The Persistence of French Creole Culture in Louisiana

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A speech given by Norman Marmillion, at St. Louis, Mo., July 2004
At the annual Conference of the French Heritage Society

Over the last 11 years I have had the pleasure of visiting St. Louis 9 times, here to do research on Laura Plantation and Laura Gore’s family, to find family heirlooms and return them to her plantation in Louisiana. Four times I visited Ste. Genevieve and played tourist at Kaskaskia and Fort de Chartres where my own ancestors once lived. Certainly, the old French houses here looked terribly familiar, as though they were standing on the outskirts of New Orleans.

On each visit, I purposely looked for but couldn’t find resemblances in the lifestyles of the inhabitants who lived in these venerable structures centuries ago with that of the 21st Century residents that surround them today. I attribute this to my ignorance, being an occasional visitor and not a resident and would expect the same response of you on your visit to south Louisiana.

But, I do know that when I return to Louisiana and pass the 200 year old cottages, farm houses, plantations and cemeteries along River Road, that I have re-entered a world, an alternative space that is still affected by the people who built and lived in the structures for generations; a place still not completely in lock-step with the White-Anglo-Saxon­Protestant mainstream. Unlike the great mounds of Cahokia, these buildings are not just reminders of what happened long ago, they are our oldest, most visible links to a mind-set, a life-style, a history, a heritage, a unique integrated culture that has lasted for 2 centuries apart from the rest of the U.S.

This other culture, which I call the Creole culture of Louisiana, is a close cousin to the same that flourished here in Upper Louisiana over 200 years ago, but which was so fragile and short lived that it quickly lost its identity with the initial American push into the region. This Creole culture is both the offspring and the cousin to what one finds today in French Canada, among the Quebecois, whose bonds with France, starting 400 years ago, were long-lived, deep, institutional and tightly controlled. For Upper Louisiana, her French heritage seems but a memory; for French Canada; her French heritage remains inseparable from her self-identity.

The Louisiana experience, in my judgment, stands somewhere between these two poles of enduring and ephemeral French influence. What do I see of French heritage and culture remaining in the state of Louisiana 200 years after the Louisiana Purchase? As in the case of Quebecois culture, I certainly do not look to modern France for clues.

Louisiana’s birth, like Canada’s, predated the French Revolution, isolated an ocean away from the Enlightenment and the ideas of Rousseau and Voltaire. No, Louisiana was a creation of the Ancien Regime, the Bourbon dynasty. In Louisiana today, Liberte and Fraternite are in abundance; Egalite has yet to make a public debut.

The French did not succeed in replicating a New France in south Louisiana. What they did was lay the necessary foundation for the creation of a new life-style. It would not have happened had Louis XIV not initiated the long-standing foreign policy labeled by Minister Colbert as “inclusionism” which meant that everyone living in French territory was French. People born in the colony were considered Frenchmen, as were German engages, as were the Chitimacha Indians, as were the Senegalese slaves.

Within one generation of Louisiana’s founding by the Compagnie des Indes, the majority of the population were enslaved, the native peoples nearly extinct, and the Europeans (who were mostly French Canadian and from the Germanic parts of the French Empire) were in desperate straits, facing yearly bouts of deadly epidemics, ungodly heat, hurricanes and starvation. Isolated as Louisiana was and fueled by the “laissez faire” attitude of the Compagnie, these disparate “Frenchmen”, be they Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, Zwinglian, Jew, heathen or Muslim slave, were forced to throw away the artificial differences imposed by European thought and tradition, and to learn and share with each other if they were going to survive.

From this life-saving experience of sharing and adapting in those first formative years of Louisiana’s history emerged a new ethos, a world view unlike that of their cousins in Canada, comprising elements that were part European, part west-African, part native American and just part common sense. This adapted Creole life-style, this self-contained, conservative, self-serving pragmatism that formed out of the isolation and desperation that characterized the first years of frontier Louisiana still sets Louisiana apart after 200 years of being a part of Anglo America.

So, point out to me, this Creole world in Louisiana. You say, “I’ve been there a hundred times and everybody seems as American as in my home town.” And you would be right on the money. Because we are as thoroughly acculturated, as patriotic, as consumer oriented as any North American, as American as crawfish pie and file gumbo (one of the better known west-African components of our culture).

Creole culture is not easy to recognize, even among Louisiana natives. For the last 2 centuries, Creole Louisiana has been abused and divided by Anglo imposed definitions of the very word itself, offering up various and suspect racial meanings of the term. Because of such indignities, generations of Louisianians have retreated in shame when faced with the aggressive arrogance of Anglo superiority. I know this sounds unduly harsh to some of your ears, so let me quote Pres. John Adams who, in reporting to Congress after a trip to the newly acquired Louisiana Territory in 1804, said: “We will make Americans of the Louisiana Creoles or we will have to kill everyone of them.” I wonder what kind of threat Adams saw in Creole Louisiana.

Today, I liken Louisiana’s Creole world to an iceberg, only the tip of its entirety being visible to the visitor. I say “to the visitor” because, if you’re a Louisiana native and have lived your entire life there, then you ordinarily assume that everyone else in the US lives just as you do.

What then is most visible to your eyes? To begin with, what you will be hearing a lot about today: the Architecture that is commonly called: Creole … this common-sense response to hot, humid summers, hurricanes, & water-borne breezes. Our architecture shouts out a basic Creole credo: “If it works, do it.”

From the 1720s until the 1820s, this Creole style was the norm. Newly arrived fashions, notably Greek Revival, the rage of Federal America, entered the scene and soon Creole was considered passe. By 1840, many a Creole house and plantation manor was decked out in Doric or Ionic columns. From the outside, the house looked American; on the inside, there was that other world.

Until the 1920s, one could ride down River Road past farmhouses and plantations and, pretty much, tell who lived inside. At that time, about 85% of residents of the area spoke French; the other 15% being called “!es Americains.” If the house was painted white (with kaolin based paint from Georgia), then it was likely that the people inside spoke English and were Anglo. But, if the house were brightly painted, with no white paint, bets were that French was spoken inside.

In 1916, English speakers finally made up a super majority in the LA. Legislature and changed the constitution. They outlawed the writing of laws in French and forbade the speaking of French in all public schools. Thousands of children were punished at school and at home and adult French speakers were officially considered “declasse.” By the year 1922, nearly all the houses on River Road were painted white… If you can’t lick ’em, you paint ’em.

The second most obvious indicator of French influence in Creole Louisiana is the language. By 1960, CODOFIL (Committee for the Development of French in Louisiana) estimated that just over 1 million Louisiana residents were Francophone, more than a quarter of the state’s population. By 1980, the number had fallen to under 400,000 and the 2000 census recorded 200,000 French speaking residents.

Until 1984, if you came to visit the family living at Laura Plantation and you spoke French, you would be admitted into the house. If you were unable to speak French, you got as far as the back porch. We were told that this was out of respect for the elderly parents who could not engage in conversations in English, but, 20 years after their death, the custom remained.

In the case of my own family, my first Louisiana ancestor sailed down the Mississippi from Trois Rivieres in Quebec in 1703 to live in what later would be called: La Nouvelle Orleans. My parents are the first to speak English as their first language. And I am not in the minority on this matter, not in south Louisiana.

In 2004, there were 25 French language immersion schools in the state, 75 French or bi-lingual social, civic, theatre, literary, music and linguistic societies and political action committees. This is not counting the more than 70 Acadian and Creole family-based organizations. There are 3 exclusively French-language radio stations plus bi-lingual stations that simulcast in French Canada.

Several French language and bi-lingual newspapers which began publication before the Civil War continued into the middle of the 20th Century, notably the Mesachébé along River Road and The New Orleans Bee L’Abeille.

Architecture and language are two very good, visible guideposts to the French Creole experience and both are in grave danger of disappearing.

Yes, and what about our cooking. That’s not going to disappear, is it?

Not at all. Food, perhaps the most vital and traditional aspect of any culture. The genealogy of our Louisiana cuisine is widely known and clearly shows the same roots as does our architecture and language. Countless generations of cooks, rich and poor, enslaved and free, have meticulously handed down for all of us to enjoy one of the Western world’s great culinary traditions. Visitors find satisfaction in world-famous commercial restaurants or by invitation to home-style feasts and annual festivals. Both Creole & Cajun folk traditions remain potent and should stay around until Louisiana finally sinks into the Gulf (perhaps in the next 50 years, if nothing is done to save our American wetlands). As an example of how rich a table Louisiana sets. Last year I began working on a book of traditional Louisiana liquor recipes. Already, I have received over 100 family recipes dating from the 19th Century, 36 entries alone were for variations of cherry bounce. Interestingly, some recipes called for ingredients and fruits found only in France!

And what about that huge 90% of the Creole iceberg that is not so apparent. What difference is hiding just below the surface?

No descriptive image suits the Creole better than that they were, first and foremost, family-centered and the fact that your class level derives from your family. In our Laura Plantation website speaking about Creole, we state: The Creole functioned in an elitist structure, based on family ties, wealth and connections. Louisiana has been a place where class, not race, not gender, and not religion determined social status, but where the family was seen as the principal determinant of survival and fulfillment.

The importance of family cannot be underestimated. If I were to move to St. Louis and meet new friends, say at a cocktail reception, the conversation, I believe, would soon turn to “Well, what do you do for a living?” In many parts of Louisiana today, such a query would be considered irrelevant and gauche.

No. In Louisiana, the conversation starts out with: Who’s your momma? This question resonates in every level of society, in both city and countryside. How can I even begin to communicate with you if I don’t know your family? I know this sounds strange to you so here is another example.

Eleven years ago, before acquiring Laura Plantation, I was required by the Board of Directors of the company that owned the property to submit a business plan for their approval. So, I did. 80 pages. With my plan in hand, I met with the head of the Board. His first question to me was: “Norman, what are the names of your great-grandparents?” I knew this was coming and I was prepared, having for 10 years been president of the Historical & Genealogical Society for the area. We talked 20 minutes about our ancestors, including the fact that our French ancestors lived 5 minutes from each other near Gap in Dauphine, France. Then we talked 10 minutes about finances. At the end of the meeting, he shook my hand and said, “Glad to do business with you. You know, Norman, we don’t deal with people we don’t know.” If you’re not from Louisiana, you cannot see this part of the iceberg. Move to south Louisiana and, 20 years later, when you still feel like an outsider, then you begin to see the Creole reality.

From the days of Louisiana’s first formative generation, the central focus on the family encompassed nearly all aspects of Creole life, playing the kingmaker role in society, politics and the economy. Fulfillment in life was not to grow up to be an independent adult, to be a self-made person. That is a modem, American concept. To forego your own personal ambitions and dreams for the good of your family, to hand down to your family, your children, more than was given to you: that is the Creole ideal. And, this was especially true for the women in the Creole family where young girls were expected to devote themselves if unmarried, to their parents and siblings and, if married, to their spouse and children.

By the time Louisiana became part of the US, eight private schools had been created for girls. Young ladies were taught by the Mesdames de Sacre Coeur, straight from France, who instructed them that their purpose in life was to martyr themselves for their families.

From early on, Creole families were linked in business relationships throughout the State and their business was conducted, for the most part, within the family. Arranged marriages between cousins were commonplace. Everyone in the family was considered a member of the family enterprise. With each succeeding generation, Creoles, who already owned most of the valuable real estate in Louisiana, created businesses that encompassed a far-reaching network of cousins in related occupations and in politics.

In a desperate attempt to break the stranglehold that Creoles had on Louisiana’s land, resources and economy, the Americans imposed in the Code of 1824, a system of forced inheritance, to carve up & destroy the Creole estates. In response, the Creoles formed corporation-like family enterprises, a tradition that, to this day, constitutes the bulk of Louisiana’s agricultural and riverboat industries. It wasn’t until the l 920’s with the bust of the sugarcane industries that the statewide political control of the Creoles ended, corralled by a north Louisiana rabble-rouser who promised the newly enfranchised Anglo voters a chicken in every pot, an Anglo by the name of Huey Pierce Long.

To emphasize the pre-eminent role of the Creole family, I need look no further than the case of the woman who gave her name to the historic site that I manage and that we call today: Laura: A Creole Plantation. Born 1861 into a French and French Canadian family who came to Louisiana with Iberville in 1699, Laura Locoul was the daughter, grand­daughter and great-grand-daughter of widowed women who brought their: respective families out of dire consequences and successfully ran their family plantations. As a child, she was told that this was to be her own future. Growing up on the plantation, she saw how the life-long burdens of running the family plantation had hardened her grandmother to the point of cruelty and Laura would have nothing of it. At age 13, she told her father that she wanted to leave the plantation and go to school in New Orleans. She said she wanted to live her own life on her own terms. Her father was dumbfounded. He said: Laura, don’t you love your mother and father? You ‘re Creole. If you want to be an individual, the Americans live down the road. She said that was what she wanted. He let her go. And she stayed away for 5 years until her father’s death. At 19 she took over the plantation, running it for 10 years. Met a wealthy American, a Presbyterian from Webster Groves (St. Louis, MO). Sold the plantation, moved to St. Louis and lived here for another 72 years. Before her death, she wrote down for her children why she left the plantation and a system she considered de-humanizing.

There are many other aspects of French Creole life I could talk about but I just want to briefly touch on one more: the idea of living outside the Puritan ethic, that historical consciousness that pervades so much of our American way of life. Let me offer two examples.

In 1980, I was traveling to various festivals around the state of Louisiana, with productions of the Louisiana Folkloric Puppet Theatre which I had founded. Our repertoire consisted of 8 indigenous ethnic folktales representing the different cultural mix of Louisiana. One was Cajun, one was Creole, one Isleño (from the Canary Islands), one west-African, one native Indian, and so on. One tale was of Cajun origin, namely that of Jean L ‘Ours or Jean the Bear, an ancient story about an irreverent young man who, through trickery and worse, always got what he wanted. Jean goes to weddings to kiss the bride, to dance every dance, to drink champagne and eat all the food. At his untimely death, he even gets into Heaven by tricking God.

Well, the tale of Jean L ‘Ours was a definite crowd pleaser throughout south Louisiana. But, on our first trip up to north Louisiana, the reaction was a surprise. After the first performance, we were canceled and told to leave the town because we were corrupting the youth at the Ruston Peach Festival as we actually depicted live dancing and drinking.

From Laura’s Memoirs comes this last story, and I will tell it to you just as it is recounted on the plantation tour to visitors everyday:

This man, whose portrait you see before you is Louis Duparc, the oldest child of the couple who built this plantation. In her Memoirs, Laura says that people on the River Road called Louis the “Fire Eater” because of his wild temper and because, by the age of 19, had killed two men. Louis’ mother, the plantation president, Nanette, gave Louis lots of the family business’ money and shipped him off to France to save him from the sheriff. He was in Europe for five years, having a ball, partying day and night. At a party near Frankfurt, he met and married the vivacious Fannie Rucker. But, the couple had to stay in Europe until Nanette had paid off the local politicians. We have one letter from Nanette to her son, Louis. It is short and reads: “Dearest Louis, come home now, it is safe, we paid them.” Louis & Fannie returned and, within months, were being called “Marquis & Marquise” of River Road for their lavish ways.

One day, Fannie gave birth to a gorgeous baby girl named Eliza. At her birth, both Louis & Fannie promised themselves to make Eliza the next president of the family plantation. Why were they so adamant? Louis, eldest in his generation, thought that he would be named president when his mother retired, but was passed over by his young sister, Elisabeth. Laura writes that at his sister’s election, Louis “hit the ceiling and never came down.” So, Louis & Fannie took it out on their little girl. Eliza would be their next president. But, she had to be perfect, beautiful, intelligent and second to no other child.

When Eliza was 16 years old, she broke out in pimples on her face and her parents were furious. Louis & Fannie took Eliza to Paris to find a doctor to cure her of acne. They found a doctor and he gave her an injection which killed Eliza right off. Fannie had a death mask made of Eliza’s face and had this portrait painted of her dead teenager. Louis & Fannie then returned to their Louisiana plantation with Eliza’s body. They buried her in the Catholic cemetery. Louis separated from Fannie, living in New Orleans for the next 18 years of his life with 2 slave concubines. Before they all died in the huge yellow fever epidemic, they had 21 children. Fannie returned to the plantation with the mask and portrait and placed them on the mantel in her husband’s bedroom, locked the doors, and never left the room for the rest of her life. Fannie spent 20 years in her husband’s bedroom at the plantation and died in it, aged 64 years. Before her death, Fannie told visitors that she had committed murder for her own vanity and deserved to be punished.

In her Memoirs, Laura writes that this became the deadest house on the River Road. For 20 years, the family could conduct neither business nor entertainment in the plantation headquarters because, for 20 years there was a woman incarcerated in the men’s side of the house.

And, why do we tell this rather strange story to visitors to Louisiana? We want them to know that Creoles are not like your average White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant American. For one thing, Creoles do not believe that moderation is a virtue. This was one very good reason why, well into the 20th Century, if you were Anglo, you lived in a white house on River Road. And, if Creole, your house was painted bright colors. And, if you lived in New Orleans, well, you lived separately.

For a long time, New Orleans was divided, down the center of town, by what we still refer to as the Neutral Ground. Today that Neutral Ground is the widest street in New Orleans: Canal Street. And, on one side lived the English speakers in what was called the American Quarter; on the other side were French speakers in what today is still called the French Quarter. These were separate cities, with separate mayors and city governments, separate chiefs of police, school systems, theatre districts and business districts.

There always seems to have been two worlds in Louisiana. Upon retiring, Sen. John Breaux said in commenting on the 2004 election returns: “The voting confirms that Louisiana is a unique cultural phenomenon. Louisiana is more French, more laissez faire and more Catholic than anywhere else in the south.” The state remains divided, Catholic & Protestant, liberal and conservative, much along the same geographical boundaries that existed for the limits of French influence in 1803.

In 1808, Laura’s great-grandfather, a man who had fought four battles in the American Revolution against the British wrote in his last will and testament to his children: “If my descendants ever intend to sell the plantation, I want them to sell it to a person who can pay for it quickly, but, above all, under no circumstances, to an American person, to avoid all trickery and chicanery to the members of my own family from this sort of people.”

In 1998, we were visited by one of Laura’s French cousins, Sophie Maugras, a charming and proper lady whose decades-long career was in the French diplomatic corps, last serving as Vice-Consul in London. At the end of her stay, we asked Sophie about her recollections of Laura Gore and whether she remembered her. She said Laura was a kind and gentle woman and very smart. She stopped and then added: “But you need to understand that my mother and my grandmother were always disappointed in her. Laura, you know, married an American.”

Our surprise quickly turned into doubts about what she said. So, we asked: Sophie, your family lived in Louisiana since 1699. Your family lived here for over 200 years and you owned property in New Orleans until the 1940s. Your family fought alongside the Americans in almost every war since the American Revolution and your family was elected to the Louisiana Legislature. You didn’t consider yourselves to be Americans?

Her response was: “Not really. We just lived here. We were French the whole time.”