The Link Between the Acadians and Cajun Culture

Shane K. Bernard
Judy LaBorde 

Editor's Note: Say the word "Louisiana" to someone planning a visit to our State and chances are the visitor will want to eat Cajun food, hear Cajun music, experience the Cajun way of life. Wait a minute . . . what happened to Acadian? How did we go from Acadia, "a place up in Canada," to Cajun, a vital element in the spicy identity of contemporary Louisiana? Shane K. Bernard, co-author with his wife Kara of the "Encyclopedia of Cajun Culture,"http://www.cajunculture.com, and a Ph.D. candidate at Texas A&M University, is an historian who shares these insights:

Acadians are the ancestors of present-day Cajuns. Originally from the West Central part of France, they were peasants recruited as part of France's efforts to colonize Canada in the 17th century. They settled in areas that are known today as the Maritime Provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island). At that time, however, the area was known as "Acadia," or "Acadie" in French.

Among the "first families" of Acadia were Doucet, Bourgeois, Boudrot (Boudreaux), Terriault (Thériot), Richard, LeBlanc, Thibodeaux, Comeau(x), Cormier, Hébert, Brault (Breaux), Granger, and Girouard. For most of the 150 years between 1604 and 1755, the Acadians were left alone by both France and England. The result was the development of a strong identity based on a shared culture, religion, and distinctive language. The Acadians also had large extended families whose members intermarried. Studies indicate that between 1654 and 1755, the Acadian population grew from 300-350 colonists to about 12,000-15,000 (despite a 50% child mortality rate). Some ethnic diversity existed among the Acadians (a few were of English, Scottish, Irish, Spanish, Basque, and even American Indian origin). Those of French origin, however, dominated the cultural landscape.

Peace came to a brutal end in 1755 when the British began to expel the Acadians by force in what came to be known as Le Grand Dérangement ("the Great Disturbance"). Contrary to popular belief, the British deported only about 6,050 Acadians by ship, the remainder seeking refuge in nearby territories. About half the Acadian population died during the expulsion, according to some estimates. After years of wandering, about 2,600 to 3,000 Acadians (roughly 15% to 25% of the pre-expulsion population) sailed to Louisiana between 1764 and 1785 during the tenure of Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish Governor of Louisiana. Galvez wanted the Acadians as a counter influence to the nearby British.

The Acadians arrived destitute in sub-tropical Louisiana. They had lost their farms, their crops and, in many cases, members of their immediate families. What they did have was a strong bond with other Acadians which was a good thing since they also found themselves at the bottom rung of white society. Their dialect was different from other Frenchmen who looked down on them, as did many of the German, Spanish and eventually Anglo-American settlers in Louisiana. There was some intermarriage with other ethnic groups, but it was minimal. That is, until the Civil War changed everything.

The massive destruction caused by the war had the effect of eliminating many of the social and class distinctions of the antebellum South. Poverty was widespread. It no longer seemed relevant to single out the Acadians as poor. Indeed their resiliency in the face of poverty and their rich family life may have made Acadians more attractive. Historian Carl A. Brasseaux has shown, for example, that after the Civil War over 50% of brides and grooms with Acadian surnames were marrying persons with non-Acadian names.

The Cajuns remained largely un-Americanized, says Bernard, until U.S. involvement in World War II. Swept up in the period's intense patriotism, Cajuns supported the massive war effort. In so doing Cajun GIs experienced a world much larger than the one back in Acadiana, while loved ones on the homefront pulled together to do their part for victory.

The war experience coupled with educational and housing programs offered to returning veterans opened up a vast new world of opportunities . . . to leave the farm, go to college, get a good job, earn a decent wage, build a nice house. This caused a gradual migration away from small, exclusively French-speaking communities into a more modern, mainstream world. The result of these and other factors (such as the practice of punishing Cajun children who spoke French on school grounds) was the rapid, widespread Americanization of the Cajuns, resulting in the dramatic decline of the number of primarily French-speaking Cajuns after World War II.

Despite the dialect's decline, Cajun identity and ethnic pride remain strong to the present, says Bernard, who is currently finishing a book on recent Cajun history, supported in part with funding from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.

The ethnic intermixing that created the Cajuns is still evident in the names of some of the most famous Cajun musicians: Nathan Abshire, Lawrence Walker, and Dennis McGee were all renowned Cajun musicians with surnames of non-Acadian origin. This paradoxical embrace of others while forging a strong Cajun identity can perhaps be summed up with this observation from the late fiddler Dennis McGee. "McGee, that's a French name," he proclaimed. "I don't know anyone named McGee who doesn't speak French."