For this week’s tenth assignment, we are examining historical theory, a big, unifying idea that historians use to understand trends in human events. For Frederick Jackson Turner, that unifying event was the American Frontier. For Richard White in, “Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America,” it was the transcontinental railroad. I think a more apt framework to view American history through would be “borderlands” theory. This theory is similar to the frontier theory but lacks its western biases. Whereas the frontier theory implies that The West was largely empty until white settlers arrived, the borderlands theory studies the interaction of indigenous and immigrant peoples on the edges of civilizations. Oxford Bibliographies Online defines borderland as “both a place and a historiographic methodology, although historians often combine the two uses. A borderland, in its loosest definition, is a place where two entities (usually nations or societies) border each other. As a methodology, borderlands studies question what happens when distinct societies rub against each other or contest lands in between. What do those situations tell us about both the core societies and the spaces in between?”
My research focus and my heart lies with New Orleans and South Louisiana. This region is an amalgamation of five distinct cultural influences: Native American, French, Spanish, Senegambian Africans, and after the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, Anglo-American. It is a veritable gumbo ya-ya, an expression meaning, everyone talking at once, or less traditional, a mixture of different cultures. New Orleans was founded in 1699 by brothers, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville and Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville on a high natural levee at the furthermost point an ocean-going vessel could safely navigate the Mississippi River. For the first 100 years, the European influence (first France, then Spain) mixed somewhat peacefully with Native populations, the Natchez, Choctaw, Bayougoula peoples. About 1726, slaves from Senegambia region of North Africa began to be transported to Louisiana. For the most part, these four cultural groups co-existed simultaneously with only a handful of half-hearted attempts at cultural dominance by the Europeans. These attempts were mostly directed at the Native American populations and led to several brief “wars” with the Natchez Indians in the 1720-30s. The slave and gens du couleur libre (or free people of color) communities kept their African culture and traditions fairly well intact throughout both the French and Spanish Period. It was not until the American period where this trend was forcibly reversed.
Louisiana during its colonial period was never more than a backwater post. France never made much investment into its infrastructure. The intent was to make Louisiana into a supply hub for raw materials to support France’s other Caribbean colonies but the other colonies had little need of the abundant supply of furs that Louisiana produced. For a time, France used Louisiana to rid its own population of prostitutes, criminals, and destitute. Frontier borderland conditions and a lack of guaranteed survival created a lessening of societal constraints imposed upon colonists. Native American, African and European populations were able to mix and cohabit with complete disregard to the desires of European metropole and colonial authorities. Its inhabitants were reliant on the Native Indians for survival and food, since the colony was nearly always on the verge of starvation and prone to outbreaks of yellow fever. Because of the close contact and a lack of suitable European women, single male colonists took Indian women for wives and concubines. The same occurred once African slaves were imported to Louisiana. Civil and religious authorities were divided on European-Native American unions and debated the practicalities and harm the offspring of these unions caused. However, there was no debate on European-African unions. They were adamantly opposed and banned by law. But despite official disapproval, both practices continued.
Buried in the archives of the French Superior Council and the Spanish Cabildo, are the daily records of the Louisiana Colony. The cultural mash-up described above is clearly visible in the files. There are many defamation of character suits brought about by people intent on maintaining (or re-establishing) good characters, which was vital in a region infamous as dumping ground for undesirables. There are many wills and probates, which stipulate how property was to be divided. A careful reading of these documents will give the researcher information on the racial makeup of the offspring in question. *hint* “Natural” children refer to offspring of a plaçage relationship, between a wealthy European man and a femme du couleur libre (or freeborn woman of color). There are trials for assaults, theft, and murder where you can clearly see the effects of color, class, and gender being played out.
This cultural mash-up is still present today. The Mardi Gras Indians and Zulu are two great examples. The Mardi Gras Indians are African-Americans who claim that their ancestors mixed with the Native Americans and have adopted traditional (with a twist) Indian apparel. Zulu pays homage to several different traditions: Native African culture and black-face minstrelsy. The Zulu king wears a grass skirt and is followed by A Witch Doctor, usually distinguishable by the bone in his nose. The Jazz Funeral and the Call and Answer songs go back to Africa as well. And speaking of Jazz, Louis Armstrong Park the current location where Jazz Fest is held every year, was once the site of the Famous Congo Square, where slaves and gens du couleur libres gathered on Sundays to dance and sing in traditional African ways, and to market their wares. The Vieux Carré, better known as the French Quarter, is actually Spanish in architecture. And who could forget Mardi Gras?
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? Cause I sure do!