History of Canary Islanders in Louisiana explored in author visit
Author Stephen V. Estopinal arrived to his speaking engagement dressed the part.
Donning a sergeant's uniform from the 1770s and holding a musket, he regaled attendees with the history of the Canary Islanders in Louisiana.
Held at the Ascension Parish Library's Donaldsonville branch Thursday night, the author visit coincided with National Hispanic Heritage Month.
Canary Islanders, known as Isleños for the Spanish word for islanders, settled in communities around modern southeastern Louisiana in the 1770s and 1780s. Their descendants are a living representation of the former Spanish Colonial era, which was prior to Louisiana becoming a state on April 30, 1812.
Estopinal himself is a descendant of the Canary Islander settlers. His family originally hails from St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, but he now lives in the Gonzales area of Ascension Parish, after becoming displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Notably, the City of Gonzales is named after a descendant of Canary Islanders. Joseph "Tee Joe" Gonzales served as the first mayor of modern Gonzales, which was a village during his tenure from 1922 to 1936.
An LSU graduate, Army veteran, land surveyor and civil engineer, Estopinal began writing in 1986. His engineering textbook is required reading for a course at LSU. He has penned several historically-based fiction novels, set in Louisiana during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Estopinal said the first question he typically hears is: "Where are the the Canary Islands?"
The islands don't exactly jump out at anyone gazing at a world map. The Canary Islands are an archipelago and the southernmost community of Spain located in the Atlantic Ocean, about 60 miles west of Morocco.
Why did the Isleños immigrate to colonial Spanish Louisiana? Spain needed recruits for the army. Struggling through a subsistence lifestyle on the islands, many sailed across the ocean to start a new life.
Bernardo de Gálvez was the colonial governor and military leader at the time, and volunteers were sought. The scope of Gálvez' mark on history is vast, of course. Many places around the area bear his name, and his influence is found in many aspects of the state's history.
Gálvez' recruits from the Canary Islands had to be between 17 and 36 years old, meet a height requirement, and not be engaged in certain trades, such as butcher. Estopinal opined that such jobs were of utmost importance to the islanders at the time.
Four distinct Canary Islander communities arose in the Louisiana colony. Two were in the area of modern Ascension Parish: Gálvez Town, which was a planned settlement on the east side of the parish, and Valenzuela, which was a settlement along Bayou Lafourche, just south of Donaldsonville. The other communities were: La Concepción, which was settled in St. Bernard Parish, and Barataria, in Jefferson Parish.
Ultimately, Gálvez Town declined due to a myriad of natural disasters, diseases, and scarce resources. According to a state historical marker at the site, the town at the junction of the Amite River and Bayou Manchac was abandoned by 1810. Some remaining inhabitants moved to Spanish Town, a historic district that remains in modern-day Baton Rouge.
Estopinal said the four communities were chosen due to the strategic water routes. Each location had access to Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and the Mississippi River.
"Gálvez was a genius at maneuver strategies," Estopinal said.
In 1779, Spanish forces commanded by Gálvez seized West Florida, an area spanning from the east bank of the Mississippi River through modern Louisiana parishes east of Baton Rouge, and onward to today's Mobile, Ala. area.
Estopinal, dressed in a sergeants uniform from the period, demonstrated the use of weaponry found on the battle fields.
"War is not a pretty business," he said. "Especially when it's at close range, man to man, and face to face."
The Canary Islanders of Louisiana are baked into the proverbial cake of the state's ancestry and wider culture. Their historical mark has been some 235 years in the making.
"There's a whole lot of making friends in 235 years," Estopinal said. "You may just have a Canary Islander in your family tree."
The Canary Islanders Heritage Society of Louisiana is a cultural, historical, and genealogical society dedicated to the promotion of the history and heritage of Canary Islanders. Further information on the group can be obtained at www.canaryislanders.org.
According to the society, the first seven ships departed the islands bound for Louisiana on July 10, 1778. Progenitors of many families whose descendants remain in the area were aboard. Names included: Aguilard, Albarado, Alberes, Acosta, Alleman, Carbo, Cavalier, Diez, Domingue, Falcon, Gomez, Gonzales, Hernandez, Hidalgo, Medine, Morales, Nunez, Rivere, Perera, Paisance, Ruiz, Sanchez, Serpas, Solar, Suarez, Torres, and Truxillo.
Estopinal suggested four books for further exploration on the topic: History of the Discovery and Conquest of Canary Islanders by Juan de Abreu Galindo; Guanches Survivors and Their Descendants by Jose Luis Concepcion; Guanches, Legend and Reality by J.P. Comacho; and Spain, Forgotten Ally of the American Revolution by Buchanan Parker Thomson.