When French men and women sailed the Atlantic Ocean from their home country to the new world, starting in the early 17th century, they retained their cultural ties to France while leaving the French king behind.

Charles DeLaughter of Lafayette wrote to Curious Louisiana with this question: Why did the Cajuns in Louisiana start using the fleur de lis, which is a symbol of the Bourbon kings of France, to represent their French heritage? After all, his question seemed to ask, had the Cajuns, even in the Canadian provinces, not fully separated themselves for a century or more from royalty?

The answer is complicated. The fleur de lis was used as a religious symbol for Mary, the mother of Jesus, before its symbolic connection to royalty in France as well as to royalty in other European areas or countries: These include what we know as England, Scotland, Italy, Albania and more.

Warren Perrin, founder of the Acadian Museum in Erath, said the Acadian connection to the fleur de lis comes from through Bourbon kings of France. He said that following the papal Edict of Nantes of 1598, which, among other things, allowed the spread of Christianity, French people were permitted to travel from their homeland and settle in the New World.

Among the earliest travelers to the New World were representatives of French companies who traveled to what is now Canada to secure furs for sale in Europe. Most operated in or around an area Samuel Champlain called “La Cadie” or “Acadia,” according to Countries and Cultures Forum. That region included Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and a portion of Maine.

Furs provided for a lucrative trade for the French but required permanent settlers to provide infrastructure for trappers and traders who spread out in the thinly settled northern regions. By 1632, people from the French coast, many from Brittany, Normandy, Picardy and Poitou, beset with problems related to wars between Catholics and Protestants in France, moved to Acadia to serve The Company of France as short-term indentured servants.

They were hunters, fishers and trappers, but many were skilled farmers. The move eventually gave them access to their own land, something that might not have happened in France.

Perrin said the newcomers eventually settled farms in the area, creating safeguards against flooding, such as dikes, and draining the land of excess water. They were hugely successful, creating large families of their own to work their prosperous farms and over the next century, came to think of themselves as Acadians rather than French.

During the continuing international hostilities between the English and French, the governance of Acadia was oftentimes transferred between the two. The English even brought Protestant settlers from Scotland to settle the land to undermine French culture. It didn't work.

The Acadians or “Cadiens” sought neutrality and did not want to take up arms against their former homeland, for which they still held cultural ties and affection, or against the Native Americans in Acadia, with whom they were friendly. By 1755, the English began to expel the Acadians, seizing their land and carrying them to distant lands by ship. Many of the Acadians — perhaps half of the 15,000 who had lived in Acadia — died.

So why did the Cajuns who settled in France choose to embrace the fleur de lis? The symbol was tied to their faith — most of the Acadians were Catholics — before it was tied to French royalty. The fleur de lis was on many French flags, and the Acadians retained loyalty to their old country.

When Joseph Broussard, or Beausoleil, led Acadian settlers to Louisiana, he and his people believed that it was a French colony. They learned on arrival that the French had transferred ownership of Louisiana in 1762 and 1763 to Spain, who had been their allies in the Seven Years War against England. But the Spanish, cognizant that Louisiana needed settlers, especially farmers and cattlemen, embraced the Acadian newcomers and helped them settle in western Louisiana — now the 22 civil parishes of Acadiana.

The Acadiana flag, designed in 1965 by Thomas Arceneaux, a professor at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, included the fleur de lis to represent the Cajuns’ French origins. It also included the Gold Tower, representing a Spanish kingdom, and the gold star on a white field, representing the patroness of the Acadians, “Our Lady of the Assumption,” to whom France and its colonies were consecrated.

Outside of Louisiana, Perrin said, the World Acadian Flag includes the star but also the three colors of France: blue, white and red.

Curious Louisiana is a community-driven reporting project that connects readers to our newsrooms' resources to dig, research and find answers about the Pelican State. Bottom line: If you've got a question about something Louisiana-centric, ask us. 

Email Ken Stickney at kstickney@theadvocate.com.