Acadian-Cajun Genealogy & History » French  

Breaux Manuscript
Selected portions

     When Judge Joseph Arsenne Breaux passed away in 1926, his estate left a document to the Louisiana State Museum.  This document is supposed to have been written about 1901 and contained memories of a Cajun back to the 1840s.  It is now known as the Breaux manuscript.  It was first put into print in 1932 by Jay Ditchy in the book, “Les Acadiens louisianais et leur parler”.  Though the original manuscript has been lost, we still have the printed work.  Though most of the work is in the Cajun language, the part of the work on history and folklore was trancribed into English by George Reinecke in 1966 and appeared as an article in “Early Louisiana French Life and Folklore Miscellany, V. 2”.  Here are portions of that transcription. It was published in 1999 in the Houma Courier for the Congres Mondial Acadien.


Character, Customs, Charity, Hospitality

    The character and customs of the “habitants” or farmers of south Louisiana (the word “paysan” does not exist) are rather clearly distinguishable according to which of the two chief divisions of that area one studies.  In the first section, formed by the parishes bordering on the Mississippi, a country of open flatlands and rich crops, the manners and customs are more gentle and polished than in the other.  One finds there a more generally advanced civilization due to the fact that the place has been long settled, in more frequent contact with strangers and in constant communication with New Orleans.
    In the other part, which includes the Attakapas and Opelousas countries, a region of old prairies where the winter is harsher and stays longer, the inhabitants are more active, industrious, and apt students of the mechanical arts.  Their character partakes of the severity of their sea-dominated climate.

    Attached to the old usages and ways which they still call “Les bonnes coutumes de leurs peres,” Louisianians leave their place of origin with difficulty and with deep regret, whatever be the charms of a softer and more agreeable life elsewhere.  They say that they prefer the sight of their plains, woods and streams, the natal place, the peaceful country where the happy days of their youth passed swiftly by. 
    Habituated to life in isolated places, they have somewhat unrefined manners; used to great freedom, they are very proud and easily hurt.  They readily take offense, and rarely let pass an opportunity for revenge.
    The inhabitants of the Attakapas (generally, the area surrounding modern Lafayette), whose fare is frugal and plain, possess a strong constitution and robust temperament, being in no way weakened by their hard work in the fields.  Milk, rice, a few vegetables, much meat, these are the basis of their regular meals, and they drink black coffee constantly. 
    The creoles (the author applies the word to all Louisianians of Latin origin but especially to Acadians.  In the 19th century “Cadien” had a pejorative connotation. – editor) enjoy fighting.  They are justly well-known for their skill with a rifle.  Since the law has prohibited dueling, this custom has been replaced by the “rencontre.”  In this form of combat, two men who have quarrelled agree to carry arms, then at first opportunity in some public place such as a street corner they begin fighting under the pretext of self-defense.  In the country, nothing is more common than the fist-fight.  This custom is highly approved of rather than condemned by the greater part of the community.  Far from trying to separate two men punching at each other, the “habitants” make a ring around them and urge them on with shouts and bravos.
    Almost all men go armed with a revolver or a dagger, any person who is struck or merely threatened having the right to kill the one who strikes or threatens him.  “Emplumage” is a disgraceful punishment inflicted on someone who has broken the law, especially as regards decency.  The person to be punished is striped, then covered with a thick coat of tar, then covered with feathers.  This custom goes back to the year 1200.
    Rural manners are rather primitive.  An “habitant” entering a group of twenty-five others will feel obliged to shake hands with all of them even if he knows only three.  It is a mania among Louisiana men to whittle (“chacoter”) while talking, waiting or walking about.  They make shavings out of a tree-branch or a walking-stick left in a corner.  If these are lacking they take to the furniture.  They pitilessly attack counters, window-frames, doors, chairs, school benches, the desks in the courthouse.  One sees whittlers crouched or standing in front of a country store talking about the weather or the crops.  A few years ago one of my friends, a passenger on board a boat travelling Bayou Lafourche, saw several trays loaded with small pieces of wood brought to the tables.  The travelers took hold of them.  Baffled, he asked for an explanation and was told that it was a means of discouraging whittling on the boatrails.

Organized Help

    When a family settles somewhere along one of the “cotes” the neighbors come on the evening of their first day to which them welcome.  They inquire as to their situation and promise help if needed.  Sometimes a fire destroys a house or barn; then the “habitants” from miles around come to help rebuild and replace what was lost.  Likewise, if an “habitant” is ill, and his crop is likely to fail, his neighbors come to work his land and later harvest it.  This voluntary action brings with it no further obligation than to prepare some cakes, coffee, whiskey, and jambalaya to feed the workers, at the end of the day if the wherewithal exists.
    The poor woman in childbed is also well taken care of, perhaps more solicitously watched over than the richest, by the neighbors for several miles around.  Scrupulous care is taken to visit and treat the sick, though the nearest of the neighbors may live a mile or two away.  If the sick person is poor, everyone strives to furnish him with a good bed and to provide for his needs as to wine, preserves and so forth, and offer him food and clothing for his convalescence.  A “chatolier” has the office of collecting the charitable offerings of the “habitants.”
    Numbered among the good qualities of the creole, and I have often had reason to acknowledge it, is his readiness to seize any opportunity to make himself useful without reference to the empty formulae of etiquette.  He cordially fulfulls the duties of hospitality to all comers.  Even in the poorest of houses, too much cannot be done for the guest who comes asking hospitality.  The materials to sustain life are so readily come by and boredom is so great that the arrival of a stranger is a godsend.

“paper left out a section end of 250 and top of 251:
”251-262 not in paper”

Customs Through the Year

The New Year

    New Year’s day is particularly consecrated to visits and wishes of “Bonne Annee!”  This custom is known to go back to the Romans.  On January 1, people would wish each other happiness and health and exchanged gifts which they called “bonnes étrennes.”
    Nowadays (1901) the custom of New Year’s gifts is observed only in the family circle, and though in towns a great deal of enthusiasm for visiting is still shown, in the rural areas people do nothing more than wish each other a happy new year when they happen to meet.  However, in some places, families get together, often beginning on  New Year’s Eve.  On the day itself, good wishes are exchanged, the young enjoy themselves, the older play cards and drink together.  But what is noble, touching and Christian about this day is the sight of people who have long been enemies seizing the opportunity which the day presents to be reconciled and to wish each other good fortune and prosperity.
    It is on this day that a young man who wishes to marry often asks his sweetheart’s parents for permission to wed.  A woman or girl avoids receiving the first good wishes of the day from someone of her own sex; if she does, the new year’s wish will bring bad luck.  Meeting a woman or girl on the morning of New Year’s Day is thought an ominous thing.

Kings’ Day (January 6)

    Almost all families gather on the eve of this day at supper to elect by lot the “king of the bean;” but it is especially among the common folk that the full manner of observing the ceremony is preserved.
    After supper, a cake is brought out.  It is round, and encloses a bean.  It is cut into as many pieces (plus one) as there are members of the family, including the hired hands.  The pieces are placed in a sack.  The youngest member of the family withdraws the pieces of cake; he begins by giving the first piece to God.  This is given to the next poor man who comes to the door and asks for help.  The second piece goes to the eldest of the family and from thence on to the youngest.
    The one whose piece contains the bean which had been placed along one of the edges of the cake is acclaimed king.  All the diners treat him with honor and must watch him attentively so as not to fail to cry out “Le Roi boit!” (The King drinks) whenever he does so.  Failure to conform will result in having the face besmuttered by the rest of the party.
    Another custom of this day is that a girl wishing to know who will be her future husband places her garter beneath her pillow on the eve of the feast, and getting into bed recites this prayer:

  O grand sint Francois!
  C’est aujourd’hui la veille des Rois.
  En mettant le pied sur ce bois,
  Je te prie de me faire voir cette nuit
  Celui que je dois avoir pour mari.

  O great St. Francis!
  Today is Kings’ Eve.
  Putting my foot on this wood
  I pray you to make me see tonight
  The one whom I must have for husband.

 A variant has the girl bowing three times to the moon, and saying to the moon three times without laughing, “Beautiful moon, I greet you!”  The moon then assumes the appearance of the one she will wed.

Valentines Day

    Love letters are written by young people on St. Valentine’s Day.  This custom comes from England but is much changed.  On the eve of St. Valentine’s the young celebrate in an ancient custom a feast which is a symbol of the renewal of nature and the inborn desire of all living beings to perpetuate their kind.  A number of boys and girls gather.  They write their own names or pseudonyms on individual bits of paper.  These are rolled up and are drawn from a hat, the girls picking from the boys’ names and vice versa.  Thus each boy meets a girl whom he calls “valentine” and each girl a boy whom she calls her “valentin.”  Often these valentines are seen to form a permanent and happy union. 

Mardi Gras

    In the rural areas, carnival has lost its former animation; it is marked nowadays (1901) only by some unimaginative masquerading and my dances where the joyous madness of yesteryear is rarely to be met.

March 1

    It is customary for those wishing to know the identity of their future spouse to rise at the stroke of midnight on March 1, and as the clock strikes, walk three paces forward from the bed, while saying, “Good day, March, from March to March make me see in sleep the wife (or husband) whom I will have in real life.”  Then one goes back to bed walking backward, goes to sleep and dreams.  The person who appears is the future spouse.

The Poisson d’Avril or April Fish

    The first day of April is dedicated to mystifications of all sorts, to pretended gifts, false news, false joys, false alarms.  People are sent to houses to which they have not been in fact invited; everybody looks for dupes, but at the same time remains on guard lest despite precautions he himself be taken in.

Good Friday

    On the evening of this day, men and children in a group go singing from door to door some verses of (a) complainte ... .  They ordinarily receive eggs, butter, etc. which have been set aside for them.  We have seen this very old custom practiced on Bayou Lafourche before the Civil War.

Gunshots and Birthdays

    Guns are fired a number of times on Christmas eve at night, on New Year’s day, at Corpus Christi, and on family birthdays and saint’s name days.  The birth of a son is announced by three shots, preferably fired by the father of the new-born, whereas a daughter is announced by two.
    Soon all the women of the neighborhood arrive at the new mother’s house to inquire as to her condition and offer their help.  Exactly one year later, there takes place a meal attended by godparents, relatives and neighbors.  The custom is repeated annually.  When the child is one year old, he is given a young cow.  Of the calves she bears only the females are kept.  These, as it were, double the capital each year.  The youth thus finds himself owner of a little herd which will serve to set up a new household.

“Fete de la Roulaison” or Grinding Festival

    When the last crop, sugarcane, is harvested, there is held a feast at which the rules of sobriety are often neglected.  People say, “the “roulaison” comes only once a year,” which is as much as to say that one is then permitted to forget his troubles for a while.  These meals are followed by dancing.

“The Clocheteur des Trépassés” or Bellman of the Dead

    Formerly, at night on the eve of All Souls’ Day (November 2), the church bells were wildly pealed, and people ran about the streets of the village ringing hand bells and saying in a loud and serious voice these words:
  Réveillez, réveillez, 
  Entre vous gens qui dormez,
  Pensez a l’éternité!
  Priez Dieu pour les fideles trépassés.
  Requiescat in pace.

  Awake! Awake!
  Those among you who sleep;
  Think of eternity!
  Pray God for the faithful dead.
  Rest in peace!

“Charivari” or Shivaree

    When two people of disparate age marry and when a widow marries a bachelor or a widower a single girl, as well as when spouses of appropriate ages fail to provide the expected entertainment at their wedding, there gathers at evening a crowd furnished with skillets, kettles and other pans of brass or copper.  They beat on these with shovels or tongs and go tumultuously to the house of the couple.  Increasing their noise, they dance before the house shouting, “charivari, charivari!”
    To bring the noise to an end, the couple must offer a collation as well, as the promise of a ball.  If a widow marries a widower they are exempt from this burlesque serenade.

Barbecue

    The “barbecu” is an open-air celebration during which an entire steer is roasted and eaten.  Such celebrations usually are connected with a political meeting.

Visiting

    Families visit each other even when separated by twelve to twenty-five miles.  They travel in oxcarts or horse-drawn wagons.  Often numbering a dozen or more, the traveling family, find at their host’s other visitors in equal number.  At table it is common to find twenty-five or thirty-five guests.  Usually the visitors remain some thirty hours.  During this period many matters are discussed, news of their respective neighborhoods, weddings which have occurred or soon will take place, whose crops are the best, who raises the most livestock, who has good horses, or who best looks after his “habitation.”  They talk of this man’s having a good store of corn, that other’s growing ribbon cane, of the neighbor who is putting out more cotton.  They discuss the production of various commodities, the quality of soils, the best means of cultivation; they talk of drainage, the condition of the roads and of taxation.

Christmas

    On Christmas eve all the members of a family gather at the house of the father or eldest.  Those who live far away, think nothing of traveling long distances to be there.  At supper the head of the house takes a full wine glass and drinks to the health of all his family.  This toast is repeated at the end of the meal.  Everyone else in turn drinks to the members of the family, including those absent.  When supper is over, hymns or carols are sung.  Then they play a game which is played only that night.  This is how it goes: You attach to the ceiling a piece of thread which will hang just as high as the mouth.  At the other end you fasten a pin on which is fixed a hot coal.  The young people make a ring about the hanging coal and each one blows with all his might toward the person opposite, who does likewise.  If one party laughs or blows less hard than his opponent, the coal touches his face and everybody laughs. 

Rural Schooling

    The education of the public has been badly neglected in Louisiana.  The unconcern of the rural population, the long distances from home to school, the poor education of the teachers, the lack of confidence in the schools, the low salaries, the lack of proper buildings, have all worked against the establishment of elementary schools until the present (1875).
    In the last few years one sees a notable improvement in public instruction.  The schoolmasters are better chosen, they must pass an examination, school-houses are being built, and the schools inspected; the teaching is no longer a matter of the individual teacher’s fancy but follows a new and uniform plan.  Before 1850, one had only to know how to read, write and cipher up to the rules of interest to find a job as a schoolteacher.  There was much concern for numbers but grammar was in low esteem, and as in the time when the older people of our own day were at school, handwriting was stressed at the expense of spelling.  More than three-quarters of the “habitants” could not readily read handwriting; a certain number, especially among the women, could neither read nor write.  Today, in spite of the great impetus given education, one meets many people who can neither read nor sign their names.  These are usually older people, especially women, who could not when young receive the advantages of elementary schooling. 
    Half the younger generation can read and write English more or less correctly, and French to some extent.  However, very few are sufficiently educated to keep books for the farm or write a clear letter or narrative.  This is due to the ineptitude of the individual in some cases, to his neglect in others, or to the small interest his parents showed in education.
    Indeed there are intelligent, clever children who attend school for five or six years without learning more than a little reading and writing.  Others, though they profited from their lessons, quickly forgot their little pack of learning.  This is true of the greater part of the young population from twenty to thirty.
    Most parents think their children know enough when they have a fairly good handwriting and read without too much hesitation.  They then hastily remove them from school and put them to work.  In most farm houses, there is neither paper nor pen and ink.  Books are rare.  There are almanacs, prayer-books, some devotional works, and nothing more.  Parents who have never read a book, and who honestly believe that to be a farmer one requires only a little reading, writing, and arithmetic, would probably view with jaundiced eye any interest in books or writing for pleasure among their grown children. 
    The children themselves do not tend to pursue further study because they have not progressed enough to read even the simpler material they can come by without troublesome effort.
    Further, the demands of daily work, friendly visiting and youthful pleasure, which fill up the lives of the young, militate against any continued interest in letters.  In short, books and pen are put aside, and at the age of 21, one can do no more than read and sign one’s name.
    Girls read much more than boys, but most do not write.  Once married, they say farewell to the pen and almost never use one again, especially when they become farmers’ wives.
 

The Acadian FlagCopyright © 1997-09 Tim Hebert