1778: The Isleños arrive in Louisiana
Soon after France ceded much of Louisiana to Spain, the local Spanish governor, Bernardo de Galvez, encouraged Spanish families from the Canary Islands, known as Isleños, to relocate to the crown’s new territory. Promising to subsidize their Louisiana settlements with food, tools and money, he hoped the additional population would stave off the British, who had obtained much of the land east of the Mississippi. Starting in 1778 and continuing through 1783, the Isleños came by the boatload — an estimated 2,000 of them — starting new lives in settlements strategically placed around south Louisiana. Even though they had relocated to a new continent, however, they held onto their own traditions, developing a distinct dialect and culture while subsisting as hunters and trappers — and living in relative isolation — on the Louisiana bayous.
Over the course of the 20th century, forced-English education limited the younger generations from speaking Isleños dialects, and a number of hurricanes drove some longtime residents away. Despite these challenges, many have stayed and continue to celebrate their culture, including their hunting and trapping traditions. In St. Bernard Parish, the Los Isleños Heritage and Cultural Society annually holds the Isleños Fiesta, part of its efforts to keep the community’s traditions alive. It also maintains the Museo de los Isleños and offers college scholarships to high school graduates of Isleños decent.
- The term “Isleños” translates literally to “islander” in Spanish and was introduced to distinguish Canary Islanders from Spaniards from the mainland.
- The original Isleños of Louisiana were settled in four areas: in Galveztown, just south of Baton Rouge; Valenzuela, by Bayou Lafourche; Barataria by Bayou des Familles; and La Concepcion, later San Bernardo, by Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs.
- Many of the Canary Islanders who immigrated were members of the Spanish Army, and those men helped defend New Orleans in the Revolutionary War. Under the command of Galvez, the Isleños helped defeat the British in Baton Rouge, Mobile and Pensacola, successfully driving all of the British out of the Gulf.
- The settlement in St. Bernard Parish was the most successful. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the residents of San Bernardo farmed much of the produce sold in New Orleans.
- Isleños in St. Bernard also fished commercially and hunted ducks, which helped feed their families as well as catering to the New Orleans market. They also found success in trapping animals such as mink and muskrat, selling their pelts.
- When the Spanish government asked the Isleños to come to Louisiana, they granted land based on the size of the family. Larger families would receive more land, and a tradition of maintaining close, large families became a part of the culture. Multiple generations would live and work together on small farms, and the religious feast days saw all members of the family dining together, eating huge meals of food they farmed and hunted.
The Isleños of Louisiana are one of the many groups who made their way to the bayou over the course of New Orleans’ history. They made the swamplands work for them and built up a community centered on family and subsistence. Even though the Isleños community has shrunk, the remaining community is a direct link to New Orleans’ Spanish heritage, and it is one that still celebrates the things that attract so many to this city: food and family.