A Visit To L’Acadie

On a recent trip to Nova Scotia, my husband and I visited the museum and memorial to the Acadians at Grand Pre, near the shores of the Bay of Fundy.

It was from this beautiful and fertile land that the Catholic Acadians were expelled from their homes and lands in 1755 by the Protestant British.  Hailing from Louisiana as we do, we were particularly interested in the details of the events because the greater numbers of the expelled Acadians found their way to the Bayou Country in the southwestern part of our home state. Although this is not our own French heritage from Louisiana, many friends and acquaintances back home are “Cajuns,” and the topic was one of great interest to us.

Here is a bit of the sad but uplifting story of this remarkable people.

The first Europeans to make an impact on L’Acadie were the French.  Jacques Cartier sailed to the area of Newfoundland, Labrador, and Prince Edward Island in 1534.  The following year he sailed up the St. Lawrence River to what is today Quebec and Montreal. At these two sites along the Saint Lawrence River he found the most heavily populated Indian villages.  These early explorations, however, were for discovery and no settlements ensued.

In 1604, the French King, Henry IV, granted a nobleman, Pierre du Gua, Sieur de Monts (a Huguenot as Henry himself had once been), a monopoly to trade furs with the Indians of the area.  He also wished him to establish a foothold in this part of the New World, staying well north of the established Spanish colonies.  So it was that de Monts fitted out his two ships with the necessary provisions, recruited skilled workers, and sailed for Canada with two Catholic priests and one Protestant minister aboard.  They landed at Sable Island in May, 1604, and then explored the coast of L’Acadie, mapping it along the way.  After some early mistakes — like trying to settle too far north where the winters were brutal — they finally settled on a site in the Annapolis Basin and named it Port Royal.  The little colony thrived until 1607 when de Monts’ political enemies in France succeeded in having his monopoly revoked, forcing the settlers to return to France.

Three years later, in 1610, the venture was revived by Jean de Biencourt with the purpose of establishing a fur trade with the Indians, of converting the Indians to Christianity, and of bringing in settlers to populate the land.  The first Catholic priest to reside in the area, l’Abbé Fleche, succeeded beyond all expectations.  He baptized the local Chief Membertou and his family, and, within a year, the good Abbé had converted and baptized more than 130 Indians.

Conditions in Europe always determined the situation in the New World.  It must be remembered that at this time Great Britain and France were bitter enemies, as they remained on and off for years.  When King Henry IV was assassinated, leaving his young son heir to the throne, great turmoil reigned in France.  Great Britain saw its opportunity to lay claim to the same lands in Canada as the French.  Therefore, in 1621, by Royal Charter, L’Acadie became the British possession of Nova Scotia (New Scotland).  Both nations retained settlements on the peninsula, but the scene was set for future strife because the home countries were almost constantly at war with each other.

During all this time, from about the 1630s and throughout the next century, the French settlers of L’Acadie gradually ceased to think of themselves as French and began to consider themselves Acadians.  Of course, they retained the language and the religion of the mother country, but their loyalties accrued to their new land, L’Acadie, that extreme eastern part of Atlantic Canada that was so separated both from France itself and the rest of French Canada.  The very climate of their new home, their friendly relations with the local Indian peoples, the knowledge that they were truly pioneering in a new and different land, bolstered their independence and set them on a course completely apart from the life they would have had if they had not made it to the New World.  Their allegiance now was to the land itself, some the most fertile and productive farmland in all of the Americas.  They were simple and hardworking folk, always devising new and creative ways to make their use of the land and the sea more productive, always taking joy in the gifts that God gave them, always eager to pass their way of life on to their many offspring.

And many offspring they had indeed!  Their numbers doubled every fifteen years, much to the consternation of the British!  When L’Acadie became Nova Scotia for the third and final time in 1710, and the British occupiers tried in many ways to convince them that they were no longer citizens of their own land, the inventive Acadians handled the problem by ignoring it.  They carried on as usual, conducting their illegal smuggling operations as they had for years with Europeans by trading furs, and with New Englanders to the south by trading them food from the abundance of their crops for manufactured goods.  They were horrified at the thought of taking any kind of oath of loyalty to the British monarch – a Protestant, for Heaven’s sake!  In truth, the occupying forces needed the Acadians to provide their food.  Not being there to work the land as settlers, it was much cheaper and easier to purchase their supplies from local farmers than to get them from England across the sea.  As a consequence, a sort of uneasy understanding existed between the two groups, with the British being more dependent on the Acadians than the reverse.

The Acadians fiercely defended their neutrality. They adamantly refused to fight alongside French soldiers because they knew that they would pay the price if the British should come out on top.  They insisted on being allowed to keep arms for protection against wild animals.  In their willingness to live in peace with the natives, they occupied the shoreline wherever they dwelt, leaving the vast forest lands of the interior to the Indians for their hunting grounds.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the life of the Acadians in Nova Scotia was their conversion of vast salt marshlands into productive farmlands.  Occupying lands near the deep Bay of Fundy, where the world’s highest tides occur, they devised an effective system for literally holding back the sea.  Some of the early settlers hailed from the lowlands of northern France.  Here they practiced the aboiteau method of building levees made of tree trunks laid horizontally between other tree trunks driven deep into the ground and covered with heavy clay soil.  These were built along the shoreline at low tide by teams of men working as fast as they could against the incoming tide.  Eventually, the dykes were built high and thick enough, and completely across the marsh, so that the sea was held back.  This aboiteau system held back the incoming sea while allowing the water in the  marsh to drain out.  It was basically a hollowed out log with a one-way door that shut when the tide rose and then opened when it fell to allow drainage from the marsh side.  This device was placed at the very bottom of the levee.

Dike building was a community effort, the men doing the heavy work and the women and children pounding the Fundy mud into bricks.  Rains washed the salt out of the soil over a period of two to five years before the land was suitable for farming.  These hardy people knew that the sea floor mud was more fertile than the soil of the rocky hills which were heavily forested.  Thousands of acres of farmland and grazing lands were created through this amazing accomplishment.  If you visit the area today, you can see beautiful vineyards, blueberry fields, and farm crops of all kinds growing in the dykelands.

The social life of the Acadians revolved around their beloved churches.  With family and friends — and their all-important pastor —  they held suppers, sing-alongs, and quilting bees to entertain themselves and to while away the long, cold winters.  Theirs was a full and happy life.

For many years the Acadians were basically left to their own devices by the British.  The heavy hand of oppression finally fell in the person of one Charles Lawrence, who became Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia in 1754.  Lawrence was a harsh and cruel politician ready to pounce on the Acadian population in retaliation for a military defeat he had suffered at the hands of one “LaLoutre,” a local missionary priest who acted as self-appointed protector of the Catholic Indians and Acadians.  Lawrence had a well-planned scheme to rid the land of the pestiferous Acadians within a year.  He succeeded in starving out one community at Beausejour in the north.  Meanwhile, he brought up ships from the New England colonies and had them anchor in the Bay of Fundy on the pretext of bringing in supplies.  His specified intent was to gather the men, young and old, separate them from their women and children and ship them off to various American colonies.  The women and children would be taken off later to different destinations from their men.  He was so crass that he did not inform or seek permission from the other colonies to dump the poor refugees on their shores.

In August of 1755, Lawrence arrested and shipped off all of the priests of Acadia so that the people would have no authoritative leaders and no sacraments.  Acadians from various settlements around the land were rounded up, their churches, homes, and barns burned, their grains seized, their cattle taken “for the Crown.”  They were herded on ships taking only what they could wear and carry.

The soldiers arrived at the settlement of Grand Pre that August just as the Acadians were bringing in the harvest.  A summons went out to all males over ten years old to meet in the church.  The local Commandant, Winslow, read Governor Lawrence’s proclamation to the stunned populace.  It contained the lie that families would be kept together.  Cruelly, these men were not allowed to see their women, until, at last, the families appeared at the walls of the prison crying for their men and bemoaning their plight.  Twenty men a day were then allowed to visit their homes and help their women pack their belongings.  Of the sad little group from Grand Pre, fully half would be dead before the end of a year — from smallpox and exposure to low temperatures on the cold Atlantic in the winter.  Most of the survivors wound up in Massachusetts, where they were treated horribly by the locals who hated the French and hated Catholics even more.  The “liberty-loving colonials,” who twenty years later would fight for their own independence, thought nothing of taking on the youngest of refugees as indentured servants on their lands.

Some of the Acadians who were dropped off in Connecticut escaped and made it to Montreal.  Today about ten percent of the population of Quebec Province is of Acadian descent.  Many destined for New York were later dispatched to the French West Indies, where they found the tropical climate oppressive, even fatal.  Those who survived eventually found their way to Louisiana.

Only Catholic Maryland gave the Acadians any kind of warm welcome.  Because they were not watched closely there, many found their way through the forested lands back to Canada or to Louisiana.  The poor souls who wound up in Georgia were actually sold into slavery.

The English were brutal with those few who escaped into the woods to escape Le Grand Derangement. They were hunted down mercilessly and shot.

What gave these Acadians such strength in the fight for their survival?  It was two things:  their Catholic Faith and the hope that they might one day find their familes.  What happened to the Acadians would today be called “ethnic cleansing,” the attempted extinction of a people.

Today, although the Acadians have returned to L’Acadie, they dwell in a less desirable part of their homeland.  Others own their beautiful fertile lands.  But if you take a trip to L’Acadie, you can drive the Evangeline trail, visit Grand Pre and the other settlements where they worked, played and prayed.  You can see the statue of Evangeline, Longfellow’s fictional heroine, in the garden at the monument, and you can see the beautiful statue of Our Lady of the Assumption in the little museum built to commemorate the burned church and village of the Catholic Acadians. (Our Lady of the Assumption is the patroness of the Acadians.)

. . . and if you visit Cajun country in Louisiana, you can see the Evangeline Oak, and another statue of Evangeline, and the lovely Catholic churches and cemeteries.  All are testaments to the noble character and iron will of a proud and independent people who love their Catholic Faith.