Acadian-Cajun Genealogy & History

History of the Cajuns

Cajuns in the 20th Century
     Several things occurred in the 20th century that changed the Cajun way of life. At the turn of the century, many Cajuns still lived in the same area as their parents, married other Cajuns, still spoke only French, and had very little to do with the outside world. But the Louisiana constitution was changed so that the Cajun children were required to go to schools ... schools that demanded only English be spoken. Also, the oil business brought in many new people to Acadiana. It no longer became as common for Cajuns to married other Cajuns. The wars of the 20th century required that Cajuns travel.  As jobs became more mobile, they brought Cajuns to all parts of the globe.  Cajuns became more worldly, more mobile, more integrated with the 'American' culture.
      According to the 1990 census, 597,729 people in the United States claimed their first ancestry was Acadian-Cajun, while 70,542 claimed it as their second. In Louisiana alone, there were over 400,000 who claimed Acadian-Cajun ancestry.
Changes

     The 20th century saw the Cajun culture experience its greatest losses.  People who had lived the same way for generation after generation were now becoming more like the rest of the country.  They began to lose their language, take on different careers, and move away from their New Acadia.  What caused this change?  General changes such as ease of travel, more variety in job opportunities, and more communications had an impact.  Besides the general changes that occurred with the coming of modern times, there were probably 3 major factors causing the change in Cajun culture: education, war, and industry. 

Education

     One of the major changes in the Cajun culture came in 1921.  One of the major factors bonding the Cajuns together was their common French language.  The idea that everyone should espouse American middle-class values brought reform to Louisiana at the beginning of the 20th century.  The movement was let by people such as Progressive Luther Hall, elected governor in 1912.  In July of that year, the legistlature passed an act allowing the Dept. of Education the power to select all books and curricula for public schools.  Starting the next year, English was stressed throughout the curricula, basically banning French from the schools.   In 1916, the state legislature approved Act 27, which required that all children attend public school.  (Acadian Education, Brasseaux)
     Then in 1921, the Louisiana Constitution was changed so that all school proceedings had to be conducted in English.  This led to many Cajuns growing up without learning their ancestral languages.  As they moved into a society that was more mixed, French was used less and less.  If you are trapping down the bayou, and the only people you meet are family and friends, French would do just fine.  But when you went to the city, went out of town for college, other jobs, and military service, French was rarely used.  Not only did this mean that they could interact with outsiders more, it meant that they were less separated.  They weren't isolated from the English-speaking American society any more.

HE BURT YES, A BEAR NO by George Rodrigue
HE BURT YES, A BEAR NO 
by George Rodrigue
     Now this does not mean that the Cajun French language disappeared.  Most of the parents of children in school for the first few decades of the century had grown up speaking French and still spoke it in the home.  So children would learn English at school, but still learned some French in the home.  But as that English-educated generation grew up and had their own families, the use of French in the home became minimal in most cases.  Still, especially in more rural areas, some Cajun families continued to pass along the Cajun French language throughout the 20th century.
     It wasn't until half a century later that movement was made to renew interest in their Cajun French language.  The establishment of CODOFIL in 1968 has helped to bring interest in the French language back to the educational system.

Wars

     Acadians hadn't really had to travel to participate in the U.S. conflicts of the 1800s.  But the 20th century wars changed that.  The World Wars, and the Asian wars saw Acadians moved to other parts of the country and the world.  It exposed them to different cultures.  They became more "worldly."  Due to the military, some settled in other areas.  In some cases, it brought outsiders into the area.  Houma, for example, had a blimp base with military stationed there.

Industry

     Perhaps the most direct impact on Cajuns was the influence of industry.  By far, the biggest industry has been the oil and gas business. The presence of gas had been known for years.  It would occasionally escape through the ground in the swamps.  In 1812, an entire island caught fire and escaping natural gas burned for 3 months.  In 1823, engineers drilling for water in Pointe Coupee Parish kept hitting natural gas instead.  At that time, it was just an annoyance.   (Cajuns, Rushton, p. 147)
     The 20th century brought oil and gas exploration and refinement to Louisiana.  Oil derricks started appearing throughout the state, especially in the Acadiana area.  Some Acadians became wealthy off of the royalties that oil and gas brought in.  But most Cajuns' relationship with the industry was that as an employeee.  Thousands of Cajuns became oil and gas field workers.  Many other worked in associated industry. 
     A side effect of the industry is that it brought more outsiders into Cajun country.  In some cases, this led to intermarriages.  It also led to a greater dependence on speaking English, since the employers spoke English.  The high wages also allowed Cajuns to experience a better lifestyle.
     Another industry that has deep Cajun roots is seafood.  The harvesting of oysters, shrimp, crawfish, fish, and crabs as an occupation had begun in the 1800s.  As new devices were developed, the Cajuns became more proficient at making a living at it.  They are responsible, in part, for making Louisiana one of the leading seafood-producing states in the country.

General Changes in Society

     As mentioned above, there were other factors that Americanized the Cajun culture.  Ease of travel made it easier for them to visit other areas.  It also made it easier to move elsewhere.  Job opportunities elsewhere dispersed Cajuns around the world.  It also led to Cajuns working with people outside the Cajun culture on a regular basis.  Communications such as radio and TV brought the world into Acadiana.  Many Cajun families today look and act just like you average American family. 
     Still, you find elements of the Cajun culture in many households.  In some, it's as simple as a style of cooking.  In others, you find Cajuns living much as they did generations ago ... harvesting natural resources and speaking French while attending the local Catholic church.

Cajun Is Cool

    The last quarter of the 20th century has seen a turn-around in the idea of being Cajun.  Cajun music is bigger than ever.  Swamp tours in Acadiana have become a major tourist destination.  But the biggest piece of Cajun culture to impact the "outside world" has been in the area of food and food preparation.  Cajun food and restaurants can be found around the nation.  You can even find frozen Cajun meals in supermarkets. 
Links:
   • Cultural Subregions of Louisiana map (showing the main Cajun areas of Louisiana)

Copyright © 1997-09 Tim Hebert