Cajuns, Catholics, Celebrations, Creoles, Cuisine and Culture
By Renée S. Gordon
Louisiana is not just a physical place, but also a state of mind: The mere mention of the place conjures up warm feelings and images of good times.
Louisiana has been a destination 6,000 years, as evidenced by archeological digs and the 37-site Ancient Mound Trail created to document and showcase the rich history of the Native Americans prior to European contact.
“To jazz, or not to jazz, there is no question!” – Louis Armstrong
The earliest documented European explorer was Alvárez Piñeda in 1519, followed by Cabeza de Vaca in 1528, and Hernando de Soto and Spanish settlers arrived 13 years later. Because the Spanish were mainly interested in gold, settlements prior to 1528 were small and largely transient. Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, accompanied by a contingent of French and Indians, reached the mouth of the Mississippi and erected a cross and planted a flag with a fleur-de-lis as a sign of ownership. He claimed the river, its tributaries and all the land fed by them for France and named the territory Louisiana. It became a French Crown Colony in 1731.
The first slaves in the territory were 20 Indians claimed after a raid in 1706; the 1708 census reveals that there were 80 Indian slaves and only 77 settlers. Because of the need for labor, the French began importing African slaves. These were not the first blacks to enter the region because there had been black explorers among the Spanish, the most notable of which was Estevanico.
Africans captured in war were introduced into the colony in 1710, and eight ships arrived in Louisiana carrying approximately 2,000 African slaves between 1717 and 1721. Antoine Crozat, a slave trader, became proprietor in 1712 with the mandate to settle the area with whites and black slaves. John Law’s Company of the West took over from Crozat in 1717 with the promise to import 3,000 black slaves over the next ten years. Even though the rate of importation was great, the work was so intense and the climate so brutal that the death rate soared. By 1721 there were 684 whites and 365 blacks remaining of the 3,000 who arrived. The majority of black slaves arrived directly from Senegal, which helped them to retain many aspects of their culture.
As a result of the French and Indian Wars, France ceded the territory to Spain in 1763; one year later the British gained control and reigned for the next 36 years. Louisiana again became a French colony in 1800.
Many scholars agree that the 1789 French Revolution was a large impetus for the Haitians to revolt in 1791. During that period, the then colony of St. Domingue was the richest France held and accounted for 66 percent of France’s international trade. It was also their largest slave trade market. Napoleon attempted to regain the colony by sending troops in 1802 and again in 1803. The final battle took place on November 18, 1803 with a Haitian victory. The cost to France led directly to Napoleon’s desire to sell the Louisiana Territory. Many of the wealthy escaped from the revolution and many with their slaves relocated to New Orleans.
The $15 million Louisiana Purchase included 828,000,000 acres and doubled the size of the country. The area ranged from the Mississippi River to the Rockies and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. Fifteen states were either partially or wholly created with the southern portion, Orleans Territory, being designated the state of Louisiana in 1812.
Visit New Orleans…
Louisiana has always benefitted from the fact that it is a conglomeration of people, food, religions and customs. This cultural mix has resulted in a uniqueness that offers sites and experiences that can’t be duplicated anywhere in the world. There is so much to do and see and eat that I’ve decided we need to embark on a journey across the state that features representative sites from a series of parishes. My choices are highly subjective and are designed to make you stop reading and book a flight. We’ll begin in the “Crescent City,” New Orleans.
New Orleans, established in 1718, received the nickname because it’s situated where the Mississippi River is the deepest and bends in the form of a crescent. The Vieux Carré, “Old Square,” has come to be known as the French Quarter and is a roughly 120-block area, originally laid out by the French, that abuts the Mississippi River. The Vieux Carré was heavily influenced by the Creole presence* and remnants of the culture that make the district unique. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) on October 15, 1966.
The best way to immerse yourself in New Orleans’ ambiance is to simply meander along the small streets, study the facades, peak into the courtyards, step inside historic buildings and rest in the shade of the famous squares and parks. I suggest that visitors take at least one guided tour because in no other city is the history of the city so intrinsic to the sites and attractions. The most popular tours are those that focus on the architecture, the haunted history, and cuisine. There are a wide variety of thematic tours, five of which are walking tours that can be downloaded along with the City Guide of New Orleans for free.
When the Americans took over after the Louisiana Purchase the existing society was not pleased. They registered their displeasure by refusing to sell real estate to them and as a result the city expanded beyond the French Quarter. Each group did not want to conduct business in the other’s territory so the median strip in the middle of Canal Street became known as neutral ground and to this day New Orleans refers to medians as “neutral ground.” Canal Street divides the neighborhoods and the city from north to south and was the site of the Customs House in the 1840s making it an important trading and mercantile thoroughfare.
French impressionist Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas is the only French impressionist to have visited the U.S., and New Orleans contains the only place where Degas resided and worked. Both his mother and grandmother were Creoles born in New Orleans and Degas came in late 1872 to spend five months with his American family. His grandfather immigrated to New Orleans after the Haitian Revolution and married into the wealthy French Creole Rillieux family. A cousin, Norbert Rillieux, is credited with being one of the earliest African American inventors. Degas completed 18 paintings and four drawings while in America. The 1852 Musson-Degas House is a Bed & Breakfast that offers tours guided by descendants of the artist. An award-winning film, “Degas in New Orleans, A Creole Sojourn” is shown as well as family photos and anecdotes.
Marie Laveau is probably the most infamous Voodoo Queen in history. Voodoo was a passenger aboard the slave ships and though the slaves became Catholic they never relinquished their older beliefs and herbalism but blended them with the prevailing religion. Marie was a Creole hairdresser and devout Catholic noted for her ability to create potions and charms for people of all levels of society. Angela Basset portrayed her in American Horror Story last season. The home of her father, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, may be viewed from the exterior only at 1801 Dauphine Street. Marie and her family lived at 1020-22 Rue St. Anne prior to the existing home being constructed.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 was the result of a Spanish Royal Decree in 1789. It is notable for its sea of above-ground mausoleums including that of Homer Plessy, of Plessy v. Ferguson fame, and Marie Laveaux. The cemetery was divided into three sections: Catholic, non-Catholic and Negroes. The site for the cemetery was chosen because it was considered to be the outskirts of the city and high ground was costly so a swampy area was selected. As of March 1, 2015, only guided groups are allowed to tour the cemetery because of repeated vandalism. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 30, 1975.
New Orleans’ Red-Light District, Storyville, existed steps away from the French Quarter from 1897 until 1917. Alderman Sidney Story introduced an ordinance that confined prostitution to a district bounded by N. Robertson, Basin, Perdido and Gravier Streets. Numerous bars and houses of ill-repute sprang up that all provided entertainment. Some music historians consider Storyville the incubator of America’s greatest artistic export, Jazz. Countless pioneers of the genre–including Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Joe “King” Oliver, Sydney Bechet and Louis Armstrong–are known to have played venues there and they learned from and challenged each other nightly.
On November 12, 1917 Storyville closed. The U.S. Secretary of the Navy decreed that prostitution within five miles of a naval installation was banned.
The musicians of Storyville were also cast out and took their music on the road, carrying it to Europe during World War I and eventually to the nation’s best concert halls. Due to redevelopment, only three buildings remain.
Preservation Hall opened in 1961 to preserve the legacy of traditional jazz. Musicians still dress in black suits and ties with crisp white shirts to honor the music. Performances are presented daily.
Jazz National Historical Park seeks to present an approachable, immersive, New Orleans jazz history and culture experience. The Old U.S. Mint is one of several sites in the complex. Performances are held at the Mint five days a week and two floors are devoted to a museum. The Greek-Revival building was designed by a Philadelphia architect and is the nation’s only mint to have made both American and Confederate coins.
The 31-acre Historic Congo Square, bounded by St. Philip, Rampart St, Basin and N. Villere Streets, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Originally known as Place de Negres, it was the area beyond the city walls near Tremé Plantation, where the slaves congregated on Sundays to sing, dance, drum, socialize and perform religious services. Slaves always gathered there, but in 1817 legislation legalized their right to do so. Congo Square deserves a place in music history because this was a primary place for the transmission of culture and musical heritage.
– Photos by Renée S. Gordon
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