Creoles are the native-born descendants of early French, Spanish, and Portuguese settlers in Latin America, the West Indies, and the southern United States. Derived from the Portuguese crioulo ("raised at the home of the master, domestic"), the term came into use in the 16th century to distinguish persons born in the New World colonies of European parents from New World residents of European birth. Later, the term designated persons of European descent, whether white or of mixed blood, as distinguished from those of African or aboriginal American descent.

The meaning of the term Creole varies considerably in different regions. In some Latin American countries, notably Mexico, it denotes local-born persons of pure Spanish extraction. In the West Indies, the term is applied to descendants of any European settlers, and in the Guianas, it refers to descendants of African slaves. In Louisiana, the term refers to French-speaking white descendants of early French or Spanish settlers; less commonly, it is applied to mulattoes speaking a creolized version of French and Spanish.

The Creoles in the Old South of the United States lived between Baton Rouge, La., and the Gulf Coast, and in small communities in eastern Missouri and southern Alabama. As landowners and slaveholders during the antebellum period, they were perceived as aristocrats who took pride in gracious living and courtly manners. Although largely absorbed into the mainstream American culture, Creole traditions survive in Louisiana's Civil Code and its Spanish colonial architecture; in gumbo, pralines, and other specialties of Creole cuisine; and in the New Orleans Mardi Gras festivities.

Bibliography: Cable, George W., The Creoles of Louisiana (1970), and The Grandissimes (1988); Desdunes, Rodolphe L., Our People and Our History, trans. by Dorothea O. McCants (1973); Eaton, Clement, The Growth of Southern Civilization (1961); Mills, Gary B., The Forgotten People (1977); Woods, Frances J., Marginality and Identity (1972).