THE CAJANS OF SOUTH ALABAMA
Occupying the pine and oak woods of Mobile County in southern Alabama are a group of people of mixed racial blood known in that section as Indian Cajans.
Living in a little world of their own, set apart from the rest of the world by the color line and ideas of social inequality, this group of people lives near Mobile County, known for its thriving seaport, and is the home of a big percent of this Cajan population. These people have been so overlooked that no one really knows where they came from, nor how long they have been here.
Beulah May and Leroy Weaver (Alabama Department of Archives and History)
It is evident that the Alabama Cajans are a mixture of a number of races and nationalities: English, American Indian, German, French, Italian, Mexican, Negro, and Russian. The name “Cajan” is probably a misnomer as the group is connected only remotely with the Acadians of historical fame; however, it has been brought over probably from Louisiana and Mississippi and is now in general use in south Alabama.
In the absence of a more accurate term “Cajan” is used in this account to designate the people of mixed blood in Mobile County who are classed as neither white, red, nor black, but constitute a unique race.
Numerous stories regarding the origin of the group are told; however, none is known to be authentic. A typical tale is told by some of the old settlers in the southern part of the County. During the War of 1812 numbers of English pirates were forced to flee for their lives, and they came to Mobile. From the town they moved out into this section to escape punishment. Here they married and intermarried with Spanish, French, Germans, American Indians, and Mexicans, and started the new mixed race of Cajans.
Cajan children Dave Taylor and Sadie Sullivan (Alabama Department of Archives and History)
In one family there may be the true blonde with all the physical characteristics of the white race, and also the dark brunette who shows close kinship to the Mexican or the Indian.
- Shady Grove Settlement, west of Calvert
- Byrd Settlement, between Mount Vernon and Citronelle
- Tom Lars Byrd Neighborhood
- Tassie Byrd Neighborhood
- Book Byrd Neighborhood
- Scattered groups at Movico, Chastang, Creola, Mobile
Two Cajun women in Mobile County, Alabama – one sister-in-law opens home to other while husband is in prison for life (Alabama Department of Archives and History)
Homes were typical of pioneer days ca. 1940.
In 1940, Laura Murphy, provided the following description of their lives in an article she wrote for The Alabama Historical Quarterly, Vol. 02, No. 04, Winter Issue 1940:
The homes of the woods are typical of the pioneer days of the old South.1 The living quarters commonly designated as “the house” are usually separate from the kitchen where there are a fireplace and a stove. In the larger homes the kitchen may be partitioned from the dining room, but more often cooking and eating are done in the same room. A few couples have recognized the desirability and convenience of building the kitchen connected with the rest of the house. Building materials are logs or undressed lumber. A few homes have been built or remodeled with finished planks. Nails are saved carefully for use at such times as they may be needed after a house is built, and scrap lumber is never thrown away. Even the wealthy families often live in houses built by ancestors several generations ago. A paling fence with wooden gates is always considered the most attractive enclosure that could be used for the yard. “Brush brooms” made from gallberry bushes and “pine tops” taken from pine trees are used to clean the yards.’ Almost every home has at least a few flowers, and several women are known for raising large, colorful beds of hardy annuals; these are usually in the middle of a clean swept, hard yard, devoid of grass.
Cajun home near Calbert (Alabama Department of Archives and History)
No separate living rooms
“There are no separate living rooms in the modern sense, for all the rooms are living rooms. The “best room” in a house of the middle class usually has one or more beds, several chairs with “tidies” on the backs, and a small table. There may be a talking machine or an organ. There are often large crayon portraits of members of the family, usually deceased, enlarged from old photographs or deguerotypes by a travelling photographer. The beds and the floors are immaculately clean. The windows may have curtains but are not likely to have shades.”
Tom Byrd, leader ca.1910 (Alabama Department of Archives and History)
“There are no bathrooms. Tin wash tubs and tin or granite wash pans are in general use. Upon arising a person is expected to “wash”, that is, to bathe face and hands in cool water that has just been brought from spring, pump, or well for that purpose. Before and after each meal the members of the family and their guests go to the gallery where they wash their hands. Allover baths are taken after dark to insure privacy.”
Aunt Laura Byrd of French-Creek Indian English Ancestry(Alabama Department of Archives and History)
Knives and forks not used to a great extent
One family in Byrd Settlement has electric lights from a Delco plant, and several families use good kerosene lamps; however, such methods of lighting are not in general use. “Fat pine” sticks or “lighters” furnish torch light for cooking and eating at night and for most social gatherings in the home. Knives and forks are not used to a great extent. Spoons, with two or three knives, are usually found in a home of moderate means; and no family has a complete set of silver. Several families own forty-eight piece sets of dishes which they reserve for “company use”.
Two Cajun men holding babies after Sunday School near Mt. Vernon, Alabama (Alabama Department of Archives and History)
Food combinations may be French-English origin
Cajans have several food combinations that Hamilton believes to be of Indian-French-English origin. “Indian dishes like succotash and gumbo file” are common.2 File is a powdered form of sassafras. The most widely used combinations are: rice and black-eye peas; ripe tomatoes, Irish potatoes, and lima beans; chicken and rice; green black-eye peas and okra; green tomatoes and okra. Gopher (land turtle) meat is a delicacy in some places, as are green turtle, squirrel, and wild turkey. Goat and mutton are two of the most popular meats among the groups financially able to afford them. The use of goat for barbeque reminds a southern traveller of the barbequed and dried “cabrito” (goat meat) in the diet of the Mexican in theOulf Coast region of south Texas.
Vegetables commonly grown in the gardens of the old South are raised here. A few fruits: peaches, pears, pomegranates, and persimmons are raised. Dewberries and blackberries grow wild. Mayhaws, scuppernongs, and muscadines likewise grow wild, and scuppernongs are often cultivated in a home garden. Very little is known about modern methods in agriculture or in preserving foods; hence, gardens rarely reach the point of best possible production, and almost no food is canned. There is but little production and consumption of milk and other dairy products. Lard and lard substitutes are given preference over butter for seasoning or table use. Sea foods, cabbage, eggs, and citrus fruits are additional delicacies to the regular meal of salt pork, hot bread, molasses, and coffee. A guest’s breakfast might consist of baked sweet potatoes, boiled cabbage, molasses, meat, biscuit, and coffee rolls.
Ice cream is a rare treat. It is inconvenient for anyone to get ice, and ice cream is made only on holidays and other special occasions. There is one ice cream freezer in the Shady Grove Settlement and there are four or five in the Byrd Settlement. On one occasion the public school teacher arrived at a home just as the family were giving up as a failure an attempt to freeze a gallon of ice cream. They had decided, after turning the handle for an hour, with no visible results, that the mixture was not freezing because of an insufficient quantity of sugar. The teacher added a cup of salt to the ice that was in the freezer, and the cream began to freeze almost immediately. The family were delighted over this remarkable culinary skill thus displayed by their teacher.
Dripped coffee is universal drink
Dripped coffee is the universal drink of the woods. Green coffee is purchased at a store, then it is parched and ground at home only as it is used to insure strength. No home is without its fireplace and drip pot for coffee. A few younger couples make coffee on a stove, but the average native prefers setting the pot in a bed of coals in the fireplace. Dripped coffee is very strong and is served without cream and sugar. It is not served during a meal but always before the meal, and frequently, after.
Upon awaking in the morning, a Cajan expects his coffee to be served immediately. Whenever a person comes to a home, some member of the family is bound by social custom to offer him a cup of coffee. If the drink is not offered him, it is not discourteous for him to ask for it. Regardless of the time of day or of the number of times coffee has already been served, it is not hospitable to permit an adult visitor to leave without first offering him hot coffee.
Respect old age
Cajans have great respect for old age. Every child is taught to be courteous to older people and when a guest enters his home, his responsibility is keenly felt. He takes around a chair for the guest to use as the latter goes back and forth from the house to the kitchen. If the guest is an old man or an old woman the child used “Uncle” or “Aunt” as terms of respect, and he feels honored to have his visitor ask him to draw a bucket of cool water from the old board well or to bring in some lighter for a better fire.
A host or a member of his family who does not insist on a guest’s staying for a meal is considered ill-bred. Likewise, anyone at the home at bedtime is always asked to spend the night. No doubt this custom prevails because of the distance that often separates a man from his home at nightfall, when he is travelling on horse or on foot. Beds can always be made down on the floors to accommodate the extra persons, and if the guests be old in years, the children promptly give up their bed without a murmur of protest.
Arriving at a home out in the woods, a visitor stops at the gate nearest the front door of the dwelling house and calls, “Hello!”. An older member of the family comes to the door or out on the porch and answers, “Hello”. The following conversation may then take place on the gallery or in the house:
- Visitor—”Howdy, How’re you?”
- Host—”Not much, How’re you?”
- Visitor—”Not much.”
- Host—”How’re your folks?”
- Visitor—”They’re pretty good, I believe. Are you all well?”
- Host—”Yes, I believe so.” **». When the visitor takes leave, he says, “Well, you’d better come go home with me.”
- Host—”No, I don’t reckon I can hardly today. You’d as well stay longer.”
- Visitor—”No, I don’t reckon I can. My folks will be looking for me. Let Johnnie (one of the host’s children) go home with me.”
- Host—”No, I don’t reckon he can go—not today. I’ll let him come sometime. You never have brought Willie over to stay with us none yet.”
- Visitor—”Well, I will bring Willie. Do let Johnnie go.”
- Host—”Well, I guess he can go if he wants to. When are you coming back?”
- Visitor—”We’ll try to get around about Sunday and bring your boy back. Better come go, too.”
- Host—”No, I don’t reckon I can. I’ll be looking for you Sunday.”
- Visitor—”All right; if the Lord’s willing and nothing don’t happen. Good-day.”
- Host (and family)—”Good-bye !”
Visitors are made welcome
The first time two white women came to Byrd Settlement to teach an opportunity school for adults, they were entertained in the home of the settlement leader. There the first night of their arrival, they were made welcome in the crowded, “best” room of the home by the host, the hostess, eight young men, seven young women, and three children. Some sat on chairs that were too few for the number desiring seats, others on the bed that would later be occupied by the teachers. Several young men stood in the doorways which were really the only comfortable spots, since the pine lighter fire which was serving for lighting purposes on that June night, was burning exceptionally well. The teachers were given the only rocking chairs and were seated directly in front of the fire in order for everyone to get a good view of the guests. Each young man and each girl, then the father and the mother, took his turn at displaying his skill at the organ. They all played by ear and the entire repertoire numbered three or four hymns. Each who could write then autographed a sheet of paper; great interest was shown in the teachers’ handwriting.
At eleven o’clock the wooden water bucket with the family dipper was passed around as one of the necessary preparations for retiring. Those who had been dipping snuff or chewing tobacco washed out their mouths at this time and everybody took a drink of cool water. A bucket of fresh water was put in a central location so that it would be available if needed in the night. The guests were then left to retire in the room in which they had been entertained; instructions were given to keep all doors closed in order to prevent disturbance by the boys’ hunting dog. As there were only two small windows in the room and the fire and the crowd had made the room very stuffy, instructions were disobeyed and a door was left partly open. The host left several matches to be used as needed. Each one was utilized before the night was over, in putting out the cat, chasing a rat out of the guests’ hat box, examining the size of chinches, and finally putting out the dog that came in as expected. At daybreak the teachers were greeted by the three small children of the household, resplendent in their Sunday clothes and greased hair, gazing into the two strange faces over the foot of the bed. Coffee was soon served and the children were sent out while the guests dressed to go to a typical Cajan breakfast.
Older members eat first
A Cajan meal is served very informally and anyone in the home is welcomed at the family board. All food is placed on the table and the older members of the family and the guests are supposed to eat first. The host or the hostess invites everybody to “sit up”, which means that everyone who is sitting on a chair must bring his chair to the table. Grace is said by a member of the family, usually a man, and everyone is urged to “help himself”. If there are not enough chairs and benches, the older boys may squat beside the table while they eat. Different members of the group will “borrow” the one or two knives that are being used by the guest or the host.
It is not considered polite to take bread with the fingers, and a fork is used to convey a piece from the service plate to the individual’s plate. One spoon may be used in three or four different dishes: meat, beans, okra, rice.
Young men and boys embarrassed to eat
Young men and boys are often embarrassed to eat in a strange home. A young man who is courting on Sunday may not eat anything from the time he leaves home Sunday morning until he returns Monday morning. The writer has heard numerous adolescent boys declare that they would go without food all day rather than eat before women of another settlement. It sometimes takes school boys several months to become accustomed to eating before the teacher.
Such boys are urged especially to eat, and if they will not do so, the older girls usually save some food to serve them with the boys of the household after the main meal. Everyone at the table is exhorted to “make out your dinner”—or breakfast or supper. A guest is expected to “try” everything; and the cooks feel that something is wrong with their cooking if a guest does not eat heartily. It is customary to serve no beverage during a meal, although in a few homes the girls give water or milk to a teacher or a minister, since they have learned in school that white people drink during the course of the meal. As soon as everyone leaves the table, the water bucket is brought in or the family go to it on the gallery for fresh water. The guest is offered water to drink and water in which to wash his hands.
Old practices of self-medication
Health conditions in the woods are similar to those found in many of the ill sections of the South today. Ignorance and superstition cause people to hold to old practices of self-medication which are far more detrimental than beneficial to heatlh. There is a serious lack of health education and the number of ailments caused by nutritional deficiencies is steadily on the increase. Almost no attention is given persons with defective eyes and ears; nor do the teeth receive any special care unless an extraction is necessary as the last resort in severe pain.
Venereal disease is alarmingly on the increase. Several native men are consulted for treatment, rather than a licensed physician, and herb mixtures are prescribed and administered generously. Although this situation is known by several practicing physicians in nearby villages, they do not have the illegal practice stopped. Consequently, scores of women and children are now suffering some effects of disease, yet at present they are helpless in securing medical treatment. Such diseases are not spoken of in hushed tones, as is often the case in modern communities, and it is not difficult to find a victim in a large percentage of homes.
The social status of Cajan women and the superstition by which many of their actions are guided, do not make for physically healthy womanhood. Married women are frequently victims of venereal disease. Bright’s Disease claims young mothers who know nothing of the importance of diet. A visitor in any Cajan settlement must be impressed by the large number of orphans who are being reared by various relatives. Babies who must be thus cared for are fed by any one of a number of preparations. It is a common sight to see a Cajan woman feeding a baby full strength sweetened condensed milk with a spoon.
Most Cajans are undernourished. Hookworm, pellagra, malaria, and colds are chronic complaints. The men, perhaps because of their active life in the woods, seem to have more resistance to colds than do the women; however, diseases of the heart and malaria are common even with them. There has never been an epidemic of any disease in malignant form to sweep the woods. The people attribute this to the fact that they live great distances apart, and each family usually has a distinct water supply.
Never saw a licensed physician
The majority of people never know the advice or the care of a licensed physician. The expense involved in bringing a physician eight or ten miles into the woods is too much for the average family. Persons critically ill with pneumonia or acute appendicitis are sometimes carried in an open car thirty or forty miles to a doctor. In the history of this section there has been one physician who knew practically all of the people and who knew the roads in the woods as well as the natives. This physician was for many years the outstanding helper for Mobile County Cajans in rural medical work. He did much to bring about the improved care that licensed native midwives now give patients. However, some of the crude methods used by these midwives in obstetrical work are still to be deplored, such as putting the patient on the floor before the delivery of her child, building a fire in the patient’s room even in hot summer weather, etc. It is rare for a woman to have an attending physician in childbirth.
The Public Health Service has never employed a full-time worker for Cajans, and the general staff have always felt it a loss of valuable time to hunt Cajan families in the woods when there were many people waiting to be served in the city of Mobile. Consequently, the work of the public health nurses among Cajans was until recently more of emergency relief than the education in health so much needed.
Until 1932 the public health service employed at least three field workers, one of whom was interested in maternity work; one was interested in tuberculosis cases; and one in general case work. No clinics for tuberculosis were ever held for Cajans, and the majority know nothing of going to Mobile for treatment or examination. The nurse in charge of pre-natal work has always shown more interest than any other nurse in the physical welfare of Cajans, and since the establishment of a program of social work at the Methodist Community House she has been giving valuable assistance in cases to whom she is directed through the Community House. Women feel honored that this nurse shows interest in their welfare, and a young woman may feel slighted if the nurse calls on a neighbor first. Real educational work is being accomplished by the maternity nurse in replacing “old wives’ tales” with progressive methods. Strict cleanliness of midwives is required; diet lists and feeding schedules are given and results checked; and all dangerous delivery cases are advised to go to the city hospital in Mobile.
The public school nurses visit the schools occasionally and vaccinate for smallpox. No physical examinations have ever been given the school children. About sixty children and their parents have been given inoculations against typhoid fever and diphtheria. When the nurses first began to visit the settlements about eight years ago the children were often so frightened that they ran into the woods and had to be hunted. One school nurse was surprised to see several of the youngsters whom she was to vaccinate jump out of a window and disappear just before it came their time in line. Since then, the blue uniforms of the nurses have ceased to frighten Cajans in most neighborhoods, and the children are glad to welcome a nurse to the school. Fortunately, Cajan parents have never shown any opposition to vaccination of their children.
1Campbell, John C., The Southern Highlander and His Home, 1921, p. 359.
1Hamilton, Peter J., Colonial Mobile, Second Edition, 1910, p. 390.
2Hamilton, op. tit., p. 184.
- The Alabama Historical Quarterly, Vol. 01, No. 01, Spring Issue 1930.
- The Alabama Historical Quarterly, Vol. 02, No. 04, Winter Issue 1940
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