors. I could not believe how white they looked. In school, I always said that I was Black, French or Cuban. This was because people said I looked a lot like Sammy Sosa, a professional Baseball player, as we had a fair share of physical similarities such as the hair and skin complexion. This indicated to me that there was more to me than just being of African descent.

Alex Lee

Eugene Vallare. Photo: Robyne Larking-Damond

My relatives’ perception of “Creole”, confused

The more I dug and explored my roots and the retinue of relatives I met during my trips to Opelousas the more I learned just how Creole I was. Each relative I encountered who said they were Creole gave me a different meaning of the term. I had an array of answers from uppity light skin Blacks to people who spoke the language. I must admit I became very muddled and so began to look for documented definitions of the term “Creole”.

I discovered that the term Creole was used to describe the people of French ancestry who were born in the New World. Over time, these people mixed with the African Slaves and Indians and formed a diverse culture with all the leading elements from each cultural identifier. After these extensive comprehensive overviews of the term Creole, it was clear that it was not so much focused on skin complexion or any physical attributes but by how my family came to be or what can be described as the overall mixture of my family ancestry and culture.

Family by family Creole food

Much of the food I ate at during my visits to Opelousas was completely novel to me. Some of the food terms, I couldn’t even spell, but the dishes were delicious. For sure! I could not believe how much pride the people I met in the country towns took pride in their cooking, and without any recipe book around either. These were family dishes that had been passed down from generation to generation with each family member being known for a special dish. I, being the new guest, was given the opportunity to sample many family specific creole specialty dishes.

Alex Lee

Alex (right) and his grandpa heading to the 2012 Simon Family Reunion. Photo: Robyne Larking-Damond

Survival of Opelousas creole people

I visited numerous communities in rural St. Landry Parish, who have left an indelible impression of their lifestyle and values. It struck me that the peoples’ desire to preserve creole idiosyncrasies and characteristics have been a major factor enabling the creole culture to not just survive but thrive.

Although Opelousas is small, each hamlet or Parish demonstrated completely unique surnames and lifestyles, similar in some ways but different for the most part. This was illustrated, for example, by the community of Frilot, named after one its founders Pierre Elicio Frilot, a “gens de couleur libre” of Iberia Parish, consisted of the Frilots of course, but also Auzennes, La Chapelles, Lewises, etc. The Frilot community,, since the 1700s had a reputation of cousins intermarrying and they only associated themselves with other light skin Creoles or Whites. However, my research led me to conclude that the Frilots marrying and living in this manner was more to do with culture and tradition and little to do with looks and appearances. This mirrors the marriage patterns of hierarchy families in Europe intermarrying so as to maintain social and economic status. The fact that Frilots had a large percentage of College graduates in their families indicates that such a system resulted in social benefits.

The people of Plaisance, the closest community to the Frilots, consisted of Thierrys Pitres, Jouberts, Cassimeres, Jones, Malveauxs, etc. Particularly interesting was the evidence I uncovered about Plaisance, that many of the Creoles in this community could trace their ancestry to three large plantations owned by Jean Florestin Poiret, Pierre Joubert and Francois Pitre. Hence, the two surnames mentioned above. The community of Plaisance is well known for its highly educated people. The first Black Mayor of Opelousas, John Joseph, was from Plaisance. I have close families ties in Plaisance, such as my late great grandfather, Alex Lafleur, Sr., who was a treateur (faith healer).

My enthusiasm and love for Opelousas is all consuming. I would recommend a visit there if you ever find yourself in Louisiana. A great place to see the “Creole” culture and lifestyle.