Los Isleños – A Historic Overview

By WILLIAM de MARIGNY HYLAND, Parish Historian, St. Bernard Parish


Beginning in the 1300’s, kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula (predating the establishment of the Kingdom of Spain) began searching for gold and other valuable resources beyond Europe.  King Henry III of Castille commissioned Jean de Béthencourt to explore, conquer and colonize the Canary Islands which he began with the conquest of Lanzarote Island in 1402.  B Béthencourt had identified cochineal, an insect which yielded a valuable crimson red dye, in the Canaries.  The conquest of the Canaries continued throughout the remainder of the 15th century finally concluding with the conquest of Tenerife Island in 1496.

The Iberians encountered determined resistance from tribes of aboriginal inhabitants in the Canaries.  Some of the tribes were named Majoreros, Bimbaches and Guanches.  After the Iberian conquest, gradually all aboriginal tribes came to be called Guanches, though originally the name Guanche identified aboriginal people from Tenerife.  The aboriginals were enslaved by their European conquerors and many succumbed to disease introduced by Europeans.  Spain released the aboriginals from bondage and today the majority of Canary Islanders trace their ancestry to these aboriginal people, ancient Berbers who migrated from North Africa and were established in the Canaries during Antiquity.

By the end of the 15th century, the Canaries had become part of the newly emerging Spanish Empire.  Christopher Columbus’ last stop before “discovering” the New World was made in the Island of La Gomera in 1492.  The Canaries are situated off the coast of Morocco in the Atlantic Ocean and were located about one-third the distance along the historic sailing route from Europe to the West Indies.  Because of their geographic location, logistical considerations made the Canaries the gateway to the Spanish Empire in the Americas.  The Canarian Archipelago consists of thirteen islands, all volcanic in origin, of which eight are inhabited.  The inhabited islands are Lanzarote, La Graciosa, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro.  The climate of the Canaries is very arid because of proximity to the Sahara Desert.  Average annual precipitation can range from five inches to 15 inches per annum, though droughts periodically diminish average rainfall.  The easternmost islands in the Atlantic and mountain areas receive more precipitation.  The majority of Canary Islanders or Isleños who settled in Louisiana and St. Bernard came from Tenerife, Gran Canaria and La Gomera, though colonists were recruited in other islands in the archipelago.

The Canary Islands became a proving ground for the development of policies which were utilized in the administration of the global Spanish Empire.  African slavery and the cultivation of sugar cane were introduced to the Americas through the Canaries.  Canary Islanders, often called Canarios or simply Isleños, formed the vanguard of Spain’s colonization programs throughout her empire.  Canary Islanders were consummate survivors, terrace farming the slopes of volcanoes with scarce water while often living in stone structures with dirt floors and palm roofs.  In short, they were ideal colonists who could survive in incredibly harsh environments while building communities in the wilderness.  Canarians settled in Venezuela, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, Mexico, Paraguay, Uruguay, the Philippine Islands and wherever else Spain maintained a colonial presence.  In the United States, the City of San Antonio, Texas was founded by Canarian colonists principally from Lanzarote Island in 1731.

Louisiana was ceded to Spain by France following the French and Indian War, known in Europe as the Seven Years War.  Spain acquired all of Louisiana west of the Mississippi River and the Isle of Orleans on the east bank of the Mississippi.  The Isle of Orleans was included in land given to Spain because the French realized that whichever power held New Orleans controlled the mouth of the Mississippi and access to the entirety of the Mississippi Valley.  Great Britain received all territory east of the Mississippi River exclusive of the Isle of Orleans, meaning that the British colonial presence began south of Baton Rouge where Bayou Manchac entered the Mississippi.  In the 1750s and early 1760s the British had gained control of much of Louisiana’s economy and were very familiar with Louisiana topography and her people.

Spain began her colonial administration of Louisiana in 1766 and found a colony sparsely populated whose economy was dominated by her principal rival, Great Britain.  Francisco Bouligny, one of the most accomplished administrators in Spanish Louisiana, articulated a colonization program which he deemed utterly essential to the success of Spain in Louisiana.  Bouligny’s intelligence sources allowed him to recognize that Great Britain wanted to capture New Orleans, dominate the Mississippi Valley and begin the conquest of other Spanish colonies in the Americas rich in valuable resources.  He also observed that British colonial functionaries were offering vast land grants to Anglo-American colonists residing along the Atlantic Seaboard in Spanish West Florida. This phenomenon resulted in the settlement of lands fronting the Mississippi River from Natchez southward to what is today Baton Rouge in addition to territory inland from the Mississippi.  This British colonization policy alarmed the administrative council of Carlos III.

Consequently, the colonization  program concept proposed by Bouligny was adopted by Spanish administrative officialdom and resulted in the recruitment of more than 3,000 Canary Islanders between 1777 and 1782 to settle in Louisiana, in addition to a contingent of colonists from Malaga in the Spanish mainland and the largest group of Acadian refugees who had fled Nova Scotia (Acadie) and returned to continental France.  Spain had determined that Louisiana was to serve as a barrier to British colonial expansion west of the Mississippi River.  The traditional fundamental attitude of Spanish administrators was that the empire was “a seamless garment,” and no part of the empire could be alienated without compromising the whole.

The recruitment was initially administered by Matias de Galvez, teniente del rey in the Canaries, whose son, Bernardo, was serving as governor of Louisiana.  The recruitment effort was continued by Andres Amat de Tortosa.  The Santisimo Scaramento, the first ship carrying colonists to Louisiana, left the harbor of Santa Cruz de Tenerife on July 10, 1778 with more than 260 colonists.  To date (2019), researchers have identified 16 frigates and packet boats transporting colonists destined to Louisiana.  Because Spain entered the war with Great Britain as an ally of France during the American Revolution, many ships were forced to bring Canarian colonists to Cuba until the end of hostilities.  Later, many of the recruits were able to finally reach Louisiana.  The last of the Canarian recruits arrived in Louisiana in 1783.

Governor Bernardo de Galvez had planned carefully for the settlement of Canarian colonists in Louisiana.  He and a team of administrators had surveyed areas surrounding New Orleans in 1777-1778 and selected five locations to settle the Isleños.  These sites fronted waterways which ultimately connected the Mississippi River to waterways or bodies of water leading to the Gulf of Mexico.  The waterways were strategically significant, because an invading force could sail through them, reach the Mississippi and potentially capture New Orleans, then a tiny and primitive town.  The first settlement, Galvez-town, was located at the confluence of Bayou Manchac and the Amite River in proximity to the British fort at Baton Rouge.  The other settlements were Valenzuela, situated along Bayou Lafourche; Barataria located along Bayou des Familles in modern-day west bank Jefferson Parish and La Concepcion or Tierra de Bueyes, later St. Bernard along the banks of Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs a mere 16 miles downriver from New Orleans on the east bank of the Mississippi.  A fifth settlement for Bayougoulas was projected, but never begun.  The Barataria suffered catastrophic flooding by the Mississippi River in 1782 and many survivors were relocated to San Bernardo and Valenzuela.

Galvez-town was the only settlement laid out in a town grid.  The other settlements were linear facing the waterways which the Canarian recruits were to defend against the anticipated British invasion and develop as farmlands.  Modest houses, constructed of mud-and-moss between posts, were constructed in each of the settlements on land grants awarded to each settler.  Livestock was given to each family in addition to farm tools, bolts of cloth, rations of food and an annual stipend to the male head of each household for his military service in the Fixed Regiment of Louisiana. 

There were Isleños who fought against the British during the American Revolution through their service in the Galvez Expedition.  Militiamen from the four Isleño settlements, including San Bernardo or Tierra de Bueyes, participated in the three major military campaigns, Manchac and Baton Rouge (1779), Mobile (1780) and Pensacola (1781).  Galvez had also arranged for a dispensation from direct military service so that many Isleño colonists were permitted to remain at home, raising desperately needed crops to feed the colony.  At the conclusion of the Galvez Expedition in 1781, the British colonial presence along the Gulf Coast of what is today the United States was destroyed.  Following the American Revolution, the male inhabitants of Terre-aux-Boeufs, coupled with planters living along the lower coast of the Mississippi downriver from New Orleans and residents of present-day Plaquemines Parish all served in a regiment named the Volunteers of the Mississippi, organized in 1792.  The regiment was reorganized by the American territorial and state governments as the Third Regiment of Louisiana Militia.  After the British expeditionary force appeared in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in September 1814, Louisiana residents recognized that the British invasion of this region first anticipated by the Spanish colonial government in the 1770s was about to happen.  It is one of history’s ironies that Spanish colonists settled in Louisiana to halt British colonial encroachment in North America finally did so as citizens of the United States.  

The Third Regiment of Louisiana Militia was called to active service December 16, 1814 to defend New Orleans against the British.  There were no weapons provided by the United States Government – the militiamen used their own shot guns and rifles.  Regimental officers provided a small quantity of additional firearms which helped to compensate for the dearth of resources otherwise available.  The British landed downriver from New Orleans at the sugar plantation of Jacques Philippe Villere the morning of December 23, 1814.  The Isleños and other soldiers belonging to the Third Regiment engaged the British in fierce combat the night of December 23.  The shocked British hesitated and regrouped the following day, allowing Major General Andrew Jackson to develop his line of defense at Chalmette plantation.  The British retreated through the Isleño settlement along Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs in January 1815.  The Isleño farms were plundered by the British as they retreated.  The Isleño community sustained perhaps the greatest losses of property and hardships resulting from the British invasion, though all properties involved in the extended battlefield of New Orleans were substantially damaged if not totally destroyed.

Of the four Isleño settlements, San Bernardo was proclaimed most successful by Governor Estevan Miro in 1791.  Established linearly along the banks of Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs, an abandoned main channel of the Mississippi River, the fertile deltaic land yielded crops of vegetables never-before imagined by the Isleños during their lives as farmers in the Canaries.  Garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, beans and poultry were sold by Isleño farmers in New Orleans’ open-air market.  By 1803, St. Bernard cultivated produce and poultry dominated the New Orleans market.

The settlement of San Bernardo by Isleño colonists began in 1779 on land which was donated by Governor Galvez’ brother in law, Pierre Phillipes de Marigny, to the King of Spain for the settlement of Canarian families.  Marigny was commissioned to colonize Isleños in Louisiana in 1778 and appointed the first commandant of San Bernardo in 1780. Ultimately, there were multiple settlements along the bayou known as the Primero Poblacion, Segundo Poblacionand so on.  The easternmost settlement located along Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs, developed about 1783, came to be called Bencheque, named for the Montana de Bencheque near Icod de los Vinos and Garachico in Tenerife.  Many colonists settling in this area came from Icod de los Vinos, so Bencheque Mountain was a familiar landmark to them.  Simultaneously, colonists from La Gomera were settling in the same area.  One of the landmarks familiar to the Gomeros was the Barranco de Benchijigua Both names are Guanche in origin and St. Bernard is perhaps the only community in the United States with a Guanche place name.  In St. Bernard, the Bencheque settlement originally stretched from Olivier plantation through what is called Reggio today to Wood Lake.  The two settlements geographically were completely dissimilar to each other, so one might surmise that this place name is an example of Isleño humor which has always punctuated their cultural identity.

Colonist Felix Marrero recalled in an 1831 deposition presented to the United States Congress that he had been relocated to St. Bernard from Barataria in 1782.  Carlos Trudeau, the surveyor general of Louisiana, had delineated the boundaries of the land grant awarded to him in St. Bernard, in conformity with the “long-lot system.” Marrero was still living on the grant, located today in Verrettville, when he gave his deposition.  Grants ranged in size from half of an arpent to three arpents frontage on Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs by a depth of 40 arpents.  The family’s size determined the quantity of front arpentage awarded in each land grant.  Pedro de Marigny, his cousin and second St. Bernard Commandant Pedro Denis de La Ronde and Charles Fagot de la Garciniere were among the officials who joined surveyor Trudeau in placing each Isleño family in possession of land grants in what was finally called, at the end of the Spanish colonial administration, the Poblacion de San Bernardo and, by 1792, the Parroquia de San Bernardo.  Names of the St. Bernard settlement during its formative years were Tierra de Bueyes, La Concepcion, Nueva Galvez, San Bernardo de Nueva Galvez, San Bernardo del Torno and San Bernardo.  The name San Bernardo was meant to honor Governor Galvez and his patron saint, Saint Bernard de Clairvaux. 

Isleño colonists from Tenerife brought the tradition of domesticating cattle to St. Bernard.  Ranchers throughout Louisiana and eastern Texas drove herds of cattle to St. Bernard Village for training by Isleños who became renowned in the 19th century for their ability to domesticate livestock.  The tradition of cattle training evolved in Tenerife because of a scarcity of horses and mules.  In addition to cattle training and farming, Isleños worked on the sugar plantations facing Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs and Bayou La Loutre in eastern St. Bernard.  Following the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, a large segment of Isleño farmers were unable to recover from the calamitous losses resulting from the British occupation of Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs, thus hastening a process of purchasing and consolidating smaller contiguous Isleño land grants into larger sugar producing estates which had begun in the 1790s.  However, a very small wealthy elite of Isleños emerged as sugar planters along Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs in the earlier 19th century, prior to the Civil War.  Those Isleños who retained ownership of their land grant farms had descendants who continued farming until the 1970s in St. Bernard and Toca villages, communities which came to be called El Torno (community residents were called Tornedos or Torneros) by Isleños in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Drayage performed by ox-drawn carts declined after the establishment of the Mexican Gulf Railroad in 1836.  A hostile environment significantly intensified following the extension of the railroad line eastward beyond Poydras plantation in 1842.  Not only had ox carts brought vegetable crops to New Orleans, but hogsheads of sugar were brought from productive sugar plantations to the city as well.  Plans to develop a deep-water port in the Mississippi Sound at Ship Island also necessitated the extension of the railroad through the easternmost part of St. Bernard in the Biloxi Marsh area.  The hostile situation between the Isleño draymen and the Mexican Gulf Railroad group was so intense that Governor Andre Bienvenu Roman activated the Louisiana State Militia to protect those constructing the railroad.  Railroad construction was completed to what became Proctorville/ Old Shell Beach on the shores of Lake Borgne by 1850.  Following the Civil War, the bulk of seafood and wild game harvested by St. Bernard Isleños was shipped to New Orleans using this railroad which they had vigorously opposed originally.

Homes of Isleños along Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs in the 19th century remained little changed from the houses originally constructed by the Spanish Government for the colonists.  Until the early 20th century, the houses usually consisted of four rooms, often built of vertical boards, with porches in the front and rear and high-pitched gabled roofs.  Kitchen buildings were detached from the main house.  Other outbuildings included privies, barns, corn cribs, chicken coups and stables for livestock.

Isleño social life centered on the family and Roman Catholicism.  Three and occasionally four generations of Isleño families lived together on farms along Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs.  Families consumed all meals together and were presided over by the eldest male family member or patriarch, though matriarchs were highly visible and influential as well.  Isleños celebrated religious feast days with great ceremony, followed by music, singing, dancing and the consumption of large amounts of food, wine and tafia in early days.

St. Bernard Church, established in 1785, became the first ecclesiastical parish established downriver from New Orleans.  The first permanent church building was begun in 1787 and built at the geographic center of the Poblacion de San Bernardo.  Public proclamations were posted on the doors of the church from the colonial period until the Civil War.  The commandant’s office, located on the grounds of the church, became the first St. Bernard Parish courthouse in 1807 and remained in use until 1848.  The commandant regularly mustered the militia on the lawn of the church which also served as a festival ground.  Founded in 1787, the St. Bernard Cemetery began in the eastern yard of the church and moved across Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs facing St. Bernard Catholic Church in 1813.  St. Bernard Cemetery is the oldest extant burial ground in the New Orleans metropolitan area and remains one of the oldest cemeteries in Louisiana.  St. Bernard Cemetery is two years older than St. Louis Number One Cemetery in New Orleans, established in 1789.

Antonio Mendez, clerk of the Cabildo in New Orleans and his partner, Manuel Solis, developed a process for granulating sugar in 1787 at their plantation located in Bencheque, today Woodlake in what evolved into the wetlands of St. Bernard Parish in the 20th century.  Thus, the sugar industry in Louisiana was born in San Bernardo.  Solis had travelled to Louisiana from Cuba with Isleño colonists destined to settle in Louisiana following the American Revolution.   By the early 1790s, sugar cane was rapidly replacing indigo as the principal cash crop of colonial Louisiana.  The soil and climate conditions below New Orleans were particularly conducive to sugar cane cultivation.  At least ten large sugar plantations were established along Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs by the 1840s in former Isleño settlements.

After selling their land grants to the planters, the Isleños frequently worked on the plantations they helped to create following the Battle of New Orleans. Those who tired of plantation work began to resettle in the easternmost reaches of St. Bernard in the 1830s, resulting in the beginning of the fishing community at La Isla, later known as Delacroix Island.  After the Civil War, 1861 – 1865, the sugar plantation economy of St. Bernard Parish was totally destroyed.  Despite the efforts of sugar planters, the plantations faltered throughout the remainder of the 19th  century.  Large numbers of Isleños were forced to become subsistence livers in addition to small scale vegetable farming. They pursued trapping fur bearing animals, professional hunting, moss gathering and commercial fishing.  The railroad line connecting Shell Beach to New Orleans appeared to yield inexhaustible supplies of shrimp, crabs, fish and game for consumption in the “Queen City of the South.”  By the early 20th century, Shell Beach, Yscloskey (Ysclocsy), Alluvial City and Hopedale, all located along Bayou La Loutre, Bayou Yscloskey and Lake Borgne had become thriving communities inhabited by Isleño commercial fishermen and trappers.  The Borgnemouth Community was established in 1904 at the mouth of the Violet Canal.  The canal connected the Mississippi River to Lake Borgne and soon became another settlement inhabited by Isleño trappers, commercial fishermen and farmers.  In time, Borgnemouth came to be known as Violet, the name of the original post office in the village.  An expression in the Isleño community proclaimed that St. Bernard produce, seafood and game made New Orleans cuisine famous!

Isleño trappers found wetlands teaming with muskrats, minks and otters.  Before World War II, St. Bernard Parish was nationally recognized as a leader in the fur industry.  Fur pelts were used to make coats, collars and in other types of clothing.  Money flowed in the fur industry.  Hunters provided New Orleans with choice wild ducks and wild fowl such as rail, both considered great delicacies.  The skies over St. Bernard wetlands often darkened with ducks during the winter season, so plentiful were these highly sought-after waterfowl.  Spanish moss, literally ripe for the picking, was often used in furniture upholstering, bed mattresses and automobile seats.  Some Isleños enjoyed a new prosperity resulting from this culture of “living off the land.”  The fur and commercial fishing industries were multi-million -dollar businesses in Louisiana during the first half of the 20th century.

Improved roads built in the 1920s and later eventually opened access to these previously remote areas of St. Bernard.  Isleños gradually became more connected to New Orleans and southeast Louisiana as they purchased trucks and automobiles to travel to sell their seafood.  Following World War II, many Isleños returning home began to seek job opportunities in the large industrial facilities which developed along the Mississippi River in St. Bernard during the 1930s – 1950s.  Many Isleños began to leave the traditional fishing villages in eastern St. Bernard, choosing to settle in communities such as Meraux and Chalmette.  Their children were then reared outside the traditional Isleño cultural environment and did not learn to speak Spanish as they became assimilated into somewhat mainstream American culture.  Today, thousands of Isleño descendants live in the New Orleans area and perhaps 100,000 or more descendants of 18th century Canarian colonists are found throughout southern Louisiana.  

However, only in St. Bernard Parish has a significant measure of the Isleño heritage and cultural legacies been preserved into the 21st century.  While the idioma Canario, the Canarian dialect of Spanish, is rapidly vanishing from St. Bernard, still there are those Canarian descendants who speak the language of their ancestors after almost 250 years.  The St. Bernard descendants’ community has succeeded in preserving significant vestiges of the Canarian cultural identity, though that identity has evolved in Louisiana through a process of Creolization.  Many scholars argue that perhaps the most significant element of Louisiana’s cultural heritage is how a Creole cultural identity evolved and how those who settled in Louisiana adopted the Creole culture while redefining the definition of Creole in the process.  Today, the Isleño communities of St. Bernard Parish and all those who trace their ancestry to 18th century Canarian colonists settled in Louisiana survive as the living vestige of Spanish colonial Louisiana.