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Cajun Texans

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Culture and the Arts
Crawfish shells line a table top as couples dance to the music at the Cajun Fest in Grand Prairie. Photo by Brad Loper.

 

Gumbo and crawfish boils, boudin sausage and steaming pots of étouffée, the rhythmic blend of fiddle and accordion of Cajun music:  all these have become part of Texas cuisine and culture through the influence of Cajuns who came to the state from Louisiana.

So many of the Cajuns have settled in the southeastern corner of Texas known as the "Golden Triangle" of Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange that the area has been referred to as the "Lapland", where Cajun culture overlaps into Texas. The whole state, however, has experienced the influence of this French-based culture. There are annual crawfish or "mudbug" festivals as far west as Odessa and Fredericksburg, which is mostly noted for its German background. Also in the Hill Country, there is an annual Cajun Festival and Gumbo Cookoff on Medina Lake.

Cajuns are descendants of French colonists of the Maritime Provinces of Canada — Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. In the 1600s and 1700s the area was called Acadia and its people were known in French as Acadien or Acadians. Most of these colonists had emigrated from west-central France beginning in large numbers in 1632.

Dr. Carl A. Brasseaux of the Center for Acadian Studies at the University of Louisiana–Lafayette says, "At least 55 percent — and possibly 70 percent — of Acadia’s seventeenth-century immigrants were natives of the Centre-Quest provinces of Poitou, Aunis, Angoumois, and Saintonge, or the province of Anjou, in an adjacent geographical region." Many had close family ties including their extended families, a condition that has been reinforced by the history of persecution and wanderings that the Cajuns have endured.

While several generations lived in eastern Canada there was some intermarriage with the indigenous people, the Mikmaq, so that, like many people in the United States and Mexico, these North Americans acquired some Indian blood, as well.

Explusion

When the British gained final control of this part of Canada in 1713, the Acadian French Catholics tried to remain neutral in conflicts between Britain and France, agreeing to a "conditional" oath of allegiance to Britain that stipulated they not be required to take up arms against France. This attempt did not survive the various changes of British administrations, whose regimes varied from relaxed to strict.

Finally, after the Catholic Acadians refused to take an "unconditional" oath of loyalty to the British Protestant king, a policy of expulsion — a kind of ethnic cleansing — was implemented. It did not help, either, that when British forces took the French Canadian Fort Beausejour, they also captured some 300 Acadian conscripts who had been fighting by the side of the French soldiers.

This evidence of a lack of neutrality was the final straw. The Acadian settlers were forced off their lands by the British governors of Canada beginning in 1755, and were scattered around the world in what is called Le Grand Derangement. Some went to the American colonies, some fled to Quebec, and many returned to their ancestral homeland, living in the various port cities of northwestern France. Eventually, many would find their way to south Louisiana, another isolated island of French culture in North America. As American expansion evolved, the Acadian’s new English-speaking neighbors’ casual pronunciation of "Acadian" was corrupted to "Cadian" and then into "Cajun."

The first Cajuns in Texas arrived by mistake in the spring of 1770. The group of 30 refugees, who were trying to get to Louisiana from Maryland, was on the schooner Britain, which was blown off course, missing the Mississippi River and ending up at Matagorda Bay. Imprisoned by the Spanish authorities as suspected smugglers, they had to do hard labor at Goliad but were released in October and made a trek across East Texas to Natchitoches, La., and then down to Opelousas.

Spain, which had been given authority over Louisiana in 1763 in the Treaty of Paris, provided ships in 1785 to carry some 1,600 Acadians who had taken refuge in Europe to Louisiana, partly to be a buffer of Catholic subjects against Anglo-American expansion. In 1800, there were 3,000 to 4,000 Acadians or Cajuns in south Louisiana.

They did not stay long in the port of New Orleans but moved to the remote prairies and bayous west of the city, into what would become the 22 civil parishes that now make up Acadiana, a designation proscribed by the Louisiana legislature in 1971, recognizing the uniqueness of the area as home to Cajun culture.

Across the Sabine

By the 1840s the first Cajuns began moving across the Sabine River into Texas, an emigration — always westward — that would ebb and flow into the 20th century. Among these first Cajun settlers was the Hébert family, who began farming along Taylor Bayou in Jefferson County in 1842. Around 1850 the Chaisson family followed.

The first U.S. census in Texas in 1850 found 600 "Franco-Louisianans" between Orange and Houston. Not all these Franco-Louisianans were Cajun, it should be pointed out, and here we encounter the sometimes-confusing term "Creole" in Louisiana history. In fact, probably most of these early Louisianan immigrants were French Creoles.

Creole and Cajun
Creole is a confusing term, although, in Texas, it has come to refer to "Creoles of Color," those of mixed Afro-Caribbean and French ancestry. The Spanish, who ruled Louisiana from 1763–1801, used the term "criollo" for the first generation of colonists to be born in America, and the term evolved over time, in Louisiana, to include both the European and African descendants. So, Creole was used by both mixed-race and white non-Cajuns, especially in New Orleans, and has come to define the city’s cuisine and culture.
Over the last two centuries, European French Creoles have intermarried with Cajuns, so that, says The Encyclopedia of Cajun Culture,  "Many names of French Creole origin, like Soileau, Fontenot and François, are now widely considered Cajun." Thus, the distinction between Louisianans of French descent has became somewhat less so today.
The encyclopedia says that "today Creole is most often used in Acadiana [southwestern Louisiana] to refer to persons of full or mixed African heritage."
(Yet, in New Orleans, many of European French heritage still refer to themselves, their culture and their cuisine as French Creole.)
While the Cajun culture and the culture of the Creoles of color are distinct, each has had a profound impact on the other.
Some food historians insist that red beans and rice, along with any stews with tomatoes, are Creole; dirty rice and étouffée are Cajun. Both groups have their gumbo and jambalaya. But today there has been such a fusion of Creole/Cajun/Louisiana cooking you are likely to find dishes served as part of the other cuisine. – RP

In the late 19th century, two factors brought an increased movement of Cajuns into Texas. One was the need for workers to cultivate rice in Southeast Texas. Another was the labor force needed on the Southern Pacific Railroad line that ran from the Sabine River to Houston. Many of these Cajun railroad workers settled in Houston where Southern Pacific had its district headquarters.

By the time these immigrations into Texas began, the Cajuns had blended through intermarriage with their German, Spanish, and Anglo neighbors in Louisiana. So, some Cajun families had names such as Martinez, Schexnaider and McGee.

Another impetus for this emigration was the poor economy in Louisiana. As Dr. Brasseaux writes about the Cajun migration in The French in Texas, "Because of the extensive devastation wrought by the Union invasions of south-central Louisiana during the Civil War, the region’s economy virtually collapsed in the early postbellum period, and perhaps half the area’s freeholders were reduced to tenantry."

As more and more Cajuns began living in Jefferson, Orange and neighboring counties of Texas, a Cajun middle class began to emerge. In 1892, Joseph Broussard established the Beaumont Rice Mills, and later, in 1898, he helped to found the Beaumont Irrigation Co.

Twentieth Century

Then there was Spindletop in 1901. The discovery of the massive oilfield in Southeast Texas forever changed the ethnic makeup of the area as Louisiana Cajuns streamed into Texas to work in the burgeoning oil industry. And, this oil industry would be a solid link between Louisiana and Texas: the primary catalyst in bringing the culture of Cajun Louisiana into the homes and offices of Texans, and Texans into Cajun Louisiana as the petroleum industry expanded there.

Into the 1910s, the Cajun presence increased in Southeast Texas, especially in 1915, when a severe hurricane hit the upper Texas coastal area. The destruction in Texas provided immediate work for rebuilding the infrastructure and thus, more Cajuns came to Texas for those jobs. This influx of Cajuns was sustained for another five years as the United States entry into World War I spurred growth in the oil refineries and shipyards in the Golden Triangle.

In the 1920s, a shift by Japanese rice growers in southeast Texas to truck farming provided a need for more Cajun labor, but the next sizeable influx was to come in the 1940s when a larger labor force was required for the industrial expansion during the World War II.

In the postwar period, another industry in which Cajuns had been important – shrimping – brought many to the better fishing grounds off the Texas Gulf Coast.

By the latter part of the 20th century, Cajun professionals and engineers in telecommunications, petroleum and construction began a different kind of migration. For the first time, it was white-collar experts and not laborers who were leaving Louisiana. In fact, during the 1990s, Louisiana had a net loss of population.
Today, there are probably at least 375,000 Cajuns who call Texas home.

Language

Cajun French is a mix of Acadian French, standard 19th-century French, Creole and English. It also borrowed words from Spanish, African languages and American Indian languages ( "bayou" from Choctaw, for example).
It is a dialect that is fading away, even in Louisiana where the state legislature banned all French from schools in the 1920s in an attempt to enforce assimilation and the use of English. That policy was abandoned in the 1970s when there was a reversal in sentiment to retain local cultures.

Probably for Texas Cajuns, the exposure to the world outside their communities — in the oilfield, the shipyards and especially service in World War II — had much more to do with diminishing the use of Cajun French. Even in the Cajun homeland today, few of the recent generations know their ancestral language.

As Shane K. Bernard puts it in The Cajuns: Americanization of a People, "Among Cajuns born between 1966 and 1970, for example, only about 12 percent grew up speaking French as their primary language; for those born between 1971 and 1975, the figure dropped to about 8 percent."

According to recent U.S. census data, only about 0.3 Texans speak French of any dialect at home.

Music

Music has been an important part of the Cajun culture since their time in Acadia, but it developed into a different style in the Gulf Coast as it blended with the music and instruments of their neighbors.

Although the tragic history of the Cajuns might indicate mournful ballads, instead the melodies are festive, cheerful and upbeat, often played and sung loudly to be heard over a crowded dance floor.
The fiddle was important to the music from the beginning, and later the accordion was picked up from their German neighbors in south Louisiana.

In the 1930s, the strings came to the fore again, as Cajun bands were influenced by the Western swing style so popular in Texas at the time, and which relied heavily on strings. The accordion reemerged as an important part of Cajun music in the 1960s as younger people began to return to the roots of the music.

There has always been a rapport between Cajun and Texas music.

In a cemetery in Port Arthur, written on a tombstone in French and English is, "Parrain De La Musique Cajun — The Godfather of Cajun Music." It is the grave of Harry Choates, who in his lifetime was called "the fiddle king of Cajun swing."

Choates died in an Austin jail in 1951, after being arrested for failure to pay child support. Born in Louisiana in 1922, Choates had come to Port Arthur with his mother in the 1930s and began to play in the dancehalls and taverns of southeast Texas as a young man. In 1946, he had a big regional hit with "Jole Blon", a song first recorded by the Breaux family in Louisiana in 1928.

Choates’ rewritten version of the song was an even bigger hit in 1947 for Moon (Aubrey Wilson) Mullican, another Texan from southeast Texas.

Mullican, who was called "the king of hillbilly piano players," was born in Polk County but had performed on both sides of the Sabine, including leading the band that backed up Gov. Jimmie Davis in his successful bid for the Louisiana governorship in 1944.

"Jole Blon" was later a national hit for the Grand Ole Opry’s Roy Acuff, and has become a mainstay in the repertoire of many a Texas singer from Waylon Jennings to Kenny Rogers, and later for Townes Van Zandt and Jimmy Dale Gilmore. It is almost always sung in Cajun French.

The real breakthrough for Cajun music into popular and country music came not from a Cajun but from an Alabama singer: Hank Williams Sr.

His 1952 hit, "Jambalaya", was based on the melody of a 1946 Cajun hit, "Grand Texas" by Chuck Guillory. Guillory’s lyric, "tu m’as quitté pour t’en aller au Grand Texas," is about a departure from Louisiana for "Big Texas." Hank Williams’ lyrics were about "me cher amio" Yvonne. Some music historians say Moon Mullican, who was on the Grand Ole Opry at the same time as Hank Williams, co-wrote the lyrics.

When singer Jo Stafford covered "Jambalaya" in 1952, Cajun music was introduced to popular American culture.

As Cajun music evolved throughout the 20th century, drums, electric bass and electric guitars have been included and the triangle, long used to keep tempo, has sometimes been replaced with the frottoir or rub-board.

The frottoir, which is hung around the neck, is more closely identified with Zydeco music, the folk music of the Creoles of south Louisiana that has a fast-tempo with a syncopated back beat.

But, Cajun and Zydeco have influenced each other, so that some bands now blend the styles and instruments.
In fact, the frottoir used today was made by a Cajun welder, based on a design of a Creole musician when they both worked at a Port Arthur oil refinery in 1946.

Refinery worker Clifton Chenier, a legend today in Zydeco music, wanted to replace the washboard in his band with a sheet of ribbed metal that did not have the wooden frame along the outside. From his drawing, fellow worker, Willie Landry, a Cajun and fellow Louisiana native, made the first frottoir used solely as a musical instrument.

Besides traditional Cajun folk music, another influence on Texas dance halls and songwriters came from a special fusion called "swamp pop", which reached its peak of popularity in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
This blend of Cajun, Creole, rockabilly, rhythm & blues and rock ’n’ roll resulted in such hits as "Sea of Love", the 1958 hit by Phil Phillips, a Creole artist from Lake Charles (his real name was John Phillip Baptiste). The songs were noted for their highly emotional lyrics.

Another swamp pop song, "I’m Leaving It Up to You," was a hit for Dale and Grace (Grace Broussard of Ascension Parish).

Their record producer was Huey P. Meaux, whose family, like many Cajuns, had moved across the Sabine River. When he was 12, they settled in Winnie, where he later barbered before getting into the music business in the mid-1950s.

As the Beatles craze shook up the American music scene in 1964, Meaux began producing and promoting San Antonio’s Doug Sahm. Meaux told Sahm to grow his hair long, and he renamed Sahm’s band the Sir Douglas Quintet to capitalize on the British invasion.

Meaux, writes Joseph Levy on his Vinyl Tourist website, analyzed the Beatle sound and decided their "beat was on the beat, just like the Cajun two-step."  Meaux then told Sahm to write a song with such a beat. In 1965, the Sir Douglas Quintet’s mix of Cajun, rock ’n’ roll and conjunto, "She’s About a Mover," became an international hit.

In 1975, San Benito’s own Tex-Mex rocker Freddy Fender sought out Meaux, who convinced Fender to record "Before the Next Teardrop Falls." They followed that hit with a remake of "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," which, although first recorded in 1959 in the Rio Grande Valley, is still included in swamp pop collections today.

(The Huey Meaux Papers, 1940-1994, are now housed in The Center for American History at the University of Texas. Huey Meaux was released from a Texas prison in 2002, where he had been serving a sentence as a convicted sex offender.)        

Food

Cajuns live to eat, it is said, and it is their cuisine that has had a profound impact on Texas. Long before the Cajun food craze of the 1980s, when chef Paul Prudhomme turned on the whole country to blackened redfish and other delicacies, Cajuns were introducing Texans to their pots of spicy dishes.

Many of those dishes begin with the "trinity" of aromatics for Cajun cooking, onion, celery and bell pepper. And, there is the ubiquitous roux, a blend of oil or fat and flour, darkened in a pot to shades ranging from blonde to very brown.

Although historically based on provincial French cooking, Cajun cooking — often done by the menfolk — adapted to available ingredients and incorporated various styles from their neighbors, the Germans, Spanish, American Indians and Afro-Caribbeans.

In fact, the word gumbo, comes from guingombo, an African word for okra. And, the filé used to season and thicken gumbo was borrowed from the Choctaw Indians who ground the sassafras leaves for their dishes. From the Afro-Carribbeans they adopted the hot peppers, cayenne and sauce piquantes.

The preeminent Cajun ingredient is the crawfish, so much a part of the cuisine it has become the icon of Cajun culture. These "crawdads" or "mudbugs" are a small relative of the lobster and are an example of how the Cajuns adopted the resources they found in southern Louisiana to create hearty, simple dishes, such as gumbo, étouffée (just about anything smothered), and jambalaya (based on the Spanish paella, some say).

And whether incorporated in the dish or as a side, there is almost always rice, which the Cajuns found to grow so easily in the damp climate of the Gulf Coast.

The sausages include andouille, made with pork and garlic and smoked, often over pecan wood and sugar cane, and boudin, pork and rice stuffed into a casing; this is boudin blanc. Boudin rouge is a blood sausage.

There are many other dishes that today are a fusion of the distinctly Cajun with other influences such as Creole cooking and New Orleans specialties.

That process of fusion has continued in Texas, so that among the many Cajun/Creole/Louisiana restaurants in the state, menus include crawfish tamales and crawfish étouffée enchiladas.

Festivals

Bon Ton Roulet, is French for, "Good Times Roll" (as in "Let the good times roll.."), and they do, all over the state of Texas, to Cajun or Cajun-related themes. Some of those include:

Alvin — Crawfest & Shrimp Boil in April.

Austin — Louisiana Swamp Romp and Crawfish Festival in April.

Clear Lake area — Crawfish Festival in April.

Columbus — Rajun Cajun Fest in May.

Comal County, Anhalt Hall — Gumbo Cookoff and Cajun Dance in May (sponsored by San Antonio’s  De Fa Tras chapter of the Cajun French Music Association).

Conroe — Cajun Catfish Festival in October.

Fredericksburg — Crawfish Festival in May.

Grand Prairie — Cajun Fest in May.

Houston — Bayou City Cajun Fest in April.

Lakehills — Medina Lake Cajun Festival and Great Gumbo Cookoff in September.

Longview — Harvest Festival Crawfish Boil in April.

Odessa — Mudbug Hurricane Party in June.

Orange — Texas Cajun Heritage Festival in May.

Spring — Texas Crawfish & Music Festival in April.

Wichita Falls — Cajun Fest in May.

Wimberley — Cypress Creek Crawfish Boil in April.

Winnie — Texas Rice Festival in October.

Various Catholic parishes, in East Texas especially, have seasonal Cajun crawfish boils and festivals.

In addition, a French Louisiana tradition that transcends the Cajun culture, the Mardi Gras, has taken root in Texas.

Galveston stages its version on the Strand in the period preceding Lent. The 10-day celebration of dances, parties and parades has grown to draw an estimated 500,000 revelers.

Port Arthur also has the Mardi Gras of Southeast Texas, a four-day event with floats, street entertainment and food.

— written by Robert Plocheck, associate editor, for the Texas Almanac 2008–2009.

 

Sources

"Acadian to Cajun: History of a Society Built on the Extended Family," Carl A. Brasseaux, Center for Acadian Studies, University of Louisiana–Lafayette, 1999.

The Cajuns: Americanization of a People, by Shane K. Bernard, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2003.

The French in Texas: History, Migration, Culture, François Lagrande, editor, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2003.

Texas Zydeco, by Roger Wood, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2003.

The New Handbook of Texas, various, Texas State Historical Association, 1996.

"The Cajuns: Still Loving Life," by Griffin Smith Jr., National Geographic, October 1990.

Encyclopedia of Cajun Culture, online.

"Huey P. Meaux: The Crazy Cajun," by Joe Nick Patoski, Texas Monthly, May 1996.

 

 

 

Texas Almanac

Texas Almanac