Opelousas is home to many ethnic groups. The peoples that make up this unique cultural mosaic include Native Americans that lived here for thousands of years, the French and Spanish explorers that sought to colonize the area and the Africans that were brought here against their will. The Germans, Italians, Anglo-Americans and Vietnamese are also part of our heritage. However, one of the most important ethnic groups to settle here were the Acadians.
The Acadians, now referred to as “Cajuns”, were French colonist who, in the early 1600s, settled and prospered in “Acadie” (Acadia) in what is today known as Nova Scotia, Canada, located in southeast Canada. The Acadians lived under British rule after the British Conquest of Acadia in the year 1710. As a result of the French and Indian War, the British expelled the Acadians from their homeland because the Acadians refused to pledge unqualified allegiance to the British Crown. This ethnic cleansing of the Acadians from their homeland is referred to as Le Grand Dérangement (the great deportation), which witnessed more than 11,000 Acadians being deported from their homes. Many Acadians were sent back to France, where they were not wanted, and others were dropped along the Eastern Seaboard including the British Colonies of Massachusetts, Virginia, Maryland and Georgia. Soon after 1758, the British, wanting to rid themselves of the Acadians all together, began deporting Acadians directly to France.
Following the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the Louisiana Colony became a colony of Spain. Unknowingly, the Acadians moved from France and other parts of the American colonies to Louisiana with the belief that France still had control of Louisiana. However, by the time they arrived in Louisiana in 1765, the colony had become the property of the Spanish, with Spain taking control in 1769. Grudgingly, the Acadians chose to take oaths of allegiance to Spain. First arriving in the bayous near the Atakapas (today, St. Martinville); along the wetlands in the Bayou Lafourche area (today the area surrounding the cities of Houma and Thibodaux); and, later settling in the prairie areas of the Opelousas Country (today the area of St. Landry, Acadia and Evangeline parishes), the Acadians, later elided into “Cajuns”, make up one of Louisiana’s largest ethnic groups at over 550,000 in number.
Here, the Cajuns adapted to the hot and humid conditions of Louisiana and were able to survive off the land. Many received Spanish land grants and became farmers and ranchers. Despite attempts by the United States government to suppress the culture, especially the use of the Cajun-French language in South Louisiana, the Cajun culture thrived in Louisiana well into the Civil War. However, during Reconstruction, the Cajun culture began to slowly fade away. By the early 1900s, school children were prohibited from speaking French and the culture of “American assimilation” instituted by Teddy Roosevelt, sought to make all ethnic groups living in the United States “American.” Up to, and through World War II, school children were severely punished for speaking French in class or on the playground. Violators of this rule were made to write the following line many times on the classroom blackboard: “I shall not speak French on the school grounds.”
In 1944, U.S. troops stormed the beaches of France to begin the liberation of France and among those troops were many Cajuns from Louisiana. Their ability to speak French played an important role as American forces moved further and further into mainland France. When these Cajuns returned home, they realized that their culture and heritage, which had been suppressed for many years before the war, actually had helped them win the war against Germany. Suddenly, there was a renaissance of everything Cajun.
In 1968, the Louisiana Legislature created the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) by Act 409. The council is charged with the preservation of French language and culture that Louisiana today enjoys as a part of both our French and Acadian ancestry.
Today, the French Acadian culture is celebrated in the traditions that we, as a people, continue to practice. “Work hard and play even harder” is a familiar phrase that Cajuns live by and, that attitude, is at the heart of Opelousas’ joie de vivre.
To learn more about the Acadians, visit Acadian-Cajun Genealogy & History.