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History of the Cajuns: Encyclopedia of Cajun Life

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 swiftly by. 
    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 coffee constantly. 
    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  Since the law has prohibited dueling, this custom has been replaced by the “rencontre.”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.
Organized Help

    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 the “habitants.”
    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.

God Bless.
Cajuns in the 18th Century   •  Cajuns in the 19th Century  • Cajuns in the 20th Century  •••  Encyclopedia of Cajun Life
God Bless.
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