views updated May 29 2018


by Helen Bush Caver and Mary T. Williams


Unlike many other ethnic groups in the United States, Creoles did not migrate from a native country. The term Creole was first used in the sixteenth century to identify descendants of French, Spanish, or Portuguese settlers living in the West Indies and Latin America. There is general agreement that the term "Creole" derives from the Portuguese word crioulo, which means a slave born in the master's household. A single definition sufficed in the early days of European colonial expansion, but as Creole populations established divergent social, political, and economic identities, the term acquired different meanings. In the West Indies, Creole refers to a descendant of any European settler, but some people of African descent also consider themselves to be Creole. In Louisiana, it identifies French-speaking populations of French or Spanish descent. Their ancestors were upper class whites, many of whom were plantation owners or officials during the French and Spanish colonial periods. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, they formed a separate caste that used French. They were Catholics, and retained the traditional cultural traits of related social groups in France, but they were the first French group to be submerged by Anglo-Americans. In the late twentieth century they largely ceased to exist as a distinct group. Creoles of color, the descendants of free mulattos and free blacks, are another group considered Creole in Louisiana.


In the seventeenth century, French explorers and settlers moved into the United States with their customs, language, and government. Their dominant presence continued until 1768 when France ceded Louisiana to Spain. Despite Spanish control, French language and customs continued to prevail.

Many Creoles, however, are descendants of French colonials who fled Saint-Domingue (Haiti) for North America's Gulf Coast when a slave insurrection (1791) challenged French authority. According to Thomas Fiehrer's essay "From La Tortue to La Louisiane: An Unfathomed Legacy," Saint-Dominque had more than 450,000 black slaves, 40,000 to 45,000 whites, and 32,000 gens-decouleur libres, who were neither white nor slaves. The slave revolt not only challenged French authority, but after defeating the expeditionary corps sent by Napoleon, the leaders of the slaves established an independent country named Haiti. Most Whites were either massacred or fled, many with their slaves, as did many mulatto freemen, many of who also owned slaves. By 1815, over 11,000 refugees had settled in New Orleans.

Toussaint L'Ouverture (1743-1803), a self-educated slave, took control of Saint-Domingue in 1801, sending more refugees to the Gulf Coast. Some exiles went directly to present-day Louisiana; others went to Cuba. Of those who went to Cuba, many came to New Orleans in the early 1800s after the Louisiana territory had been purchased by the United States (1803). This influx from Saint-Domingue and Cuba doubled New Orleans' 1791 population. Some refugees moved on to St. Martinville, Napoleonville, and Henderson, rural areas outside New Orleans. Others traveled further north along the Mississippi waterway.

In Louisiana, the term Creole came to represent children of black or racially mixed parents as well as children of French and Spanish descent with no racial mixing. Persons of French and Spanish descent in New Orleans and St. Louis began referring to themselves as Creoles after the Louisiana Purchase to set themselves apart from the Anglo-Americans who moved into the area. Today, the term Creole can be defined in a number of ways. Louisiana historian Fred B. Kniffin, in Louisiana: Its Land and People, has asserted that the term Creole "has been loosely extended to include people of mixed blood, a dialect of French, a breed of ponies, a distinctive way of cooking, a type of house, and many other things. It is therefore no precise term and should not be defined as such."

Louisiana Creoles of color were different and separate from other populations, both black and white. These Creoles of color became part of an elite society; in the nineteenth century they were leaders in business, agriculture, politics, and the arts, as well as slaveholders. Nonetheless, as early as 1724 their legal status had been defined by the Code Noir (Black Code). According to Violet Harrington Bryan in The Myth of New Orleans in Literature, Dialogues of Race and Gender, they could own slaves, hold real estate, and be recognized in the courts, but they could not vote, marry white persons, and had to designate themselves as f.m.c. or f.w.c. (free man or color or free woman of color) on all legal documents.


According to Virginia A. Dominguez in White By Definition, much of the written record of Creoles comes from descriptions of individuals in the baptismal, marriage, and death registers of Catholic churches of Mobile (Alabama) and New Orleans, two major French outposts on the Gulf Coast. The earliest entry is a death record in 1745 wherein a man was described as the first Creole in the colony. The term also appears in a 1748 slave trial in New Orleans.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Differences of opinion regarding the Creoles persist. The greatest controversy stems from the presence or absence of African ancestry. In an 1886 lecture at Tulane University, Charles Gayarre ("Creoles of History and Creoles of Romance," New Orleans: C.E. Hopkins, c. 1886) and F. P. Poche (in a speech at the American Exposition in New Orleans, New Orleans Daily Picayune, February 8, 1886) both stated that Louisiana Creoles had "not a particle of African blood in their veins." In "A Few Words About the Creoles of Louisiana" (Baton Rouge: Truth Books, 1892), Alcee Fortier repeated the same defense. These three men were probably the most prominent Creole intellectuals of the nineteenth century. Lyle Saxon, Robert Tallant, and Edward Dreyer continued this argument in 1945 by saying, "No true Creole ever had colored blood."

According to Sister Dorothea Olga McCants, translator of Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes' Our People and Our History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973), the free mixed-blood, French speakers in New Orleans came to use the word Creole to describe themselves. The phrase "Creole of color" was used by these proud part-Latin people to set themselves apart from American blacks. These Haitian descendants were cultured, educated, and economically prosperous as musicians, artists, teachers, writers, and doctors. In "Louisiana's 'Creoles of Color'," James H. Dorman has stated that the group was clearly recognized as special, productive, and worthy by the white community, citing an editorial in the New Orleans Times Picayune in 1859 that referred to them as "Creole colored people." Prior to the Civil War, a three-caste system existed: white, black, and Creoles of color. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, however, the Creoles of colorwho had been part of the free black population before the warwere merged into a two-caste system, black and white.

The identification of a Creole was, and is, largely one of self-choice. Important criteria for Creole identity are French language and social customs, especially cuisine, regardless of racial makeup. Many young Creoles of color today live under pressure to identify themselves as African Americans. Several young white Creoles want to avoid being considered of mixed race. Therefore, both young black and white Creoles often choose an identity other than Creole.


With imported furniture, wines, books, and clothes, white Creoles were once immersed in a completely French atmosphere. Part of Creole social life has traditionally centered on the French Opera House; from 1859 to 1919, it was the place for sumptuous gatherings and glittering receptions. The interior, graced by curved balconies and open boxes of architectural beauty, seated 805 people. Creoles loved the music and delighted in attendance as the operas were great social and cultural affairs.

White Creoles clung to their individualistic way of life, frowned upon intermarriage with Anglo-Americans, refused to learn English, and were resentful and contemptuous of Protestants, whom they considered irreligious and wicked. Creoles generally succeeded in remaining separate in the rural sections but they steadily lost ground in New Orleans. In 1803, there were seven Creoles to every Anglo-American in New Orleans, but these figures dwindled to two to one by 1830.

Anglo-Americans reacted by disliking the Creoles with equal enthusiasm. Gradually, New Orleans became not one city, but two. Canal Street split them apart, dividing the old Creole city from the "uptown" section where the other Americans quickly settled. To cross Canal Street in either direction was to enter another world. These differences are still noticeable today.

Older Creoles complain that many young Creoles today do not adhere to the basic rules of language propriety in speaking to others, especially to older adults. They claim that children walk past homes of people they know without greeting an acquaintance sitting on the porch or working on the lawn. Young males are particularly criticized for greeting others quickly in an incomprehensible and inarticulate manner.


Creole cooking is the distinguishing feature of Creole homes. It can be as subtle as Oysters Rockefeller, as fragrantly explicit as a jambalaya, or as down to earth as a dish of red beans and rice. A Creole meal is a celebration, not just a means of addressing hunger pangs. Many of the dishes listed below are features of African-influenced Louisiana, that is, Creoles of color and black Creoles.

The Europeans who settled in New Orleans found not only the American Indians, whose file (the ground powder of the sassafras leaf) is the key ingredient of Creole gumbos, but also immense areas of inland waterways and estuaries alive with crayfish, shrimp, crab, and fish of many different varieties. Moreover, the swampland was full of game. The settlers used what they found and produced a cuisine based on good taste, experimentation, and spices. On the experimental side, it was in New Orleans that raw, hard liquor was transformed into the more sophisticated cocktail, and where the simple cup of coffee became café Brulot, a concoction spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and lemon peel and flambéed with cognac. The seasonings used are distinctive, but there is yet another essential ingredienta heavy black iron skillet.

Such dexterity produced the many faceted family of gumbos. Gumbo is a soup or a stew, yet too unique to be classified as one or the other. It starts with a base of highly seasoned roux (a cooked blend of fat and flour used as a thickening agent), scallions, and herbs, which serves as a vehicle for oysters, crabs, shrimp, chicken, ham, various game, or combinations thereof. Oysters may be consumed raw (on the half-shell), sauteed and packed into hollowed-out French bread, or baked on the half-shell and served with various garnishes. Shrimp, crayfish, and crab are similarly starting points for the Creole cook who might have croquettes in mind, or a pie, or an omelette, or a stew.


Creoles are a festive people who enjoy music and dancing. In New Orleans during French rule, public balls were held twice weekly and when the Spanish took over, the practice continued. These balls were frequented by white Creoles, although wealthy Creoles of Color may also have attended. Cotillions presented by numerous academies provided young ladies and gentlemen with the opportunity to display their skills in dancing quadrilles, valses à un temps, valses à deux temps, valses à trois temps, polkas, and polazurkas. Saturday night balls and dances were a universal institution in Creole country. The community knew about the dances by means of a flagpole denoting the site of the dance. Families arrived on horseback or in a variety of wheeled carriages. The older adults played vingt-et-un (Twenty-one) or other card games while the young danced and engaged in flirtations until the party dispersed near daybreak. During the special festive season, between New Year's and Mardi Gras, many brilliant balls were scheduled. Only the most respected families were asked to attend with lists scrutinized by older members of the families to keep less prominent people away


A rich collection of Creole proverbs can be found in several references. One of the best is from Lafcadio Hearn's Gombo Zhebes, Little Dictionary of Creole Proverbs (New Orleans: deBrun, n.d.): the monkey smothers its young one by hugging it too much; wait till the hare's in the pot before you talk; today drunk with fun, tomorrow the paddle; if you see your neighbor's beard on fire, water your own; shingles cover everything; when the oxen lift their tails in the air, look out for bad weather; fair words buy horses on credit; a good cock crows in any henhouse; what you lose in the fire, you will find in the ashes; when one sleeps, one doesn't think about eating; he who takes a partner takes a master; the coward lives a long time; conversation is the food of ears; it's only the shoes that know if the stockings have holes; the dog that yelps doesn't bite; threatened war doesn't kill many soldiers; a burnt cat dreads fire; an empty sack cannot stand up; good coffee and the Protestant religion were seldom if ever seen together; it takes four to prepare the perfect salad dressinga miser to pour the vinegar, a spendthrift to add the olive oil, a wise man to sprinkle the salt and pepper, and a madcap to mix and stir the ingredients.


The original language community of the Creoles was composed of French and Louisiana Creole. French was the language of white Creoles; it should not be confused with Louisiana Creole (LC). Morphologically and lexically Louisiana Creole resembles Saint-Domingue Creole, although there is evidence that Louisiana Creole was well established by the time Saint-Domingue refugees arrived in Louisiana. For many years, Louisiana Creole was predominantly a language of rural blacks in southern Louisiana. In the past, Louisiana Creole was also spoken by whites, including impoverished whites who worked alongside black slaves, as well as whites raised by black nannies.

French usage is no longer as widespread as it once was. As Americans from other states began to settle in Louisiana in large numbers after 1880, they became the dominant social group. As such, the local social groups were acculturated, and became bilingual. Eventually, however, the original language community of the Creoles, French and Louisiana Creole, began to be lost. At the end of the twentieth century, French is spoken only among the elderly, primarily in rural areas.


The past sayings of the Creoles were unusual and colorful. According to Leonard V. Huber in "Reflections on the Colorful Customs of Latter-Day New Orleans Creoles," an ugly man who has a protruding jaw and lower lip had une gueule de benitier (a mouth like a holy water font), and his face was une figure de pomme cuite (a face like a baked apple). A man who stayed around the house constantly was referred to as un encadrement (doorframe). The expression pauvres diables (poor devils) was applied to poor individuals. Anyone who bragged too much was called un bableur (a hot air shooter). A person with thin legs had des jambes de manches-à-balais (broomstick legs). An amusing expression for a person who avoided work was that he had les cotes en long (vertical ribs). Additional Creole colloquialisms are: un tonnerre a la voile (an unruly person); menterie (lie or story); frou-frou (giddy); homme de paille, pistolet de bois (a man who is a bluff).

Family and Community Dynamics

Traditionally, men were the heads of their household, while women dedicated their lives to home and family. The Creoles also felt it a duty to take widowed cousins and orphaned children of kinspeople into their families. Unmarried women relatives (tantes ) lived in many households. They provided a much-needed extra pair of hands in running the household and rearing the children. Creoles today are still closely knit and tend to marry within the group. However, many are also moving into the greater community and losing their Creole ways.


In the old days, Creoles married within their own class. The young man faced the scrutiny of old aunts and cousins, who were the guardians and authorities of old family trees. The suitor had to ask a woman's father for his daughter's hand. The gift of a ring allowed them to be formally engaged. All meetings of young people were strictly chaperoned, even after the engagement. Weddings, usually held at the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, were opulent affairs with Swiss Guards meeting the wedding guests and preceding them up the aisle. Behind the guests came the bride, accompanied by her father, and then the groom, escorting the bride's mother. The groom's parents followed, and then all the relatives of both bride and groom. A relative's absence was interpreted as a silent protest against the wedding. The bride's gown was handed down through generations or purchased in Paris to become an heirloom. Unlike today's weddings, there were no ring bearers, bridesmaids, or matrons of honor, or any floral decorations in the church. Ceremonies were held in the evenings. St. Louis Cathedral is still the place for New Orleans' Creole weddings, and many relatives still attend, though in fewer numbers.


Baptisms usually took place when the child was about a month old. The godfather (parrain ) and the god-mother (marraine ) were always relatives, usually from each side of the family. It was a decided honor to be asked to serve as a godparent. The marraine gave the infant a gift of a gold cross and chain, and the parrain offered either a silver cup or a silver knife and fork. The godfather also gave a gift to the godmother and paid for the celebration that followed the baptism. It was an expensive honor to be chosen parrain.


In the past, when someone died, each post in the Creole section of town bore a black-bordered announcement informing the public of the death and the time and place of the funeral. Usually the notices were put in the neighborhood where the dead person had lived, but if the deceased had wealth, notices would be placed all over the Vieux Carré. These notices were also placed at St. Louis Cathedral on a death notice blackboard. Invitations were issued for the funeral, and funeral services were held in the home.

The wearing of mourning was a rigorous requirement. The deceased's immediate family put on grand deuil (full mourning). During the six months of full mourning it was improper to wear jewelry or anything white or with colors. Men wore a black tie, a black crepe band on the hat, and sometimes a black band on the arm. After six months, the widow could wear black clothes edged with a white collar and cuffs. Slave or black Creole funeral processions often lasted an hour and covered a distance of less than six squares or one-third mile. News of the deaths were received through the underground route by a system of telegraph chanting.

Cemeteries held an important place in Creole life. A family tomb received almost as much attention as a church. To not visit the family tomb on All Saints' Day (November 1) was unforgivable. Some well-known cemeteries are St. Louis Number One, the oldest in Louisiana, and St. Louis Number Two. St. Roch Cemetery, which is noted for its shrine, was built by Father Thevis in fulfillment of a vow to Saint Roch for protection for the congregation of Holy Trinity Church from the yellow fever epidemic of 1868. Cypress Grove, Greenwood, and Metairie cemeteries are among the most beautiful burial grounds in Louisiana. Large structures resembling churches with niches for life-like marble statues of the saints may be found in Metairie Cemetery.


Roman Catholicism is strongly associated with Creoles. The French and Spanish cultures from which Creoles originate are so closely associated with Catholicism that some people assume that all Louisianians are Catholic and that all people in Louisiana are of French and/or Spanish ancestry. Records from churches in Mobile, New Orleans, and other parts of the area indicate the presence of both black and white Creoles in church congregations very early in the eighteenth century.

After segregation of the Catholic church in 1895, certain churches became identified with Creoles of color. In 1916 Corpus Christi Church opened in the seventh ward, within walking distance of many Creoles of color. St. Peter Claver, Epiphany, and Holy Redeemer are also associated with black populations. Each church has a parish school run by the Blessed Sacrament Sisters. St. Louis Cathedral and St. Augustine's Church are prominent in the larger Creole society, with women predominating in attendance. Today, only about half of the people in Louisiana are Catholics but the early dominance of Catholicism has left its mark on people of other denominations. In the southern part of the state, especially in New Orleans, place and street names are often associated with particular saints.

Almost all of the material written about Creoles describes a devotion to the Virgin Mary, All Saint's Day (November 1), and the many activities associated with the observance of Lent and Holy Week, especially Mardi Gras. Other important religious figures are St. Jude (the patron saint of impossible cases), St. Peter (who opens the gates of heaven), and St. Anthony (who helps locate lost articles).

Holy Week is closely observed by Creoles, both as a religious celebration and as a time of customs and superstition. On Holy Thursday morning, housewives, when they heard the ringing of church bells, used to take pots from the stove and place them on the floor, making the sign of the cross. Also, nine varieties of greens were cookeda concoction known as gumbo shebes. On Good Friday Creoles visited churches on foot and in silence to bring good fortune.

Few Protestants and no known Jews are found in the white Creole community. Today, many Creoles are nonpracticing Catholics with some agnostics, some atheists, and a very few professing a non-Catholic faith.

Employment and Economic Traditions

The Creoles' image of economic independence is rooted in the socioeconomic conditions of free people of color before the Civil War. Creoles of color were slave owners, land owners, and skilled laborers. Of the 1,834 free Negro heads of households in New Orleans in 1830, 752 owned at least one slave. New Orleans persons of color were far wealthier, more secure, and more established than blacks elsewhere in Louisiana.

Economic independence is highly valued in the colored Creole community. Being on welfare is a source of embarrassment, and many of those who receive government aid eventually drop out of the community. African Americans with steady jobs, respectable professions, or financial independence frequently marry into the community and become Creole, at least by association.

Creoles of color and black Creoles have been quick to adapt strategies that maintain their elite status throughout changing economic conditions. Most significant is the push to acquire higher education. Accelerated education has allowed Creoles to move into New Orleans' more prestigious neighborhoods, first to Gentilly, then to Pontchartrain Park, and more recently to New Orleans East.

Politics and Government

When the Constitutional Convention of 1811 met at New Orleans, 26 of its 43 members were Creoles. During the first few years of statehood, native Creoles were not particularly interested in national politics and the newly arrived Americans were far too busy securing an economic basis to seriously care much about political problems. Many Creoles were still suspicious of the American system and were prejudiced against it.

Until the election of 1834, the paramount issue in state elections was whether the candidate was Creole or Anglo-American. Throughout this period, many English-speaking Americans believed that Creoles were opposed to development and progress, while the Creoles considered other Americans radical in their political ideas. Since then, Creoles have actively participated in American politics; they have learned English to ease this process. In fact, Creoles of color have dominated New Orleans politics since the 1977 election of Ernest "Dutch" Morial as mayor. He was followed in office by Sidney Bartholemey and then by his son, Marc Morial.


During the War of 1812, many Creoles did not support the state militia. However, during the first session of Louisiana's first legislature in 1812, the legislature approved the formation of a corps of volunteers manned by Louisiana's free men of color. The Act of Incorporation specified that the colored militiamen were to be chosen from among the Creoles who had paid a state tax. Some slaves participated at the Battle of New Orleans, under General Andrew Jackson, and he awarded them their freedom for their valor. Many became known as "Free Jacks" because only the word "Free" and the first five letters of Jackson's signature, "Jacks," were legible.

Individual and Group Contributions


In 1858 and 1859 Paul Morphy (1837-1884) was the unofficial but universally acknowledged chess champion of the world. While he is little known outside chess circles, more than 18 books have been written about Morphy and his chess strategies.


Kate O'Flaherty Chopin (1851-1904) was born in St. Louis; her father was an Irish immigrant and her mother was descended from an old French Creole family in Missouri. In 1870 she married Oscar Chopin, a native of Louisiana, and moved there; after her husband's death, she began to write. Chopin's best-known works deal with Creoles; she also wrote short stories for children in The Youth's Companion. Bayou Folk (1894) and The Awakening (1899) are her most popular works. Armand Lanusse (1812-1867) was perhaps the earliest Creole of color to write and publish poetry. Born in New Orleans to French Creole parents, he was a conscripted Confederate soldier during the Civil War. After the war, he was principal of the Catholic School for Indigent Orphans of Color. There he, along with 17 others, produced an anthology of Negro poetry, Les Cenelles.


Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard (1818-1893), is perhaps the best known Louisiana Creole. He was born in New Orleans, educated in New York (unusual for the time), graduated from West Point Military Academy, and served with General Scott in the War with Mexico (1846). Beauregard was twice wounded in that conflict. He served as chief engineer in the draining of the site of New Orleans from 1858 to 1861. He was also a Confederate General in the Civil War and led the siege of Ft. Sumter in 1861. After the Civil War, Beauregard returned to New Orleans where he later wrote three books on the Civil War. He was elected Superintendent of West Point in 1869.


Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), was a pianist and composer born in New Orleans. His mother, Aimée Marie de Brusle, was a Creole whose family had come from Saint-Dominique. Moreau went to Paris at age 13 to study music. He became a great success in Europe at an early age and spent most of his time performing in concerts to support members of his family. His best known compositions are "Last Hope," "Tremolo Etudes," and "Bamboula." Gottschalk is remembered as a true Creole, thinking and composing in French. An important figure in the history and development of American jazz, "Jelly Roll" Ferdinand Joseph Lementhe Morton (1885-1941), was a jazz musician and composer born in New Orleans to Creole parents. As a child, he was greatly influenced by performances at the French Opera House. Morton later played piano in Storyville's brothels; these, too, provided material for his compositions. His most popular works are "New Orleans Blues," "King Porter Stomp," and "Jelly Roll Blues."



The Alexandria News Weekly.

Founded in 1975, this general newspaper for the African American community contains frequent articles about Creoles.

Contact: Rev. C. J. Bell, Editor.

Address: 1746 Wilson, Alexandria, Louisiana 71301.

Telephone: (318) 443-7664.

Bayou Talk.

A Cajun Creole newspaper.

Address: Jo-Val, Inc., Box 1344, West Covina, California 91793-1344.

Louisiana Weekly.

Black community newspaper published since 1925, which contains frequent articles about Creoles.

Contact: C. C. Dejoie, Jr., Publisher.

Address: 616 Barone Street, New Orleans, Louisiana 70150.

Telephone: (504) 524-5563.

The Times of Acadiana.

A weekly newspaper with Acadian/Creole emphasis.

Address: P.O. Box 3528, Lafayette, Louisiana 70502.

Telephone: (318) 237-3560.



Ethnic programs featuring Cajun and Zydeco music.

Contact: Ed Prendergast.

Address: 801 Columbia Southern Road, Westlake, Louisiana 70669.

Telephone: (318) 882-0243.


Features a weekly Creole broadcast with African American programming, news, and Zydeco music.

Contact: Roger Canvaness.

Address: 123 East Main Street, Alexandria, Louisiana 70501.

Telephone: (318) 233-1330.

Organizations and Associations

Creole American Genealogical Society (CAGS).

Formerly Creole Ethnic Association. Founded in 1983, CAGS is a Creole organization which promotes Creole American genealogical research. It provides family trees and makes available to its members books and archival material. Holds an annual convention.

Contact: P. Fontaine, Executive Director.

Address: P.O. Box 3215, Church Street Station, New York, New York 10008.

Museums and Research Centers

Amistad Research Center.

Independent, nonprofit research library, archive, and museum established by the American Missionary Association and six of its affiliated colleges. Collects primary source materials pertaining to the history and arts of American ethnic groups, including a substantial collection regarding Creoles.

Contact: Dr. Donald E. DeVore, Director.

Address: Tulane University, 6823 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana 70118.

Telephone: (504) 865-5535.

Fax: (504) 865-5580.

E-mail: [email protected].


Bayou Folk Museum.

Collects furniture, furnishings, and artifacts relating to the educational, religious, social, and economic life of Creoles. Contains agricultural tools, doctor's office with instruments, and a blacksmith shop. Guided tours, lectures for study groups, and permanent exhibits.

Contact: Marion Nelson or Maxine Southerland.

Address: P.O. Box 2248, Natchitoches, Louisiana 71457.

Telephone: (318) 352-2994.

Beau Fort Plantation Home.

Collects Louisiana Creole period furnishings, furniture, and ornaments for display in a 1790 Creole house.

Contact: Jack O. Brittain, David Hooper, or Janet LaCour.

Address: P.O. Box 2300, Natchitoches, Louisiana 71457.

Telephone: (318) 352-9580.

Creole Institute.

Studies include Haitian and linguistic and related educational issues, and French-based Creoles.

Contact: Albert Valdman, Director.

Address: Indiana University, Ballantine 604, Bloomington, Indiana 47405.

Telephone: (812) 855-4988.

Fax: (812) 855-2386.



Louisiana State University.

Contains local history and exhibits, tools for various trades, and historic buildings. Conducts guided tours, provides lectures, and has an organized education program.

Contact: John E. Dutton.

Address: 6200 Burden Lane, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70808.

Telephone: (504) 765-2437.

Sources for Additional Study

Ancelet, Barry Jane, Jay D. Edwards, and Glen Pitre. Cajun Country. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.

Brasseaux, Carl A., Keith P. Fontenot, and Claude F. Oubre. Creoles of Color in the Bayou Country. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

Bryan, Violet Harrington. The Myth of New Orleans in Literature: Dialogues of Race and Gender. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.

Creoles of Color of the Gulf South, edited by James H. Dormon. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996.

Davis, Edwin Adams. Louisiana: A Narrative History. Baton Rouge: Claitor's Book Store, 1965.

Dominguez, Virginia R. White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Dormon, James H. "Louisiana's 'Creoles of Color': Ethnicity, Marginality, and Identity," Social Science Quarterly 73, No. 3, 1992: 615-623.

Eaton, Clement. A History of the Old South: The Emergence of a Reluctant Nation, third edition. New York: Macmillan, 1975.

Ebeyer, Pierre Paul. Paramours of the Creoles. New Orleans: Molenaar Printing, 1944.

Fiehrer, Thomas. "From La Tortue to La Louisiane: An Unfathomed Legacy," in The Road to Louisiana: The Saint-Dominique Refugees, 1792-1809, edited by Carl A. Brasseaux and Glenn R. Conrad. Lafayette, Louisiana: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1992; 1-30.

Gehman, Mary. The Free People of Color of New Orleans: An Introduction. New Orleans: Margaret Media, Inc., 1994.

Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization, edited by Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Huber, Leonard V. "Reflections on the Colorful Customs of Latter-day New Orleans Creoles," Louisiana History, 21, No. 2, 1980; 223-235.

Kniffin, Fred B. Louisiana: Its Land and People. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968.


views updated May 21 2018





The English term creole derives from the Portuguese antecedent crioulo, which was adopted by the Spanish as criollo (person native to a locality) and the French as créole. The Portuguese word crioulo is a diminutive of cria, meaning a person raised in the house, usually a servant. The derivation is from the verb criar, to bring up or raise as children, from the Latin crere, to beget. Thus, from very early on the term has indicated novel creation, usually of a lower-status person, and has implied that this novelty is irregular, or out of place. The term gained currency during the initial growth of European colonial power in the sixteenth century. As European powers established colonies in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, new populations were created out of unions between the colonizers, local inhabitants, and immigrants (initially slaves or laborers) transported by Europeans. Initially, the term creole was assigned to people born in the colonies, to distinguish them from the upper-class, European-born immigrants. The application of the term has varied from place to place and era to era in important ways, and has also been used to designate languages that have evolved from historical experiences of cultural contact.


In general, a Creole language is a defined and stable language that arises from long-standing contact between two or more distinct languages. Prior to creolization, a rudimentary contact language is known as a pidgin. Typically, with Creole languages there are many distinctive features that do not derive from any of the parent tongues. In cases where a Creole person was simply a European born in the New World, there was usually no distinction between the language spoken by foreign colonials and their local, white, counterparts. However, as the notion of a Creole came to include anyone born in the New World, the term came to encompass hybrid linguistic forms, some of whose antecedents were not European languages. Generally, Creole populations occupied a low status in the eyes of European colonial administrators, thus Creole languages were regarded as impoverished dialects of the colonial languages, and eventually the term was used in opposition to the term language, rather than as a type of language. For example, one might say a French Creole as opposed to a Creole language based on French and Fon (a language of West Africa). However, in contemporary linguistics such distinctions are not made, and Creole languages are treated equally alongside other types of language. Furthermore, the term creole and its cognates in other languagessuch as crioulo, criollo, and so onare now applied to distinct languages and ethnic groups in many countries and from a variety of eras, and the terms all have rather different meanings.


The Portuguese term crioulo can be traced to the fifteenth century, when it gained currency in the trading and military outposts established by Portugal in West Africa and Cape Verde. Initially it simply meant a Portuguese person born and raised in the colony. (The word then came into use, in translation, by other colonial powers.) In the Portuguese colonies the crioulo population eventually came to comprise people of mixed Portuguese and African ancestry; especially as the growing numbers of people of mixed heritage dwarfed the population of local whites. In time, crioulos of mixed Portuguese and African descent produced important ethnic groups in Africa, especially in Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé e Príncipe, and Ziguinchor. These groups have come to think of themselves as culturally distinct from their neighbors. In Brazil, a Portuguese colony from the sixteenth century to 1822, the word came to mean a person with especially dark skin, indicating a strong African heritage. African slaves were imported into Brazil from the seventeenth century until the first half of the nineteenth century. The presence of large numbers of Africans from ethnically diverse origins led to a substantial mixed population as Africans and Europeans began to have children. Mixing was encouraged by many nationalist Brazilian intellectuals as a way of whitening the population thereby creating a unique, New World Brazilian identity separate from a Portuguese or European one. As a result, crioulo came to be a purely phenotypic label, with harsh, negative connotations.

As in the Portuguese colonies, the Spanish term criollo initially meant a person of unmixed Spanish ancestry born in the New World. Locally born Europeans were prohibited from holding offices of high rank and were often shunned socially by the ruling peninsulares, or Spaniards born on the Iberian Peninsula.

Eventually the exclusion of the criollos by the foreign-born Spanish led to widespread rebellion and the development of a nativist movement. By the 1830s these Creole-based nationalist wars of independence had spread throughout Spanish-speaking Latin America in the form of the Mexican War of Independence (18101821) and the South American Wars of Independence (18101825).

In other parts of the Spanish Empire the term criollo did not enjoy the same currency. Inhabitants of the Spanish colony of the Philippines, for example, generally referred to the locally born Spanish as Filipinos or insulares (from the islands). (Peninsulare was still the common name for those born in the Iberian Peninsula.) Today the term Filipino means quite the opposite, indicating a locally born, often ethnically mixed inhabitant of the Philippines. This transformation came about as a result of the Filipino nationalist movements of the late nineteenth century.

In the United States the word creole has a complex cluster of meanings and is often misunderstood. In general, a Creole is a person of any race or racial mixture descended from the original European settlers of French Louisiana prior to its incorporation into the United States via the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It is quite common for Americans in other parts of the country to assume that a Creole is a person of mixed African and European ancestry in Louisiana, but this is not the way the term has historically been used locally. Creoles encompass a wide variety of people of many ethnicities and races who share a French or even Spanish background. Most commonly, a Creole person can lay claim to a francophone heritage from either France or a French-speaking Caribbean island such as Haiti (Saint Domingue prior to 1804), Martinique, or Guadeloupe. White and colored migrants from these regions brought their French-speaking, predominantly African slaves with them, thereby establishing a racially heterogeneous Creole population of Louisianans. The Louisiana French, who trace their ancestry to the Acadians of French Canada, usually identify themselves as Cajun. The distinction is sometimes made for local cuisine as well, with a distinction being made between Creole food, which has many African elements, and Cajun cooking, which derives from the culinary practices of mostly white, often rural Cajun-French speakers in Louisiana.

Although in the Americas Creoles were initially Europeans born in the New World, the idea of a mixed population being a Creole population has gained wide currency. Indeed, creolization has come to mean the blending of one or more cultural identities into a new, hybrid identity. Toward that end, people of mixed native Alaskan and Russian ancestry are frequently called Alaskan Creoles. In the late eighteenth century Russian adventurers, hunters, and traders known as promyshleniki came into contact with and married or formed unions with native Alaskan women, giving rise to a people who assumed a prominent position in the economy of fur trading in the northern Pacific. For example, by 1880, the U.S. census documented fifty-three Creoles (people of Russian-Sugpiaq ancestry) living in Ninilchik, a village located on the west coast of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. There also exist varieties of Russian-native Alaskan languageseither pidgins or Creolesthroughout the region, such as Copper Island Aleut, a mixed Aleut-Russian language spoken on Mednyy, or Copper Island.

In the English-speaking Caribbean a Creole was originally a European born in the New World, but the term is most commonly used to describe anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, who was born and raised in the region. It is also in the English-speaking, formerly British colonial Caribbean that the term has come to indicate the syncretism or blending of the various cultural forms or institutions: African, French, British, and Spanish, among others. Creolization in this context can mean anything from syncretized religious forms such as Vodou, Santeria, and Orisha, to culinary practices, to musical forms such as calypso, reggae, mambo, zouk, merengue, and many others. Yet the term also may have a variety of local meanings. In Trinidad, for instance, Creole culture generally refers to the practices of local African-Trinidadians as opposed to local whites (often known as French Creoles) and Indo-Trinidadians (the descendants of Indian indentured laborers brought to the island from 1845 to 1917).

In Réunion island and Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, Creoles fall generally into two categories: (Malagasy) Creoles and Creole-Mazambe. The former were brought in as slaves to work the plantations of Mauritius (as well as Réunion and Seychelles). These laborers were mostly Malagasy (natives of Madagascar), but other African minorities, from Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia, also were enslaved. In present-day Mauritius Creoles of all kinds are outnumbered by the Indo-Mauritians; however, they still form the majority in Réunion and the Seychelles. Although English is the official language of Mauritius, a French-based Creole language is widely used by all ethnic groups.


Black, Lydia T. 2004. Russians in Alaska, 17321867. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.

Boswell, Rosabelle. 2005. Slavery, Blackness, and Hybridity: Mauritius and the Malaise Creole. London: Kegan Paul.

Brading, David A. 1993. The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492-1866. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Garraway, Doris. 2005. The Libertine Colony: Creolization in the Early French Caribbean. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Holm, John. 2000. An Introduction to Pidgins and Creoles. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Kein, Sybil, ed. 2000. Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisianas Free People of Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Lambert, David. 2005. White Creole Culture, Politics, and Identity During the Age of Abolition. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Sansone, Livio. 2003. Blackness without Ethnicity: Constructing Race in Brazil. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Philip W. Scher


views updated May 23 2018

CREOLE A term relating to people and LANGUAGES especially in the erstwhile colonial tropics and subtropics, in the Americas, Africa, the Indian Ocean, and Oceania. In Portuguese, crioulo appears to have referred first to an animal or person born at home, then to a black African slave in Brazil who was born in his or her master's house. In the 17–18c, particularly in the West Indies, the term creole could mean both a descendant of European settlers (a white creole) or a descendant of African slaves (a creole Negro or Negro creole). Later, it came to apply also to life and culture in creole societies: for example, the (French) Creole cuisine of Louisiana. Since the later 19c, the term has extended to include a language spoken by creoles and has acquired a new sense in LINGUISTICS, associated with the development of PIDGIN languages.

Creole languages

In sociolinguistic terms, these languages have arisen through contact between speakers of different languages. This contact first produces a makeshift language called a pidgin; when this is nativized and becomes the language of a community, it is a creole. Such languages are often known locally as pidgin or creole, but may have such specific names as AKU in Gambia and Papiamentu in the Netherlands Antilles. They are usually given labels by sociolinguists that refer to location and principal lexifier language (the language from which they draw most of their vocabulary): for example, JAMAICAN CREOLE, in full Jamaican Creole English or Jamaican English Creole, the English-based creole spoken in Jamaica. Haitian Creole French is spoken in Haiti and is French-based. Creoles based on English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese occur in the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

Creole English

There are many English-based creoles. In West Africa, they include Aku in GAMBIA, KRIO in SIERRA LEONE, Kru English in LIBERIA, and KAMTOK in CAMEROON. In the Caribbean and the neighbouring mainland they include BAJAN in BARBADOS, CREOLESE in GUYANA, MISKITO COAST CREOLE in Nicaragua, Sranan in SURINAM, Trinbagonian in TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO, and the creoles of the Bay Islands of Honduras. In North America, they include Afro-Seminole, Amerindian Pidgin English, and GULLAH. In Oceania, they include BISLAMA in Vanuatu, BROKEN in the Torres Straits, HAWAII CREOLE ENGLISH, KRIOL in Northern Australia, PIJIN in the Solomon Islands, and TOK PISIN in Papua New Guinea. It has been argued that AFRICAN-AMERICAN VERNACULAR ENGLISH in the US has creole origins since it shares many features with English-based creoles in the Caribbean. In the UK, British Black English, spoken by immigrants from the Caribbean and their children, has features inherited from CARIBBEAN ENGLISH CREOLE.

Shared features

Typical grammatical features in European-based creoles include the use of preverbal negation and subject-verb-object word order: for example (from Sranan in Surinam) A no koti a brede He didn't cut the bread. Many use the same item for both existential statements and possession: for example, get in Guyanese Creole Dem get wan uman we get gyal pikni There is a woman who has a daughter. They lack a formal passive: for example, in Jamaican Creole no distinction is made in the verb forms in sentences such as Dem plaan di tri (They planted the tree) and Di tri plaan (The tree was planted). Creoles tend to have no copula and adjectives may function as verbs: for example, Jamaican Creole Di pikni sik The child is sick. Most creoles do not show any syntactic difference between questions and statements: for example, Guyanese Creole I bai di eg dem can mean ‘He bought the eggs’ or ‘Did he buy the eggs?’ (although there is a distinction in intonation). Question words in creoles tend to have two elements, the first generally from the lexifier language: for example, Haitian Creole ki kote (from qui and cˆté, ‘which’ and ‘side’) meaning where, and Kamtok wetin (from what and thing) meaning what. It has been claimed that many syntactic and semantic similarities among creoles are due to an innate ‘bioprogram’ for language, and that creoles provide the key to understanding the original evolution of human language.


The process of becoming a creole may occur at any stage as a make-shift language develops from trade jargon to expanded pidgin, and can happen under drastic conditions, such as where a population of slaves speaking many languages has to develop a common language among slaves and with overseers. In due course, children grow up speaking the pidgin as their main language, and when this happens it must change to meet their needs. Depending on the stage at which creolization occurs, different types of structural expansion are necessary before the language can become adequate. In the case of Jamaican Creole, it is thought that a rudimentary pidgin creolized within a generation, then began to de-creolize towards general English. Tok Pisin, however, first stabilized and expanded as a pidgin before it became creolized; in such cases, the transition between the two stages is gradual rather than abrupt.

The term is also applied to cases where heavy borrowing disrupts the continuity of a language, turning it into a creole-like variety, but without a prior pidgin stage. Some researchers have argued that Middle English is a creole that arose from contact with Norse during the Scandinavian settlements (8–11c) and then with French after the Norman Conquest (11c). In addition to massive lexical borrowing, many changes led to such simplification of grammar as loss of the Old English inflectional endings. It is not, however, clear that these changes were due solely to language contact, since other languages have undergone similar restructurings in the absence of contact, as for example when Latin became Italian.

De-creolization is a further development in which a creole gradually converges with its superstrate or lexifier language: for example, in Hawaii and Jamaica, both creoles moving towards STANDARD ENGLISH. Following the creolization of a pidgin, a POST-CREOLE CONTINUUM may develop when, after a period of relatively independent linguistic development, a post-pidgin or post-creole variety comes under a period of renewed influence from the lexifier language. De-creolization may obscure the origins of a variety, as in the case of American Black English.


Pidgin and creole languages were long neglected by the academic world, because they were not regarded as ‘real’ or ‘fully-fledged’ languages, but their study is currently regarded as significant for general linguistics as well as the study of such languages as English. The study of pidgins and creoles has been rapidly expanding as linguists interested in language acquisition, language change, and universal grammar have taken more notice of them. Since pidgins and creoles are generally spoken in Third World countries, their role and function are intimately connected with a variety of political questions concerned with national, social, and economic development and transition into post-colonial societies. Some countries give official recognition to pidgin and creole languages, among them PAPUA NEW GUINEA, VANUATU, and Haiti. Pidgin and creole languages also function as symbols of solidarity in many parts of the world where their use is increasing.



views updated May 18 2018


In Spanish America, the term "creole" (criollo) refers to people of European descent, especially Spaniards who were born in the New World—in contrast to peninsulares, born in Europe. Because few Spanish women came to the colonies, creoles often were not exclusively of European descent. Nevertheless, they represented a privileged group that held much of the land and economic power in the colonies, although they often felt discrimination from Spanish-born peninsulares in political and economic privileges. Creoles occupied many of the positions in the bureaucracy and were legally equal to peninsulares, although a tendency under the Bourbons to appoint peninsulares to office heightened the rivalry between these two groups in the eighteenth century and contributed to independence sentiment. Creoles led the independence movements in the early nineteenth century and were the group that inherited political power in Hispanic America. They imposed a strong conservative legacy in their domination of the higher clergy, military officer corps, and the landowning and merchant elites, often in collaboration with foreign investors.

The term criollo or créole also was used in Portuguese and French colonies to indicate those of European descent, while in Brazil criolo defines a black person of African descent. In modern Latin America the term often refers to characteristics that are especially native or traditional to the country, for example, "creole cuisine."

In English-speaking areas, especially those once ruled by France or Spain, the term has been corrupted to mean not only those of French or Spanish descent but also those of mixed, often African, descent, as in the British Caribbean, Haiti, or Louisiana; indeed, in modern times, it has come to be applied to virtually all the native inhabitants. In much of the Caribbean, it also often refers to the mixed European-African language spoken by natives of the former colonies.

Since the term is used in different ways in different regions, the context of its use is important for understanding its precise meaning.

See alsoPeninsular; Race and Ethnicity.


Severo Martínez Peláez, La patria del criollo: Ensayo de interpretación de la realidad colonial guatemalteca (1970).

Mark A. Burkholder and D. S. Chandler, From Impotence to Authority: The Spanish Crown and the American Audiencias, 1687–1808 (1977).

Barbara Lalla and Jean D'costa, Language in Exile: Three Hundred Years of Jamaica Creole (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Brading, D. A. The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492–1867. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Cañizares-Esguerra, Jorge. Nature, Empire, and Nation: Explorations of the History of Science in the Iberian World. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Díz Caballero, Jesús. "El incaísmo como primera ficción orientadora en la formación de la nación criolla en las provincias unidas del Río de la Plata." A Contracorriente 3.1 (Fall 2005 ǀ Otoño 2005): 67-113.

Mazzotti, José Antonio, ed. Agencias criollas: La ambigüedad "colonial" en las letras hispanoamericanas. Pittsburgh, PA: Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana, Universidad de Pittsburgh, 2000.

Poupeney-Hart, Catherine, and Albino Chacón Gutiérrez. El discurso colonial: Construcción de una diferencia americana. Heredia: Editorial Universidad Nacional, 2002.

Stephens, Thomas M. Dictionary of Latin American Racial and Ethnic Terminology. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1989.

                              Ralph Lee Woodward Jr.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Cre·ole / ˈkrēˌōl/ (also cre·ole) • n. 1. a person of mixed European and black descent, esp. in the Caribbean. ∎  a descendant of Spanish or other European settlers in the Caribbean or Central or South America. ∎  a white descendant of French settlers in Louisiana and other parts of the southern U.S.2. a mother tongue formed from the contact of two languages through an earlier pidgin stage.• adj. of or relating to a Creole or Creoles.


views updated Jun 27 2018


The label "Creole" is used in the Caribbean and Middle America with considerable imprecision. Today it usually means a person or group of African or African and some othersuch as Indian or Europeanancestry. Such groupings include Creoles of Belize, Costa Rica, Dominíca, the Grenadines, and the Miskito Coast. Other groups, such as Haitians, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Katicians, also fit this definition of "Creole" but are not referred to as such. Thus, the label "Creole" serves to distinguish those of African ancestry from those of European, Indian, or mixed European and Indian ancestry in multiethnic nations.


views updated May 17 2018

Creole a person of mixed European and black descent, especially in the Caribbean; descendant of Spanish or other European settlers in the Caribbean or Central or South America; a white descendant of French settlers in Louisiana and other parts of the southern US.

Creole also denotes a mother tongue formed from the contact of a European language (especially English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese) with local languages (especially African languages spoken by slaves in the W. Indies), usually through an earlier pidgin stage.

The name comes via French and Spanish, probably from Portuguese crioulo ‘black person born in Brazil, home-born slave’, from criar ‘to breed’, from Latin creare ‘produce, create’.


views updated May 23 2018

Creole Person born in the West Indies, Latin America, or s USA, but of foreign or mixed descent. Generally, a Creole's ancestors were either African slaves or French, Spanish or English settlers. In the USA, it also refers to someone of mixed European and African ancestry. Creole language is a pidgin, adopted as the native language of a community (English, French, Portuguese) and influenced by the native languages of the community's ancestors.


views updated May 18 2018

Creole (descendant of) European or Negro settler in the W. Indies, etc. XVII (criole). — F. créole, earlier criole — Sp. criollo, prob. — Pg. crioulo Negro born in Brazil, home-born slave, formerly of animals reared at home, f. criar nurse, breed :- L. creāre CREATE.


views updated Jun 11 2018

créole The traditional cuisine of Louisiana and the French‐speaking Caribbean. See also criolla.