The Story of Acadia

 

Evangeline (courtesy of wevamag)

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.)

Deportation of the Acadians (from the Madawaska Historical Association)

Epic stuff.

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.

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8 Responses to The Story of Acadia

  1. Roland Doucet 5 February, 2013 at 9:07 am #

    Hi:

    Interesting comments. Acadians were not disruptive as one might interpret your words. We were quite the opposite, and in fairness, Great Britain had a somewhat tricky situation with a French-speaking, Catholic population on its colony (the Brits hated both deeply). In those days, an oath was standard and it included FIGHTING! If we signed, we would have officially proclaimed that we would fight with the Brits against their ennemies—the French and our good buddies the Mi’kmaq, who simply told us that if we signed, they would slit our throats as we slept! This was not symbolic stuff! It was very real. And… a pretext for deportation!

    The Brits had long understood that the oath was impossible for us, and several administrators had gone along with that. Lawrence, who deported us, wanted our land! THAT was the reason for the deportation. The oath at that point simply became a pretext, and that’s extremely important. Our stolen farms quickly got taken over by English-speaking settlers and they are not the prosperous land of the Annapolis Valley, etc. The pro-Brit histories have always distorted that one, and that lie should be put to rest… and it has.

    You should read, “A Great and Noble Scheme” by John Mack Faragher, an American historian who has written simply the best history of the Acadians in the English language.
    http://www.amazon.com/Great-Noble-Scheme-Expulsion-Acadians/dp/0393328279

    Another point… we did not marry the Métis. Métis are people who are already mixed blood, from the marriage of French and Aboriginals, that evolved in Western Canada. In the Maritimes, we had extremely good relations with the Mi’kmaq (full-blooded First Nations people) and there was a bit of intermarriage, but there is no solid proof of the exaggerated claims of extensive intermarriage. There was plenty of intermarriage by the coureurs de bois, who were young French men (by the thousands) who worked in the lucrative fur trade industry out West. They plunged into the wilderness amongst the natives and intermarried… and that’s how the Métis came about.

    We were farmers and fishermen in small villages and while we had great relations with the Mi’kmaq, we lived completely different lives and had radically different cultures. Extensive intermarriage is a great exaggeration. There’s simply no proof, and common sense and logic speaks against it.

    • Roland Doucet 5 February, 2013 at 9:10 am #

      … I have a typo…

      … and they are NOW (not… “not”) the prosperous land of the Annapolis Valley…

    • Kate Convissor 5 February, 2013 at 10:04 am #

      Roland–thank you so much for your very thorough explanation. I did consult several sources, but it was challenging to condense it properly into what had to be a short and entertaining read. I especially appreciate your distinction between the Metis and Mi’kmaq. I clearly got that confused.

      Several of the sources I consulted did mention ongoing resistance against the British by the Acadians, understandable under the circumstances.

      I’ve always admired the early French settlers and explorers for their good relations with the First Nations–intermarriage or not. The record on our side of the border (and by the British generally) is abysmal.

      So–thanks for your excellent response. Extremely helpful.

      I completely enjoyed my experience in Caraquet and Cheticamp–and have finally been able to piece together questions I’ve had about Acadian history ever since I visited New Orleans a decade ago.

      • Roland Doucet 5 February, 2013 at 11:21 am #

        Terrific adventure you’re living and I enjoy reading about it. And I appreciate the great attention you’re giving to my people.

        Some of us are extremely touchy because for the longest time the history was totally twisted and some very informed people, who should have known better, even claimed that the Brits had no choice but to deport us, and many have downplayed the actual event which was indescribably horrific—families split up, kids taken away… total horror.

        So I appreciate your position. But if you’re curious, I highly recommend Faragher’s book. Extremely well researched and reads like a novel. It is very detailed, but very well written, and he’s not afraid to let the chips fall… Highly recommended.

        Thank you for the great blog.

  2. Lois 14 October, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

    I read a children’s book about Evangeline and the Acadians… perhaps my introduction to how the Old World carried its messes into the New, and how the “birth of America” was not such a tidy process as I was learning in school. Thanks for reminding me, and can’t wait for the next post!

    • Kate Convissor 15 October, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

      For a snootful of the birthing of America read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” It’s a well-regarded history of how the West was won from the Native American perspective, and it’s a tough read. Makes the Acadian brouhaha look like a dress rehearsal. Maybe it was.

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