Date of this Version
Crosscurrents: Land, Labor, and the Port. Textile Society of America's 15th Biennial Symposium. Savannah. GA. October 19-23. 2016.
Louisiana’s early history is colored with multinational interests and domination by a succession of nations speaking diverse languages. Although “discovered” by the Spanish in the 1600s, the French were the first to colonize the area, founding New Orleans in 1718 with financial support (and administrative control) from the Company of the Indies. New Orleans became Louisiana’s colonial capital in 1721. Most of the earliest immigrants to Louisiana were either French military personnel or French Canadian adventurers and traders. Their number was augmented by the forced immigration of criminals, prostitutes, and those incarcerated in French workhouses. By all accounts this made for a rowdy citizenry, and one not terribly prone to productive labor. By 1721, in an effort to increase agricultural production and provide a stable supply of food for New Orleans, Germans were actively recruited to farm land north of the city along the Mississippi River. This area became known as the Cote des Allemands or “German Coast,” and attracted a large number of early immigrants. By the middle of the 18th century Louisiana, with New Orleans as its primary port city, was a thoroughly French colonial entity whose Francophone population assimilated newcomers and embodied the cultural, economic, and political attitudes of its European mother country France. However, at the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763, and following the collapse of France’s North American empire, France ceded Louisiana to Spain. This began a 40-year period in which Louisiana was a Spanish colony in name, but French in spirit. Much of the French colonial administrative structure remained in place, but the Spanish language was used for official documents, and Hispanic policies (supporting, for example, female ownership of property and flexible manumission of slaves) became the cultural norm. Spain ceded Louisiana back to France in 1803, at which point France sold it to the United States for $15,000,000 – the Louisiana Purchase. With American ownership of Louisiana came an influx of adventurers and entrepreneurs from the new republican nation to the north, seeking their fortunes. Governmental officials sought to organize the colony along American protestant principles but met resistance from a populace that was largely Catholic and non-English speaking. Between 1791 and 1804 there was a slave rebellion on the French-speaking Caribbean island of St. Dominque (now Haiti) that ended with defeat for both the British and the French. More than 40,000 people fled the island for ports along the Atlantic seaboard and Cuba, and by 1810 more than 10,000 of them had found their way to Louisiana, nearly doubling the population of New Orleans with French-speaking white, black, and mixed race families and their enslaved workers. From the 1830s to 1860s, however, Louisiana became a destination of choice for thousands of immigrants from Ireland and Germany, further expanding the linguistic and cultural mix, and significantly diluting the French foundation on which the colony and state originated.
But the largest ethnic population in Louisiana were black, and mixed race, free and enslaved workers with African heritage. Louisiana imported slaves directly from Africa from 1719 to 1731, with the vast majority of them being from Senegal. The Senegalese were largely an artisan people, and this influenced the roles they assumed and their impact on Louisiana society prior to the rise of the sugar plantations. Once it was profitable to grow sugar, there was a need for a much larger workforce, and slaves from all parts of Africa were brought in from other states and sold to Louisiana’s many planters. The result of all this forced and voluntary immigration to Louisiana is that by the outbreak of American Civil War, the state had a three-tiered caste society with approximately 40% white citizens, 20% free-black citizens (most of mixed European and African heritage), and 40% enslaved workers of color - black, Native American, and mixed race. The Civil War brought additional changes to Louisiana’s ethnic melting pot, with American military occupation of the state (which had sided with the confederacy) and the emancipation of black and mixed-race enslaved workers. Much of the resulting population in Louisiana now identifies as “Creole” – which originally meant “born in Louisiana” (as opposed to Europe, Africa, or even other parts of the American continent). Although descendants of early French families once tried to restrict use of the term for individuals with undiluted white European ancestry, today “Creole” is predominantly used by individuals of mixed European, African, and/or Native American heritage who are descendants of any of Louisiana’s early families and/or identify with the Louisiana’s Creole culture. Although Creoles have diverse racial and ethnic ancestry, they share many cultural, linguistic, and religious ties. From this ethnic melting pot emerged schoolgirl samplers that reflect the diverse needlework traditions of the state’s many different immigrant populations. The remainder of this article focuses on an interesting handful of samplers and related schoolgirl embroideries stitched by Louisiana’s girls and young women over a period of slightly more than 70 years – from 1815 to 1887.