In 1971, the Louisiana Legislature officially designated a 22-parish section of the state “Acadiana” in recognition of the area’s French heritage. The declaration included “other parishes of similar cultural environment.” As historian Brasseaux notes, “the official state map has always delineated only the twenty-two parishes specifically identified in the resolution.”
And that’s the area treated in this beautiful coffee-table volume. If you drew a triangle with Lake Charles, Marksville and Grand Isle at the corners, you’d just about encompass “Acadiana.” It’s also just about the limit of sugar cane production in Louisiana, and the area contains most of the rice production in the state and almost all of the state’s Gulf Coast shoreline. It’s an area fabled for its music, food and scenery. Those three things are ably captured in Gould’s photographs, sometime in dreamy, moss-hung scenes, sometimes in the soaring lines of a pristine plantation house, sometimes in a graying fishing camp tottering on stilts over a murky bayou.
Gould’s lens finds the amber light of sunset richly infusing a churchyard, the glow of a farmhouse window in the near-dark of late dusk, the menace of lowering clouds above a marsh, the simple geometry of a rice field stretching away to the horizon, a stately grove of live oaks, crawfish being boiled, a Native American burial mound basking in the midday sun, brightly painted shrimp boats sailing home, Cajuns making music and dancing and eating. He sees the romance of the region, and there’s plenty of that.
Most of the time when you see a photography book like this one with big expensive color prints on lavish paper, the accompanying text is just a sort of afterthought to explain what the photo captions leave out. That’s not the case in this book.
Brasseaux’s history/geography lessons that comprise the seven sections of this book are of equal quality as Gould’s photographs, and where Gould’s works perpetuate the romance, Brasseaux’s writing is hard-nosed history.
The first thing Brasseaux does away with is the notion that this is region mostly populated by refugees from Acadia in Canada. They were there, of course, but they weren’t alone.
“Indeed, the region is populated by the descendants of at least a dozen major French-speaking groups, as well as tens of thousands of individuals who proudly trace their ancestry to indigenous Native American nations. African slaves, free persons of color, Thinelanders, Alsatian religious exiles, Isle?os (Canary Islanders), Malague?os, Anglos, fugitives from the Irish potato famine and Germany’s 1848 revolution, German and East European Jews, transplanted Midwesterners, Lebanese Christians, Sicilians, German Catholics fleeing the Prussianization of the Fatherland, Tesas and Oklahoma oil workers, Laotians, Vietnamese, and a host of other groups.”
It’s a melting pot. And where did they all go? They’re still there, but some of them are so Frenchified that they don’t even remember their own history, Brasseaux writes. The most clear examples of this are in the evolution of surnames.
“Dubs became Toups, Buerckel became Percle, Steiger became Echeatire, Zweig became LaBranche, Achtziger became Quatrevingt, Hoffman de Bade became Badeau, Himmel became Hymel, Heidel became Haydel, Wichner became Vicnair, Folz became Folse, Trischl became Triche, and Wagensbach became Waguespack.”
The same thing happened to the Malague?os who came to New Iberia from southern Spain in the period of Spanish rule in Louisiana.
“Villatoro became Viator, and Domingues became Domingue,” Brasseaux observes. “Today, many of Acadiana’s Malague?o descendants have no idea whatsoever of their Spanish heritage.”
Yet even when these ancestors’ presence isn’t overtly visible, Brasseaux points out, they’re there in the food, the architecture, the names.
Brasseaux explains the settlement patterns of the area, who settled where and when (including movements of the Native American tribes). He tracks the development of the plantation system, cash-crop dependent agriculture that led to the importation of more and more slaves. He also tracks the almost slaveless society that developed in the area known as the Acadian prairie. Brasseaux discusses the little-known Union sympathizers who opposed the Confederate authorities in prairies. Known as jayhawkers, many were deserters from the Confederate Army.
Brasseaux describes how new transportation methods broke the reliance of waterways and changed future settlement patterns.
He points out a fact that even many Louisianans may not know: drawn by these new transportation ties, many farmers came from the Midwest to settle southwest Louisiana near the Calcasieu River during the 1890s.
“After failed attempts to introduce wheat cultivation to the southwest Louisiana prairies, the midwest transplants turned their considerable agricultural skills, ingenuity, and state-of-the-art, steam-powered equipment to the establishment of a major regional rice industry. In the process, they spawned a local culinary revolution and a shift away from the locals’ traditional corn-based diet.”
Surprises aside, there is much nuts-and-bolts history to learn from Brasseaux’s writing: the sad tale of the Jim Crow era, the irresistible rise of the oil industry, politics Louisiana style, the incredible diversity of this great state. Gould’s images illustrate these subjects beautifully.
This is certainly one of the best books about Louisiana to be published in a very long time. Cumulatively, it might be the best book ever about the complex and enigmatic place we now call Acadiana.
ACADIANA, LOUISIANA’S HISTORIC CAJUN COUNTRY
Text by Carl Brasseaux, photographs by Philip Gould; LSU Press, $45