Once upon a time (because all good stories begin that way) an Old World stubbed its toe on a New One, causing all kinds of fuss. The people who were already living there, well, they were easy to cheat, kill, or shove aside. That’s a sad story, but it’s not this story.
The people from that Old World also brought along their old sibling rivalries and turf wars, and soon bickering broke out in the new place. That’s this story.
In the beginning, Old France claimed a chunk of land at the north end of the New World and in a blindingly creative moment called it New France.
Part of this new colony was called Acadia, and it included what we call New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island (but they called it Île Saint-Jean) and parts of northern Maine.Not very Frenchie names, hey? (That’s a clue.)
Peasants and farmers came from Old France to New Acadia for the same reason that everyone else did—opportunity.
So, things went along swimmingly for a while. The French settlers intermarried with the native Métis. They farmed and fished. They built churches (lots of churches), and they had really big families. (They were all Catholic.)
But, being both territorial and aggressive, these newcomers were never satisfied: someone else’s grass was always greener, and their piece of pie was always too small. So the brawls began–200 years worth. The British and the French were constantly skirmishing while the combative New England Colonies added their two cents from time to time. (Mostly, the British and its colonies were trying to wrest land from the French, and the French were trying not to let them.)
In the final tally, the Brits won; the French lost, and the New England Colonies were frying up some bigger fish.
That should have been the end of the story. Acadia should have slipped into the dustbin of history as an English colony, but the British couldn’t leave well enough alone. The Acadians were generally a pain in the British arse, always agitating and rabble-rousing. So the Brits demanded that they take an oath of allegiance to the King of England.
Now who came up with this bright idea? It’s like telling your 14-year-old to apologize to his sister. And what’s your back-up plan if he doesn’t?
This was just the smack-down the rebels wanted. A chance to take a real, in-your-face stand. Hell, no, they weren’t going to vow allegiance to the king. Not only because of the longstanding bad blood between these European brothers, but because they might lose their language and their religion, too.
The back-up plan? The British began deporting them. And THAT’S like grounding your 14-year-old forever—which becomes extraordinarily costly and unpleasant for you.
They sent Acadians to the colonies. They sent them back to France and to England, from whence many of them wandered to Louisiana and became the Cajuns. (Laissez le bons temps roulez!)
Eventually over the course of a decade, almost 12,000 people were shipped out to places that did not want them.
It was a PR nightmare. Weeping women and children driven from their homes. Prosperous farms set ablaze. Hundreds of people dying from disease or drowning in shipwrecks. (There were a lot of shipwrecks.)
And in fact, none other than our very own Harry Longfellow enshrined the story in an epic poem, Evangeline, about an Acadian girl, who was separated from her beloved Gabriel during the Le Grand Dérangement. She spent her life searching for the love of her youth, until—cue the waterworks—in her old age she finds him in the poorhouse in Philadelphia, and he dies in her arms.
Eventually, treaties were signed; land was divvied up; and cooler heads prevailed. Once the coast was clear, the exiled Acadians began creeping back to the home country, reestablishing farms and communities.
I was surprised, nay, amazed to find out that they’re still there. Lots of people in New Brunswick and in pockets of Nova Scotia, Maine, and, of course, Louisiana claim Acadian heritage. They still speak French, or some bastardized version thereof; they throw great parties; and they sure know how to cook.
So that’s the sad, old story and it differs only in the details from many others. (I’m thinking of the Trail of Tears. What comes to mind for you?)
The Acadian Village in Caraquet attempts to recreate three centuries of rural life in what was Acadia, from just after the expulsion, when the Acadians began returning in 1775 to the mid-1900s. In most ways, it looks like old-timey, rural life anywhere, just in French and with interpreters who really know their stuff.
I’ll show you what the place looks like in the next post.