The Spanish touch in Louisiana

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Journal Correspondent

Louisiana’s French heritage is well known, much more so than our Spanish traditions. While it is true Spain ruled over Louisiana (1763-1800) for about half as long as the French, and few Spanish people settled here during that time, the Spanish did make a significant impact on our culture.

The Spanish particularly affected western Louisiana. When the French established an outpost at Natchitoches in 1714, the Spanish retaliated a few years later with their own fort at Los Adaes (LOS uh-DICE) in modern-day Sabine Parish. Los Adaes not only served as the capital of Spanish Texas, it also influenced the entire region. One example of this legacy is today’s Choctaw-Apache Indian Tribe of Ebarb.

The Apaches are native to the desert southwest, and they frequently fought the Spanish in the 18th century. Many captured Apaches were sold as slaves to the Spanish at Los Adaes, who in turn often sold them to the French in Natchitoches.

Later in the 18th century, Choctaw Indians from Mississippi migrated to Louisiana and married the Apaches. The descendants of those unions went on to form Louisiana’s Choctaw-Apache tribe.

When Los Adaes was abandoned in 1773, some of the Spanish inhabitants refused to move and scattered into the woods. Many people who live in Sabine Parish today can trace their ancestry to these early settlers.

Until recently, a unique Spanish dialect could be found in and around the town of Zwolle, home of the popular annual Tamale Festival. Because the Spaniards who lived in the Los Adaes area were completely isolated from other Spanish settlements, the language never evolved as it did in the rest of New Spain. The Spanish dialect found around Zwolle was 18th century Mexican-Spanish, and it did not exist anywhere else in the world.

Unfortunately, the number of Spanish speakers in western Louisiana has dwindled in modern times. Dr. Charles Holloway, a professor of foreign languages at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, recorded and documented the dialect, but it is questionable if anyone is still fluent in it.

Interestingly, Dr. Holloway studied another unusual Spanish dialect in southeastern Louisiana. Among the Spaniards who moved to Louisiana during the late 18th century were several thousand Canary Islanders. Known as IsleZos (“eece-LAYN-yohs”), or “islanders,” they settled in modern-day St. Bernard, Ascension, and Plaquemines parishes.

Today, the IsleZos still live in southeast Louisiana and carry on their traditional crafts. Some also speak a unique Spanish dialect called Brule (“BROO-lee”). Sadly, like the Spanish dialect around Zwolle, this language is slowly dying out as the older IsleZos pass away. In addition, Hurricane Katrina devastated the IsleZos communities and dispersed many of the people.

Spanish influence can also be seen today in New Orleans. One enduring myth about the Crescent City is that the cemeteries’ above-ground vaults were used because the high water table made it impossible to bury bodies. Actually, this is only partly true.

The city used regular graves throughout the French period. While there were some problems with the high water table that is not why the so-called “Cities of the Dead” exist. The use of above-ground vaults, such as can be found in St. Louis Cemetery, is simply a Spanish cultural trait that became popular with the city’s residents.

Today, 90 percent of the graves in New Orleans are above-ground vaults. This is the highest percentage of any city in the world.

Tourists and residents of New Orleans’ French Quarter can also thank the Spanish for the Vieux Carré‘s unique architecture. Two devastating fires in 1788 and 1794 burned down nearly the entire city (two hurricanes also flattened it between the fires).

Prior to 1794, the buildings of New Orleans were made mostly of wood and reflected French architecture. But when rebuilding the city after the 1794 fire, Governor Carondelet ordered brick be used for any new buildings taller than one story because brick would withstand fire better.

The new buildings reflected Spanish tastes, so most of today’s French Quarter architecture is actually Spanish or early American, not French. The only building in New Orleans that was built during the French period is the Ursuline Convent. The house known as Madame John’s Legacy is a French Creole design, but it was built during Spanish rule after the 1789 fire.
See Charles E. Holloway, Dialect Death: The Case of Brule Spanish.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is professor emeritus of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has received numerous awards for his Civil War books and outdoor articles.