Creole History

Santo Domingo Creoles A definition of Creole from the earliest history in New Orleans (circa 1718) is "a child born in the colony as opposed to France or Spain. (see Criollo)" The definition became more codified after the United States took control of the city and Louisiana in 1803. The Creoles at that time included the Spanish ruling class, who ruled from the mid-1700s until the early 1800s. French language and social customs were paramount even under Spanish rule. White or French Creoles (both of French and Spanish descent) were Roman Catholics. Whites of French/Spanish mixture identified themselves as French Creoles.

Creole chiefly remained an expression of parochial and colonial government use through both the French and Spanish regimes, a period in which Europeans of French and Spanish ancestry, born in the New World as opposed to Europe, were referred to as Creole (Logsdon). Simultaneously, the people of the colony forged a new local identity; however, it is clear that everyone referred to themselves as French Creole. Parisian French was the language of early New Orleans. Later it evolved to contain local phrases and slang terms. The white French Creoles spoke what became known as Colonial French, as it began to differ from French as used in France .Enslaved blacks who were native-born also began to be referred to as CreoleLaura Locoul , to distinguish them from new African arrivals. Over time, the black Creoles and Africans created a French and West African hybrid language called Creole French or Louisiana Creole French. It was used in some circumstances by slaves, planters and free people of color alike. It is still spoken today in central Louisiana. Creole French is not spoken in New Orleans any more. Only words and phrases remain.

As in the French or Spanish Caribbean and Latin American colonies, the Louisiana territory also developed a mixed-race class, of whom there were numerous free people of color (gens de couleur libres). In the early days they were descended from European men and enslaved or free black or mixed-race women. In the early colonial years, there were few European women in the colony. French men took African women as mistresses or common law wives, and sometimes married them. Even when more women of European descent were in the colony, wealthy white Creole men often took mixed-race mistresses before, or in addition to, their legal marriages, in a system known as plaçage. The young women's mothers often negotiated a form of dowry or property settlement to protect them. The men would often transfer social capital to their mistresses and children, including freedom for those who were enslaved in the early years, and education, the latter especially for sons.

As a group, the mixed-race Creoles rapidly began to acquire education, skills (many in New Orleans worked as craftsmen and artisans), businesses and property. They were overwhelmingly Catholic, spoke Colonial French (although some also spoke Louisiana Creole French), and kept up many French social customs, modified by other parts of their ancestry and Louisiana culture. With enough numbers, the free people of color also married among themselves to maintain their class and social culture. The French-speaking mixed-race or mulatto population came to be called Black Creoles and Creoles of color. "New Orleans persons of color were far wealthier, more secure, and more established than blacks elsewhere in Louisiana."

The transfer of the French colony to the United States in 1803 under the Louisiana Purchase and the arrival of Americans from New England and the South ignited an outright cultural war. Some Americans were reportedly shocked by aspects of the cultural and linguistic climate of the newly acquired territory: the predominance of French and Catholicism, the free class of mixed-race people, the strong African traditions of enslaved peoples. They pressured the United States first Louisiana governor, W.C.C. Claiborne to change it.

Fist Louisiana governor, W.C.C. Claiborne When Claiborne swiftly moved to make English the official language, French Creoles in New Orleans were outraged and allegedly paraded the streets and rejected the Americans' effort to transform them overnight. In addition, upper class French Creoles thought many of the arriving Americans were uncouth, especially the rough Kentucky traders who regularly visited the city, having maneuvered flatboats down the Mississippi River filled with goods for market. Creoles of both white ancestry and free people of color resisted American attempts to impose a binary culture splitting the population into black and white, as they were used to one in which there was a fluid upper class of mixed-race people.

Realizing that he needed local support to make any progress in Louisiana, Claiborne restored French as an official language. In all forms of government, public forums and in the Catholic Church, French continued to be used. Most importantly, Colonial French and Creole French remained the language of the majority of the population of the state. New Orleans was a city divided between Latin (Spanish, and French Creole,) and American populations until well into the late 19th century (Hirsch & Logsdon). Those of European descent lived east of Canal Street; the new American migrants settled west of it.

Among the eighteen governors of Louisiana between 1803-1865, six were French Creole and were monolingual speakers of French: Jacques-Philippe Villere, Pierre Augustin Charles Bourguignon Derbigny, Armand Julien Beauvais, Jacques Dupre de Terrebonne, Andre Bienvenue Roman, and Alexandre Mouton.

When Americans began to arrive in number in Louisiana in the early decades of the 19th century, locals identified themselves as French Creoles to distinguish themselves from the nouveaux-arrives Americans.

 Jean Lafitte (- 1776 -1823), a pirate and privateer in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 19th century.Under the French and Spanish, Louisiana was a three-tiered society, similar to that of Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Mexico, and other Latin colonies. This three-tiered society allowed for the emergence of a wealthy and educated group of mixed-race Créoles. Their identity as free people of color, or Gens de couleur libres or personnes de couleur libre was one they had worked diligently towards and guarded with an iron fist. By law they enjoyed most of the same rights and privileges as whites. They could and often did challenge the law in court of law and won cases against whites (Hirsch; Brasseaux; Mills; Kein etc.). There were some free blacks, but in Louisiana most free people of color were of mixed race, descended initially from the children of planters and wealthier merchants. They acquired education, property and power within the colony, and later, state.

In efforts to maintain their social and political identity, the former gens de couleur libres began to use the term 'Creole' much in the same way that the white elite had beginning in 1803. The gens de couleur libres were native speakers of both Colonial French and Louisiana Creole. If the outbreak of the American Civil War promised rights and opportunities for the enslaved, it caused anxiety for the free persons of color. As they knew the United States did not legally recognize a three-tiered society, they were threatened by the American Civil War. The potential of the end of slavery posed a considerable threat to the identity and position of the free people of color. Following the Union victory in the Civil War, the Louisiana three-tiered society was gradually overrun by larger numbers of Americans who believed in the binary division of people by race.

By the 1880s, the increasing number of English-speaking Americans in New Orleans and Louisiana had caused the decline in French as an official language. Today, it is mostly in more rural areas that people continue to speak French or Louisiana Creole. Both white and mixed-race Louisiana Creole peoples continue to be French-influenced, and most practice Catholicism or were raised as Catholics.

To be continued

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