Louisiana artist George Rodrigue painted this image entitled "The First Cajuns" as part of his 1985-1989 series "The Saga of the Acadians." Learn more »
Cajuns are the descendants of Acadian exiles from the Maritime provinces of Canada—Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island—who migrated to southern Louisiana. Today they reside primarily in a twenty-two-parish region of southern Louisiana known as Acadiana. Significant numbers of Cajuns also reside in border parishes, such as Allen and Jefferson, as well as in southeastern Texas, particularly around Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange. Although best known outside Louisiana for their spicy food and music, Cajuns have made many important contributions to Louisiana’s history and culture.
Acadian Migration to the New World
The Cajuns’ early ancestors were known as the Acadians, most of whom hailed originally from the Centre-Ouest region of France, on the Atlantic coast around present-day Poitiers. The first families of Acadia bore surnames still familiar today in southern Louisiana: Boudreaux, Bourgeois, Breaux, Comeaux, Cormier, Doucet, Girouard, Hebert, LeBlanc, Theriot, and Thibodeaux, among others. These families arrived in Acadia in 1632, more than a quarter of a century after French explorers established the colony to engage in fur trade with the local Micmac Indians.
The Acadians came to the New World for several reasons. Religious violence rocked Centre-Ouest, which also suffered from disease, poverty, famine, and drought, as well as heavy feudal-era taxation. The Acadians left France to escape these hardships, but also to acquire their own land, which they considered essential to personal liberty and happiness.
Settling in Acadia along the Bay of Fundy and its inlets, the Acadians developed an ingenious dike system for reclaiming fertile coastland from the sea. Although fur trapping remained an important part of the local economy, many Acadians became subsistence farmers, growing what they and their families needed to survive and producing only a small surplus for trade. The Acadians thrived in their new homeland. Between 1654 and 1755, the estimated population of the colony rose from about 325 to about 15,000 settlers.
The Acadians occupied lands considered strategically important by both France and its major rival, Great Britain. As a result, in the century after its founding, the colony passed back and forth between these countries ten times. In 1710 the British captured Acadia permanently, formalizing the conquest three years later in the Treaty of Utrecht. That treaty addressed the issue of the Acadians, permitting them to leave the colony with their movable property or to remain on their treasured farms. The treaty also allowed the Acadians to retain their Roman Catholic faith. Moreover, a 1713 decree gave the Acadians full property rights in Acadia—which by now the British had renamed Nova Scotia (Latin for New Scotland).
Le Grand Dérangement
Despite these generous terms, the British pressured the Acadians to swear an unconditional oath of allegiance to the crown. The Acadians refused to swear this oath unconditionally, but did offer their allegiance under one condition: the British must grant them neutral status during wartime. The colonists viewed wartime neutrality as vital to their safety, since siding with the British would invite attacks from French and Indian marauders.
For decades the British continued to press the Acadians to swear the oath of allegiance unconditionally. Finally, the colony’s lieutenant governor, Colonel Charles Lawrence—the governor had returned to Great Britain because of illness—used the issue as a pretext for expelling every Acadian man, woman, and child from Nova Scotia. Lawrence wanted to deport the French-Catholic Acadians because he feared they would rise up against him if a war with France ever erupted. He also coveted the Acadians’ valuable farmlands, which he planned to give to loyal Anglo-Protestant colonists.
Lawrence planned the expulsion with William Shirley, governor of the Massachusetts colony, which provided British troops and ships for the operation. Supported by the Colonial Council, which administered the colony in the name of the British crown, Lawrence launched the expulsion in summer 1755. He summoned Acadian men to the capital at Halifax allegedly to discuss the return of their firearms, which British troops had earlier seized. It was a ruse, however, and British troops arrested the Acadian men. Meanwhile, other British soldiers fanned out across the colony, using similar deceptions to round up the remaining Acadians. At Grand Pré, for example, British troops lured more than four hundred Acadian men into the local church. The church became their prison while other soldiers prepared Acadian women and children for deportation.
British soldiers under Lawrence’s command ensnared Acadians throughout the colony, marching them at gunpoint to the coast, dividing them according to age and sex, and loading them aboard overcrowded transport ships. Lawrence sent these ships to distant lands, scattering the Acadians throughout the British colonies of North America and beyond. Because it was a deliberate attempt to destroy an ethnic group, historians consider the expulsion—known as Le Grand Dérangement, or the Great Disturbance—an instance of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Some historians estimate that as many as half of the approximately fifteen thousand Acadians died from exposure, disease, starvation, and violence related to their deportation.
Migration to Louisiana
After nearly a decade of wandering, one group of Acadian exiles found its way to Louisiana, which was then a Spanish Colony. Seeing the Acadians as potential buffers against encroachment by British settlers, the Spanish welcomed the exiles. Louisiana’s colonial government provided them with land, livestock, tools, and other necessities and settled them in the fertile, semitropical region known as Attakapas in the south-central part of the state. These first Acadians in Louisiana wrote to other distant groups of exiles, providing glowing descriptions of their new homes. (Although a largely nonliterate people, some Acadians were able to read and write, and those who could not were able to find someone to read or write for them.)
Stirred by these letters, other exiles made their way to Louisiana during the ensuing decades, arriving from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and France, among other places. When the colony’s Spanish governor, Antonio de Ulloa, forced some of the exiles to settle on the Mississippi River near present-day Natchez, Mississippi, far from their Attakapas kin, the Acadians marched on New Orleans with other discontented colonists and overthrew the governor in the Insurrection of 1768.
About three thousand Acadian exiles eventually made their way to Louisiana. Like their ancestors, these exiles remained subsistence farmers, producing only enough material goods to survive. Within a few generations, however, a small number of young Acadians adopted the South’s plantation system and its brutal institution of slavery. By the 1810s, the Acadians had evolved from a single group of poor subsistence farmers into three distinct groups. First, there was a small group of wealthy, slave-owning cotton and sugar planters, who would later be called “genteel Acadians.” In addition, there was a small group of middle-class Acadians made up of farmers and artisans, including blacksmiths, carpenters, and bricklayers. Members of this group might own a few slaves but certainly not as many as planters. Finally, a very large number of Acadians continued to labor as subsistence farmers, working their land without the assistance of slaves. While upper- and middle-class Acadians increasingly adopted the customs of the region’s elite French Creoles and new Anglo-American settlers, the poor Acadians preserved the values and traditions of their ancestors. It was from this mass of poor Acadians that the Cajun people would spring.
Cajuns and the Civil War
The American Civil War (1861–1865) brought destruction to southern Louisiana. Troops from both sides of the conflict marched back and forth through the region, seizing crops and livestock, burning bridges, and interrupting trade and commerce. In defeat, the South’s economy collapsed, casting many previously affluent Louisianans into poverty and reducing them to sharecroppers and tenant farmers. While these southern Louisianans had once viewed their poor Acadian neighbors with contempt, they now occupied the same impoverished social stratum. Barriers crumbled between the groups as they worked side-by-side in the fields. As historian Carl A. Brasseaux has shown, Acadians soon began to marry non-Acadians in large numbers. Acadians and members of other ethnic groups--mainly the descendents of French, Spanish, and German immigrants--combined and evolved into a new ethnic group dominated by a core Acadian identity. This new ethnic group was called Cajun.
This new group’s multicultural origins are reflected in the surnames considered Cajun today. Boudreaux, Guidry, LeBlanc, and Trahan, for example, reflect the group’s Acadian ancestry, while Fontenot, Soileau, Delahoussaye, and Fuselier suggest its French heritage. Abshire, Huval, Hymel, and Stelly recall the German heritage of many Cajuns, while Dartez, Miguez, Romero, and Segura indicate Spanish ancestry. Modern Cajun surnames indicate that even some Anglo-Americans and Scots-Irish Americans were absorbed into the Cajun people. As legendary Cajun musician Dennis McGee once remarked, “McGee, that’s a French name. I don’t know anyone named McGee who doesn’t speak French.” Thus, the Cajuns are not merely the descendants of Acadian exiles who settled in southern Louisiana, but of all the ethnic groups with whom these exiles and their offspring intermarried.
What is regarded today as “traditional” or “old-time” Cajun culture originated between the end of the Civil War and the early twentieth century. Depicted in the artwork of illustrator Floyd Sonnier and painter George Rodrigue, these Cajuns are largely rural French-Catholic people. Like their ancestors, they maintained close ties to the earth, often making their living as farmers, trappers, and boat builders. Cajun food and music coalesced during this period, eventually becoming the ethnic group’s most popular cultural exports.
Cajuns and World War II
Much as the Civil War led to the “creation” of a distinctly Cajun people, World War II would integrate them into mainstream American culture. The mobilization of millions of U.S. soldiers and civilians included about twenty-five thousand Cajun GIs, many of whom had never left their home parishes before the war. Most of them spoke French as their first, if not only, language. World War II forced them to leave southern Louisiana for boot camps in far-flung sections of the United States, where everyone spoke English. They soon found themselves in ships, tanks, and foxholes around the globe with English-speaking GIs. Survival in combat depended on the Cajuns’ ability to speak English. Meanwhile, Cajuns on the home front immersed themselves in the war effort: buying war bonds, growing victory gardens, collecting scrap metal, and volunteering as auxiliary nurses, policemen, and firemen.
World War II transformed both Cajun GIs and civilians; increasingly they no longer regarded themselves as les Français and everyone else in the United State as les Américains. Rather, the Cajuns reveled in their newfound patriotism. In the postwar era, they eagerly embraced mainstream American culture, including rampant consumerism. Television, that great Americanizing agent, was among the products they consumed.
The influence of mainstream American culture also brought a new emphasis on the English language, which had already made inroads into the Cajun parishes. In 1916 the state of Louisiana passed a compulsory education law, prompting a flood of French-speaking children into southern Louisiana schools. Exacerbating the situation, the state legislature passed a new constitution in 1921, part of which stipulated that only English was to be spoken in the classroom. Educators dealt with the problem of teaching English to thousands of French-speaking children by meting out humiliating punishments to students caught speaking French. In 1944 Louisiana enacted an even tougher compulsory education law, again flooding classrooms with French-speaking children. Punishment continued until about 1960, when few, if any, solely French-speaking Cajun children remained.
Census data reflect the impact of this punitive policy on the French language in Louisiana. Beginning around World War II, the percentage of young Cajuns speaking French as their first language nosedived. Cajun children born in the postwar period primarily spoke English as their first language. In fact, so many Cajun baby boomers spoke only English that some observers predicted the complete disappearance of French in Louisiana.
In the late 1960s, however, various racial and ethnic groups across the United States embraced their cultural heritage. As this ethnic pride and empowerment movement swept through southern Louisiana, Cajuns were inspired to preserve their language, history, culture, and folkways. In 1968, the Louisiana state legislature passed several bills designed to preserve and perpetuate the French language in Louisiana. Some of these bills called for the expansion of French education in public schools. This was, of course, a radical change from the policy of punishing the use of French, in place just a few years earlier.
One bill established the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL). Headed by Lafayette attorney, former congressman, and genteel Acadian James “Jimmy” Domengeaux, the organization oversaw the public schools’ expansion of French education. By the early 1970s, elementary school students could enroll in pilot French classes, often taught by teachers from France or other French-speaking regions. Although many Cajuns criticized CODOFIL's use of foreign teachers and its emphasis on continental French, the organization nonetheless created a new interest in the French language in Louisiana. It also boosted Cajun pride and served as an effective watchdog group, speaking out against perceived affronts to the Cajun people. CODOFIL often criticized, for example, negative portrayals of Cajuns in movies and on television.
While CODOFIL sought to preserve French using a top-down approach, a parallel grassroots movement took shape in southern Louisiana. This bottom-up effort owed much to Cajun musician Dewey Balfa, who became a cultural activist after performing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. Much to his surprise, the audience cheered his performance of traditional Cajun music. Balfa realized that Cajun music could galvanize the Cajun pride and empowerment movement and promote the use of French in Louisiana. Despite misgivings by Domengeaux, who, as a genteel Acadian, disliked working-class Cajun music, CODOFIL agreed to cosponsor, with the Smithsonian Institution, the first “Tribute to Cajun Music” in 1974. A concert held in Lafayette, this event proved to be a milestone in Cajun history, demonstrating that Cajun music—dismissed by some as noisy “chanky-chank” music suitable only for smoky barrooms—could be appreciated as a vital expression of Cajun culture. The concert also presented working-class Cajun musicians as mentors for younger generations of Cajun musicians and as cultural ambassadors for the general public. The “Tribute to Cajun Music” continues today as part of the annual Festivals Acadiens et Créoles.
While Cajun pride soared in southern Louisiana, mainstream America “discovered” this unique culture in its own backyard. Reagan-era yuppy-ism, with its emphasis on conspicuous consumption of the new and exotic, fueled a veritable Cajun fad in the 1980s. Chef Paul Prudhomme’s dish called “blackened red fish” became an international phenomenon, while restaurants outside southern Louisiana hastened to add Cajun-inspired cuisine to their menus. Fast-food eateries sought to profit from the enthusiasm for all things Cajun by serving faux Cajun menu items, such as Cajun pizza and Cajun tacos. Meanwhile, Cajun music (and black Creole zydeco music, which the American public often conflated into a single musical genre) appeared on movie soundtracks and in television commercials. Inevitably, fictional Cajun characters appeared in major motion pictures such as Southern Comfort (1981) and The Big Easy (1987), which portrayed members of the ethnic group as violent, backward swamp dwellers. “Cajun is being so commercialized,” warned Dewey Balfa. “Someday it’s going to be too much, if it ain’t already.”
Many Cajuns laughed off the denigration of their culture. Not CODOFIL, however, which in the early 1980s supported a Cajun oilfield worker, Calvin J. Roach, in a lawsuit against his former employer for using the term coonass, a derogatory epithet for Cajuns. The case, Roach v. Dresser Industrial Valve and Instrument Division, resulted in federal recognition of the Cajuns as a bona fide ethnic group.
CODOFIL continued to act as a watchdog group for the Cajun people even after Domengeaux’s death in 1988. One of Domengeaux’s successors, attorney Warren A. Perrin of Lafayette, assumed the presidency of CODOFIL in 1994. Perrin rose to prominence in the Cajun pride and empowerment movement only a few years earlier by threatening to sue the Queen of England over the expulsion of the Cajuns’ ancestors in the mid-1700s. After thirteen years of negotiations, the Queen issued a proclamation acknowledging the “tragic consequences” of Le Grand Dérangement, including “the deaths of many thousands of Acadians.”
Cajuns in the early twenty-first century continue to thrive and exhibit a strong sense of ethnic pride, even as fewer speak French—a decline that has abated slightly because of the rise of French immersion programs in Louisiana’s public school system. Whether the Cajun people can survive without French is a matter of contention among Cajuns themselves and the linguists, sociologists, folklorists, and historians who study them.
Cite This Entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Bernard, Shane K. "Cajuns." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published July 26, 2011. http://www.knowla.org/entry/626/.
Bernard, Shane K. "Cajuns." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 26 Jul 2011. Web. 28 May 2016.
Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?
Ancelet, Barry Jean, Jay Edwards, and Glen Pitre. Cajun Country. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.
Bernard, Shane K.Cajuns and Their Acadian Ancestors: A Young Reader’s History. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
___. The Cajuns: Americanization of a People. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.
Brasseaux, Carl A. Acadian to Cajun: Transformation of a People, 1803–1877. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
___. The Founding of New Acadia: The Beginnings of Acadian Life in Louisiana, 1765–1803. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.
___. “Scattered to the Wind”: Dispersal and Wanderings of the Acadians, 1755–1809. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1991.Faragher, John Mack. A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland. New York: Norton, 2005.