Islenos keeping the culture of Spanish Louisiana alive

When New Orleans was under Spanish rule, Governor Bernardo de Galvez had a problem. The British were coming.

"The British, some 40 years before the Battle of New Orleans, had plans to invade Louisiana, conquer New Orleans, control access to the mouth of the Mississippi River and in that way control access to the Mississippi Valley," says William Hyland, the historian for St. Bernard Parish.

In the late 1700s, around the time of the American Revolution, the British had control of West Florida, which stretched into the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain (including the parishes now referred to as the Florida Parishes). So, the "redcoats" were Spain's problem as much as the American colonists.

Governor Galvez's solution to keep the British out of Spanish Louisiana was to bring in more settlers.

"Spain embarked on perhaps the largest documented colonization program in the history of any Western European power," says Hyland.

A big part of the colonization program included settlers from the Canary Islands. Hyland says 3,000 "islenos" (islanders) came to Louisiana from the Canaries between 1778 ad 1783. Their descendants would come to be known as the Islenos. And their influence in St. Bernard Parish and southeast Louisiana would be huge.

But, the original Islenos weren't limited to St. Bernard. Hyland says there were four settlements, all in strategic locations along waterways:

  • Galvez-Town along the Amite River and Bayou Manchac
  • Barataria along Bayou des Familles
  • Valenzuela along Bayou Lafourche
  • San Bernardo (St. Bernard) along Bayou Terre aux Boeufs.

Thanks to the Americans, the Islenos finally got to fulfill their duty to protect New Orleans against the British.

"The descendants of those colonists who had come here in the 1770s and '80s actually fought against the British as American citizens and repelled them in the Battle of New Orleans," says Hyland.

While a settlement along the banks of Bayou Terre aux Boeufs was a winning strategy around the turn of the 19th century, over time, the waterways that held the British off the land came to hold the Islenos to it.

"East of us, north of us, south of us--it's water. We are on the way nowhere," says Hyland. "And, while we were in a very important place strategically in the 18th century, since that time this place has been isolated. So that isolation, which happened in St. Bernard and nowhere else in Louisiana where Canary Islanders settled, made it possible for the cultural and linguistic identity to be retained to the present.​"

Coming from volcanic islands, the Islenos had to adapt to their new home. They became fishermen, fur trappers, cattle ranchers, and farmers. But, they kept speaking their language and held on to their traditions.

"They have maintained a cultural identity which sets us apart from any other place in Louisiana," says Hyland. "And, of course they have made positive contributions as political leaders, positive contributions as businessmen, positive contributions as commercial fishermen, trappers. They have been in all walks of life in Louisiana and they've made a great positive impact on the way Louisiana is, how it evolved, and what it is today."