The First Creoles
What is a Creole ? Even in Louisiana the question would be variously answered. The title did not here first belong to the descendants of Spanish, but of French settlers. But such a meaning implied a certain excellence of origin, and so came early to include any native, of French or Spanish descent by either parent, whose non-alliance with the slave race entitled him to social rank. Later, the term was adopted by-not conceded to the natives of mixed blood, and is still so used among themselves. At length the spirit of commerce saw the money value of so honored a title, and broadened its meaning to take in any creature or thing of variety or manufacture peculiar to Louisiana that might become an object of sale: as Creole ponies, chickens, cows, shoes, eggs, wagons, baskets, cabbages, negroes, etc. Yet the Creoles proper will not share their distinction with the worthy “Acadian.” He is a Creole only by courtesy, and in the second person singular. Besides French and Spanish, there are even, for convenience of speech, “colored” Creoles; but there are no Italian, or Sicilian, nor any English, Scotch, Irish, or “Yankee” Creoles, unless of parentage married into, and themselves thoroughly proselyted in, Creole society. either Spanish nor American domination has taken from the Creoles their French vernacular. This, also, is part of their title; and, in fine, there seems to be no more serviceable definition of the Creoles of Louisiana than this: that they are the French speaking, native portion of the ruling class.
There is no need to distinguish between the higher and humbler grades of those from whom they sprang. A few settlers only were persons of rank and station. Many were the children of the casket-girls, and many were of such stock as society pronounces less than nothing; yet, in view of that state of society which the French revolution later overturned, any present over plus of honor may as well fall to the children of those who filled the prisons before, as of those who filled them during that bloody convulsion.
In the days of De Vaudreuil, the dwellings of the better class that had stood at first on the immediate front of the town, or on the first street behind, seem to have drawn back a square or two. They were also spreading toward and out through a gate in the palisade wall near its north corner. Bayou Road, now a street of the city, issued from this gate northward to the village and bayou of St. John. Along this suburban way, surrounded by broad grounds, deeply shaded with live-oaks, magnolias, and other evergreen forest trees, and often having behind them plantations of indigo or myrtle, rose the wide, red-roofed, but severely plain dwellings of the rich, generally of one or one and a half stories, but raised on pillars often fifteen feet from the ground, and surrounded by wide verandas.
In the lofty halls and spacious drawing-rooms of these homes frequently, too, in the heart of the town, in the houses of the humblest exterior, their low, single-story wooden or brick walls rising from a ground but partly drained even of its storm water, infested with reptile life and frequently overflowed was beginning to be shown a splendor of dress and personal adornment hardly in harmony with the rude simplicity of apartments and furniture, and scarcely to be expected in a town of unpaved, unlighted, and often impassable streets, surrounded by swamps and morasses on one of the wildest of American frontiers.
Slaves-not always or generally the dull, ill-featured Congo or fierce Banbara, imported for the plantations, but comely Yaloff and Mandingo boys and girls, the shapelier for their scanty dress-waited on every caprice, whether good or ill, and dropped themselves down in the corridors and on the verandas for stolen naps among the dogs, and whips and saddles, in such odd moments of day or night as, found their masters and mistresses tired of being served. -New Orleans had been the one colonized spot in the Delta where slaves were few, but now they rapidly became numerous, and black domestic service made it easy for the Creoles to emulate the ostentatious living of the colonial officials.
To their bad example in living, these dignitaries, almost without exception, added that of corruption in office. Governors, royal commissaries, post-commandants, the Marchioness de Vaudreuil conspicuously, and many lesser ones, stood boldly accusing and accused of the grossest and the pettiest misdemeanors. Doubtless the corruption was exaggerated; yet the testimony is official, abundant, and corroborative, and is verified in the ruinous expenses which at length drove France to abandon the maintenance and sovereignty of the colony she had miss-governed for sixty-three years.
Meanwhile, public morals were debased; idleness and intemperance were general; speculation in the depreciated paper money which flooded the colony became the principal business, and insolvency the common condition.
Religion and education made poor headway. Almost the only item in their history is a “war of the Jesuits and Capuchins.” Its “acrimonious writings, squibs, and pasquinades” made much heat for years. Its satirical songs were heard, it appears, in the drawing rooms as well as in the street; for the fair sex took sides in it with lively zeal. In July 1763, the Capuchins were left masters of the field. The decree of the French parliament had the year before ordered the Jesuits’ expulsion from the realm; their wide plantations just beyond the town wall being desirable, the Creole “Superior Council” became hold, and the lands already described as the site of the richest district in the present New Orleans were confiscated and sold for $180,000.
In this same year, a flag, not seen there before, began to appear in the yellow harbor of New Orleans. In February, a treaty between England, France, and Spain, gave Great Britain all that immense part of the Mississippi galley east of the river and north of Orleans Island. The Delta remained to France and to her still vast province of Louisiana. The navigation of the Mississippi was made free to the subjects of both empires alike. Trade with British vessels was forbidden the French colonies, yet a lively commerce soon sprang up with them at a point just above the plantations of the dispossessed Jesuits, afterward the river front of the city of Lafayette, and now of the Fourth District of New Orleans. Here numerous trading vessels, sailing under the British flag, ascending the river and passing the town on the pretext of visiting the new British posts of Manchac and Baton Rouge, tied to the waterside willows and carried on a commerce with the merchants of the post they had just passed by.
The corrupt authorities winked at a practice that brought wealth to all, and the getting of honest rights by disingenuous and dishonest courses became the justified habit of the highest classes and the leading minds. The slave trade, too, received an unfortunate stimulus: a large business was done at this so-called “Little Manchac,” in Guinea, Negroes, whom the colonists bought of the English.
The governor of Louisiana at this time was Kerlerec, a distinguished captain in the French navy. He had succeeded the Marquis in 1753, and had now governed the province for ten years but he had lately received orders to return to France and render account of his conduct in office. A work of retrenchment was begun. The troops were reduced to three hundred. In June, a M. d’Abbadie landed in New Orleans, commissioned to succeed the governor under the shorn honors and semi-commercial title of director-general. Kerlerec, sailing to France, was cast into the Bastile and “died of grief shortly after his release.”
The Creoles noted, with much agitation, these and other symptoms of some unrevealed design to alter their political condition. By and by, rumor of what had secretly been transacted began to reach their ears in the most offensive shape. Yet, for a time, M. d’Abbadie himself remained officially as uninformed as they; and it was only in October 1754, twenty-three months after the signing of a secret act at Fontainebleau, that the authoritative announcement reached New Orleans of her cession, with all of French Louisiana, to the King of Spain.
Such is the origin, surrounding influences, and resulting character and life of the earliest Creoles of Louisiana. With many influences against them, they rose from a chaotic condition below the plane of social order to the station of a proud, freedom-loving, agricultural, and commercial people, who were now about to strike the first armed blow ever aimed by Americans against a royal decree.
Their descendants would be a community still more unique than they are, had they not the world wide trait of a pride of ancestry. But they might as easily be excused for boasting of other things which they have overlooked. A pride of ascent would be as well grounded; and it will be pleasant to show in later chapters that the decadence impute] to them, sometimes even by themselves, has no foundation in fact, but that their course, instead, has been, in the main, upward from first to last, and so continues to-day.
1 As to the etymology of the word there are many conjectures, but few bold assertions. Is it Spanish?-Italian?-Carib?-an invention of West Indian Spanish conquerors? None of these questions meet an answer in the form of hearty assertion. In the American Journal of Philology (October, 1882), Professor Harrison, of Washington and Lee University, Virginia, after exhausting Littré, on the subject, says of Skeat, that ”He proceeds with agile pen-dashes, abbreviations, equation lines-to deduce the word, though with many misgivings, from the Spanish criollo, a native of America or the West Indies; a corrupt word made by the negroes, said to be a contraction of criadillo, diminutive of criado–one educated, instructed or bred up, pp. of criar, lit. to create, also to nurse, instruct.”