Location: The French Quarter in New Orleans
In 1801, when Thomas Jefferson became president and Meriwether Lewis joined him at the White House as his private secretary, few could have imagined the dramatic turn that history was about to take. The United States was still a fragile experiment in representative democracy, and France dominated the North American continent, in possession of the entire central portion between the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers, a place they called Louisiana. Not only that, but Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France, was on his way to conquering all of Europe, and planned to rebuild Louisiana as a breadbasket to service his empire with meat, wheat, leather, and fur.
What a difference a couple of years makes. By 1803, Napoleon sold Louisiana to Jefferson’s envoys for the bargain basement price of $15 million (just $215 million even in today’s dollars — less than the cost of the new Batman movie!). And the United States found itself in possession of the most exotic city on the North American continent — the port of New Orleans. It was here that the deal finalizing the Louisiana Purchase was signed on December 20, 1803. Representing the U.S. were William C.C. Claiborne, former governor of the Mississippi Territory, and our old friend General James Wilkinson. Wilkinson and his colorful, checkered relationship with New Orleans figure prominently in our novel To the Ends of the Earth (yeah, click Buy Now at the top of the page. You know you want to).
Jefferson worried about assimilating New Orleans into the United States, and for good reason. New Orleans and the district surrounding it (the present-day state of Louisiana) brought over 50,000 new citizens to the United States who were French-speaking, Catholic, and last but not least, racially mixed. Free blacks and mixed couples abounded, with expectations of rights unheard of in the rest of the United States, such as going around armed and serving in the militia. The relations between the races were governed by an elaborate cultural code that was all but impenetrable by the Americans who arrived to take over governance. American ideas about separation of the races did not completely take hold in New Orleans until after the Civil War.
Recently, we enjoyed a fantastic vacation in the Crescent City and had the opportunity to immerse ourselves for several hours in the lost world of Creole New Orleans. There are a lot of walking tours in the French Quarter, but Le Monde Creole (the Creole World) specializes in history tours focusing on the old Creole culture of the city through the lives of one family, the Locouls. As was typical, this family spent the growing and harvest seasons at their sugar plantation outside of town, then kicked up their heels all winter in their French Quarter townhomes.
Our tour guide was Bill, who is also the owner of Le Monde Creole Tours. The first thing we learned was worth the price of the tour, because Bill explained to us what a Creole actually is — something I’ve never understood.
As Bill explained, the confusion over the word Creole and the people it applies to arises because “Creole” has actually had three different meanings over the years. In the early 18th century, when Louisiana was first being settled by French and Spanish colonists, creole (from the Spanish criar – “to breed” or “to raise”) meant anyone or anything that was born in the New World. A person of French, Spanish, or African descent born in the New World was a creole. It was as simple as that. A horse or a dog or even a plant could be a creole as well. Over the decades, a caste system began to develop in which creoles were denied plum positions of leadership over newcomers sent from the mother country; this was one of the factors that led to revolutionary wars in Central and South America.
When the Louisiana Purchase rolled around, the meaning of creole shifted. The Creoles of Louisiana had developed a culture that was utterly unique, an amalgam of music, food, lifestyle, marriage customs, and social mores that bore no resemblance to that left behind in France, Spain, or Africa, let alone the brash American culture that abruptly descended on them. At that point, the word Creole came to mean anyone of any race who had been in Louisiana before the Purchase and followed the old lifestyle.
This lifestyle included a degree of racial mixing that left the Americans speechless and set the stage for the tortured race relations that still plague Louisiana today. As Bill took us through shady courtyards and down every little street you can imagine, we learned how elite white Creole men traditionally had two families: a white family headed by a white wife, and a black family headed by a mistress of mixed race. These arrangements were formal and worked out in detail, generally by the girl’s mother, who ensured that the daughter was provided for materially with a home, clothes, jewelry, and support for any children born to the marriage. An entire vocabulary described the children born to these unions: mulatto (half white and half African), quadroon (one-fourth African), octoroon (one-eighth African), griffe (one-fourth white), and sacatra (one-eighth white).
If the mother of one of African families was a slave, it was common for the children of the relationship to be freed. As you can imagine, Americans were generally horrified by the presence of these free blacks, as it was impossible to know how to treat them. Many of them were the children and grandchildren of elite ruling families and expected to be treated with similar courtesy as that accorded to whites. Even more unnerving from the American point of view, it was often impossible to tell whether someone was of African descent just by looking at them. The danger of intermarrying with a black person was viewed with such distaste that eventually, an entire legal code was written to try to prevent that from happening. Bill told us about extremely elaborate laws that involved having to produce birth certificates going back for generations to prove that you were white.
I was surprised to learn that Canal Street, the major New Orleans thoroughfare that divided the French Quarter from the Garden District, had its roots in the hostility between the Creole world and the American newcomers. Americans were blocked from building anywhere in the city (today’s French Quarter) and had to establish their own settlement next to it, which they called Lafayette or “the American Quarter.” There was very little assimilation or intermarriage between the two peoples until after the Civil War.
After that point, with massive German and Irish immigration into the city and military occupation, the old Creole culture faded — except for one group that strongly upheld the old Creole ways. These were the descendants of the Creole black families. Faced with a racially divided world in which they could never be white, yet abhorring the notion of mixing with the throngs of freed slaves flocking into the city, they clung to their unique culture for dear life, thus preserving it for future generations to discover again. For this reason, when most of us hear the world Creole today, we think of the French-speaking black families of New Orleans and their culture.
We spent several hours in the delightful company of Bill, learning about the multi-cultural origins of voodoo, jazz, and New Orleans’ infamous Storyville. A huge highlight was getting to visit St. Louis Cemetery #1, the famed above-ground cemetery that is the final resting place of dozens of the Creole families.
So as not to give away the tour, I’ll refrain from gushing about the storytelling thread that ran through the entire trek about the Locoul family and the many secrets, lies, and tribulations that emerged to illuminate these fascinating historical times. But as you can probably tell, I highly recommend that you spend a morning with Bill the next time you are in New Orleans (you might even get to meet a parrot), and also take a ride out to Laura Plantation, where the tour of the house and sugar plantation of the same family will illuminate the other side of the story.