Thursday, June 13, 2019

Of Cajuns and Creoles: A Brief Historical Analysis

This essay is one of three in which I address current issues in Cajun and Creole studies. The other two essays can be found here and here.

I have observed a growing effort, particularly among south Louisiana's Creole population, to rein in use of the word Cajun to describe all things French in Louisiana. (I mean Creole in the broadest sense of the word: Creole devoid of racial connotations and thus applying equally to persons who are black, white, or mixed-race. Creole meaning “Native to Louisiana” or a bit more narrowly “Native to south Louisiana, and of Roman Catholic and French- or Spanish-speaking heritage.”) 

"The matter almost demands a Venn diagram for clarity!"

I concur with this effort: things that are not Cajun should not be called Cajun.

Implicit in the critique of Cajun as a blanket term for all south Louisiana culture is an assertion that Creole history and culture should be acknowledged more frequently and more substantively. This means, for example, that scholars should conduct more research into Creoles; that the tourism industry should highlight more Creole history and more Creole attractions; and that what is Creole should be identified as Creole, not as Cajun.

I support all these notions, for while I self-identify as Cajun, many of my ancestors were Creoles of French heritage. My own family tree abounds with tell-tale Creole surnames: de la Morandière, Soileau, de la Pointe, Fuselier de la Claire, Brignac, Bordelon, de Livaudais, and others. 

As such, I could, if I chose to do so (and sometimes I do), identify as Creole — doubly so because Cajuns themselves are to begin with a kind of Creole. After all, are they not, as I describe Creoles above, native to south Louisiana and of Roman Catholic and French-speaking heritage?

"It is interesting to note, for example, that in 2018 the University of Georgia Press issued a book titled Creole Italian: Sicilian Immigrants and the Shaping of New Orleans Food Culture."

I view Cajuns, however, as merely one type of Creole among several other types of Creoles. These types include black Creoles, white Creoles, mixed-race Creoles, French Creoles, Spanish Creoles, German Creoles, and perhaps still other types of Creoles who occupy part of Louisiana’s complex cultural landscape. (It is interesting to note, for example, that in 2018 the University of Georgia Press issued a book titled Creole Italian: Sicilian Immigrants and the Shaping of New Orleans Food Culture.) And then there are other types of Creoles in other states, other nations, and even on other continents. (I once used the word Creole while lecturing in front of a group of Brazilian tourists in south Louisiana. They gasped in horror, telling me that in their country Creole is equivalent to America's most dreaded racial slur. They actually referred to the Portuguese version of Creole, which is crioulo. The reliable backs up their claim; see its entry for crioulo.)

In other words, Cajuns are to me a subset of Creoles, just as, say, Cherokees are a subset of Native Americans, Ashkenazim are a subset of Jews, and Mexicans are a subset of Latinos. But this does not mean Cajuns do not view themselves as distinct from other Creoles. They clearly do and arguably have done so since their origin as an ethnic group. Sociologist Jacques Henry of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, for example, has observed, "The definition of Cajun ethnicity has been on-going since the arrival of Acadian exiles in Louisiana. It has taken place amidst the economic, social and cultural changes that have happened since the eighteenth century."

The expulsion of the Cajuns' Acadian ancestors from Nova Scotia, 1755. Source: William Cullen Bryant, Sidney Howard Gay, Noah Brooks, Scribner’s Popular History of the United States, Vol. 3 (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1896).

Cajuns have not been in Louisiana as long as other types of Creoles. However, the Cajuns’ common ancestors, the Acadians — forcibly expelled from what are now the Maritime Provinces of Canada by the British military — arrived in Louisiana beginning in 1764. By the late 1800s those exiles and their offspring had intermarried heavily with other south Louisiana ethnic groups (settlers of French, German, Spanish, even to some extent Anglo and Scots-Irish heritage) and become “Cajuns.” Thus, for example, R. L. Daniels wrote in 1879 of the word “Acadian — or rather its corruption ‘Cajun’ as they pronounce it.” In 1893 Julian Ralph similarly observed that Acadians were "spoken of in their own country . . . as Cajuns.’” And in 1898 a journalist aptly noted, “[A] large element of the French population of the state are . . . Acadians, or, as they call themselves and are generally called, ‘Cajuns’” [my italics]. 

UL sociologist Henry thus concludes, [B]y the turn of the [20th] century, Cajuns/cadiens are a group symbolically discrete. . . . [and] a breed apart.” Cajun historian Carl Brasseaux echoes this view, stating, “[T]he Acadians [in Louisiana] were by 1803 on the threshold of a new and significant period of socioeconomic change, one that would transform them . . . into Louisiana Cajuns.” He continues this theme elsewhere, averring that by the end of Reconstruction in 1877, “[A]scriptive [i.e., attributed] distinctions between Acadians and neighboring groups had become blurred, giving rise to the creation of a new people — the Cajuns.

If I myself sometimes gloss over the complex relationship of Cajuns to Creoles, it is because I find it less confusing for the uninitiated if I avoid explaining, “And, oh, by the way, Cajuns are Creoles.” (The matter almost demands a Venn diagram for clarity!) This may be one reason the Cajuns themselves have generally chosen not to identify as both Cajuns and Creoles: besides the fact that most Cajuns simply do not think of themselves of Creoles, there is widespread confusion and debate about the very meaning of Creole, even among south Louisiana natives.

Elista Istre's excellent recent volume about Creole history, from the University of Louisiana Press, Lafayette, La.

Ultimately, there is only so much one can do — or ought to do, I would assert — about people choosing to self-identify as members of one ethnic group or another. According to U.S. census data, for example, there were in 1990 an estimated 668,000+ people across America who self-identified as Acadian in ancestry. No doubt a sizeable number of those respondents, particularly among the 432,000+ living in Louisiana, called themselves Cajuns. Regardless, if self-identification as "Acadian," or as a member of any ethnic group, is good enough for the U.S. Census Bureau, it is good enough for me. It is evidently good enough for most other scholars, almost none of whom would presume to tell anyone what they should or should not call themselves in terms of ethnicity.

As a historian I believe my role is to observe, chronicle, and interpret, and to do so as a neutral party. To involve oneself too closely, too personally with a living subject of study like an ethnic group — such as by seeking to change that group’s behavior — is to relinquish objectivity and to cross into the realm of activism. And while activism in itself can be a rewarding pursuit, I do not believe it mixes well with scholarship. Granted, complete objectivity is possible only in theory, but the very quest for objectivity can elevate the quality of research and analysis to a higher, more refined level. It can do so by guiding researchers around pitfalls like wishful thinking and what the history profession calls filiopiety (or filiopietism), a fancy term for “ancestor worship.” Such weaknesses can result in misunderstanding or, worse, deification of those who came before us — at the expense of their humanity.


Carl A. Brasseaux, Acadian to Cajun: Transformation of a People, 1803-1877 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992), p. xi.

________, The Founding of New Acadia: The Beginnings of Acadian Life in Louisiana, 1765-1803 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), p. 198.

“The ‘Cajuns’ of Louisiana,” Wood County Reporter (Grand Rapids, Wisc.) [reprinted from the Dallas (Tex.) News], 2 June 1898, p. 8.

Jacques Henry, From Acadien to Cajun to Cadien: Ethnic Labelization and Construction of Identity,” Journal of American Ethnic History 17 (Summer, 1998), 
Daniels and Ralph are quoted on p. 34; see Henry quotes on pp. 39, 56.

1990 U.S. Census of Population, Social and Economic Characteristics, Louisiana, Sec. 1, Table 17 (p. 56).

1990 U.S. Census of Population, Social and Economic Characteristics, United States, Table 12 (p. 12).

Selected Readings on Creoles:

This list makes no pretense of completeness. There are many other noteworthy sources about the subject.

Shane K. Bernard. “Creoles.” In Encyclopedia of Louisiana (, ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Article published 8 December 2010,

________. “Creole.” In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 6: Ethnicity. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Carl A. Brasseaux, Keith P. Fontenot, and Claude F. Oubre. Creoles of Color in the Bayou Country. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. 

James H. Dormon, ed. Creoles of Color of the Gulf South. Knoxville, Tenn.: The University of Tennessee Press, 1996. 

Elista Istre. Creoles of South Louisiana: Three Centuries Strong. Lafayette, La.: University of Louisiana Press, 2018.

Gary B. Mills. The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall. Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century. Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Sybil Kein, ed. Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

Joseph G. Tregle. “Creoles and Americans.” In Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization, ed. Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon, 131-85. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

________. “On That Word ‘Creole’ Again: A Note.” Louisiana History, 23 (Spring 1982): 193-98.

1 comment:

  1. There seems to be a tendency among activists to reify the label Creole in relation to the colonial era as a single uniform culture and identity into which everyone assimilated. In actuality it was really more of a generic reference for those native born to the colony and which situated them in a particular relationship to the controlling nation. The only process involved in people becoming Creole was to be born in Louisiana.

    Unless one can make a strong case for the idea that in 1800, monolingual Creole speaking slaves in Pointe Coupee, monolingual Spanish speaking Creoles in northwest Louisiana and Delacroix, Free People of Color on Bayou Mallett, Attakapas Acadians, German Coast Germans, and even second generation Anglophones (arguably Creoles as per Tregle) saw themselves as one people and one culture.