When Judge Joseph Arsenne Breaux passed away in 1926, his estate left a
document to the Louisiana State Museum. This document is supposed
to have been written about 1901 and contained memories of a Cajun back
to the 1840s. It is now known as the Breaux manuscript. It was
first put into print in 1932 by Jay Ditchy in the book, “Les Acadiens
louisianais et leur parler”. Though the original manuscript
has been lost, we still have the printed work. Though most of the
work is in the Cajun language, the part of the work on history and folklore
was trancribed into English by George Reinecke in 1966 and appeared as
an article in “Early Louisiana French Life and Folklore Miscellany,
V. 2”. Here are portions of that transcription. It was published in 1999 in the Houma Courier for the Congres Mondial Acadien.
Character, Customs, Charity, Hospitality
The character and customs of the “habitants”
or farmers of south Louisiana (the word “paysan” does not exist) are rather
clearly distinguishable according to which of the two chief divisions of
that area one studies. In the first section, formed by the parishes
bordering on the Mississippi, a country of open flatlands and rich crops,
the manners and customs are more gentle and polished than in the other.
One finds there a more generally advanced civilization due to the fact
that the place has been long settled, in more frequent contact with strangers
and in constant communication with New Orleans.
In the other part, which includes
the Attakapas and Opelousas countries, a region of old prairies where the
winter is harsher and stays longer, the inhabitants are more active, industrious,
and apt students of the mechanical arts. Their character partakes
of the severity of their sea-dominated climate.
Attached to the old usages and ways
which they still call “Les bonnes coutumes de leurs peres,” Louisianians
leave their place of origin with difficulty and with deep regret, whatever
be the charms of a softer and more agreeable life elsewhere. They
say that they prefer the sight of their plains, woods and streams, the
natal place, the peaceful country where the happy days of their youth passed
Habituated to life in isolated places,
they have somewhat unrefined manners; used to great freedom, they are very
proud and easily hurt. They readily take offense, and rarely let
pass an opportunity for revenge.
The inhabitants of the Attakapas (generally,
the area surrounding modern Lafayette), whose fare is frugal and plain,
possess a strong constitution and robust temperament, being in no way weakened
by their hard work in the fields. Milk, rice, a few vegetables, much
meat, these are the basis of their regular meals, and they drink black
The creoles (the author applies the
word to all Louisianians of Latin origin but especially to Acadians.
In the 19th century “Cadien” had a pejorative connotation. – editor) enjoy
fighting. They are justly well-known for their skill with a rifle.
Since the law has prohibited dueling, this custom has been replaced by
the “rencontre.” In this form of combat, two men who have quarrelled
agree to carry arms, then at first opportunity in some public place such
as a street corner they begin fighting under the pretext of self-defense.
In the country, nothing is more common than the fist-fight. This
custom is highly approved of rather than condemned by the greater part
of the community. Far from trying to separate two men punching at
each other, the “habitants” make a ring around them and urge them on with
shouts and bravos.
Almost all men go armed with a revolver
or a dagger, any person who is struck or merely threatened having the right
to kill the one who strikes or threatens him. “Emplumage” is a disgraceful
punishment inflicted on someone who has broken the law, especially as regards
decency. The person to be punished is striped, then covered with
a thick coat of tar, then covered with feathers. This custom goes
back to the year 1200.
Rural manners are rather primitive.
An “habitant” entering a group of twenty-five others will feel obliged
to shake hands with all of them even if he knows only three. It is
a mania among Louisiana men to whittle (“chacoter”) while talking, waiting
or walking about. They make shavings out of a tree-branch or a walking-stick
left in a corner. If these are lacking they take to the furniture.
They pitilessly attack counters, window-frames, doors, chairs, school benches,
the desks in the courthouse. One sees whittlers crouched or standing
in front of a country store talking about the weather or the crops.
A few years ago one of my friends, a passenger on board a boat travelling
Bayou Lafourche, saw several trays loaded with small pieces of wood brought
to the tables. The travelers took hold of them. Baffled, he
asked for an explanation and was told that it was a means of discouraging
whittling on the boatrails.
When a family settles somewhere along
one of the “cotes” the neighbors come on the evening of their first day
to which them welcome. They inquire as to their situation and promise
help if needed. Sometimes a fire destroys a house or barn; then the
“habitants” from miles around come to help rebuild and replace what was
lost. Likewise, if an “habitant” is ill, and his crop is likely to
fail, his neighbors come to work his land and later harvest it. This
voluntary action brings with it no further obligation than to prepare some
cakes, coffee, whiskey, and jambalaya to feed the workers, at the end of
the day if the wherewithal exists.
The poor woman in childbed is also
well taken care of, perhaps more solicitously watched over than the richest,
by the neighbors for several miles around. Scrupulous care is taken
to visit and treat the sick, though the nearest of the neighbors may live
a mile or two away. If the sick person is poor, everyone strives
to furnish him with a good bed and to provide for his needs as to wine,
preserves and so forth, and offer him food and clothing for his convalescence.
A “chatolier” has the office of collecting the charitable offerings of
Numbered among the good qualities
of the creole, and I have often had reason to acknowledge it, is his readiness
to seize any opportunity to make himself useful without reference to the
empty formulae of etiquette. He cordially fulfulls the duties of
hospitality to all comers. Even in the poorest of houses, too much
cannot be done for the guest who comes asking hospitality. The materials
to sustain life are so readily come by and boredom is so great that the
arrival of a stranger is a godsend.
“paper left out a section end of 250 and top of 251:
”251-262 not in paper”
Customs Through the Year
The New Year
New Year’s day is particularly consecrated
to visits and wishes of “Bonne Annee!” This custom is known to go
back to the Romans. On January 1, people would wish each other happiness
and health and exchanged gifts which they called “bonnes étrennes.”
Nowadays (1901) the custom of New
Year’s gifts is observed only in the family circle, and though in towns
a great deal of enthusiasm for visiting is still shown, in the rural areas
people do nothing more than wish each other a happy new year when they
happen to meet. However, in some places, families get together, often
beginning on New Year’s Eve. On the day itself, good wishes
are exchanged, the young enjoy themselves, the older play cards and drink
together. But what is noble, touching and Christian about this day
is the sight of people who have long been enemies seizing the opportunity
which the day presents to be reconciled and to wish each other good fortune
It is on this day that a young man
who wishes to marry often asks his sweetheart’s parents for permission
to wed. A woman or girl avoids receiving the first good wishes of
the day from someone of her own sex; if she does, the new year’s wish will
bring bad luck. Meeting a woman or girl on the morning of New Year’s
Day is thought an ominous thing.
Kings’ Day (January 6)
Almost all families gather on the eve
of this day at supper to elect by lot the “king of the bean;” but it is
especially among the common folk that the full manner of observing the
ceremony is preserved.
After supper, a cake is brought out.
It is round, and encloses a bean. It is cut into as many pieces (plus
one) as there are members of the family, including the hired hands.
The pieces are placed in a sack. The youngest member of the family
withdraws the pieces of cake; he begins by giving the first piece to God.
This is given to the next poor man who comes to the door and asks for help.
The second piece goes to the eldest of the family and from thence on to
The one whose piece contains the bean
which had been placed along one of the edges of the cake is acclaimed king.
All the diners treat him with honor and must watch him attentively so as
not to fail to cry out “Le Roi boit!” (The King drinks) whenever he does
so. Failure to conform will result in having the face besmuttered
by the rest of the party.
Another custom of this day is that
a girl wishing to know who will be her future husband places her garter
beneath her pillow on the eve of the feast, and getting into bed recites
O grand sint Francois!
C’est aujourd’hui la veille des Rois.
En mettant le pied sur ce bois,
Je te prie de me faire voir cette nuit
Celui que je dois avoir pour mari.
O great St. Francis!
Today is Kings’ Eve.
Putting my foot on this wood
I pray you to make me see tonight
The one whom I must have for husband.
A variant has the girl bowing three times to the
moon, and saying to the moon three times without laughing, “Beautiful moon,
I greet you!” The moon then assumes the appearance of the one she
Love letters are written by young people
on St. Valentine’s Day. This custom comes from England but is much
changed. On the eve of St. Valentine’s the young celebrate in an
ancient custom a feast which is a symbol of the renewal of nature and the
inborn desire of all living beings to perpetuate their kind. A number
of boys and girls gather. They write their own names or pseudonyms
on individual bits of paper. These are rolled up and are drawn from
a hat, the girls picking from the boys’ names and vice versa. Thus
each boy meets a girl whom he calls “valentine” and each girl a boy whom
she calls her “valentin.” Often these valentines are seen to form
a permanent and happy union.
In the rural areas, carnival has lost
its former animation; it is marked nowadays (1901) only by some unimaginative
masquerading and my dances where the joyous madness of yesteryear is rarely
to be met.
It is customary for those wishing to
know the identity of their future spouse to rise at the stroke of midnight
on March 1, and as the clock strikes, walk three paces forward from the
bed, while saying, “Good day, March, from March to March make me see in
sleep the wife (or husband) whom I will have in real life.” Then
one goes back to bed walking backward, goes to sleep and dreams.
The person who appears is the future spouse.
The Poisson d’Avril or April Fish
The first day of April is dedicated
to mystifications of all sorts, to pretended gifts, false news, false joys,
false alarms. People are sent to houses to which they have not been
in fact invited; everybody looks for dupes, but at the same time remains
on guard lest despite precautions he himself be taken in.
On the evening of this day, men and
children in a group go singing from door to door some verses of (a) complainte
... . They ordinarily receive eggs, butter, etc. which have been
set aside for them. We have seen this very old custom practiced on
Bayou Lafourche before the Civil War.
Gunshots and Birthdays
Guns are fired a number of times on
Christmas eve at night, on New Year’s day, at Corpus Christi, and on family
birthdays and saint’s name days. The birth of a son is announced
by three shots, preferably fired by the father of the new-born, whereas
a daughter is announced by two.
Soon all the women of the neighborhood
arrive at the new mother’s house to inquire as to her condition and offer
their help. Exactly one year later, there takes place a meal attended
by godparents, relatives and neighbors. The custom is repeated annually.
When the child is one year old, he is given a young cow. Of the calves
she bears only the females are kept. These, as it were, double the
capital each year. The youth thus finds himself owner of a little
herd which will serve to set up a new household.
“Fete de la Roulaison” or Grinding Festival
When the last crop, sugarcane, is harvested,
there is held a feast at which the rules of sobriety are often neglected.
People say, “the “roulaison” comes only once a year,” which is as much
as to say that one is then permitted to forget his troubles for a while.
These meals are followed by dancing.
“The Clocheteur des Trépassés” or Bellman
of the Dead
Formerly, at night on the eve of All
Souls’ Day (November 2), the church bells were wildly pealed, and people
ran about the streets of the village ringing hand bells and saying in a
loud and serious voice these words:
Entre vous gens qui dormez,
Pensez a l’éternité!
Priez Dieu pour les fideles trépassés.
Requiescat in pace.
Those among you who sleep;
Think of eternity!
Pray God for the faithful dead.
Rest in peace!
“Charivari” or Shivaree
When two people of disparate age marry
and when a widow marries a bachelor or a widower a single girl, as well
as when spouses of appropriate ages fail to provide the expected entertainment
at their wedding, there gathers at evening a crowd furnished with skillets,
kettles and other pans of brass or copper. They beat on these with
shovels or tongs and go tumultuously to the house of the couple.
Increasing their noise, they dance before the house shouting, “charivari,
To bring the noise to an end, the
couple must offer a collation as well, as the promise of a ball.
If a widow marries a widower they are exempt from this burlesque serenade.
The “barbecu” is an open-air celebration
during which an entire steer is roasted and eaten. Such celebrations
usually are connected with a political meeting.
Families visit each other even when
separated by twelve to twenty-five miles. They travel in oxcarts
or horse-drawn wagons. Often numbering a dozen or more, the traveling
family, find at their host’s other visitors in equal number. At table
it is common to find twenty-five or thirty-five guests. Usually the
visitors remain some thirty hours. During this period many matters
are discussed, news of their respective neighborhoods, weddings which have
occurred or soon will take place, whose crops are the best, who raises
the most livestock, who has good horses, or who best looks after his “habitation.”
They talk of this man’s having a good store of corn, that other’s growing
ribbon cane, of the neighbor who is putting out more cotton. They
discuss the production of various commodities, the quality of soils, the
best means of cultivation; they talk of drainage, the condition of the
roads and of taxation.
On Christmas eve all the members of
a family gather at the house of the father or eldest. Those who live
far away, think nothing of traveling long distances to be there.
At supper the head of the house takes a full wine glass and drinks to the
health of all his family. This toast is repeated at the end of the
meal. Everyone else in turn drinks to the members of the family,
including those absent. When supper is over, hymns or carols are
sung. Then they play a game which is played only that night.
This is how it goes: You attach to the ceiling a piece of thread which
will hang just as high as the mouth. At the other end you fasten
a pin on which is fixed a hot coal. The young people make a ring
about the hanging coal and each one blows with all his might toward the
person opposite, who does likewise. If one party laughs or blows
less hard than his opponent, the coal touches his face and everybody laughs.
The education of the public has been
badly neglected in Louisiana. The unconcern of the rural population,
the long distances from home to school, the poor education of the teachers,
the lack of confidence in the schools, the low salaries, the lack of proper
buildings, have all worked against the establishment of elementary schools
until the present (1875).
In the last few years one sees a notable
improvement in public instruction. The schoolmasters are better chosen,
they must pass an examination, school-houses are being built, and the schools
inspected; the teaching is no longer a matter of the individual teacher’s
fancy but follows a new and uniform plan. Before 1850, one had only
to know how to read, write and cipher up to the rules of interest to find
a job as a schoolteacher. There was much concern for numbers but
grammar was in low esteem, and as in the time when the older people of
our own day were at school, handwriting was stressed at the expense of
spelling. More than three-quarters of the “habitants” could not readily
read handwriting; a certain number, especially among the women, could neither
read nor write. Today, in spite of the great impetus given education,
one meets many people who can neither read nor sign their names.
These are usually older people, especially women, who could not when young
receive the advantages of elementary schooling.
Half the younger generation can read
and write English more or less correctly, and French to some extent.
However, very few are sufficiently educated to keep books for the farm
or write a clear letter or narrative. This is due to the ineptitude
of the individual in some cases, to his neglect in others, or to the small
interest his parents showed in education.
Indeed there are intelligent, clever
children who attend school for five or six years without learning more
than a little reading and writing. Others, though they profited from
their lessons, quickly forgot their little pack of learning. This
is true of the greater part of the young population from twenty to thirty.
Most parents think their children
know enough when they have a fairly good handwriting and read without too
much hesitation. They then hastily remove them from school and put
them to work. In most farm houses, there is neither paper nor pen
and ink. Books are rare. There are almanacs, prayer-books,
some devotional works, and nothing more. Parents who have never read
a book, and who honestly believe that to be a farmer one requires only
a little reading, writing, and arithmetic, would probably view with jaundiced
eye any interest in books or writing for pleasure among their grown children.
The children themselves do not tend
to pursue further study because they have not progressed enough to read
even the simpler material they can come by without troublesome effort.
Further, the demands of daily work,
friendly visiting and youthful pleasure, which fill up the lives of the
young, militate against any continued interest in letters. In short,
books and pen are put aside, and at the age of 21, one can do no more than
read and sign one’s name.
Girls read much more than boys, but
most do not write. Once married, they say farewell to the pen and
almost never use one again, especially when they become farmers’ wives.