One of the most vibrant and lively states in the U.S. South is the great state of Louisiana. Although not an economic or commercial powerhouse in anyway, Louisiana is a truly unique piece of the American puzzle thanks to an extremely diverse culture. The multicultural background of the citizens of Louisiana has led to the rise of a state with an environment that is warm, welcoming, and different from that of any other in the U.S.
While there are many cultures that have played a role in the diversification of Louisiana, the creole culture is largely responsible for what modern day Americans see when they visit Louisiana. The state’s culture has been affected by several different ethnic groups that inhabited the region over several centuries. The manner in which these groups mingled helped create the unique culture of the state. Native Americans, from as many as different 10 different tribes such as the Natchez and Choctaw, were the first inhabitants in Louisiana. Over the centuries, their culture would be mixed with a number of other cultures as outsiders began to explore and settle Louisiana.
It was in the unique mixture of cultures in Louisiana that the “creolisation” of the region would begin. The Spanish were the first outsiders to arrive along the Gulf Coast, discovering the mouth of the Mississippi River. The first Spanish explorers arrived in the region in 1528 and explored the southern portions of the state. In 1542 more Spanish explorers arrived in the northwest portion of the state in what is now Caddo Parrish. This group navigated south along the Mississippi River, encountering hostile Native American tribes all along their trek.
European contact did not last long at first though as the Spanish largely explored the region and then left, laying no claim to the land. It was not until the late 17th century that European outsiders would arrive and settle in Louisiana. The French arrived in the late 17th century in several waves and began colonizing the region from the Gulf Coast northward. French groups colonizing the region were numerous and included sovereign, commercial, and religious groups looking to build settlements in the region. The French would be the group to begin the “creolisation” of Louisiana as their settlements spread and increased in the region.
With the French came a number of other groups that would blend their culture with the native locals and the settling French citizens. The French brought with them the practice of slavery which would add numerous African, and later Caribbean, cultures to the state. The unique cultural background of African slaves would also mix later with Native American and French cultural aspects to create the creole blend of Louisiana. In addition to starting the colonisation of Louisiana, the French are also responsible for naming the region. Explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle named the region Louisiana in 1682 in honor of France’s king at the time, King Louis XIV.
During the initial period of French settlement, from the late 17th century to the conclusion of the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War) in 1763, trade ships would arrive in the port of New Orleans with slaves who were eventually put to work on plantations in the region. Between 1700 and 1750, thousands of slave ships arrived in New Orleans from the West Coast of Africa, bringing thousands of slaves into the region. The vast majority of African slaves arriving during French colonization came from French colonies in Africa, mainly Senegal.
It is believed, though not conclusively proven, that as many as two-thirds of the slaves to arrive in Louisiana during this period came from the same region of Africa, located between the Senegal and Gambia rivers. The extreme similarities of the peoples in this region of Africa contributed to the unique “creolisation” that would later take place in Louisiana.
If there is one group that is often most closely tied to what it means to be creole in Louisiana it is those of Cajun ancestry. At the conclusion of the French and Indian War, France was forced to cede their possessions in Louisiana to the Spanish Empire as part of the Treaty of Paris that ended the war. Despite the region falling into Spanish hands until 1800, the “creolisation” of Louisiana would actually increase due to the arrival of the Acadians from Canada.
The Acadians were a group of people from the present day Canadian regions including New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. The Acadians, French settlers in Canada, were expelled by the British who now controlled more of Canada and sought refuge in the French speaking regions of Louisiana. The ruling Spanish Empire welcomed the Acadians largely because it increased the number of Catholics in the territory. The Acadians settled in the swamps and bayous of southwest Louisiana and gave rise to a unique culture all their own. Present day Cajuns are the descendants of those Acadians who fled Canada some 200 years ago.
The term creole in Louisiana specifically refers to two racial divisions. The term was first used to refer to those of French ancestry who were born in the colony of Louisiana. When the Spanish took control of the colony in 1763 they used the term criollo to refer to natives of the colony. Going forward, the term creole when used to describe white settlers came to encompass those born in the colony of French or Spanish ancestry.
For people of color living in the colony the term creole had two different meanings. Generally speaking, all slaves were referred to as being creole. However, as more and more free people of color began to immigrate to Louisiana from the revolution and war taking place in Haiti, the term creole also came to include these groups as they intermingled and intermarried within Louisiana society. Many free women of color began marrying white colonial men in and around New Orleans, creating another unique class of creoles.
The Creole culture that eventually took hold in Louisiana was an amalgamation of all the cultures that were brought into the area by the various groups of settlers. The creole culture developed its own variations of French, Spanish, Native American, and English languages. Creoles are perhaps most famous for their spicy food creations, with an emphasis on seafood; as well as voodoo beliefs brought to the area, predominantly by creoles of Caribbean and African descent.