Acadian-Cajun Genealogy & History

History of the Cajuns

Cajuns in the 19th Century
     Just after the turn of the century, Louisiana became the property of the United States. This brought in a new wave of settlers ... English, Irish, Italian, etc.  Some of their customs were adopted by the Acadians, who became known as Cajuns.  But there were no mass migrations ... the territory wasn't fought over every few years.  The Acadians had settled into their new home.  Cajuns, especially in rural areas, didn't really change very much over the course of the century; but they did adapt to and assimilate parts of their surroundings.

     The 19th century saw the lifestyle of most Acadians slowly develop.  Some ended the century in much the same way as their grandparents entered it.  But some, especially those who developed larger farms and ranches and those who lived in the cities, changed more rapidly.  At the beginning of the century, just about every Acadian spoke French, worked with livestock and/or crops, and were Catholic.  At the end of the century, it may be that most Acadians (now primarily called Cajuns), still maintained those 3 ways of life.  But others may have become Protestant, would speak English in their business and perhaps in the home, and worked in a variety of occupations.
     No drastic changes occurred in the lifestyle of the average Acadian.  As new materials, methods, and ideas came to society, the Acadians adopted some.  For example, though the basic house style stayed the same, corrugated tin roofs replaced wooden shingles.  As new fishing techniques came into the area, the Acadians started using them. 
     The basics of Acadian history in the 1800s are covered on this page.  For more information on specific aspects (ie. education, religion, etc.), check out the Encyclopedia of Cajun Life.

U.S. Territory

     Their time in Acadia had been marked by numerous changes of ownership.  Since they had been in Louisiana, Spain had maintained a steady control ... giving them the stability they had in Acadia once England gained control in 1713.  But in 1803, the Louisiana territory was bought by the United States.  This would mark the final time that their ruling authorities would change.
     President Jefferson had sent representatives to Napoleon to ask about purchasing the Isle of Orleans, so that the U.S. would have unfettered access to send ships up and down the Mississippi River.  Napoleon had viewed Louisiana as a source for goods to support Santo Domingo.  With the rebellion and loss of control on that island, his need for Louisiana diminished.  The entire territory was offered to the U.S.  Though not approved by Congress, the deal was too good to pass up and the representatives made the deal.  The territory became U.S. property for $15,000,000.  In a matter of weeks, Spain transferred it to France, who in turn completed the deal with the U.S. 

The "Second Expulsion" ?

     This opened up Louisiana to American settlers (of various nationalities).  They didn't wait for Louisiana to become a state (in 1812).   They moved in and acquired typical pieces of land.  Gradually, they made their way across Louisiana. Many of them came to make money.  Since the Acadians (and others) had taken all of the land fronting the Mississippi River, the new settlers often had to start out on the swampy or wooded back land.  But they soon began buying out their neighbors (often Acadians) to increase their holdings.  Since the Mississippi River area was the most accessible, it was the first area inhabited by the new settlers. 
     In one area, they were the primary settlers.  The lower Teche (present-day St. Mary Parish) was midway between Attakapas and Bayou Lafourche, so the Acadians hadn't settled the area yet.  The first few decades of the century saw that area develop as American plantation land.  Only after the Acadian populations grew throughout the 19th century did Acadians start to move into that area.
     Some (ie. Rushton, Cajuns) have said that the movement of Acadians in the first few decades of the 19th century was a "second expulsion."  This would be a misnomer.  No one forced the movement.  The the decision to move was made by the Acadians, who profited from it. 
     By selling their land, Acadians could obtain a good bit of money.  The riverfront property was the most fertile for growing and brought a good price.  The Acadians hated debt, and this was a way to pay off their creditors and have some left over.  They could then move on to settle another area (for free).  All it cost them was their labor to build another home.  In some cases the buyers may have given them more that the land was worth.  The idea of successful small-scale living may have been seen as a bad example for the slaves to see and the plantation owners wanted to get rid of their Acadian neighbors.  (The Environmental Impact, Comeaux)
      H. M. Brackenridge wrote in 1814 (Views of Louisiana) that "lands have risen in price, since they have grown in demand for sugar plantations, and many of the petit habitants bought out."  Large sugar cane plantations were spreading out along the Mississippi River.  This also brought a dramatic rise in the slave population of Louisiana.  In the first quarter century, the number of slaves increased several times over.


     The average Acadian usually never grew enough crops or raised enough livestock to grow rich.  They also continued to grow vegetables for their own consumption.  Their crops/livestock would be sold to provide for those items they couldn't grow, raise, or make themselves. 
     Though the average Acadian still had a small farm/ranch, most Acadian families followd the example of their neighbors and acquired from 1 to 3 slaves between 1790 and 1810.  (The Founding of New Acadia, Brasseaux, p. 135)
       This varied from region to region.   Some historians have written that the Acadians rarely owned slaves.  In some cases that was true.  But in some cases, wealthier Acadians acquired dozens of slaves.  It is difficult for some to see why Acadians, who had been opressed by the English in their past, would do the same thing to another culture.  But they were following the common culture of the area.

East and West

FIRST PLANTING by George Rodrigue
by George Rodrigue
      By and large, the east and west sides of Acadiana didn't mix. The century saw a difference in eastern and western Acadiana (the south central area of Louisiana most populated by Acadians) develop more clearly.  As previously discussed, in the western part ... west of the Atchafalaya many Acadians raised livestock.  The first Acadians at Attakapas had been from the Beaubassin area and were accustomed to such activity.  To the western part of this area, Acadiana had the pasture land  to accommodate herds of cattle.  Rice became a more common crop than cotton.  In the eastern part, around Attakapas/Opelousas, corn and cotton was more common.

     Eastern Acadiana consisted more of strips of good land lining the rivers and bayous.  Cotton and corn were the major crops, though sugar cane soon became a major crop.  In the east there were really two areas.  The settlers along the Mississippi River (the Acadian Coast and upriver) were farmers.  Some withstood the temptation of selling their lands and remained along the River.  Many who succeeded enlarged their holdings.  But smaller farmers (petits habitants) were often bought out and moved elsewhere (see above text).  In the first half of the century, much of the movement from the Mississippi River and upper Bayou Lafourche was south, to lower Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes. 

     These Acadians can be called the bayou or wetlands Acadians.  They often lived along the bayous.  Some moved into the swamps in lower Lafourche and Terrebonne and in the Atchafalaya Basin.  They'd often live on the natural levees (brulees).  They still farmed to some degree, depending upon how much dry land they had available.  For some, raising crops was abandoned entirely.  For some, whose swamp homes were regularly flooded, they began living on houseboats.  This innovation made its way into the area in the late 1800s. 
     Most of these Acadians would hunt and fish ... perhaps catch a few crawfish.  But some turned this into their occupation.  Trapping, something their ancestors had seen in old Acadia, became the occupation for some.  In the latter half of the 19th century, oysters became big business, as did the lumber industry. 

Acadian -> Cajun

     So how did the Acadians turn into Cajuns.  It's more than just the alteration of a nomenclature.  That's simple to understand.  The Acadians may have sometimes called themselves Cadiens.  Also, in the French pronunciation, the first syllable "a-" is sometimes softly spoken.  The "di" may have sounded like a "j".  To the English-speaking settlers, the name was heard as Cajuns.   It had become commonplace within the first few decades.  It was not used by the Acadians themselves, but by the English in referring to them.  The name also took on a certain connotation.
     To the English, the simple carefree lifestyle that the Acadians were comfortable with was viewed as lazy and culturally inferior.  To be called a Cajun was an insult to them.  Some Acadians also took that point of view.  As one write of the 19th century wrote, "we must not call them ‘Cajuns to their faces lest they be offended, that the term is taken as one of reproach." [Julien Ralph, Harpers' Monthly, Nov. 1893]   As an Acadian became successful, he often shed himself of aspects of the Acadian culture.  More than a few wealthy Acadians tended to pass themselves off as Creole.
     The culture of the Acadians was also changing.  The Acadians had learned to adapt to the new land.  They grew different crops, made clothes of different materials, built their homes in a different style, and so on.  Along with these changes, they adopted other elements of neighboring cultures.  In many areas, they were the dominant culture.  When marriages between Acadians and other nationalities occurred, the family often remained mostly Acadian in nature.  English, Spanish, and German spouses would soon be speaking Cajun French, cooking gumbo, and attending cajun dances.. 
     The same thing happened with other aspects of the cultures.  Various pieces of other cultures were assimilated into the Acadian culture.  The combination of Acadian culture and bits & pieces of other cultures resulted in the Cajun culture we speak of in the 20th century.  One example is the accordian, considered a staple of Cajun music; it came from the Germans.  Another is okra gumbo, which actually came from Africa by way of the West Indies.

Cajun French

     For the most part, Acadians spoke French.  It was the French their ancestors brought with them to Acadia in the 17th century.  Over time, words from other languages were incorporated. 
     The language was primarily learned in the home.  It is true that most Acadians didn't receive 12 full years of schooling.  When they did, they might find a school that taught in French.  The 1879 and 1898 state constitution provided "that the French language may be taught in those parishes or localities where the French language predominates, if no additional expense is incurred thereby." 
     It is probable that some, if not most, Acadians learned some English so that they could have some understanding of business dealings.  Since the U.S. became a state, official documents were prepared in English.  Still, French was commonplace in many parts of Acadiana.  French newspapers existed throughout the century.

Acadians: Rich and Poor

     It is a safe assumption to say that the average Acadian was on the lower end of the economic scale.  Their handmade homes were as simple as they had been in Acadia.  They worked enough to provide for their families, but didn't go out of their way to accumulate wealth.  Illiteracy was common. 
     But some Acadians were able to became wealthy, usually in one of two ways.  Some worked harder at increasing the size of their farm/ranch.  They abandoned the traditional non-materialistic view of the Acadians and sought to become well-to-do like some of their Creole neighbors.  The other method was to marry into wealth.  A number of Acadians married outside of their culture, often to wealthy Creoles, and entered a different class of society.  Some of these wealthier Acadians tried to distance themselves from their former culture, which was viewed as inferior.  They built fine homes, acquired "store-bought" furnishings, and dressed in manufactured clothing. 
     Some people have tried to say that Acadians were very successful in 19th century Louisiana, and that we shouldn't be view them as just simple, lazy, poor, and illiterate.  While it is true that some became successful, it is a fact that most Acadians did maintain a simple and easy-going lifestyle.  But that was the way they wanted it.  Is that so wrong? 
     Many people today, stressed out with the complexities of modern life, say how they need to simplify their lives and take it easy.  They talk about the need to spend more quality time with family and friends.  They are describing the attitude of the 19th century Acadian ... live easy and enjoy the people around you.  In some ways, the laid back attitude of those Acadians may have been superior to our materialistic, over-stressed attitude of today ... don't you think?


     Though the Acadians had steadfastly resisted fighting in Acadia, when the War of 1812, many Acadians took part in protecting their new homeland.  The same goes for the Civil War.  But they didn't rush out to join the conflicts.  As in Acadia, the Acadians wanted to stay out of the fighting. Still, many Acadians fought and many were injured or died in the Wars of the 19th century. 
     Some Acadians went on to become high ranking officers. 

The Century Draws to a Close

     As previously mentioned, many Acadians ended the century just as their grandfathers had began it.  Some changes were made, but the average Acadian still lived on a little farm/ranch in a handmade house.  He worked just hard enough to provide for his family.  In the 1890s, William H. Perrin wrote (in Southwest Louisiana Biographical and Historical) that the Acadians were still as primitive as they had been in old Acadia.  Certainly there were exceptions.  Acadians became politicians, military officers, rich merchants, etc.  But the average Acadian was still living much like he would have in old Acadia.

- French Newspapers in Louisiana
Copyright © 1997-09 Tim Hebert