Overview of Cajun History, Food and Culture

Band playing Cajun/zydeco in French Quarter.
Lou Jones / Getty Images

Cajuns are a group of people largely residing in southern Louisiana, a region rich with the history of several cultures. Descended from the Acadians, French settlers from Atlantic Canada, today they celebrate a diverse and vibrant culture unlike any other.

Cajun History

During the 17th and 18th centuries French settlers emigrated to modern-day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Here they founded communities in the region that came to be known as Acadia.
This French colony thrived for over a century.

In 1754, France went to war with Great Britain in North America over lucrative fishing and fur-trapping efforts, a conflict known as the Seven Years' War. This conflict ended in defeat for the French with the Treaty of Paris in 1763. France was forced to give up their rights to their colonies in North America as a term of that treaty. During the war the Acadians were exiled from the land they'd occupied for over a century, a process known as the Great Disturbance. The exiled Acadians resettled in many locations including the British North American colonies, France, England, the Caribbean and for some, a Spanish colony known as Louisiana.

Settlement of Cajun Country in Louisiana

A few hundred exiled Acadians arrived in the Spanish colony during the 1750s. The semi-tropical climate was harsh and many Acadians died from diseases such as malaria. More Acadians eventually joined their French-speaking brethren during and after the Great Disturbance.
About 1600 Acadians arrived in 1785 alone to settle modern-day southern Louisiana.

The new settlers began cultivating the land for agriculture and fished the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding bayous. They navigated the Mississippi River. People from other cultures including the Spanish, Canary Islanders, Native Americans, descendants of African slaves and French Creoles from the Caribbean settled in Louisiana as well during this same time period.

People from these different cultures interacted with each other over the years and formed the modern-day Cajun culture. The word “Cajun” itself is a an evolution of the word “Acadian,” in the French-based creole language that became widely spoken among the settlers in this area.

France acquired Louisiana from Spain in 1800, only to sell the area to the United States of America three years later in the Louisiana Purchase. The area settled by the Acadians and other cultures became known as the Territory of Orleans. American settlers poured into the Territory soon after, eager to make money. The Cajuns sold the fertile land along the Mississippi River and pushed westward, to modern south-central Louisiana, where they could settle the land for no cost. There, they cleared land for pasture grazing and began growing crops such as cotton and rice. This area is known as Acadiana due to the influence from Cajun culture.

Cajun Culture and Language

Although the Cajuns lived in a predominantly English-speaking country they held onto their language throughout the 19th century. Cajun French, as their language is known, was largely spoken in the home. The state government allowed for Cajun schools to teach in their native tongue for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Louisiana state Constitution in 1921 required that school curricula be taught in English statewide, which greatly reduced exposure to Cajun French for young people.

As a result Cajun French became spoken less and nearly died out altogether during the mid-20th century. Organizations such as the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana devoted their efforts to provide means for Louisianans of all cultures to learn French. In 2000, the Council reported 198,784 Francophones in Louisiana, many of whom speak Cajun French. Many speakers statewide speak English as their primary language but use French at home.

Cajun Cuisine

A fiercely-loyal and proud people, the Cajuns held onto their cultural traditions, including their unique cuisine. Cajuns love to cook with seafood, a nod to their historic ties to Atlantic Canada and the waterways of southern Louisiana. Popular recipes include Maque Choux, a vegetable-based dish with tomatoes, onions, corn and peppers and Crawfish Etoufee, a thick, often spicy seafood stew. The last quarter of the 20th century brought a renewed interest in Cajun culture and traditions, which helped make Cajun style cooking popular worldwide. Many supermarkets across North America sell Cajun-style dishes.

Cajun Music

Cajun music developed as a way for Acadian singers and balladeers to reflect upon and share their own history. Beginning in Canada, the earliest music was often sung a cappela, with only occasional hand claps and foot stomps. Over time the fiddle grew in popularity, to accompany dancers. Acadian refugees to Louisiana included rhythms and singing styles from Africa and Native Americans in their music. The late 1800s introduced the accordion to Acadiana as well, expanding the rhythms and sounds of Cajun music. Often synonymous with Zydeco music, Cajun music differs in its roots. Zydeco developed from the Creoles, a people of mixed French (those not descended from Acadian refugees,) Spanish and Native American descent. Today many Cajun and Zydeco bands play together, blending their sounds together.

With increased exposure to other cultures through Internet-based media Cajun culture continues to remain popular and, without a doubt, will continue to thrive.

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Rudolphy, Katy. "Overview of Cajun History, Food and Culture." ThoughtCo, Sep. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-cajuns-culture-1435533. Rudolphy, Katy. (2017, September 6). Overview of Cajun History, Food and Culture. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-cajuns-culture-1435533 Rudolphy, Katy. "Overview of Cajun History, Food and Culture." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-cajuns-culture-1435533 (accessed May 20, 2018).