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The Louisiana Creole

An alligator on a log

Some writers from other parts of the United States have mistakenly assumed the term Creole to refer only to people of mixed racial descent, but this is not the traditional Louisiana usage. In fact some locals, especially those of relatively pure French and Spanish Creole descent, have often argued that the traditional usage excluded African lineage. However, colonial era documents show that a broader usage of the term was already common by the late 18th century, with references to “free Creoles of Color” and even to slaves of pure African descent born in Louisiana as “Creole slaves”.

The Louisiana Creole Heritage Center describes Creole people as those who are “generally known as a people of mixed French, African, Spanish, and Native American ancestry, most of whom reside in or have familial ties to Louisiana.” They add that “many other ethnicities have contributed to this culture including, but not limited to, Chinese, Russian, German, and Italian.”

Creole is now accepted as a broad cultural group of people of all races who share a French or Spanish background. Louisianans who identify themselves as “Creole” are most commonly from historically Francophone communities with some ancestors who came to Louisiana either directly from France or via the French colonies in the Caribbean; those descended from the Acadians of French Canada are more likely to identify themselves as Cajun than Creole. Creole is still used to identify a person of Spanish, French, American Indian, and/or African origin.

A definition from the earliest history in New Orleans (circa 1718) is “a child born in the colony as opposed to France. The definition became more codified after the United States took control of the city and Louisiana in 1803. The Creoles at that time included the Spanish ruling class, who ruled from the mid-1700s until the early 1800s.

By 1850, after many years of pejorative slights by the new “American” émigrés, the French and Spanish Creoles lost political power and Creole became increasingly inclusive of anyone or anything from New Orleans; eg, people, animals, architecture, etc. For example, early German immigrants, who settled along the German Coast up the Mississippi River, were referred to as Creole.

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