PRC Historical Society to host Islenos Program

Published 3:39 pm Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Pearl River County Historical Society’s program for Wednesday, May 11, at 11:30 a.m., at Crosby Library will be presented by Dorothy Benge and Burton Esteves a.k.a. “Mario & Pablo.” The duo wlll present the program as two spirits of original Islenos settlers.

The Islenos, whose descendants put on a big festival every third week in March in St. Bernard, La., have many genealogical ties to Picayune.

Picayune resident and Historical Society member, Barbara Acosta Perez, says, “St. Bernard had an exodus to Pearl River Country and surrounding areas. The 1910 Census figures showed that Pearl River County Mississippi was the fifth fastest growing county in the state.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“The Islenos Families that are here are: Acosta, Alfonso, Alonzo, Assevedo, Barrios, Bordelon, Campo, Esteves, Diaz, Fulner, Gallardo, Garcia, Gomez, Gonzales, Hernandez, Jeanfreau, Lopez, Martinez, Melerine, Menesses, Molero, Morales, Mones, Montelongo, Nunez, Perez,Torres, Gutierrez, Volentine, Serigne, Roberts, Robin, Ruiz, Rodriguez, and Stander.”

Benge and her cousin, Bertin Esteves Jr., both Islenos descendants, portray a married couple. Both Benge and Esteves’ forebears came over on the same ship to settle near New Orleans in the late 1700s.

“It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the official history of Louisiana recognized the contributions of the Islenos, descendants of Canary Islanders who came to the New Orleans area and settled between 1778 and 1783,” said Benge.

Do you think the Cajuns are responsible for the heavy use of garlic in food, the introduction of sugar cane, the use of chicory  and the unique look of the French Quarter? Think again; according to St. Bernard Parish Historian, John Hyland, it was the Spanish Islenos. The Islenos (pronounced “Is – lan – yous” and means islanders in Spanish) came to colonial Spanish Louisiana not only to perform as soldiers to help protect the Spanish interests from encroachment by the British, but also because they were such good farmers. The Spanish ruled colonial Louisiana from about 1763 to 1801.

The French Quarter might more accurately be called the Spanish Quarter, although that will never happen. On March 21, 1788, a disastrous fire destroyed New Orleans and the French Quarter. It was a Spanish administration that rebuilt it with courtyards and stone walls, incorporating Spanish architectural style. Historians estimate that 856 structures out of 1,100 were destroyed.

“The Islenos settled in four settlements around New Orleans, all strategically placed for the military protection of New Orleans, the Spanish capital of Spanish Louisiana, and it wasn’t long before they were producing all types of produce, fruits and vegetables for the residents of New Orleans proper,” said Hyland.

Produce wagons pulled by oxen, also raised by the Islenos, streamed into New Orleans daily, with Islenos produce. The Islenos were also widely known for domesticating and training cattle and oxen; making and selling candles; and creating a lot of the recipes considered Cajun.

Here is how Hyland described how the Islenos happen to arrive in South Louisiana:

The Spanish conquered the Canary Islands in the 1400s. Columbus stopped there on his way to discover the New World in 1492, and the Canary Islands soon became a way station between Spain and the New World. Ships going and coming stopped there for resupply. The Canaries are located about 60 miles off the African Moroccan coast.

The chain of Canary Islands are made up of 13 with only seven being inhabited. French King Louis XV secretly gave in 1763 French Louisiana to his ally Spanish King Charles III at the end of the “Seven Years War,” known as the “French and Indian War” on the North American continent, fought mainly in the eastern part of what would become the U.S.

After Spain took over, King Charles needed industrious settlers and sturdy soldiers to protect New Orleans and the Spanish lands from English encroachments, and he turned to the Islenos for the answer. But unlike the English colonists, who mostly fled their homeland because they were poor or seeking religious freedom, King Charles had to offer the successful Canary Islanders a lot of enticements to lure them to what was then a rough existence in the marshes and woodlands of Southeastern Louisiana. They did not flee religious persecution. They were staunch Catholics.

King Charles promised them land, money and houses. He attracted about 2,000 of the islanders, who came over on eight ships from 1778 to 1783, and settled in four villages surrounding New Orleans. Other islanders settled in Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Paraguay, Santo Domingo and the Philippines. Canary colonist in 1731 founded and named San Antonio, Tex., said Hyland. They had large families, some as many as 15, and their lives centered around the church, family and their agricultural pursuits.

“They were mainly farmers and soldiers,” said Hyland.

The four settlements in Southeast Louisiana were: Galveztown, just below Baton Rouge; Valenzuela near Bayou Lafourche; Barataria near Bayou des Familles in Jefferson Parish; and La Conception, known later as St. Bernardo, located in St. Bernard Parish along Bayou Terraux-Boeufs.

The Islenos participated in the American Revolution, helped drive the British out of the Gulf Coast, participated in three major military adventures involving taking Baton Rouge, Mobile and Pensacola from the British, and fought with Andy Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans.

In 1801 Napoleon re-acquired Louisiana and in 1803 sold it to Jefferson. The Islenos became Americans. Hyland said St. Bernard is rebuilding after Katrina and that some of the historical facilities highlighting the Islenos story are being rebuilt.

You can get in touch with the group by contacting Canary Islands Descendants Museum, 600 St. Bernard Parkway, Caernarvon, La., or Los Islenos Museum, 1357 Bayou Road, St. Bernard, LA 70085. Phone numbers are 504-277-4681 or 888-278-4242.