Since their origins in the early 1700s, the Creole people of Louisiana have forged a unique identity for themselves in the American Southeast.
by Steven Knorr
The world Creole has held many different meanings throughout its history of use. People called Creoles in the Americas adapted to the Louisiana Purchase and came to create a culture and identity of their own in the Southern United States. The word Creole is unique among American nomenclature, referring to a specific group of people with French ancestry in the South and in the Caribbean. The term is not applied to French Canadians, though sometimes the term can be used to refer to Spanish speaking people of mixed racial origin. While today many whites with French ancestry are known as Cajun in the Deep South, people of mixed-racial ancestry with French heritage often exclusively refer to themselves as Creole. The word Creole itself comes from the Portuguese word crioulo which means someone one who was raised in a house, especially a servant. This word was adopted by other European languages and by the 1500s the word crioulo (or the Spanish criollo) would specifically refer to someone “native to the colonies.”
Origins of the Creole People
Louisiana was a difficult place for settlers in the 18th century. French exploration of the Mississippi delta was conducted by La Salle, who in 1682 proclaimed the region south of what is now Memphis Louisiane in honor of Louis XIV. French settlement first began with the creation of Fort Maurepas (modern Biloxi, Mississippi), and the region was soon given colonial governance. In 1722, four years after its founding, the city of New Orleans became the capital of French Louisiana. The governor general ruled both Upper Louisiana (Haute-Louisiane), the modern Midwest, and Lower Louisiana (Basse-Louisiane), the Mississippi drainage basin in what is now Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. Settlers came from France, Canada, and the French West Indies.
Compared to Saint-Domingue (Haiti), however, Louisiane was a cultural and economic backwater. It was difficult for French male colonists to find partners of the same race and status, as French women were generally uninterested in going to continental New France. As a result, many Frenchmen formed relationships with women of African and Native descent, agreeing to economic support of their partners and children in an institution known as plaçage. This led to multiple generations of mixed race French in the Americas. Often the children in these relationships were enslaved because of their mother’s status, though they could be given freedom by their French fathers. In these cases children, usually male children, were given freedom and were sent to France for formal education. This lead to a small population of free people of color who were educated, bourgeoisie professionals.
Spanish Louisiana and the Haitian Revolution
Prior to the 19th century, the word Creole was not part of the cultural identity or vocabulary of French colonists in America. After losing the Seven Year’s War (1754-1763), Louisiana was ceded to Spain, who held the colony until 1802. In 1768, during an uprising against the Spanish, letters written by the colonists declared that they were “inhabitants…of the province of Louisiana.” The world creole is not found in these documents. The term first came to be used in Louisiana after the Haitian Revolution at the end of the 18th century. Creole had been widely used in Saint-Domingue to refer to a sector of people who were born locally and had mixed European ancestry, French colonists fleeing the island brought the term with them to the mainland.
The Louisiana Purchase
In 1802, the Spain returned the Louisiana territory to Napoleon’s France. Having lost the wealthy colonies in the Caribbean, as well as Canada, the former sphere of New France was a shadow its former self, even with Louisiana returned to the fold. Compared to the recently independent United States, or British and Spanish colonies, Louisiana was underpopulated and economically backwards. For decades after its founding, settlements had been limited to military outposts to prevent expansion by the British and Spanish.
When Napoleon sold the Louisiana territory to the United States in 1803, it was largely uninhabited by Europeans; most of the white population was confined to the current state of Louisiana. Some in American leadership resisted the purchase because of the linguistic, religious, and cultural differences of the people of the United States and the people of the Louisiana territory. However, for the most part, the territory incorporated well into its new country. The United States government honored land grants given by the Spanish, Catholic Church properties were not seized, and the limited rights of people of color remained. French law (and the Napoleonic code) were integrated into the US legal system for Louisiana.
Era of Distrust: Use of the Term Creole in Early American Louisiana
During the early years of American Louisiana, the words French and Creole were used interchangeably as designations for the inhabitants of the former French territory. In the first decades of the 19th century, significant tension existed between Anglo-Americans and French Louisianans (then called Creoles). Racial and class divisions took a backseat to the American-Creole divide. As decades passed, and American settlers married into traditionally French-speaking families, the cultural strain subsided somewhat. But in the years immediately following the purchase, the shared suspicion was real and dangerous. As Louisiana became more Americanized, Creoles would hold strongly onto their French identity.
Many Americans, in the territory and throughout the United States, viewed Louisiana’s large “foreign” population as a security risk. Local militias were an important element of territorial security and administration, and the Louisiana territory was no different. Because militias in Louisiana were composed of Frenchmen (Creoles), Americans wondered if they could be trusted. No less a figure then Thomas Paine was convinced that the population of the Louisiana territory was inclined toward treason. Speaking to President Jefferson, Paine suggested that Louisiana should not be democratically or constitutionally governed until the number of native-born Americans equaled the number of Creoles. Paine’s opinions on this subject were not uncommonly held.
Creoles: Whites of French Descent, or Multiracial French?
During the 1800s, the word Creole began to be used as a designation for mixed-race Louisianans of some French ancestry. These people were called gens de couleur libres or creoles of color, often referring to the artisans and middle-class professionals of mixed-race in the city of New Orleans. In a way, this was a return to the original use of the word as received from the Portuguese. However, the use of the word, and controversy over it, fell into the racial politics of that era.
Some prominent Louisianan intellectuals of the 19th century insisted that “Louisiana Creoles had not a drop of African blood in their veins” while also stating that “no true Creole ever had colored blood.” Regardless, mixed-race French Americans came to use the phrase “free Creole of color” to define themselves as separate from American blacks. Over time, French Louisianans stopped using the term to describe themselves, in order to set themselves apart from their mixed-race neighbors. Nevertheless, until the late 19th century, the word Creole was broadly used to describe any person, regardless of racial heritage or social class, who was a French speaker.
Antebellum Louisiana and Creole Identity
In New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase, Creoles (of any background) outnumbered Anglo-Americans 7:1. By 1830, that ratio had fallen to 2:1. Most white Creoles held to their traditions and refused to assimilate into American Southern society. Often they did not intermarry with Anglo-Americans, refused to learn English, and were resentful towards Protestants. New Orleans was a city divided. The people of the city fed on the suspicion, resentment, and hatred bred on the differences of language and culture. Creoles held themselves distinct from Americans long after Louisiana had become an integral part of the South.
However, the five decades between statehood (1812) and the Civil War brought unprecedented growth and prosperity to the city. New Orleans became the south’s largest city and was a center for immigration and commerce. In the 1830s, thousands of German and Irish immigrated to the Louisiana, swelling the portion of whites with no allegiance to Creole culture. By 1850, half of the free population in New Orleans was foreign-born.
Creoles of color played a substantial role in French high culture during the first decades of the 19th century, despite racist legal restrictions on their citizenship. Creoles were still able to prosper due to their high literacy rates, education, and connections to certain elite families. Many Creoles of color continued to receive advanced education by travelling abroad. However, as issues of race and slavery became more intense in the decades leading up to the Civil War, more limitations were placed on free Creoles of color. Many white Creoles felt threatened by Creoles of African descent, as they were angered by the growing notion that a Creole could have mixed blood. Creoles of color were forced to carry documents certifying their free status.
Creole Identity After the Civil War and into the 20th Century
The Civil War brought an end to labels such as “free Creole of color,” as emancipation made such a distinction irrelevant. However, the racial politics that emerged during and after Reconstruction were violently intense. Louisianans of French ancestry began to drop the use of Creole altogether as a self-descriptor, out of fear of being mistaken for mixed-race in an era of white supremacy.
Creoles were at the forefront of advocating for black progress in Louisiana. In 1894, New Orleans Creole Homer Plessey challenged the legally-enforced separation of races in Louisiana; the case Plessy vs Ferguson eventually reaching the Supreme Court. The case resulted in “separate but equal” segregation, a principal in place until 1954. Because of legal obstacles and discrimination, many Creoles would leave the South and move northwards or to California
By the 20th century, white Creoles were assimilating into mainstream American culture, and many were becoming solely English-speaking. While remaining Catholic, they moved away from their old town neighborhoods in New Orleans. By the end of the 19th century, the French Quarter had become a source of low-income housing for immigrants as the original French inhabitants moved to other neighborhoods.
Today, Creole is a label that almost exclusively applies to people of color. White Louisianans who are descendants of French or Spanish colonials often choose to identify as Cajun, Acadian, French, or Spanish. Cajuns, in particular, have a strongly-rooted rural background. However, identity is a complicated phenomenon. Any one of these groups may contain people who label themselves as Creole, and mixed-race Creoles may share these different identifies.
Creoles of color retained their French identity strongly after the Civil War, more so then their urban white Creole counterparts. They held onto what always set them apart‒ their language, religion, culture, education, and often mixed heritage. They continued to call themselves Creoles as they always had. As their white counterparts moved out of the French Quarter, most Creoles of color stayed in their urban communities.
Although the Americanization of Louisiana did prevail in many ways, Creoles of color always retained a unique status. In many contexts, Creole is accepted as a broad cultural group of people of all races who share French ancestry. Although diverse, Creoles share a unique culture, history, and language tradition. In particular, Creoles are known for their cuisine which is internationally celebrated. More than two centuries after the Louisiana Purchase, Creoles have always adapted and changed with their new country.
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