AN intelligent understanding of the meaning of the word Creole, as used in Louisiana, must hark back, through bewildering etymological mutations, to the original and genuine sense, the etymon, of the word as used in the Spanish colonies years before the complex society of the earliest settlements at New Orleans and vicinity decreed the necessity for a differentiating nomenclature, describing the different kinds of peoples, and gave rise to its employment. Etymologists are agreed that the word, in its remotest philological analysis, comes from the Latin creare, to create (Spanish criollo) implying, in a sense, creations of the mother country in a new clime, Creoles; yet, whatever be the genesis of the word, it will come home to one who laboriously studies the writings referring to the subject (I will not say authorities, for, in all sincerity, there are none) that, while etymologically the word has a very distinct and, to the impartial philologist, unequivocal meaning, to the great body even of well informed writers as well as to the mass of mankind, the word means nothing. Nor is this to be wondered at when we consider how few words possess narrow and explicit meanings, even the word man, describing originally the ideal type, intellectually and physically symmetrical, having come to be the common symbol for athletes and cripples, philosophers and pickpockets.
The general misunderstanding of the word, prevailing even among scholars, is exemplified in the definition given in the Century Dictionary, wherein the following appears: "In Louisiana: (a) originally a native descended from French ancestors, who had settled there; later, any native of French or Spanish descent by either parent; a person belonging to the French-speaking portion of the white race. (6) A native-born negro, as distinguished from a negro brought from Africa."
To the first part of this definition, namely, that the original signification in Louisiana of the word "Creole" was that of a native descended from French ancestors who had settled there, exception is to be taken on the score of its being incorrectly restrictive. One of the earliest writers upon matters pertaining to Louisiana, M. Bossu, a French captain of marines, who visited Louisiana during the time of the governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil (1743-53), a scientist trained to definiteness and accuracy of statement — botanist and ornithologist — has said: "The Creoles are those that are born of a French man and a French woman or of European parents". Even in those early days we have the testimony of a scholar to the indefinity of the word. Again, the second statement of the Century definition is incorrect, for the same reason applicable to the first; it is too restrictive. There are, and have always been in Louisiana, since a period so nearly contemporary with the beginning of the use of the word "Creole'' in the territory as to admit of no argument on the accuracy of the assertion, Creoles of German descent, and of Irish descent, and there are progeny of these whose names would inevitably be mentioned by the informed in an enumeration of representative Creole families of the state, such are the Waguespacks of St. James (German), the McCarthys of New Orleans (Irish), Pollocks (Scotch-Irish).
The last sentence of the Century definition is, in respect of the signification of the word in Louisiana (and I take it to be axiomatic that the meaning of a word must be sought among the people, the exigencies of whose social life gave rise to its employment), an injustice to the Creoles, to whom the title properly belongs, and an injury as pronounced as it is difficult to explain. In plain truth, no white Louisianian ever calls a negro a Creole. Therein lies the key to the whole misunderstanding. It is the negroes themselves who delight in the title, who seek by every means to gather to themselves something of the dignity of their masters, who adroitly turn to the account of that ambition for identification with the whites, which is at once one of the most marked and sinister characteristics of the race, every turn in the confusion which this unfortunate word creates. And there are circumstances in league with this tendency which it may be well to examine: First, the misinformation (I hesitate to ascribe it to anything so petty as prejudice) of writers; second, the fact that the dominant lexicographical meaning imputed to the word embodies the idea of its referring to negroes.
That most sincere, prudent and painstaking examinator, Lafcadio Hearn, has left, among other monuments to his genius in these parts, a quaint little volume bearing the title "Gombo Zhebes," in which are preserved proverbs from "six Creole dialects," enumerated as those of French Guayana, Hayti, New Orleans, La., Martinique, Mauritius and Trinidad. Hearn uses the word in its Islands sense, in its general application throughout the volume, but in the introduction he is careful to prefix the adjective colored when he refers to negroes. If the word of itself implied the possession of negro blood even in the Islands, this most careful and selective etymologist would not have used the superfltious prefix colored. Yet the fact remains — despite Hearn's curious observation, that even in the Islands and Colonies the word does not necessarily involve the idea of negro blood — that in those places and as of these places, the word means, in its quickest use, negro.
Gayarre, in his scholarly and indignant pamphlet, "The Creoles of History and the Creoles of Romance," wherein he inveighs against the fictionist trifling with matters too close to fireside honor for any but the calm and honorable portrayal of the faithful pen, has made the same point as that made by Hearn. He says: "The word Creole in the course of time was so extended as to apply not merely to children born of European parents, but also to animals, vegetables and fruits, and to everything produced or manufactured in Louisiana. There were Creole horses, Creole cattle, Creole eggs, creole corn, Creole cottonade, etc. The negroes born within her limits were Creoles to distinguish them from the imported Africans and from those who, long after, were brought from the United States."
Here, then, is the sharp point: that the negro, ever in Louisiana a chattel, was but given the distinguishing name of his master, and his master's effects. As the eggs of his master's hens were Creole eggs and the king of his master's field were Creole cattle, so he was a creole negro. There were creole Negroes, not negro Creoles; and upon the bald fact represented by this ultimate analysis, corruption and all the vices and vagaries of the languages of a polyglot country have labored to rear the bewildering fabric of confusion into which this most unfortunate of words has resolved itself to-day.
Gayarre himself, the passionate champion of the Creoles of Louisiana, gives us a plain, rational definition: "Creole means the issue of European parents in Spanish or French colonies." P. F. de Goumay, in a scholarly article published in the Magazine of American History, and obviously deriving its inspiration from Gayarre's pamphlet, sharply defines Creole, "The descendant of a Colonist." An old lexicon published at Philadelphia in 1835, The Encyclopedia Americana, edited by Francis Lieber, based upon the seventh edition of the German Conversations-Lexicon, gives a definition, which, carrying with it the warranty of German carefulness, as well as that of having been written at a time nearer the birth of the word, is of interest as verifying what has already been said. The definition is as follows: "Creole (from the Spanish criollo) is the name which was originally given to all the descendants of Spaniards born in America and the West Indies. It is also used for the descendants of other Europeans, as French, Danes, in which we say French-Creole, Danish-Creole." It is significant that no reference is had to negro Creoles, though there were thousands of human beings in the West Indies, contemporary with this writing, who might have been so called had not the unyielding distinctiveness of the word prevented its being so employed. Further along in the same writing, is found the following: '"In the West Indies the Creoles have always enjoyed equal rights with native Europeans. Before the declaration of independence by the colonies of Spanish America, there existed marked lines of distinction between the different classes, founded on differences of birth. The Chapetones were European by birth and first in rank and power; the Creoles were the second; the Mulaitoes and Mestizoes (descendants of white and black or white and Indian parents) formed the third class; negroes and Indians the fourth."
The word in Louisiana has suffered from abuses difficult and dangerous to analyze. Those entitled to the name have, with a generosity and hospitality characteristic of their class, admitted to the honorable privileges of the title, families in no sense entitled to its distinction. Such have been persons coming here since the colonial period, speaking French, taking up their residence in the Creole section, adopting the manners and customs of colonial descendants, yet no more entitled by any valid argument to be called Creoles than a Louisianan taking up his residence in Staten Island after the colonial period, might lay claim to the distinction of Knickerbocker. So it is that, with negroes, bastard children and ill-informed writers and lexicographers on the one hand seeking to Africanize the honorable word, and greedy tradesman, or ambitious or obscure vulgarians, planning to elevate themselves commercially and socially under the magical mantle, it would be strange, indeed, did not a confusion exist, which the splenetic and the designing have not been slow in turning to account. Yet the fact remains that, at this late day there is no stemming the tide of misuse to which the word is a victim, and the old and genuine Creoles, admitting to their ranks the newcomers — with a proper moderate reserve to themselves — are themselves contributory towards the destruction of a term which, in its Louisiana sense, has been accepted throughout the civilized world as among the proudest warranties of a gentle, cultured, patrician people to be foimd on the Western Hemisphere.
The home life of the Creoles has ever been one of repose, affection and refinement. They are an intensely domestic people, loving their homes and their families, cherishing the tenderest and most considerate affection for their kinsmen to the remotest degree, and recognizing them with no diminution of respect and esteem, even when adversity may have widely separated their ways of life. It is not surprising that a people so affectionate, coming of Latin blood, heated by the warm suns of a semi-tropical country, should be endowed with violent prejudices and passions. So it was that the duello flourished among them as a favorite institution, and many is the proud scion of the race has fallen upon the field of honor. The favorite duelling place of the Creoles was at "The Oaks," now the Lower City Park, and the more immediate scene of some of the most famous encounters was at a collection of oaks known as "Les Trois Soeurs," situated near where is now a Jewish burying ground at the intersection of Gentilly Road and the track of the old Ponchartrain railroad.
Partly as a consequence of the custom of duelling and partly as a cause of that custom, the Creole's inherent respect for women became a reverence. Wives, sisters and sweethearts shared with the church the holiest respect of the Creole gentleman's daily life. Courage, activity and endurance have ever been
characteristic of the Creole men, as distinguishing as the beauty and virtue of the women. In every war in which they have been engaged they have won the name of being the most patient and enduring under hardship and fatigue, and the most gallant, daring and unconquerable in action. They possess a fine faculty
of adaptability, their cheerful, buoyant, merry nature, making the most of repose and perpetually fortifying itself for the surprising expenditure of energy they are able to put forth when occasion arises.
Leaving care to slaves, the Creoles of the prosperous days before the Civil War, at once kept an eye to the material wants of life, and cultivated the most princely and refined society of the day, educating their sons in Paris, their daughters in the refining and spiritualizing atmosphere of Catholic convents, and so producing a race of fiery, spirited, chivalrous, cultured men and delicately beautiful, modest and charmingly feminine women.
A significant and instructive event in connection with the Creoles of New Orleans occurred on the twenty-fourth day of June, in the year 1886, when by act before Charles T. Soniat, notary public, was chartered the Creole Association of Louisiana. The objects and purposes of the association are set forth in the charter, by-laws and rules of the association, as follows: "Literary, social, charitable, and mutual benevolence; to give one another mutual aid, assistance and protection within the powers of this organization; to disseminate knowledge concerning the true origin and real character, and to promote the advancement of the Creole race in Louisiana." Article third of the charter authorized the association to organize branches in each of the parishes of the state, and as an earnest of the determination of purpose of the organization, Article nine provided that no dissolution of this association shall take place so long as ten members in good standing shall remain willing to continue. This charter was originally signed by the following gentlemen: A. Schreiber, F. P. Poche, Charles J. Villere, And. L. Romain, A. Lanaux, A. C. Landry, John Augustin, Paul E. Th6ard, L. And. Burthe, Octave Morel, Frank D. Chretien, Greo. H. Theard, J. B. Levert, Chas. Letellier, Ete. Camille Mire, James M. Augustin, Louis Burthe, L. V. Porche, Chas. de Lassus, Chas. T. Theard, D. Burthe, Alcee Fortier, Chas. F. Claiborne, Jno. L. Peytavin, Ete. Blanc, P. L. Bouny, Just. Comes, Charles Parlange, Anthony Sambola, Hugues J. Lavergne, L. E. Lemarie, B. Sarrat, Placide J. Spear, C. E. Schmidt, Albert Paul, Horatio Lange, Geo. W. Hopkins, F. Leonce Fazende, A. Mendes, Thomas Layton, J. 0. Landry, Wm. Sanchez, Dr. A. B. de Villeneuve, C. A. Phillippi, Leon Fazende, A. J. de risle, F. Formento, M. D., Q. M. Isley, Henry Chiapella, Jno. C. Delavigne, Th. Soniat du Fossat, Cyrille C. Theard, Adolphe Calonge, E. J. Meral, E. Surgi, Jas. Thibaut, Paul Fortier, R. La Branche, J. E. De Wint, J. D. Terrebonne, Thos. J. Cooley, Jr., P. Alb. Roquet, Raoul Dupre, Alex. Laroque Turjeau, B. M. Nebrano, Chas. Laudumiey, Chas. Fuselier, Geo. Staigg, Lamar C. Quintero, James Legendre, J. N. Augustin, Dr. A. H. Parra, James L. Lemarie, E. Bermudez, G. T. Beauregard, R. T. Beauregard, George W. Dupr6, Geo. Guinalt. Ernest Miltenberger, Jules J. d'Aquin, H. J. Maloche, Wm. J. Grahan, Jas. Freret, John A. Betat, J. T. Morel, Oct. Robert, Charles de Gruy, Charles Fourton, F. C. Fazende, C. T. Soniat.
A piece of private history, not heretofore divulged, explains why so distinguished and typical a Creole name as that of the historian, Charles Gayarre, should not have been signed to the charter. The letter is now given, not only because it is typical of the sensitiveness of the race of which Louisiana's illustrious historian was so distinguished an exponent, but because it casts a quiet side-light upon the proud and self-sacrificing character of Gayarre himself. The letter is addressed to Charles T. Soniat, notary public, under date of June, 1886, and reads as follows:
Dear Sir: I lately received a postal card requesting me to call at my earliest convenience at your office, No. 13 Carondelet Street and sign the charter of the Creole Association of Louisiana. The postal card is not signed, but presuming that it comes from your office, I address my reply thereto. I regret to say that, being uncertain of my daily bread, I cannot join any association that would entail any expense on me, and without being in that respect on a footing of equality with all its members. Very respectfully, Charles Gayarre.
The meeting at which permanent organization of the Creole Association of Louisiana was accomplished, was held at the old Grunewald Opera House, June 20, 1886. At the meeting the following officers were elected: President, F. P. Poche; vice-president, Charles A. Villere; recording secretary, A. L. Remain; financial secretary, Major John Augustin; treasurer, A. C. Landry.
The president of the association, a late Justice of the Supreme Court of Louisiana, being absent from the city at the time, the address of the occasion was delivered by Col. Villere, a lineal descendant of the Villere of the Lafreniere insurrection, and vice-president of the association. This speech was widely. reproduced in journals throughout the country at the time, being accepted as an authoritative enunciation by the Creoles, through their own selected mouth-piece. The speech which was very long is here reproduced in its more important parts:
Ladies, Gentlemen and Brothers: — The object of this meeting is to lay before the Association the by-laws and rules adopted by the Board of Control. It has also a greater object — to spread fuller information with regard to our intentions. To those who have not stopped to study our organization, let me give the assurance that they and their children are to receive benefits from its success. We are working for all, "and it shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water that brought forth his fruit in his season ; his leaf also shall not wither."
As your presiding officer, allow me a few remarks on the spirit, the scope and purpose of the Association you are requested and urged to join. "They (the press) realize that we, as Creoles, are combining, not for the advancement of the few to the detriment of the many, but having seriously at heart the prosperity and aggrandizement of the whole State controlling a might, which, strong in favor of good government, could and should, at the proper time, be utilized.
If such an organization is indispensable, the very attacks it has received evidence. It is also clear that Creoles have a dormant power which, if vivified, would be a factor of no mean significance. We shall strive to emulate others. We hope to do, in our sphere, as much good as the New England, the Hibernian, the German, the French, the Swiss, the Italian and other organizations long in existence, and of which numbers of us are members in the best standing.
We have adopted the appellation of Creoles in no exclusive sense. To have rejected it would have been a confession of weakness; it would have been a retreat, and we are mutually pledged to forward march. As Creoles we are known; our manhood revolts against an unfavorable discrimination. As Creoles we entered the race, and we see plainly great results for all, for ourselves, for our posterity.
Let no craven heart enter our ranks. Let no man, repudiating the tongue in which his first prayers were lisped, join us. Let no one so lost to shame, so miserably mean, so abject as to curse his fathers, come to us. But come the brave, patient, the industrious — come, come, crowd our phalanx, and engage in the great work so splendidily mauguarated.
We, Creoles of Louisiana, claim our share of pluck, energy, intelligence and patriotism. Our ancestors colonized the thin, vast limits of Louisiana; they were the first on this continent to sow the seeds of independence and to water it with their life's blood, and from sire to son a most chivalrous spirit was transmitted. We wish to write the history of our people, to hold them up to the light of day, to draw them out of their blameable retirement, to keep fresh in the memory of all, not only the names of the early settlers, but to hold up as exemplary of great citizenship, the careers of Claiborne, Livingston, Johnson, Walker, Porter, Boyd, Ogden, Guion, NichoUs, Morse, Thurmann, Fenner, Minor, Nott, Palfey, Baker, Gordon, White, Martin, Urquhart, Kost, Eustis and hosts of others who have made of this State a garden spot and controlled her destinies in their day and generation.
Where now stands an incomplete and neglected monument, Creoles, unarmed, faced the veterans of England, defending all that is most sacred to man. From Texas to the halls of the Montezumas they acted a glorious part. In the late war, how sublime their record! every battle field is an historic tale of their unsurpassed valor. They were not mere soldiers — stipendiaries of power — they were educated men, who knowing their rights, dared maintain them.
On the 14th of September, a date which should ever be memorable and dear to freedom, and especially so to this great and hospitable city, Creole boys rushed to the front and vied in heroism with veterans of many a hard fought battle. Who dares assert that Creoles have been unworthy of public trust — who dares assert that they have not been jealous of their country's honor as of their own? Have they not given proofs of common sense, practical knowledge, and of the highest order of talent! I refer to the records— they speak in authoritative tones; "The Creoles of Louisiana have, for this state at least, an interest; they have adopted principles of such liberality; they are prompted by desires so laudable, that they feel confident of the support of all classes, having within the State material or sentimental interests. We have launched an argosy freighted with influence on the true position to be occupied by all those, either of Creole origin or connected with the valiant race by sympathies, ties of blood or affinity. The necessity of this Association, organized under auspices so favorable to its full and proper development, has long been felt, and the minds of our best and truest men were occupied how to combine the shattered forces." There is a tide in the affairs of men. Today we are a corporate body, and we point with exultant pride to the names of our members — soldiers with untarnished fame, jurists and lawyers honored by erudition, unrelenting labors, and integrity of a noble profession; physicians whose acquirements, researches and abnegations should thrill the heart of any community with admiration and gratitude. We are battling for our rights, and under a name, scoffed at, ridiculed, blackened, tortured, deformed, caricatured; our vindication is of importance far and wide. This is our soil; we are in the house of our fathers. It would take the eloquence of Gratton or of Emmet, the persuasive power of Parnell, to convey a feeling as deep as it is natural to the human heart. We have an abiding confidence in the discernment of the generous community in which we live, and I feel assured of the influence and kind services of the pure, self-sacrificing, intelligent women of our State, and in the name of the Creole Association, I express the respect and gratitude of strong and proud men to the fair and accomplished daughters of our beloved Louisiana.
The following letter from the Secretary of the Association was published at the time (June, 1886), in the Picayune, and is interesting as explaining somewhat more in detail than the speech of Col. Villere, the aims and ambitions of the Creole Association: "Editor Picayune: The very kind notice given of the birth of the 'Creole Association' by the Picayune, the Times-Democrat, the Star and the Bee is thankfully acknowledged by the founders of that society. It has encouraged the members of the Provisional Board of Control to crave a space in your columns, so as to further elucidate whatever may seem to be still obscure or mysterious, and in order to develop more fully the exact scope and purpose of the organization.
"As clearly indicated in its declaration of principles, its paramount object, in fact, the very cornerstone of the whole structure, is to disseminate knowledge — not sporadically, but continuously — concerning the true origin and real character of the Creoles of Louisiana, hoping thereby to destroy the many prejudices still existing against them — begotten, no doubt, by ignorance, but fostered by hate — one of the most painful and revolting of which is, that they are of an inferior race and not the equals, as a class, of their fellow- American citizens of another ancestry.
"It is truly amazing that the descendants of the earliest settlers of the Southwest, who are to Louisiana what the descendants of the Dutch and the Huguenots are to New York and South Carolina, should be so persistently misrepresented as the Creoles, whose ancestors, be it remembered, bore that name and received it with becoming pride, as letters patent of nobility issued to them in commemoration of numerous deeds of endurance, valor and industry ; while on the other hand, the Knickerbockers of New York and the French Protestants of South Carolina are considered to-day as the very best in the land and eagerly cling to the traditions of the past.
"Yet such is the stern, palpable fact, which is to be met squarely and not evaded, and which cannot be denied, for the evidence is overwhelming; and that, in spite of the occasional efforts of the press of this city to throw light upon the subject, and even while that great congress of American nations, the late Exposition, had thrown open to view the earlier records of Louisiana's history, and could and did point with particular pride to the 'Creole Exhibit' as one of the most complete, as it was assuredly the most replete with gems of artistic and historic value, that could be found therein.
"To correct erroneous impressions, to refute falsehood and to prove by well authenticated history that the origin of the Creoles is as pure and honorable as that of any other race in the land, is a purpose which challenges the approval of all Creoles, who venerate the memory of their ancestors; and which must, as it already does, meet with the encouragement and the assistance of all patriotic Louisianians, of any ancestry, who should scorn to live on terms of social equality with a race of men which would tamely submit to abuse and slander.
"Our brethren of a different ancestry have the assurance that we do not propose to be exclusive, and that their co-operation is not only acceptable, but earnestly desired and respectfully solicited.
"Another prevalent prejudice against the Creoles is, that as a class, they are ignorant, indolent, dull of intelligence and callous to progress. Thus, in our time we read from correspondents of the press, who are now describing the resources of Western Louisiana, the bold assertion that the tardy advancement of that section of the State is attributable to the character of its early settlers, who were typical Creoles and Acadians, and too indolent for the exigencies of a rising country.
"It is far from our purpose to deny that among the Creoles, as well as with all other races, there are ignorant and slothful people. On the contrary, one of the objects embraced in the programme is to awaken that very class of our people to the necessity of education and to the demands of progress. But at the same time we intend to demonstrate and to protest against the injustice of selecting the weakest element of a race, and to hold it up as a type of that race. Why should writers of romance and of contemporaneous history seek their models of Creoles from the wild and unimproved prairies of the Attakapas and of the Opelousas, while they turn their faces from the many representative Creoles of this city and of other portions of the State, who yield to none in intelligence, in patriotism, and in refinement?
"In contrast with the benighted Creoles, who are unjustly described as types of our race, we turn our eyes to those same parishes, which have given birth to and reared the Moutons, de Blancs, de Clouets, Olivets, Grevembergs, Fuseliers, Delahoussayes, Lastrapes, Simons, Gerards, Debalions, Garlands, Dupres, Dejeans, Voorhies, Chretiens, LeBlancs, Martels, Dumartrats and a host of others, whose names are synonomous with intelligence, valor and honor in that region and throughout Louisiana.
"These and many other similar objects are the land-marks of our fields of labor, and we suggest that they are as foreign to the formation and promotion of a political party as science or political economy; and we respectfully submit that all insinuations to the contrary are as unfounded as they are unauthorized. "By order of the Board of control, A. L. Roman, Recording Secretary."
Commenting upon the organization of the Creole Association, the Times-Democrat, of June 21 St, had the following to say: "Such a movement, so plainly indicated, should have been started long before this, for it appears fully time, now that the whole country is busy talking and inquiring about them (the Creoles), when writers pretending to say what they are, have stated that they are not, for themselves to rise to a point of personal explanation, as it were, and let the world know something authentic. Owing to these and many other considerations, the meeting to-day, at which the ladies have been invited, will be of great interest, and we heartily welcome this inaugural movement of our native-born."
In connection with the organiztion of the Creole Association, an effort was made to establish a paper, "Le Trait d'Union," which should be, in a way, the official organ of the body. The late A. L. Roman was director of this projected paper. It was to have been published by the Creole Publishing & Printing Company of Louisiana, of whom the following gentlemen composed the board of directors: A. L. Roman, Emile Rivoire, Alcee Fortier, John Augustin and Lamar C. Quintero.
The Creole Association proved to be a chimera and was short lived. It contained within it what was the inevitable germ of dissolution, to wit: political aspiration. The late Hon. P. F. Poche was spoken of as Governor, and an effort was made to focus the influences of the Creole Association upon his candidacy. Internal differences ensued, and in the course of a short while the Creole Association had passed out of existence, and with it, the Trait d'Union, which was to have been its organ.
Among some old documents found in the archives of Charles T. Soniat, who was one of the prime movers in the establishment of the Creole Association, and the notary who drew up all the papers, I found upon a yellowed piece of paper an almost undecipherable scrawl which possesses a peculiar interest. It is much interlined and changed, and evidently represents the idea of Mr. Soniat and his friends as to the true meaning of the word Creole. It reads as follows: "None but white Louisiana Creoles shall be admitted as members in this organization. The Louisiana Creole is one who is a descendant of the original settlers in Louisiana under the French and Spanish governments, or, more generally, one born in Louisiana of European parents, and whose mother-tongue is French." Beneath this and on the same piece of paper, scribbled in lead pencil in another handwriting, is the following in French: "Un natif descendant de parents Europeens parlant la langue Francaise ou Espagnole."
THE old Creole families of New Orleans date from the foundation of the city, and even before that — from the settlement of Mobile, Dauphin Island and Biloxi, their good old names figuring in the lists of military, naval and civil officers who followed Iberville to the discovery of the Mississippi and remained with Bienville to hold on to the French possession of it.Source: Standard History of New Orleans, Louisiana, The Creoles, By Henry Rightor
The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, 1900
Glued, undated, into an old scrap book lent me by a sweet-eyed Creole lady, is the tribute to Creole women, which follows. It is the truest and most sympathetic appreciation of the inspiring subject I have seen. No alien pen could have written what is at once so modest and so faithful, so I make sure it was written by one of themselves. The article is signed simply E. P., and I would I knew who wrote it, that the name might be here set down:
"Not obvious nor obtrusive, but retired, and with but few traces of architectural display, the Creole's home is, nevertheless, the Creole's delight, and the pleasantest realization he has had of the poet's dream of Arcadia. It is so, as well to others than its merry-hearted inmates who may have been so fortunate as to be welcomed within its guarded penetralia, whether they find it located near the whispering waters of one of the beautiful bayous of Louisiana, on the skirts of the waving grass of its prairies, by the music-haunted shores of the Gulf, or scarcely seen through the foliage of oaks and magnolias overshadowing quiet, out-of-the-way villages, or in some of the quaint old streets of the almost deserted quartier Francais of the ancient city of the Creoles. As these old Creole homes have been, from father to son, inhabited by persons similarly educated and endowed with the same peculiar tastes, the only changes which they have undergone are such as were adapted to the needs of each successive occupant, without materially altering the original design of the homestead. Their reverence for it as the home of their fathers has prevented them from making such additions even to its immediate surroundings as might offend the genusoci of it, or disturb the repose of the sequestered, unsuspected paradise. The old trees — venerable centenarians of the forest — remain to this day where they were planted, untouched and unchanged only in their pendant moss-growths which hang from limb to limb like so many gray beards. The same expansive parterres, with curiously ornamental beds, in which flower the prolific vegetation of southern climes; the same shell gardden walks, bordered with trailing ivy and violets, are still there as they were arranged by the cunning hands of their ancestors. Winds, dews, and sunshine, indeed, seem to have leagued with each generation, as it came, against such influences as would mar the beauties of the old homestead, or steal from the revered demesne any of its wealth of flower or foliage, or in any way disturb the peaceful harmony of form and color which have been so pleasantly preserved in the long lapse of years.
"And so the charming old Creole homestead comes down to its occupants of to-day one of the few memorials of olden times, worth preserving, that has been well preserved. There are so many pleasant things all about its rooms and galleries and gardens that one wonders if there be any nook or corner to stow a new one in. There comes a time, however, during the warm summer mouths, when an added charm is bestowed upon the old homestead that comes to its neighborhood almost as a spell of enchantment. The pretty Creole maiden, born to it some dozen happy years before, returns to it, from the convent, where she had gone for her education, to spend the summer vacation at home. Like all delicately-reared Creole children, the little demoiselle is such a creature as Vesta and Venus would have moulded, had they been asked to form a petite model which could be expanded in a given time into mature beauty. One looks at the pretty and playful, yet sedate girl, and realizes in her budding beauties of form and feature the assured expectancy of future loveliness as one may, looking at the well-formed and healthful bud, predict the beautiful flower, or in the blossom anticipate the golden fruit that is sure to come in due season. Although she may not have crossed the flowery borders of young maindenhood, one can realize the fascination slumbering in her dark eyes, as their richly-fringed lids droop timidly over them, softening, but not diminishing their brilliance.
Already her petite figure is formed with the subtle grace and lightness of a fairy, and her voice is as musical as the song of a bird, the rustle of forest leaves, or the rippling of waters, touched by aerial fingers. Of course, the little Creole maiden takes kindly to music. Life and melody were twin-born with her. She has been, as it were, cradled into song. It is mother's milk to her. Her earliest lullabies were operatic airs. She comes of a musical family, and, as in infancy, its essence supplied her inward feelings, it has quickened her outward observation as she has grown up. She would be untrue to the traditions of her family, the female portion of it at least, if she were not a lover of the art musical. She is fond of the flowers of every hue that decorate the old garden-walks, which in their delicate loveliness, seem akin to her, and of the feathered songsters of the woodlands, who cease their song to listen to hers, when in the long summer vacation she visits their haunts, and feeds them with her own hands.
"Although the Creole maiden is naturally merry and vivacious, there is none of that wild rompishness about her for which others of the same age, but of different training, are often distinguished. Though, at the sound of her voice, Sisyphus would rest upon his stone and pause to listen, there is none of that boisterous merriment which, in other households, defy the rules of etiquette and the frowns of mothers. And yet in all the merry-makings of the neighborhood demoiselle seems at the summit of girlish felicity. In the gay parties given her as she is about to return to her studies in the convent — the feast which ushers in the fast — she is the merriest of all the demoiselles assembled, and in the livelier measures of the gay cotillion her tiny feet are scarcely visible in the mazes of the dance, fluttering indistinctly in the air like humming bird's wings.
"A year or two elapses — probably more, as fortune smiles or frowns upon the family. One day there comes into this old Creole homestead, with its oasis of verdure, a young girl, pretty as its flowers, happy as its birds. It is our little demoiselle of the vacation. She has finished her education at the convent, and enjoyed a brief but gay season at home or with some of her schoolmates. Orange blossoms shine like stars in the midnight of her hair, and a single rosebud nestles in the white wonder of her bosom. She returns to her home with the benedictions of Holy Church, a Creole bride. One who had known her when she conned her lessons in the convent's shadowy aisles, realizes that she has not disappointed the promise of her girlhood. And seeing her now, the pretty bud expanded into the consummate flower, surely it is treason to any of the higher forms of beauty to regret the maturity of that which was so beauteous in its budding glories, and wish
The flower to close.
And be a bud again.
"Travel where you will, you will not meet with one so fair, so fresh, so smiling, so graceful, merry, and easily contented as she. See her once, whether in the happy family circle or in the dancing throng, and it is a picture framed in memory's halls, undimmed forever. The sun of a Southern clime has mellowed and matured what the graces of nature, art and fortune assisted in forming. Hers the charm that gives brilliancy and play to every feature. Hers the manner that purifies and exalts all who come within the reach of its influence. Hers the features that delight the eyes, and gladden the hearts of poets, artists and sculptors. She is a special providence to the little world she moves in.
"Of course hers is at once one of the brightest names of the illuminated page of society. In accordance with the law and custom of her peculiar circle, she selects her acquaintances and makes up her list of visiting friends, and is fastidious in her selection. She could not be more so if the destiny of the republic were at stake. None but the select are to be found at her receptions, and to be admitted at her reunions is a much coveted honor. All of the surroundings of her home, even down to the little bits of porcelain of rare Faience de Diana de Poitiers — the heirlooms of honored ancestors — are comme il favi, elegant and refined. Her days are passed in fetes and entertainments of every description.
"Is the fair Creole bride given over to the gauds and fopperies of fashionable life? Nay! The brighter parts of her character, which shine with increasing lustre with each passing year, have had their source in another school. Her unbounding generosity, her true nobility of thought and feeling, her courage and her truth, her pure, unsullied thought, her untiring charities, her devotion to parents and friends, her sympathy with sorrow, her kindness to her inferiors, her dignified simplicity — where could these have been learned save at the altars of her faith? At matins and vespers the profane eye that would disturb her devotions might see la belle Creole kneeling at the Prie dieu of her oratory, before the Holy Virgin, of unblemished Carrara, with as much abandonment of spirit as others display before shrines where cardinals officiate, and scores of acolytes fling their censers.
"As the years pass the family tree has added branches to it. And as the family increases does the Creole matron give up her pleasant receptions and hols dansants? And has the fashionable world only left to it a memory and a tear for what was so brilliant and recherche? Not so. Not for her the recluse life of the household cypher or the nursery drudge —
Retired as noontide dew.
Or fountain in the noonday grove.
"It would be pitiable — worse, it would be false to all family tradition. Beside that, society would rebel. Emeutes would prevail. Madame gracefully resumes the throne she had only temporarily vacated, and the social circle continues to be distinguished for its elegance and refinement. She unites the duties of home with the charms of social life. Her graceful influence is felt in both, pleasantly reminding one of the orange tree of her own sunny groves, which bears in its beautiful foliage in the same month the golden fruit of maturity with the fair blossoms of its spring.
"With all her wealth of maternal affection, the Creole matron is not imprisoned in her nursery to be devoured by her children. She has renewed her youth in her children. With her maternity
Has risen upon her mid-noon.
"Born of one, she is in her own person that masterpiece of nature's work — a good mother. Her motherly virtue is her cardinal virtue. Care for her children seems to have contributed indeed to the number and the sensibility of the chords of sympathy and affection. These tender offices of maternal affection are, as it were, her field duty, while the other and manifold cares of the household are her repose.
"The Creole matron, however, does not squander upon the infancy of her children all the health necessary to their youth and adolescence, nor does she destroy their sense of gratitude and her own authority, and impair both their constitution and temper by indiscriminate and indiscreet indulgence. She is a good little mother, and bestows her maternal care in quality, rather than in quantity. She economizes her own health and beauty as she adds both to her offspring.
"The Creole matron is all the fonder of what her sterner sisters of the forth deem frivolities because of her children. For them the gay reception, and the graceful dance are pleasant and harmless pastime, and recreation even acceptable methods of education. In such indulgences her children learn that ease of manner, grace of movement, and the thousand little prettinesses which are so adorable in after years. She has nursed her babies, prepared them for their studies in the convent school, and she thus finishes an important branch of their education which the school books have neglected to furnish.
"And thus la belle Creole grows up almost to womanhood under her loving eye. She is not permitted to form intimacies outside of home, nor yet with the first come friends, the ordinary associates of the family, however good and respectable they may be, unless they are in manner and feeling acceptable. She is a brilliant little gem; one, however, possessing only the brilliancy without the hardness of the diamond, but soft and yielding, and too apt to receive impression from coarser materials. The watchful care of the Creole matron may be somewhat relaxed as the mind of demoiselle becomes more perfectly formed though the invisible rein is still held with a firm, though gentle hand.
"The Creole matron is the inevitable duenna of the parlor, and the constant attendant chaperone at all public assembles. Outside of the sanctuary of demioselle's chamber as important a factor in all her movements as the air she breathes, this, her guardian angel, is at her side, an ever-vigilant guide, and
protector against aught that may offend the fine feeling, the noble pride, or the generous heart of demoiselle. And when the time comes for la belle to marry she does not trust her own unguided fancies, although she may have read in story books of gallant knights, and had many pleasant dreams of such heroes as live only in the pages of poetry and romance. The Creole matron saves her all the trouble in the perplexing choice of a husband, and manages the whole affair with extreme skill, tact and ability, exactly as such things should be managed. The preliminaries arranged, the selected husband in futuro is invited to the house, the drawing-room cleared of all superfluities, and the couple left to an agreeable tete-a-tete, during which they may behave like sensible children and
exchange vows and rings. The nuptial mass at the church follows, as there is no breaking of engagements or hearts in Creole etiquette, and a series of honeymoons also follow of never ending:
Delicious deaths, soft exhalations.
Of Soul, dear and divine annihilations;
A thousand unknown rites
Of joys and rarefied delights.
"In the Creole matron's matrimonial experience there are neither marriage automatons, nor unpitied wrecks on folly's shore.
"The Creole matron grows old, as she does everything else, gracefully. She has not been shaken by the blasts of many passions, or enervated by the stimulants of violent sensations. There is no paled reflex of her youthful warmth in the glance she gives to the past, with its buried joys, or the present, with its all-pervading contentment and happiness. She defies care, determines that the torch of friendship shall be inextinguishable, and demonstrates, in her own experience, that the loves of capricious youth can be perpetuated in frozen age.
"Although the vile spirit of adordupois has added magnificence to her embonpoint, and her waltzing days are over, her pretty well-shaped feet still beat time in unison with the spirit of its music. Although hers is stateliness to the very summit of humble pride, it is yet softened by the taste of its display. She is an artiste of conversation, and her bon mot is uttered with such natural avoidance of offense, and the arch allusion is so gracefully applied that she gives one the idea of a new use of language, and yet she is a marvelous listener. Her complaisance is ever ready; words come of themselves upon your lips merely from finding themselves so obligingly listened to; and whilst others seem to follow the conversation, it is she who directs it, who seasonably revives it, brings it back to the field from which it has strayed, restores it to others without showing it, stopping at the precise point where they can resume it, and never going beyond it, lest her marvelous tact in its skilful management should betray itself. And thus, without perceiving it, she has led the thoughts of others, helped to elicit them, guessed them before they were expressed, supplied them with words, and gathered them on the lip, as they come into happy utterance. And the gay world may not know how much of the stately dignity the polished ease, the refined elegance that reign supreme in her household is the inspiration of its gay mistress, who remains, in age as in youth, the life and ornament of it.
"And so with the snows of many winters on her head and the sunshine of many summers in her heart, surrounded by three or four generations of children, blessing and blessed, the Creole matron is at length gathered to her fathers. And the beautiful flowers of the earth tell where she, the still more beautiful flower — in life — lies buried in the consecrated ground of the Holy Church, and sunlight and starlight are not the only visitors to its ever fragant and welcome shade."
These are the words that come to me
(The haunting turn of an old refrain)
From the Siren City beside the sea.
Child of the valour of France and Spain.
She sits there weaving her olden spells.
The years through her lissom fingers run
To form but a chaplet whereon she tells,
The names of her lovers, one by one!
Gayoso, Calves, Bouligny,
Don Almonaster's bells intone:
For Bienville and for Sérigny,
For D'Iberville, for Assigny,
They make incessant moan.
— William McLennan.