The term Creole can create some difficulty in determining one's actual race due to the origin of the word and different uses it has to describe race. The earliest recollection of the word creole comes in the early 16th century from Garcilaso de la Vega. In his book, "Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru," Garcilaso de la Vega tells us that the word criollos or criollas was first invented by the Negroes to mean a Negro born in the Indies. Its use was devised to distinguish between Negros born in the Indies compared to those that were born in the New World since the former were held in high honor since they were born in their own country. He later goes on to state that the Spanish copied the term from the Negroes to describe people born in the new world. This means that all people born in the New World, both Spaniards and Guinea Negroes, were now considered criollo.
The other origin of the word criollo comes from Father J. de Acosta in 1590. De Acosta decided that mixed breeds from the New World were neither Spanish, African on Indian, meaning that they had no race. De Acosta decided to identify them as criollos, which came from the Latin word crear, meaning create. From that time, and approximately the next 250 years, Creole (or criollo) referred to not a color or race, but a person that was born in the New World.
The word also has many meanings throughout the different parts of the world. In the 16th century the term was used in parts of the United States to describe native born persons who were descendants of French, Spanish and Portuguese who were settlers in Latin America, the West Indies and Southern United States. In Louisiana, specifically they were French speaking white descendants of early French and Spanish settlers. These creoles settled between Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the Gulf Coast and small communities in eastern Missouri and Southern Alabama. They were considered elite members of society and they celebrated their French culture and lived according to the mannerisms and traditions of European society. Many of them refused to learn English and remained loyal to the colonies. Once the Spanish took possession of New Orleans, they began to use Criollo with regards to the French. The term was later adopted and became Creole. The French and Spanish born in Nouvelle Orleans were then considered Creoles while those born in the Old World were simply called French or Spanish. The French Creoles were skeptical of the New Americans who were migrating from Kentucky and other parts of the United States. They considered them uncouth and irreligious. They maintained a strict separation in New Orleans by living in one part of the city east of Canal Street while the New Americans settled west of Canal Street. The New Americans were appalled at the way of life in Creole society. They were disturbed by the dominance of the French language, the number of free people of color and the way slaves were allowed to practice African traditions. Louisiana was unlike any place in the United States at the time because of the racial makeup. French men often took African women as mistresses or common law wives and sometimes married them.
Louisiana Creoles "Free People of Color"
When the French settlers moved to Louisiana, the placage system was set up due to a shortage of accessible white women. The French wanted to expand its population in the new world, however men were not expected to marry until their early thirties and premarital sex was inconceivable. African woman soon became the concubines of white male colonists, which in some cases they happened to be sons of noblemen, military men, plantation owners, etc. Soon, wealthy white Creole men would marry and, in some cases, they would possess two families. One with the white woman they were legally married to, and one with their mistress of color. The offspring from their mistresses were then grouped into a new class of creoles known as gens de couleur, or free people of color. This class of people would soon expand when refugees from Haiti and other French speaking colonies would migrate to New Orleans, effectively creating a new middle class between the white French Creoles and slaves.
This class of colored people was unique to the South as they were not in the same category as African slaves. They were elite members of society who were often leaders in business, agriculture, politics, and the arts. At one time the center of their residential community was the French Quarter.
Many were educated, owned their own property and businesses. Additionally, some were even slave-owners. They formed a third class in the slave society. This meant that pre-civil war race was mainly divided into four categories. These were white, black, creoles, and free people of color. French Creoles objected to the fact that the term Creole was used to describe Free People of Color but their culture and ideals were often mirrored by them. French Creoles spoke French while Black Creoles spoke Louisiana Creole which was a mixture of English, French, African or Spanish. The end of the civil war was a threat to the Louisiana Creoles of Color because this brought about the two-tiered class system that existed in the rest of the country that was divided predominately by race: black and white.
Louisiana Creole Culture and Traditions
Louisiana Creole culture was rich and unlike any in the United States. French Creoles imported wines, books and clothing from France. They celebrated art and music became a central part of the culture as a result of the African and Caribbean rhythms created by the Creoles of Color. The French Opera House in New Orleans was a large part of Creole culture from 1859-1992. Located on Bourbon and Toulouse, it was the site for many social gatherings and cultural affairs. In New Orleans, balls were held twice a week. The balls were attended by White Creoles but wealthy Free People of Color would also attend. The family was most important in Creole society. They spoke predominately French, lived in close proximity to one another, and married only other Creoles. In Creole society, it was considered a duty to take in widowed or orphaned family members. Unmarried women or tantes lived with many relatives to help out in the household and take care of the children. Marriages were essentially arranged between fathers. Creole girls required a dowry for their hand in marriage and had to marry before age 25. The family would usually have a coming out event. At this event, the family would sit in a box during the performance and any suitors who were interested would stop by the family box to pay their respects. The fathers would negotiate a dowry and then a notary would draw up the marriage contract. All meetings between the couple would be strictly chaperoned until the wedding. A young woman could not wear jewelry or leave the house for three days before the wedding. Creole women often wore silk gowns purchased as family heirlooms from France. After the ceremony, the bride and groom honeymooned in her parent's home and were expected to stay in the bedroom for five days. Creole society had strict rules for mourning the death of a loved one. The family was required to wear full morning gear or grand deuil for six months. This included no jewelry or anything white or with colors. Men would have to wear a black tie, a black band on their hats, or a black band on the arm. After six months a widow could wear black clothes with a white collar or white cuffs. Cemeteries were as important to Creoles as churches. Many tombs were built in the likeness of churches and it was unforgiveable for a Creole not to visit the family tomb on All Saints Day. Catholicism was the religion of Creoles and Holy Week was closely observed. During the week, Creole housewives would place pots on the floor to make the sign of the cross when they heard the church bells. They would cook a dish called gumbo shelves which included nine varieties of greens and on Good Friday, they would walk to church in silence. These things were done and thought to bring about good fortune in the Creole community.
Kate Chopin's Creole Heritage
Kate Chopin's work often included stories surrounded by or about Creole characters. She was often very descriptive about their mannerisms, dialect, and unique way of life. Kate's father was Irish but her mother Eliza Faris O'Flaherty was part of a prominent French Creole Family. Her husband, Oscar Chopin was also a Creole cotton trader and from a prominent French Creole family. It is clear that she was greatly influenced by her Creole heritage and surroundings. Kate and her husband lived in New Orleans where the Creole culture was celebrated unlike any other in the United States. Kate Chopin's family in Missouri was the traditional French Creole family that brought over their customs and traditions from France but it was the Louisiana Creole that Chopin wrote about in her novels. Their freedom, appreciation of art and music and isolation from other members of society was present in Chopin's novels. Chopin's female characters such as Edna Pontellier in The Awakening were often tormented by the strict rules and mores of Creole society and they were limited by the role of wife and mother relegated to the Creole woman.
Post Civil War Redefinitions of Race
After the civil war ended, the French Creole population declined in urban areas and many families moved to small communities along the Gulf coast. Since the distinctions of race were narrowed to white and black, there was no such thing as free people of color. Additionally, race was defined by blood, therefore, the presence of any amount of black blood made one black. The chart below gives a breakdown of how this was determined.
Although someone may have looked white, this chart would determine their status. Anyone with fitting into these categories was considered black. They were placed in the same category as former slaves and forced to live the same lives of people that some had once "owned."
To read more about Creoles in relation to Kate Chopin and her work, visit the 1999 website.
19th Century Creoles in New Orleans, La: An Overview of Creole Culture and Society During the 1800's from www.americanhistory.suite101.com
Creoles by Helen Bush Caver and Mary Williams from www.everyculture.com
French Creoles in Louisiana: An American Tale by Harriet Bauman from www.yale.edu Kate Chopin, The Awakening, n Chopin Complete Novels and Stories 519 (Sandra M. Gilbert, ed., 2002).
De la Vega, Garcilaso (1987). The Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru. Indianapolis, IN. Hackett Publishing.