How to Use
Reading 2: Creoles and Creoles of Color
The word "Creole" comes from the Portuguese word "criollo" which means roughly "native to a region." The word is used in many of the colonial regions settled by the Portuguese, French, and Spanish in the New World, and its precise meaning varies according to the geographic setting in which it is used. It usually refers to the descendants of Europeans born in the colonies, and as such distinguishes them from Europeans--they are "native to the region" in which they were born. If the colony was French, the Creoles naturally had French ancestry; if it was a Spanish colony they had Spanish ancestry, etc. Most colonial areas had another population: persons of mixed ethnic or racial background, often of European-Indian or European-African descent. The term Creole often is used to refer to these groups as well. The important element which these definitions share is a strong, often dominant, European cultural and ethnic heritage existing in a New World setting.
In Louisiana the original European colonial population was French, and the term Creole was initially used to refer to their native-born descendants. Later, with the arrival of the Spanish, the definition of the word expanded. Spanish and French families intermarried, and, to some, "Creole" came to denote the blending of those two cultures and peoples in this Louisiana setting. However, as the French always outnumbered the Spanish in the city, many who thought of themselves as Creole were purely French in their ancestry.
In addition to the white Creole population, there were the "gens de couleur" ("people of color"). These people were of mixed race, generally of French and African descent. They shared the Louisiana roots of the white Creoles, and many cultural associations such as religion (Catholicism) and language (French). They identified more strongly with the white Creoles than with either the Anglo-American arrivals in the area or the black population, slave or free, and were often referred to as "Creoles of Color." The French and Spanish made a sharp distinction between Africans and Creoles of Color. The latter were allowed certain privileges and held themselves apart from dark-skinned blacks. They were not, however, accepted as the equal of whites, and so they fall into a third category unique to some Latin colonial areas. This group prospered in colonial New Orleans--some even owned slaves.
As the largest ethnic group at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, the Creoles were in control economically and socially, if no longer politically. Many of the Creoles had established businesses and plantations and begun to form the aristocracy of the area. This wealthy class erected imposing residences in the Vieux Carré and lived a relatively lavish lifestyle. They sought to maintain ties to French tastes and fashions, but with a Louisiana twist that made them distinctly Creole. This is apparent especially in such things as architecture and cuisine.
It was into this world that American frontiersmen, adventurers, and merchants came, and it is no wonder that they felt as if they were entering a foreign land. The Creole inhabitants of New Orleans, on the other hand, ensconced in elegant townhouses and armed with fine crystal and china, resisted the cultural invasion of what many viewed as frontier ruffians who surely would destroy their way of life.
Questions for Reading 2
1. What did the white Creoles and Creoles of Color have in common?
2. What was the distinction between Creoles of Color and other Creoles?
3. Why is the French aspect of Creole so important in New Orleans?
4. What were some ways in which Creole culture was different from that of the Anglo-Americans
Reading 2 was adapted from Tom Ireland, Vieux Carré Ethnographic Overview, National Park Service, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, 1978.