Vermilionville, Acadiana: A Vibrant Melting Pot where food, music and culture blend in Cajun Louisiana

A two-hour drive from New Orleans, Acadiana is a 14,500 square mile portion of southern Louisiana. A special area of America, its history is complicated but begins with French-speaking settlers from the early 17th-century leaving France to live in Nova Scotia, a region historically known as Acadia. They lived off the land and the sea. After the British took over Canada in 1713, however, the Acadians would not swear allegiance to the English flag; in addition, they refused to stop speaking French and to give up their Catholic religion. As a result, the British removed them by force in an event called Le Grand Dérangement or the Expulsion of the Acadians, a term used for the forced removal by Great Britain during the French and Indian War between 1755 and 1764. 

The expulsion had three waves. During the first, Acadian exiles were sent to the Thirteen Colonies. They tended to migrate from there; large numbers went to the colonial port cities where they gathered in impoverished neighborhoods. The second wave was deportation to France. Then came the third wave: The British did not directly deport Acadians to Louisiana but sent them to France and from there, these French-speaking Acadians left France and eventually wandered to more friendly locales in southern Louisiana, a colony of Spain since 1762. Soon the Acadians comprised the largest ethnic group in Louisiana. First, they settled in regions along the Mississippi River, and later they settled in the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest wetland and swamp where the Atchafalaya River and the Gulf of Mexico converge in the U.S. 

The land was known as the Attakapas region named after the native peoples who had lived there for centuries. One of the earlier settlements in this area was called Vermilionville because it was along the banks of the Bayou Vermilion. In the 1800s the land was a sugarcane plantation owned by Alexandre Mouton and worked by 120 slaves. Cajuns settled in the swamps and on this land. The French word Acadien morphed into “Cadien” and later the easier-to-say anglicized word Cajun. The settlement grew to be called Vermilionville, today’s Lafayette, the region’s urban hub. Life in the swamps was not easy. Settlers were introduced to hurricanes, snakes and mosquito-driven disease but they found the good in all of it and turned to celebration with gusto. Today eating, dancing and music are their most influential expressions.

The bayou country itself became a mixture of cultures, a blending of different peoples, including the Cajuns, Creoles, Native Americans and Africans; all make up the rich mix in Louisiana’s spicy gumbo or stew.  Food and water tie the region together as the watery land and sluggish streams meander amid swamps and marshlands filled with crawfish, frogs’ legs, shrimp and oysters, all ingredients in the Cajun diet.


To learn more, head to Lafayette’s Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park, the result of the multi-pronged community mission of the Bayou Vermilion District. Its purpose is to improve the water quality and the aesthetics of the Bayou within the Parish of Lafayette, however, in its scope is the recreational, educational, and cultural aspects of daily life. Vermilionville opened in 1990 as a way to preserve and represent the different cultures in the region from 1765-1890.

On a tree-covered 23-acre site on the banks of the Bayou Vermilion in the heart of Lafayette across from the Lafayette Regional Airport, Vermilionville introduces people to the mixture of cultures, along with exhibits, historical buildings and gardens. and attracts not only tourists but also locals with music performances and a restaurant, La Cuisine de Maman (Mother’s Cooking) featuring Cajun and Creole classics. 

This quiet living-history village re-creates the early life of the region’s Creoles, Cajuns, African descendants in the area and Native Americans. On select days, visitors can see a blacksmith demonstration or watch weavers or a quilter at work. There are exhibits in 19 Acadian-style structures, including a music hall where live Cajun or zydeco music is played on weekend afternoons, luring dancers onto the floor. The heritage Center hosts a weekly Cajun music jam on Saturdays and the Bal du Dimanche is a Sunday afternoon dance party. The second Saturday French Table is a free gathering to hear and speak the French language. Check ahead for live demonstrations on the website’s event calendar.

If you are lucky, you will meet Chief John Sitting-Bull Mayeux, a member of the Avogel tribe, one of the oldest Louisiana tribes still extant. He was head chief for more than 20 years and remains one of the tribal chiefs. Avoyelles Parish is named for the Avogel people, a tribe that has been in the area for at least 5,000 years. As a child, Mayeux saw his culture and language start to disappear. Vermilionville gives him the opportunity to tell people about the history of his tribe and its people.

Many rural pockets of Creole and Cajun communities continue to exist in southern Louisiana, and the region remains one of the only places in the U.S. where the native population speaks French. Both Creole and Cajun dialects are in danger of becoming extinct as younger generations speak more English. However, there is a growing interest for French among young people. Since 1968, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) has promoted the French language and the preservation of both Creole and Cajun cultures. 

The mission of this agency is to support and grow Louisiana’s francophone communities through scholarships, language immersion and various community and language skill-building programs. There are many programs, among them is the Louisiana Folklife Program that identifies, documents, preserves and presents Louisiana’s folk traditions from the state’s diverse ethnic groups, dating from Native Americans and the earliest colonial settlements to the more recent immigrant communities. Another program is the annual music and folklife festival, Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, at which Cajun and zydeco bands are a main feature. 

This popular upbeat music with its strong rhythmic core combines tunes of French origin with elements of Caribbean music and blues. Instruments include the guitar, the accordion and the frottoir or vest rubboard, the name from the French to rub or frotter. It is a unique percussion instrument, looking like a washboard with no frame and consisting of metal ribbing that hangs around the neck. Its unusual syncopated, uptempo sound comes from stroking or strumming items of metal, such bottle openers or spoons down the ribbing. With much overlap, zydeco music and Cajun music are often mentioned together. Cajun music is the music of white Cajuns whereas zydeco is the music of the black Creoles. Both share common origins and influences.

Vermilionville contains a number of original restored structures dating from 1760-1890 as well as recreations of other buildings of this period. La Maison Acadienne (The Acadian House), an original 1850 Acadian cottage served as a school house on the Mouton Plantation and is still being used for educational purposes. However, it was rededicated recently as La Maison du Traiteur (The Home of the Healer) because it is now surrounded by Le Jardin du Traiteur (The Healer’s Garden) sponsored by the Lafayette Parish Master Gardeners Association. Here you can see, smell and touch a collection of plants used for medicinal purposes in southern Louisiana.

Structures include Maison Boucvalt, transported from the center of town of Opelousas and built at the end of the 19th century in an urban area. Named for its former owner Dr. Roy Boucvalt, Jr. The home is an example of French creole architecture. The kitchen was originally detached as was common in the 1700s and 1800s to reduce heat and threat of fire. Transom windows allowed ventilation. The large front porch gave protection from the weather; the louvered shutters let in sunlight while at the same time admitting air flow for a cooling effect.

The French immigrants brought also important boat building traditions to Louisiana. On view are examples, including the l’esquif (skiff), a small flat-bottom boat with no deck, a sharp bow and a square stern; le chaland  (barge), a large home-made flat-bottom boat with a raked bow and stern best suited for larger bodies of water; and le bateau (boat), a smaller variation of le chaland and used more commonly on small rivers and bayous. One rowing technique distinct to Louisiana skiffs is that of the joug in which the tholepins (oarlocks) and straps are elevated and extended beyond the sides of the craft to make it easy for the rower to stand and face forward.

Vermilionville’s mission is to increase appreciation for the history, culture and natural resources of this distinctive region of America. As its website explains, “We strive to educate guests on the interactions of these groups and the connection between past and contemporary folklife, thus empowering guests to apply these lessons from our shared histories.”

To that end, the annual Summer Camp is a four-week bilingual program for children between the ages 5-12 that provides demonstrations and craft classes. Programs teach the lifestyle that make Acadiana unique; where the motto for all, both young and old, is Laissez les bons temps rouler or Let the good times roll. 

Side of Culture: La Cuisine de Maman offers a daily lunch special. Enjoy Jambalaya, a rice-based dish made with sausage or chicken and the Holy Trinity. Similar to the French mirepoix, a combination of celery, carrots and onions, the Cajun version has no carrots and adds bell peppers. The term “Holy Trinity,” a reference to the faith of Louisiana’s early settlers, is attributed to chef Paul Prudhomme who popularized Cajun and Creole cuisine in the 1980s. But watch out! Cajun seasoning gives an explosive “smack” that seems to be in every dish.

By Cynthia Elyce Rubin 


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