|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Since the law has prohibited dueling, this custom has been replaced by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.