The Cajun journey to the land that would become America began in violence, dislocation and tragedy, and yet their eventual triumphant assimilation in Louisiana — a place they have stamped forever as their own — is among the greatest refugee success stories of recent centuries.
The Cajun odyssey started in France in the early 1600s, when the French monarchy went looking for hearty pioneers to settle its eastern Canadian maritime territories — the provinces known today as Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island but which were then called “Acadie.” The French settlers, principally from the Poitou-Charentes and Vendée regions of west-central France, referred to themselves as les Acadiens. The British would use the term Acadians; later in Francophone Louisiana it became “Cadiens” and eventually was anglicized by the Americans to Cajuns.
After 150 mostly peaceful years in Acadie, the Acadians were swept up in the nine-year territorial battle between the British and French known as the French and Indian War.
Though taking no sides in the conflict, the Roman Catholic Acadians drew the suspicion of the British because of their reluctance to take a loyalty oath to the English and their Protestant king.
The Acadians also sat on some of the richest farmland in all of Canada — land that the British decided ought to be in the hands of the British settlers they hoped to coax there. (The British prevailed in the war.) So in 1755, the British began confiscating and burning Acadian farmsteads and sending Acadians into exile to other colonies aboard cargo ships, where they languished under often deplorable conditions. Many families were separated and almost half of the 12,000 Acadian deportees died. This act is known as “Le Grand Dérangement.”
Clusters of survivors began arriving between 1763 and 1776 in the Louisiana territories, recently ceded to Spain by France, but which supported a robust and sympathetic French-speaking culture. They were greatly aided by the Spanish, who ran the Louisiana colony for nearly four decades after gaining it from the French in the treaty that ended the French and Indian War. The Spanish — eager to shore up the manpower of the Louisiana colony as a foil against British incursions — would help to boatlift the Acadians from some of their way-stops in the Caribbean and points in North America. And in 1767, the Spanish warmly welcomed several hundred bedraggled Acadian refugees who arrived by chartered ship in New Orleans after being stranded in Maryland and Pennsylvania for years.
The Cajuns initially felt at home in Louisiana, even under Spanish rule, for New Orleans and most of South Louisiana never stopped being anything other than a French-centric colony during the Spanish period. The Cajuns had farmed and fished in Acadie and found their new home a paradise on that front. They would settle the remote bayous, swamps and prairies of South Louisiana and live in relative isolation, their culture, music and antique French intact.
The Cajun experience after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 began to change as les Americaines undertook a concerted effort to make Louisiana an English-speaking territory and English the official language. The drive to assimilate the Cajuns — and stamp out their language — gained particular momentum in the acculturation pressures that naturally followed World War I and escalated after World War II. Louisiana’s English-speaking population began to grow rapidly, and conveniences like roads and radios, as well as secularizing amenities like public schools, began to peel away the Cajun isolation.
Cajun kids were banned from speaking French on the school grounds, and Cajun adults found themselves often being ridiculed for their “bad” French, thickly accented English (if they spoke English at all), lack of formal schooling and adherence to a kind of earthy Catholicism. The Cajuns’ religion didn’t go down well with the predominantly Protestant interlopers who came in increasing numbers from places like Texas, Mississippi and Oklahoma to work the oil and gas fields that were popping up all over South Louisiana.
Things began to change for the Cajuns in the mid-1960s when Cajun music broke out from the swamplands onto a national stage and, along with the amped-up, Creolized interpretation of the Cajun repertoire known as zydeco, began to create a sensation at home and all over the world.
This began to fuel not just an interest in the music, but the culture that created it and the food that nourished it. Gumbo, the one-pot soup made with a roux that had come to be most associated with Cajun culture, began to find its way into restaurants and homes all over America and the world.
By the 1980s, Cajun had become hip — everybody wanted some part of Cajun culture, even large numbers of the Bible Belt rednecks working the Louisiana oil patch who had derided the Cajuns earlier. Louisiana elected a Cajun, Edwin Edwards, as governor multiple times. Cajun superstar chefs like Paul Prudhomme and John Folse began taking Cajun cuisine to places like New York, Los Angeles, Beijing and Tokyo, to rave reviews. In 1968, the Cajuns and other Louisiana French speakers got another nod toward their culture when the state legislature formed the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, CODOFIL for short, to be the chief torchbearer in efforts to revive the very French that les Americaines had earlier tried to stamp out.
Known then as either Cajun French (spoken by white French speakers) or Creole French (spoken predominantly by black French speakers), the preferred term today is Louisiana French. And far from being “bad French,” it is simply an antique form of classic country French — basically an amalgam of Colonial French with roots principally in 17th-century northern and western France and the Canadian Maritime provinces from whence the Cajuns came, with borrowings from Spanish, Native American and English forms.
By some estimates, about 250,000 people still speak Louisiana French, most of them residing in the 22 contiguous South Louisiana parishes that form the heart of Francophone Louisiana.
One interesting and little noted ethnic footnote to the Cajun story: Many Cajuns descended from French Celts, and if you’ve ever listened closely to Irish Celtic fiddle playing and the Cajun fiddle repertoire, it’s hard not to notice the similarities in style and melodies.
It’s also incomplete to write about Cajuns without writing about “cajuns” — with a little c. My mother’s family are Toupses from Thibodaux and, for most of my mother’s life, she thought of herself as an actual Acadian. After all, the Toupses spoke Cajun French, danced the Cajun two-step and cooked Cajun gumbo with a Cajun roux.
It turns out, however, that the Toupses descended from Swiss-German pioneers — who likely spoke both German and French — who migrated to France in the early 1700s and then in 1721 took a long sea voyage that landed them in the Louisiana colony, a full half-century before most of the Cajuns arrived.
They were among the dozens of German-surnamed, Swiss-German families who settled near the present-day city of Hahnville and are known as “German Coasters.” But their other legacy is that intermarriage among Swiss-German and Cajuns was so common that essentially the cultures merged.
One happy coda: That’s how sauerkraut and wieners became smothered cabbage and andouille — a leap forward, we can all agree, for sauerkraut.