Lafayette (LA) Daily Advertiser, April 27, 1999
Historian: Environment created Cajun subcultures
Swamps bayous and prairies each had influence
by: Jim Bradshaw
Some linguists say that there are at least two versions of so-called Acadian French: prairie French and bayou French, and that the vocabularies and colloquialisms of the two come from different environments.
Going further, historian Malcolm Comeaux suggests that four unique Cajun subcultures have developed according to where the Acadians lived in Louisiana.
In an essay, "Louisiana's Acadians: The Environmental Impact," Comeaux says that there are "four distinct environments in south Louisiana, and through time Cajuns learned to inhabit and exploit each." He identifies those environments as 1) the levee lands along the Mississippi River, Bayou Lafourche and Bayou Teche, 2) the prairies of southwest Louisiana, 3) swamplands such as the Atchafalaya Basin, and 4) coastal marshes.
In every instance, there were adaptations that the Acadian settlers had to make when they reached Louisiana. Comeaux points out, for example, that "apple trees will not product in south Louisiana, so the Acadians could no longer make hard cider and had to accept another 'national' drink, beer." They had to redesign their homes. In Canada they built homes to resist the cold. In Louisiana they invited any hint of summer coolness.
The Acadians were among the first to occupy levee land along the major rivers and bayous of south Louisiana, but were pushed away from them, particularly when wealthy Americans began buying up lands to build huge sugar plantations.
Comeaux points out that it was the second time that English-speaking people forced Acadians off of good land that they had claimed by hard work, and that there was probably some resentment over it. "This reaction is understandable," he says, "when one considers that most Cajuns had a very narrow experience, little understanding of the political situation, a limited education, and probably considered themselves as second-class citizens in this ever-changing English-speaking country."
He says the Cajuns who moved from the river banks "attempted to maintain the old culture by establishing a social barrier and physical difference between themselves and the ... Anglo-Americans. Those (Acadians) who remained apparently could not maintain their cultural traits and were soon swallowed up in the American life style. ... Thus a viable Cajun culture was largely submerged in the area along the Mississippi River and Bayou Lafourche.
The situation was not quite the same on Bayou Teche, because it was father removed from the mainstream of nineteenth century life along the Mississippi," in Comeaux's view. He says, however, "As an Anglo population moved in, however, prices for land increased dramatically along the Teche. ... Some Cajuns sold their land and moved westward to the prairies, while others remained as small farmers producing small quantities of cane as their cash crop. A few persons of Gallic origin in the area entered the plantation economy and became wealthy. Most of these, however, were not Cajuns, but a more affluent group which migrated from France.
The first Acadians to move into the swamplands tried to live on natural ridges, where soils were similar to the levee lands they gave up on the riverbanks. But floods coursing through the Atchafalaya Basin made regular farming almost impossible, so the Acadians turned to fishing and to harvesting what else they could from the swampland.
"Large-scale movement of swamp goods started in 1873 when boats began going into the Atchafalaya Swamp to buy fish," according to Comeaux. "This era also marked the beginning of the modern period of commercial exploitation, and ever afterwards the swamp dwellers were to be a part of the national economy and dependent upon it. Swamp dwellers thus began selling fish, but eventually other swamp products moved to the market, such as frogs, crawfish, Spanish moss, turtles, crabs, and the like. With the money thus earned, they bought vegetables, fish hooks, twine, cloth, iron goods, and other necessities and luxuries.
At first, even the so-called "prairie Acadians" lived on the fringes of the grasslands. As Comeaux explains, "The prairie of southwest Louisiana was an open, relatively flat area when the Acadians first arrived. It was not one unbroken grassy area, but many grassland areas separated by strips of woods which skirted the bayous of the region. Each of these open areas, called a prairie or cove, had a name, but together they formed one distinct region." The Acadians first settled near the wooded land next to the bayous because they needed firewood and water, both of which were scarce on the open grassland. When they did move out onto the prairie itself, they planted groves of quick-growing catalpa or china ball trees to provide firewood and fence posts, and dug water wells, most of them about 20 feet deep and lined with wood.
The first Acadians on the prairie were cattlemen. They lived by the bayous and grazed their herds on the grasslands, driving herds to market in New Orleans. Later, when German immigrants brought machinery and new agricultural idea to the prairies, some of these Acadian farmers also began to plant rice.
But Comeaux says there are two cultural zones dividing life on the Cajun prairies. The rice-cattle zone is generally the southern part of the prairie, and the northern edge is the corn-and-cotton prairie.
This northern edge held some of the richest and most productive of the prairie land. According to Coemaux, a farmer kept 40 percent to his land in corn and 40 percent cotton, rotating them each year. The remainder of his land was used for pasturage, a garden, and for animal pens.
"Sweet potatoes were another important crop, particularly on the northern edge of the prairie," according to Comeaux's study. "These potatoes were usually stored in a small hill in the yard and covered with straw and hay. The garden crops were okra, melons, beans, and the like. Cattle and mules were important: the cattle for their meat, hides, milk, and butter, and mules as draft animals. This was an area of small, mostly subsistence farmers ... who either owned their land or sharecropped. ... This was a densely settled area and Cajun culture was dominant."
Like the prairie, south Louisiana coastal marshes can be divided into two areas: the Deltaic Plain to the east and the Chenier Plain to the west. The Deltaic Plain is made up of many small ridges of land, old natural levees that run generally north and south and were left by the Mississippi River and its tributaries at it meandered through south Louisiana. Much of the marsh in the Deltaic Plain is flotant, "floating marsh."
Comeaux says, "The Chenier (sic) Plain also has some high land. These are small sandy ridges called cheniers (sic) because of the oaks growing on them. They were former beaches but are now isolated in the marsh. These ridges, in contrast to those in the Deltaic Plain, run east-west, and the only easy access to the Gulf (to the south) or to land to the north is by water where major streams ... cut the ridges. As might be expected, two Cajun life styles developed in these contrasting environments."
Acadians moved to the Deltaic plains of southeastern Louisiana in the early 1800's soon after they were displaced from river lands. According to Comeaux, "These people continued as subsistence farmers, growing the traditional crops. Hunting also became very important very early, especially in those areas nearest New Orleans, where game could be sold. Since the bayous gave access to the Gulf and many inland bays and inlets, fishing and shellfishing also became important. Trapping also evolved into a major occupation."
In contrast, Acadians - and everyone else - moved much later to the chênières, because, in Comeaux's words, "the sandy ridges were small and isolated, and the mosquitos were atrocious." But the marshes in this region of southwestern Deltaic marshes. Cattle can walk through them, and, some time after the Civil War, cattlemen began using the marshes for winter pasturage. Then a few of the cattlemen moved permanently onto the chênières.
"Eventually," Comeaux found, "cattle ranching, hunting, and trapping all developed as important occupations, but settlement remained sparse in this area."
Comeaux concludes, "The Acadians were a conservative group and suffered much in Canada because they would not change. Upon their arrival in Louisiana, they were still conservative and tried to change, and in some ways they have been successful. They have maintained their religion. Their language was retained, though many words of English, Spanish, and African origin were added, and their music has been retained, though it too has evolved in Louisiana. Many other aspects of the culture, however, changed dramatically, such as cuisine, agriculture, housing, and the general methods and techniques of exploiting Louisiana environments. Within two generations the Acadians in Louisiana had become Cajuns, and exhibited a culture different from that of the Acadian area of Canada.
"The degree of isolation seems to have been the determining factor in the success of Cajuns in Louisiana at least until the twentieth century," Comeaux continues. "Because of the good land and the availability of transportation along the levee lands, the area was desirable for plantations, and was soon acquired by aggressive Anglo-Americans. The Cajuns, at the time, a downtrodden people experiencing culture shock, seemed to have no pride in themselves, their heritage, or their ability to compete, and considered the best defense a retreat. Once isolated, however, as ... in the swamp, or on the prairie, Cajuns proved to be very resilient and adaptable people, with a real determination to survive. They must be admired for their ability to inhabit and exploit successfully so many environments, and for their ability to retain so many aspects of their culture."
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