The simplified version of American history, the one you probably learned in grade school, tells a one-dimensional story about former English subjects who threw off a king, created a new nation and pressed it relentlessly westward.
But our history is more complicated than that. It’s the story of an English-speaking nation that butted up against a part of France’s New World empire, which also had been part of the Spanish empire for four decades in the 1700s.
Thursday, Dec. 20, is the 209th anniversary of the day French officials, in a ceremony at the Cabildo, turned the vast Louisiana territory over to the United States. Less than a month earlier, Spain had returned the territory to France, which had ceded it to Spain 40 years before.
It’s a historical truism that the Louisiana Purchase was a bargain for the United States — 900,000 square miles, basically the entire western side of the Mississippi River watershed, for only $15 million. But we tend to lose sight of the fact that the United States won a cultural treasure trove as well when it purchased Louisiana.
The ethnic group Louisiana is best known for, the Cajuns, is here because the Spanish let them settle here after they were expelled from Canada. Louisiana’s first German settlers came during French rule to work for John Law’s Mississippi Company. There were free people of color, many of whom can trace their family lines back to European and African roots. There were the African slaves, Canary Islanders and Filipinos. A vibrant interchange with the Caribbean also contributed to the culture. (In jazz, Jelly Roll Morton referred to that Cuban influence as the “Spanish tinge.”)
Long after Louisiana became a state, its French and Spanish heritage paid another dividend. Though there had been Italians in New Orleans since its earliest days, when Henri de Tonti met up with Iberville here, the Italian migration exploded at the end of the 19th century. The Italians felt at home in Louisiana. They shared a religion with the French and Spanish, and they came from a Mediterranean culture, which was not alien to the French or Spanish either.
The rule of France and Spain in Louisiana also had an effect on the lives of African-American people. Slaves were likely to be baptized Catholic during that time, beginning a trend that led to New Orleans having one of the highest concentrations of black Catholics in the nation.
Catholics of color were in the forefront of progressive endeavors. Thomy Lafon and Marie Couvent dedicated themselves and their fortunes to the education of children. Henriette Delille, a free woman of color, devoted her life to instructing free and enslaved black people.
Black Catholics also were prominent among those who fought Jim Crow. Homer Plessy, and before him, Josephine Decuir, unsuccessfully sought to integrate rail and riverboat travel. Later, black Catholics such as A.P. Tureaud and Ernest Morial, eventually New Orleans’ first black mayor, challenged segregation with better results.
None of that would have happened had the groundwork not been laid by Spaniards and Frenchmen early in Louisiana’s history.
South Louisiana’s world-famous cuisine and New Orleans’ signature music probably would not have existed had it not been for the boiling cultural melting pot that first was lit by the French and the Spanish.
The Louisiana territory was rich with natural resources, from oil and gas to timber, coal, gold and silver. But Louisiana also was a cultural treasure that has enriched the United States for centuries.
Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is email@example.com.