Saturday, February 12, 2022

Notes on the Birth of Cajun Ethnic Identity

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

I wrote these works not only as a historian, but as someone who identifies as both a Cajun and a Creole. As I note in one of these essays, “[M]any 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.”

I trust those with whom I express disagreement will accept this critique in the collegial spirit it is intended.

I thank Dr. Barry Jean Ancelet, Dr. David Cheramie, independent researcher Don Arceneaux, and former CODOFIL president Warren A. Perrin for proofreading the below essay.

I have noticed claims that Cajun ethnic identity did not originate until the late twentieth century — more particularly, that it did not emerge until the mid- to late 1960s. It arose at that time, some assert, merely as a negative response to the Black civil rights movement. It has also been claimed the very word Cajun did not appear, at least not in print, until the mid-twentieth century (implying, oddly, the ethnic label came before the ethnic identity).

"Cajun children on Terrebonne Project," June 1940. 

(Marion Post Wolcott, Library of Congress)

These assertions, it seems to me, are unfounded. Perhaps they stem from confusing the birth of Cajun identity with the birth of Cajun pride. The Cajun pride movement did in fact begin in the 1960s — but that is not the same as the birth of Cajun ethnic identity. Or perhaps these misconceptions arise from conflating the birth of Cajun identity with two other late-twentieth-century events. One happened in 1980, when a U.S. federal court declared Cajuns to be a bona fide ethnic group protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The second event occurred a few years later, when geneticists discovered a common Cajun genotype — scientific evidence that Cajuns are, by virtue of tell-tale DNA, a distinct ethnic group.(1)

Genetic and judicial considerations aside, Cajun ethnic identity, I maintain, existed well before the late twentieth century. An abundance of historical proof supports this perspective, so much so, in fact, it prompts the question: If Cajun identity and even the word Cajun did not exist until, as claimed, relatively recently, why then is it so easy to find earlier — indeed, much earlier — references to that word and the identity it signifies? And not merely a few references, but numerous ones?

The Troy (N.Y.) Record
, 21 July 1943.

For example, if we survey evidence from the World War II era, we find Cajuns mentioned in a 1942 syndicated newspaper article titled "Cajun Chefs Help Prepare U.S. Army Mess in London." (Yes, London!) The piece featured Cajun mess-hall cooks with surnames like Marx, Gateaux, Borque (Bourque), Carrier, and Guidry (names generally considered Cajun in south Louisiana, whether of Acadian origin or not). "Most of these men," explained Sergeant Marx of Crowley, referring to his kitchen staff in wartime London, "are Cajun French . . . and hardly any of them could speak English when they enlisted." One cook, Private Freddie Guidry — referring to his own 6-foot-1-inch, 242-pound frame — quipped boastfully to the reporter, "Cajuns always do things in a big way."(2)


Interestingly, a few wartime images even show airplane "nose art" bearing the word Cajun. For example, the nickname Cajun Queen was painted on not one, but two B-29 bombers flown by a U.S. aircrew in the Pacific. Similarly, Cajun Coonass appeared on the fuselage of a C-47 transport plane in New Guinea. (Incidentally, that nickname is one of the earliest known uses of the controversial term coonass – see my previous blog article about this subject).(3)


The Cajun Queen B-29 bomber,
Pacific campaign, World War II.
Author's Collection.

Jumping farther back in time to the late nineteenth century, we find numerous references to Cajun as an ethnic group and an ethnic label. For instance, an 1898 article in The Indianapolis Journal (originally printed in The Dallas News) not only used the word Cajun, but did so in reference to a people it considered distinct from Creoles. "[A] large element of the French population of the State [of Louisiana] are not creoles," averred the paper's unnamed journalist, "but Acadians, or, as they call themselves and are generally called, 'Cajuns.'"(4)


A decade earlier an 1888 article in The (Monroe, La.) Ouachita Telegraph (which first appeared in the New Orleans Picayune) stated, "The word 'Cajun' is no more a term of reproach than the word 'Hoosier' applied to the natives of Indiana. It is associated with the idea of some rusticity and simplicity of manner and that is all. The writer has heard it playfully applied to a lovely Creole belle." Added the article, "The Acadian himself is a Creole." (As an aside, this corresponds to my own view of the Cajun-Creole relationship: as I state in another blog article, "Cajuns themselves are . . . a kind of Creole. . . .")(5)

The Ouachita Telegraph
 (Monroe, La.), 28 April 1888.

Similarly, an 1887 Abbeville (S.C.) Press and Banner article (originally running in The San Francisco Chronicle) observed, "The Americans, and even the Creoles, have corrupted the name Acadian into 'Cajun,' which terms these people resent strongly, yet, as 'Cajuns,' they are known all over the state. They are, in fact, Creoles, being the descendants of French parents born in a French colony, but they are an entirely distinct people from all other populations of Gallic descent in Louisiana."(6)


We can find Cajun used as an ethnic label still earlier in time — decades earlier, in fact. During the Civil War, for example, the term appeared in an 1862 issue of The Cincinnati Commercial (reprinted in The Delaware [Ohio] Gazette). Detained at Camp Pratt near New Iberia, a reporter for the Ohio paper took note of local Cajuns serving in the Confederate forces. "You don't know what a Cajun is?" he inquired of his Midwest readers. "Of course you don't, but I will try and tell you."(7)

The Delaware (Ohio) Gazette
, 12 December 1862.

As for the word Cadien, which is merely the Louisiana French form of Cajun, it has been found in print as early as 1851. That year the Louisiana francophone newspaper Le Pionnier de l'Assomption of Napoleonville ran a piece of local-color fiction containing the line, "Et moi, continua Jérôme, je m'enfoncerai dans les campagnes afin de tâcher de vendre mes bonnets de coton aux Cadiens." [Translation: "And I, continued Jerome, will go deep into the countryside to try and sell my cotton caps to the Cadiens."](8)

Le Pionnier de l'Assomption 
(Napoleonville, La.),
7 September 1851.

Granted, many of these historic references deride the Cajun people as backward and ignorant; some even call the word Cajun an insult. My point, however, stands: Cajun ethnic identity and the word Cajun appeared long before the mid- to late twentieth century, whether describing a discrete ethnic group or, conversely, a type of Creole more or less (or not at all) distinct from other Creoles. Indeed, the examples I provide above are merely a few such references. I provide additional examples below, all chosen from the nineteeth century, including some using the alternate spellings Cajan, Cajen, Cadian, Cadien and cadjien. This list is by no means comprehensive: other such references exist in the historical record and still others may await discovery.

Addendum — Early Appearances 

of the Word Cajun and Its Variants:


"As a people, the 'Cajuns are very simple, for they live in communities so simple that straight conduct is a necessity. The men are fairly honest, but hot-blooded and often quarrelsome, the favorite weapon of the coast 'Cajuns being the knife. . . . These 'Cajuns are fine duck hunters, and know their country as no stranger can. . . ." ~ E. Hough, "The Sunny South — VI," Forest and Stream (23 March 1895), pp. 224-25.


"Presently we saw our first Acadians — nowhere spoken of in their own country otherwise than as 'Cajuns." ~ Julian Ralph, "Along the Bayou Teche," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 87 (November 1893), p. 874.


"The Cajun is sui generis [one of a kind]. He has even lost resemblance to his Canadian brother. . . . Dancing and festivals are weekly affairs, for in Cajun land everybody knows everybody else, and entire communities are often bound by ties of kindred." ~ M. A. Byrne, "Cajun Housekeeping," Good Housekeeping (October 1891), p. 170.

Good Housekeeping
 (October 1891).

"In this delightful climate, where illness is almost unknown, people acquire the habit of living, and keep on ad infinitum, until, as [states] the proverb of the Cajuns (the descendants of the exiled Acadians), they get old, old, so old! then shrivel up and blow away." ~ T. W. Poole, Some Late Words about Louisiana (New Orleans: E. Marchand, 1889), p. 26.

"Will the Reveille [newspaper] point out of these appointments of Cadiens those who are not creoles." ~ The (St. Martinville, La.) Weekly Messenger, 29 October 1887, p. 1.

 (St. Martinville, La.) 
Weekly Messenger, 29 October 1887.

"The Creoles proper will not share their distinction with the native descendants of those worthy Acadian exiles who . . . found refuge in Louisiana. These remain 'cadjiens' or 'cajuns'. . . ." ~ George E. Waring Jr. and George W. Cable, History and Present Condition of New Orleans, Louisiana: Social Statistics of Cities, Tenth Census of the United States (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1881), p. 10.


"[T]hese Acadians, or as in common colloquial parlance they are termed 'Cajuns, are generally illiterate, and as a race non-progressive and unenterprising. Though of America they refuse to become Americanized. . . ." ~ Louisiana Bureau of Agriculture and Immigration, Louisiana Products, Resources and Attractions (New Orleans: Times-Democrat, 1881), p. 234.

Louisiana Products, Resources and Attractions

"Among themselves they are 'Créole Français'; and Acadian — or rather its corruption 'Cajun,' as they pronounce it — is regarded as implying contempt." ~ "The Acadians of Louisiana," Scribner's Monthly XIX (January 1880), p. 383.

Scribner's Monthly
 XIX (January 1880).

"'The Acadians of Louisiana,' — more familiarly called Cajuns — [are] a simple people, having much in common with their congeners described in Longfellow's poem." ~ Scribner's preview, The Ellsworth (Maine) American, 25 December 1879, p. 3.


"[W]e found [the campground] had been taken possession of by 'Cadiens,' whose little skiffs were moored to the shore." ~ "The Dredge," The Petite Anse Amateur (Avery Island, La.), April 1879, pp. 25-26.


"Il est impossible de relire les pages émues de l'exode des Acadiens, ou plutôt des Cadiens, car tel est le nom véritable de cette vaillante population. . . ." [Translation: "It's impossible to reread the emotional pages about the exodus of the Acadians, or rather the Cadiens, for such is the true name of this valiant population. . . ." ~ "Bibliographie," The Opelousas Courier, 17 November 1877, p. 1.

The Opelousas Courier
, 17 November 1877.

"The Cajan [sic] was as prolific as his Canadian cousin." ~ "Our People: Where They Came from Originally, the Source of the Population of Louisiana," The New Orleans Daily Democrat, 4 March 1877, p. 2.


"The Acadians — abbreviated to 'Cajens' by our laconic race — form a small portion of the Creole population." ~ Albert Rhodes, "The Louisiana Creoles," The Galaxy 16 (August 1873), p. 254; cited in Carl A. Brasseaux, Acadian to Cajun: Transformation of a People, 1803-1877 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992), p. 102.


"[Q]uite a lot of them ["French habitans" from Canada] came to Louisiana. Here they took the name of 'Cadiens,' a contraction of Canadians or of Arcadians [sic]. . . . [T]he Cadiens are scarcely the people to comprehend, or indeed to execute, the laws of a republic. . . . [They are] a sort of semi-Creole race. . . ." ~ "The Posse of Red River," New Orleans Republican, 27 May 1873, p. 2.


"Il entendait certains ignorants dire autour de lui: 'Damned Cadians! — Les Acadiens ne sont pas Américans — Les Acadians sont des demi-créoles, etc.'" [Translation: "He heard some ignorant people say around him: 'Damned Cadiens! — The Acadians aren't Americans — The Acadians are half-Creoles, etc.'"] ~ "Acadiens," Le Louisianais (St. James Parish, La.), 2 November 1867, p. 1.

Le Louisianais, 2 November 1867.



(1) See my book: Shane K. Bernard, The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003), pp. 86-88, 93-94, 101-09, 136-37, 147. For more on the history of the word Cajun, including its variants, see Jacques Henry, "From Acadien to Cajun to Cadien: Ethnic Labelization and Construction of Identity," Journal of American Ethnic History 17 (Summer, 1998): 29-62. Henry's article remains important to understanding the development of Cajun ethnic labels, though it should be noted the article is somewhat out-of-date: working without today's Internet search capacities, Henry traced the word Cajun only as early as 1879 and found primarily negative references — though references are now known to extend back as early as 1862 and to include not only negative, but neutral and positive occurrences.

I choose neither to identify nor quote the sources to which I take exception and which prompted me to write this essay. Although that practice would be requisite for an academic publication, and would in some ways strengthen my assertions, I nevertheless do not wish this discussion to involve personalities, but, rather, only issues of substance and the actual historical evidence.


(2) "Cajun Chefs Help Prepare U.S. Army Mess in London," The Troy (N.Y.) Record, 21 July 1943, p. 4.

(3) Images of the Cajun Queen and Cajun Coonass can be found in my blog article: Shane K. Bernard, "My Oddball Collection of Cajun Warplane Photos," Bayou Teche Dispatches, 31 May 2012. The original Cajun Coonass still photograph is in the National Archives and Records Administration and is photograph #342-FH-3A-32507-79171a.c. It is dated "April, 1943" on verso; and "rec'd 7 Jan. 1944" on recto.


(4) "The 'Cajuns' of Louisiana," Dallas (Tex.) News, reprinted in The Indianapolis Journal, 28 January 1898, p. 7.


(5) "A Boston Criticism of Cable," New Orleans Picayune, reprinted in The Ouachita Telegraph (Monroe, La.), 28 April 1888, p. 1.


(6) "The Acadians: A Picturesque People Unchanged by Time," San Francisco Chronicle, reprinted in The Abbeville (S.C.) Press and Banner, 29 June 1887, p. 7.


(7) "The Louisiana Cajuns," Cincinnati Commercial, reprinted in The Delaware (Ohio) Gazette, 12 December 1862, p. 1.

(8) "La Negresse du Diable," Le Pionnier de l'Assomption (Napoleonville, La.), 7 September 1851, p. 1.

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