demography of Colonial New Orleans (final paper)

Calvin Sherwood
11/8/2010

Louisiana is famous for its Creole culture, a legacy from its time as a French colony. Since its creation in 1699, Colonial Louisiana absorbed and retained much of its colonizers’ identity despite changing political hands and coming under Spanish and then American domination. While this view of Louisiana’s history has become commonplace, there are many other demographic trends that distinctly shaped Louisiana outside the purely Francophonic, White, French, Creole culture. It is the contributions of these less acknowledged groups that give Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, such a rich, diverse blend of cultural, racial and ethnic background that has lasted several centuries. Of the many different immigrant groups that helped forge the multi-faceted foundation of Colonial Louisiana, Africans (especially the Free Men of Color), the Spanish and the Cajuns/Acadians in particular deserve special recognition for helping shape the cultural legacy during the early years of Colonial Louisiana and preserving that identity until long after the Louisiana Purchase.
From the very beginning, Colonial Louisiana relied heavily upon its black population for its survival. Unlike English colonies that depended heavily on dense settling of areas by white colonists, French Louisiana consisted of sparse white settlements with weak regional influence. With only gradual settling by small groups of Alsatian or German farmers, and due to the terrible working conditions in the colony, immigration from Europe always remained scarce and insufficient for large-scale plantations. As a result, the French turned to the importation of slaves from Africa, which fulfilled the requirement for labor within a few years of the colony’s founding. By 1743, after 24 years of the colony’s existence, almost 6,000 slaves had been imported into the colony for sustenance. By 1746, blacks outnumbered whites in New Orleans by a 2-to-1 margin and had grown to almost 5,000 strong, over half the colony’s population. This entrenching of a huge African population in the area would heavily influence and help shape the regional culture in the absence of a demographically dominant white presence.
As time passed and the growing reliance on the African population continued, the French rewarded the Blacks with concessions and privileges, revealing how influential Africans had become as an ethnic background. While most were still enslaved, a growing number were gaining their freedom through militia service against Indian revolts, like the Natchez Rebellion, or as the children of white planters with black slave women. Their numbers exploded in the 1740s and 1750s as this ethnic intermingling and growing birthrate produced a demographic wave of free mulattos that filled a unique position in the social order. These freed blacks became known as ‘free men of color’ and enjoyed many of the legal rights of whites, but not the social graces reserved for white Creoles. While ethnically African, they adopted many French customs, such as Catholicism and the French language, and even became slaveholders themselves.
In terms of population, the Free Men of Color grew rapidly from only a handful in the 1730s until they were several hundred strong and formed a unique community when compared to enslaved Blacks or white French Creoles. While they now shared a common culture with the Whites, the Free Men of Color’s roots and close contact with the slaves brought in a tinge of Animistic influence, especially since most slaves had been imported from a single region and had retained their main cultural identity. This mix of culture marks the start of an Afro-Creole identity, which would be preserved by the large population of Africans when compared to the smaller white population. At the onset of the transition from being a French colony to a Spanish colony in 1763, the enslaved African population and Free Men of Color numbered just over 4,600 out of population of around 8,000, making Blacks the largest ethnic community by over one thousand people.
The Spanish period of the colony marked resurgence in importing slaves, bringing more Africans into the area and effectively preserving the importance of Afro-Creole culture as a foundation to the region. An equally important development was the continued population increase of the Free Men of Color, whose numbers rose dramatically during this period from 165 at the onset to about 1,500 by the end of the Spanish period in 1803. This rise can be attributed primarily to refugees escaping the slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue, for Free Men of Color there had more in common with the white Creoles than the rebelling slaves. This group of Francophonic refugees became extremely influential culturally as other immigrants poured into Louisiana who did not speak French, for they preserved the Creole culture more efficiently than white Creoles at this period. Often overshadowed by their white counterparts, it was the Free Men of Color who preserved Louisiana’s unique heritage the best.
As ethnic groups outside the Gallic culture, especially the Americans, immigrated to the colony in greater numbers, their demographic presence threatened the cultural identity of the colony. The white Creoles had to deal with the large numbers of English speaking whites, but since there was no significant free Black population that spoke English, the Free Men of Color’s culture remained unchanged far longer than the other ethnic groups. This preservation of Afro-Creole culture maintained the unique blend of diversity to Louisiana’s culture just as much as the Franco-European influence by the white Creoles.
While the African influence in Louisiana demographics proved undeniable due to their large population, the Spanish influence on the colony remained subtle due to their miniscule population and general indifference to the region. However, Spanish authority over Louisiana was surprisingly beneficial in molding the regional identity because it gave the raw, local, French culture a civil infrastructure and helped retain the blending cultures while adding a few subtle influences of its own.
Despite its 40-year rule over the colony, only a few immigrants arrived from Spain. Of the Spanish who did settle in Louisiana, they were mostly government officials who were quickly assimilated into the French culture by marriage and association with French Creoles. Initially, Louisiana natives rejected this new authority because of their foreign culture and relatively small numbers, culminating in a threat of rebellion in 1768 that forced the first Spanish governor out before a larger Spanish force restored order. While at first the French Creoles and even the newly settled Acadians distrusted and resisted Spanish rule, eventually they warmed to their rulers once they realized that their culture was not seriously threatened. In fact, it was under Spanish rule that the Louisiana colony began to thrive as it received more economic attention and funds, which allowed for further cultural growth. The French language continued to dominate and Spanish did not ever come to rival the existing identity. However, Spanish law did become incorporated in much of Louisiana and the colony in general benefited greatly from its new judicial administration. Spanish surnames began to appear on maps, and Spanish words like ‘Picayune’ became integrated into everyday Creole life.
Another visible impact Spain left upon Louisiana would be in the architecture it left behind after much of New Orleans burned down during fires in 1788 and in 1794. Much of the old, wooden, colonial French style was replaced with a more Spanish style of patios, cast-iron and roofing tiles that later became associated with the French Creole culture. While this influence could be seen thereafter in the streets of New Orleans, perhaps the greatest legacy of Spanish domination was their efficient management of the colony that opened the door to massive immigration. During the Spanish period, Louisiana’s population increased sixfold and New Orleans’ population nearly tripled, transforming the previously backward colony into a bustling trading center. Among these newcomers were vast numbers of imported slaves, ‘Foreign French’ refugees from Saint-Domingue or France itself, and most importantly the Acadians from Canada, who would populate the swampy bayous to the west of New Orleans. The arrival of these resourceful backwoodsmen in increasingly large numbers would add a new dimension to the Creole culture throughout the colony.
Having been forced out of their homes in ‘Acadiana’ by the English invaders, Acadian émigrés started arriving in Louisiana in large numbers as early as 1765. By 1770, over a thousand Acadians had settled in the colony and by 1788, over two thousand more had arrived to reunite with the previous Acadian settlers. Clannish, uneducated and fiercely independent, the way of life these new immigrants brought was vastly different than their Creole counterparts who lived in New Orleans. While both groups were originally French in origin, spoke French and practiced Catholicism, their cultures remained different in every other form. Creoles tended to own more slaves and live on plantations or in the more urban areas of the colony; they looked down upon these new arrivals as poor whites that were of a lower standard than the Creoles. The Acadians, on the other hand, viewed the Creoles as ‘the other French’ who were not to be trusted, and mostly stuck to themselves in their close-knit villages.
Over time, Acadian settlers began settling in farming communities and ranches along the bayous and prairies, isolating themselves as much as possible from the Creoles in New Orleans. This isolation helped form a new, unique Francophonic culture that was not Creole but distinctly Acadian, or ‘Cajun’. As time passed and the number of Cajuns increased in the region along with their relative isolation, their language even became a separate dialect from the Creoles. Eventually, with the continual influx of African slaves, Cajuns began to grudgingly accept slavery into their culture, which somewhat changed their independent lifestyle. Even that, however, did not assimilate the Cajun culture into the Creole lifestyle. In fact, the African slaves themselves slowly mixed with the Cajun culture to help create a new hybrid Afro-Cajun culture that remained vastly different from ‘sophisticated’ Creole culture. By the time of the Louisiana Purchase, these Acadian and Afro-Cajun backgrounds had formed into cultural identities that differed greatly from the Creole culture of New Orleans, which would come to be associated with the whole region.
As time passed, the demographic figures changed wildly with the coming of thousands of white Americans and European immigrants, but the cultural foundation had already been set. While distinctly French in its linguistic roots, Colonial Louisiana’s demographic growth under Spanish domination contributed to creating the cultural background of Africans, Creoles and Cajuns that mixed together into a unique form. The dominant French Creole influence shows throughout the colony, but the African heritage remained very clear simply through their vast population. Creole culture also owes some of its sophistication and efficiency to the Spanish who helped form its civil and judicial identity, and the Cajun influence on the rest of the colony remained just as strong. With the help of these lesser-known ethnic groups, Colonial Louisiana helped retain its unique culture far longer than it could have had it been purely French White Creole.

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