L'Acadie -The First Settlers
Modern historians have
pretty well shot down the idea that Frenchmen were the first white men to
set foot in America, and that one of them led the way for Columbus.
But it could have happened.
According to the discredited story, a French navigator
from Dieppe named Cousin was sailing off the coast of Africa in 1488,
four years before Columbus's voyage, and was forced westward by winds and
tides until he reached an unknown shore. On board the ship was a
mutinous seaman named Pinzon who, after the voyage, was thrown out of the
French Navy. Pinzon went to Spain, met Columbus, told him of his
discovery, and sailed with him in 1492.
There is not much evidence to make us think the story is
true, but who knows? We do know of other instances when ships were
blown far to the west and onto strange shores.
There is, however, good evidence that the first Europeans to
establish a permanent settlement in North America were Frenchmen. They
were our Acadian ancestors. And they, like many of us, were
We think that Norman, Breton, and Basque fishermen were
fishing Newfoundland's Grand Banks as early as 1497. The first
reliable records of any French ship on the Grand Banks are those of Jean
Denys of Honfleur, who fished there in 1504, and of Thomas Aubert of
Dieppe, who was there two years later. In 1507 a Norman fisherman
returned to Rouen with an extra cargo of seven sauvages, most
likely Beothunk Indians. We know of an early Breton fishing voyage
by La Jacquette of Dahouet because of a shipboard
brawl. The master, Guillaume Dobel, alleged that the ship was
carrying too much sail. He called the skipper, a man named Picart,
an idiot, and the quartermaster, named Garrouche, a veall,
apparently a serous insult.
Garrouche dropped the tiller, roared up to the
quarterdeck, and collected himself a punch in the jaw from Dobel, who then
drew a knife and chased him overboard. The crew tried to rescue
Garrouche, but he drowned. Dobel made the best restitution he could
to the widow. He married her.
The early fishermen who visited the Grand Banks made
two trips each year. The first was in late January or early
February, and, braving winter westerlies in the North Atlantic, they
returned to France as soon as their holds were full. They sailed
again in April or May and went home in September.
At first, these fishermen cleaned the cod aboard ship and
stored them between thick layers of salt. But it was not long before
they found that cod could be sun-dried on land, and that cured cod tasted
better and was easier to store. The fishermen began to go ashore
each summer, to build makeshift villages for themselves and drying stands
for their fish. By 1519, the French, the Portuguese, and the English
had set up depots on Newfoundland, on the Acadian peninsula, on Cape
Breton Island, and on the St. Lawrence River.
Salt fish became big business, and they were sold wholesale
in France by the thousand. In 1515 Michel Le Bail of Breton sold
more than 17,000 codfish to local merchants at Rouen. By 1529 the Normans
were shipping Newfoundland codfish to England. On just one day in
1542, no fewer than 60 ships departed from Rouen alone for the Grand
Banks. In 1578 there were 250 French vessels there, and 200 from
Jacques Cartier, lured by Indian tales of gold and of a
Northwest Passage to the riches of Cathay, made voyages to the Canadian
wilds in 1534 and 1535, and attempted a short-lived settlement. But
a bitter winter and equally bitter Indians ended that. The Sieur de
Robeval tried to revive the colony, but met even less success. Then
official France got itself involved in another war, and forgot about North
America for awhile.
But the fishermen kept coming.
By the middle 1500's, the fishermen, still drying
their cod ashore, had begun trading with the Indians for a rich harvest of
furs. The furs found a ready market back home, and official interest
in the New World picked up in direct relation to the value of the fur and
It was in the spring, April 7, 1604, that Pierre de Gua,
Sieur de Monts, set off with Samuel Champlain and a tiny fleet to sail
around the southern tip of the Acadian peninsula. He discovered the
Annapolis Valley, charted the Bay of Fundy, and, on miniscule Saint Croix
Island, near the mouth of the river that today divides New Brunswick from
Maine, put down a colony of 79 men.
Listen to historian Francis Parkman describe the place:
"The rock-fenced islet was covered with cedars, and
when the tide was out the shoals were dark with the swash of sea-weed,
here in their leisure moments, the Frenchmen, we are told, amused
themselves with detaching the limpets from the stones, as a savory
addition to their fare. But there was little leisure at St. Crois. Soldiers, sailors and artisans betook themselves to their task.
Before the winter closed in, the northern end of the island was covered
with buildings, surrounding a square, where a solitary tree had been left
standing. On the right was a spacious home, well built, and
surmounted by one of the those enormous roofs characteristic of the
time. This was the lodging of DeMonts. Behind it, and near the
water, was a long, covered gallery, for labor or amusement in foul
weather. Champlain and the Sieur d'Orville built a house for
themselves nearly opposite that of DeMonts; and the remainder of the
square was occupied by storehouses, a magazine, workshops, lodgings for
gentlemen and artisans, and a barrack for the soldiers, the whole enclosed
with a palisade. Adjacent there was an attempt at a garden, but
nothing would grow in the sandy sail. There was a cemetery, too, and
a small rustic chapel on a projecting point of rock."
In the summertime, the island was very
pretty and cozy. But winter there was something entirely different.
Vegetables would not grow in the sandy soil, even in summer,
so the colonists had to plant their garden and sow their wheat on the
mainland. The spring went dry, so fresh water had to be brought from
the mainland as well. So also with firewood.
The first snow fell on October 6 (1604), and by December 3 ice floes
began to cut off the Frenchmen from the mainland garden, woodlots and
water. A bitter wind blew constantly from the northeast, making it
impossible to keep warm. Food froze hard, then rotted. Scurvy
began to take its toll.
Thirty-five of the 79 men were dead by the following spring,
when DeMonts decided to move his colony across the Bay of Fundy to a place
he named Port Royal. It would become one of the first permanent
settlements in North America.
All of the buildings on Saint Croix Island were taken down
and freighted, plank by plank, across the Bay of Fundy. There at a
place later named Lower Grenville, the same materials were used to build a
single habitation in the form of a hollow square.
This time, the habitation was well sited, fronting on the
Annapolis Basin, its back protected from winter Northers by a range of
The Acadians had settled in to stay, and that was a first.
As another historian, J. A. Doyle, put it:
"For the first time there was to be seen in America a
colony of Europeans, not a mere band of adventurers or explorers; but a
settled community subsisting by their own labor."
These colonists would call the place L'Acadie, a name
derived from the work of the ancient Virgil, who gave it to an idyllic, if
imaginary, land inhabited by simple, virtuous people. The name had
been popularized in the 1400's in a novel by Jacopo Sanazzaro, which opens
with a tribute to a grove of "uncommon and extreme beauty" in a
place called Arcadia.
There is another theory about the name, that it was derived
from the Micmac Indian word quoddy or cadie, which meant
"fertile" or "beautiful landscape." But folks
who believe Micmacs on the land over an ancient Greek's imagination have
no romance in their souls.
And so from a handful of settlers with the help of other
emigrants coming from France, England, Portugal, and other European
countries, the villages multiplied and families grew. After 150
years of fair prosperity L'Acadie was inhabited by families of Broussard,
Duon, Trahan, Hebert, LeBlanc, Landry, Melancon, Breaux, Vincent, Bourque,
Martin, Thibodaux, and many others.
A Day of Great Fatigue:
The Acadians had been on the land 150 years
when, in July 1755, Col. John Winslow, one of the British officers in Nova
Scotia, wrote this in his journal:
"We are now hatching the noble and great
project of banishing the French Neutrals from this province; they have
ever been our secret enemies and have encouraged the Indians to cut our
throats. If we can accomplish this expulsion, it will have been one
of the greatest deeds the English in America have ever achieved; for,
among other considerations, the part of the country which they occupy is
one of the best soils in the world, and, in the event, we might place some
good farmers on their homesteads."
In fact, Charles Lawrence, then the British governor of
old Acadie, had been planning the Acadian deportation for some time.
He had broached the idea in London at least by 1754. In early 1755
he had asked Judge Morris, the provincial surveyor, to prepare a report on
how to go about it. Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts had
promised enough ships to carry away the 7,000 Acadians still in Nova
(Of an approximate population of 18,000 Acadians, about 6,000
had left Nova Scotia between 1749 and 1752, as troubles with their British
governors began to grow. Many more fled, to Prince Edward Island and
other areas in maritime Canada still held by the French, after 1752, and
were continuing to flee even on the eve of their exile).
On July 31, 1755, Lawrence sent instructions to Colonel
Moncton, commanding officer in the Beausejour region of the Acadian
"The Acadians of the District of
Annapolis Royal, Mines and Pisiquid have refused to take the oath of
allegiance, and it is determined that they shall be removed out of the
country as soon as possible.
For this purpose, orders are given for a sufficient number of
transports be sent up Chignecto Bay for taking them on board, by whom you
will receive particular instructions as to the manner of their being
disposed of, the place of their destination, and every other thing
necessary for that purpose.
In the meantime it will be necessary to keep this measure as
secret as possible to prevent their attempting to escape and to carry off
their cattle. In order to effect this, you will endeavor to fall
upon some strategy to get the men, both young and old, especially the
heads of families, into your power, and detain them till the transports
should arrive, so as they may be ready to be shipped off; for, when this
is done, it is not much to be eared that the women and children will
attempt to go away and carry off the cattle.
As their whole stock of cattle and corn forfeited to the
crown by then rebellion must be secured and applied toward a reimbursement
of the expense the Government will have incurred in transporting them out
of the country, care must be taken that nobody make any bargain for
purchasing them under any color or pretext whatsoever; it they do the sale
will be void, for the inhabitants have now no property in their name, nor
will they be allowed to carry away the least thing save their ready
money and household furniture...."
On August 9, the Acadians of the Chignecto Isthmus were
ordered to meet at Fort Cumberland, to hear "the reading of orders of
His Excellency, the Governor."
Suspicious, they refused to go. The meeting was
postponed to the next day. Then, some 400 Acadians went to the fort
after being assured that the gathering was only about "arrangements
of the Governor of Halifax for the conservation of their farms."
Every Acadian who attended was taken prisoner.
Detachments of soldiers then went through the countryside to
arrest the rest of the population. But most of the Acadians hid in the
woods and, in fact, nearly two-thirds of the area residents would escape
immediate deportation, many of them to fight a guerrilla action that would
last until winter cold and bitter famine finally made them
surrender. But those who went to Fort Cumberland and had been taken
prisoner were placed on ships to be sent into exile.
In the autumn of 1755, 418 men and boys were gathered at the
church at Grand Pre in Acadie that September 5th. The order from the
British governors of Nova Scotia instructed that "both old and young
men, as well as the lads of ten years of age...attend the church at Grand
Pre, on Friday, the 5th instant, at three o'clock in the afternoon, that
we may impart to them what we are ordered to communicate to
them..." This expulsion is now named "Le Grand
When all the men were in the church, the doors were
closed and locked. The men were placed under arrest and told that
their lands and goods were no longer theirs.
These men and boys and their families were about to begin the
forced journey that would bring them from Nova Scotia to Louisiana, a
journey that would not be completed until many would be well into
The transports arrived at Grand Pre on September 10, and
inhabitants, sadly and with great sorrow, abandoned their homes. The
women, in great distress, carried their newborn or their youngest children
in their arms. Others pulled carts with their household effects and
crippled parents. It was a scene of confusion, despair and
"One hundred and forty women threw themselves hopelessly
and blindly onto the British ships to rejoin their husbands," wrote
the parish priest, Father LeGuerne.
Winslow did make an attempt to keep families together, but he
didn't have enough ships. Women were loaded onto ships other than
the ones that carried their husbands and children. Entire families,
believing that they were separating for only a few days, would be so
widely dispersed that they would never meet again.
When all was done, some 7,000 Acadians had been gathered up,
sent from their homes aboard crowded ships, scattered along the Atlantic
Seaboard and elsewhere. Some 2,000 Acadians would go to
Massachusetts, 700 to Connecticut, and more than 300 to New York, 500 to
Pennsylvania, nearly 1,000 to Maryland, 400 or more to Georgia, another
1,000 to the Carolinas.
The majority of the population, 1200 in fact, were
placed aboard ships to be sent to the British colony in Virginia.
But the British authorities up East had not told the Virginians that the
Acadians were coming. The Virginians refused to allow the exiles
into the colony. When smallpox began to run rampant through the
ships detained in Williamsburg harbor, the Acadian fate was sealed.
The ships, their captive cargo lessened by hundreds killed in the
epidemic, finally sailed for England.
Their tragedy fell just short of genocide. Lord Jeffrey
Amherst, one of the British commanders was all for it. In a letter
to Col. Bouqet, he urged: "You will do well to try to spread
smallpox by means of blankets and by every other means which might help
exterminate that abominable race."
Many were sent as prisoners of war to Southampton,
England. Many died in prison before the British and French finally
found an accord that would allow repatriation of the Acadians to French
soil. These wretched Acadians were sent to France, but they found
things little better there.
In the decade following Le Grand Derangement, more
than 3,000 exiled Acadians sought refuge in France, but, after generations
separation from Europe and European ways, the Acadians were foreigners in
France, just as they had been in England.
Out of step and out of time with French feudal society,
trapped by poverty in the slums of the Atlantic ports, the Acadians faced
a bleak future. Unable to compete for jobs and unwilling to renounce
their traditional independence for degrading peasant work in the
countryside, the Acadians found themselves on the royal dole. The
native Frenchmen, already overburdened by taxes, soon resented the exiles
they were forced to support.
France was not the Promised Land. Living conditions for
the Acadians were wretched from the outset. Once they had been
crowded aboard ships and ferried across the English Channel to Morlaix and
St. Malo in May and June of 1763, after eight years in England, the
Acadians were housed in barracks where smallpox, once again, claimed
hundreds of lives.
The French officials were equally at a loss over what to do
with this influx of foreigners as were the Anglos in the Atlantic colonies
of North America. It was probably only natural that the Acadians
would become pawns in French imperial schemes.
With the end of the Seven Years' War, the English-French feud
that had finally brought about the Acadian exile - Etienne Francois, duc
de Choiseul, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, wanted to revitalize
what remained of the French empire. He saw the Acadians as potential
colonists to be sent to the French Caribbean and elsewhere. In late
1763 he began a propaganda campaign designed to entice the displaced
Acadians to the jungles of Cayenne (French Guiana) on the north coast of
South America. Several hundred were lured there by descriptions of a
tropical paradise. Almost all of them fell prey to the heat and
With the collapse of the Cayenne colony, Abbe Louis Joseph
LeLoutre, the former vicar general in Acadie, proposed an Aadian colony on
Belle Isle en Mer, a windswept, rocky island off the coast of
Brittany. Colonization began in early August 1765 with Acadian
families from Morlaix and St. Malo.
The Acadians could grow nothing in stone, and many died on
Belle Isle en Mer. The colony was plagued with drought, crop
failure, livestock epidemics and high taxes. Unable to pay the taxes
or to get an extension from provincial officials, the Acadians were forced
to abandon their homes once again. The Belle Isle colony collapsed
in 1772. The families were moved back to the maritime ports of
France. Again they failed to find acceptance among the native
population. They sank deeper into poverty.
The disillusioned Acadians grasped at every opportunity to
leave France for any foreign country or colony that might offer a chance
to be reunited with their fellows, for their agrarian lifestyle to be
rebuilt. In late 1763 and 1764 hundreds sought refuge in the
Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina. Most returned,
penniless, to France.
Then, just as the idea of moving from France seemed to be
dying, there came a new hope. In September 1766, Jean Baptste Semer,
who had settled in the Attakapas District of Louisiana (as the region
around St. Martinville was known), wrote to his father in France and
described the "benefits extended by........Louisiana's newly
installed Spanish administration to him and all of his
Word of Louisiana's apparently thriving Acadian community
spread rapidly. The Acadians in France asked to be sent to
Louisiana. The government said it would cost too much.
The Acadians were trapped in France. Many worked small,
poor plots on large estates, hoping to sharecrop their way to land of
their own. In the cities they were regarded as parasites, since few
had skills useful there.
Then there was a plan to settle 2,000 of them on 15,000
unworked arpents owned by the Marquis de Perusse des Cars. It was
pitiful land. There was no fresh water. The crops
failed. By mid-1776, fewer than 200 Acadians remained on the sterile
land. Most of them moved to Rouen, Caen, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, or
Next came a plan to place the exiles on Corsica. Then,
with the hope that the American Revolution might oust the British from
Canada, there was a plan to send the exiles back there. But still,
in the back of the Acadian minds, there was Louisiana, where kin and
neighbor had found homes.
Finally, in 1783, Henri de Peyroux de la Coudreniere, a
Frenchman who'd made and lost a fortune in Louisiana, provided the
catalyst to bring the Acadians back to North America. He would
rebuild his fortune through commissions paid by the Spanish, who were
seeking Louisiana settlers.
Though Peyroux had married an Acadian, he was viewed as a
Frenchman, suspected by the outcasts. To gain credibility among the
exiles in France, Peyroux launched his resettlement program through an
Acadian intermediary, Oliver Terrio, a Nantes cobbler whom he contacted
under the pretext of having Mme. Peyroux's shoes fixed.
The Acadians were still suspicious. A petition was
circulated among them at Nantes, Morlaix, Rennes, St. Malo, Caen and
Cherbourg, asking the king for permission to emigrate. It drew only
five signatures. But Peyroux and Terrio propagandized and
On Sunday, May 10, 1785, 30 years after the Acadian exile (Le
Grand Derangement), and after involved negotiations with the Spanish,
the first group, 156 Acadians, left King and France for Louisiana.
By the end of the year, seven ships had carried more than 1,500 Acadians
to a Louisiana that, though Spanish in title, was still French in flavor
Some historians believe that a number of the Acadians
deported to Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia reached Louisiana as early
as 1756. We know for example, that the Acadians who were sent to
South Carolina had no difficulty in getting permission to leave. A
number of those sent to other American colonies headed for the
Mississippi. Others escaped from the Virginia transports before they
were sent on to England.
We know that over the next decade scores of Acadians exiles
from New York and some of the New England colonies headed for the West
Indies. But the tropical climate did not agree with them, and the
soon considered the move to French Louisiana.
New Englanders in Nova Scotia
And what would happen to their old lands in L'Acadie?
In 1758, after the British captured the last French stronghold at
Louisbourg, a proclamation by the Nova Scotia government appeared in the
Boston Gazette, offering free land grants in the once-Acadian
province. A second proclamation, in 1759, described the wonderful
attractions of the land and offered liberal terms to settlers.
In April 1759, a five-man committee was sent from Connecticut
to "spy out the land." They met with Governor Lawrence and
his council at Hailfax and were assured that the lands were all that they
had been advertised to be. Ships from Nova Scotia would be available
to transport the New Englanders, their stock and their furniture.
To help them decide, the council sent them to visit the lands
along the Bay of Fundy. When they arrived in the Minas Basin, the
orchards were budding, dikes growing green and rich uplands were waiting
for the plow. Compared to the rocky soil of New England, the fertile
valley was very attractive.
Completely sold on the proposition, the agents agreed to
settle one township at Minas and another one at Canard (today Horton and
On May 21, 1760, a fleet of 22 ships set sail for the new
Promised Land. The New England planters planted their feet on the
sail of Acadie on June 4, 1760, five years after the Acadian dispersion (Le
An old ballad, Puritan Planters, tells the tale:
Five years in desolation the
Acadia land had lain.
Five golden Harvest Moons had wooed the fallow fields in vain.
Five times the winter snows had slept and summer sunsets smiled
on lonely clumps of willows and fruit trees growing wild.
There was silence in the forest and along the Minas shore
And not a habitation from Cannard to Beausejour,
But a blackened rafter and many a broken wall
Told the story of Acadia's prosperity and fall.
But the simple Norman peasant folk shall till the land no more,
For the vessels from Connecticut anchored by the shore.
And many a patient Puritan, his mind with Scripture stored,
Rejoices he has found at last his "garden of the Lord."
The Acadians who moved to Louisiana from Canada, either directly, or
by way of the seven ships, in the mid 1700's remained isolated for
generations. They farmed, and attended church together, and for the
most part married their own kind.
So the old saying that all Acadians are sixth cousins
is probably not far from the truth. Most Acadians who study their
past find that they are descendants of the original French settlers in
Louisiana. Given that fact, it is not too surprising that genealogy,
or the study of one's family lineage, is a passion among many Acadians.
A glance at any telephone book in South Louisiana
will confirm the fact that the area has a distinctive flavor. French
names predominate in every community. Some are Acadian names.
Some families arrived here from France or Haiti or Canada or
Illinois. The stories of how these families came here, and of how
they spread across the countryside, are part and parcel of the history of
The Acadians arrived in Louisiana from 1765 to
1788. So one sees that the term "Acadian" refers to those
descendants of the French-Canadians dispersed by "Le Grand
Derangement." They joined a polyglot population that
included Germans, French-Canadians not affected or exiled by Le Grand
Derangement, Frenchmen who came directly from France, Spaniards, Anglos,
and others. Tracing these family histories is fascinating detective
Though the term "Acadian" when used
today in the strictest since would refer to those descendants of the
exiles of "Le Grand Derangement", it is also used to refer to
any French speaking inhabitant of the region of Louisiana known as
Acadiana. The name "Cajun" is now used alternately in the
same manner. Therefore descendants of the early settlers, many
marrying into "Acadian" families, have become Acadian or
Cajun by locale and immersion into the culture. So today families
with Spanish, German, Portuguese, Anglos, and naturally French names, and
having from other Francophone countries, and others, refer to themselves
as "Cajuns." So the genealogical research, or detective
work, becomes even more fascinating.
Then we come to the word or people known as
"Creole." Mr. Wiltz is one of the founders of
C.R.E.O.L.E.Inc., a private nonprofit corporation, which has adopted the
following definition of Creole: "Individuals of African descent
whose cultural roots have been influenced by other cultures such as
French, Spanish and/or Indian. Jolene Adams, in her book "He,
La-Bas", 1994, states that the term Creole is used by French
Louisianians who claim African or Caribbean origin in addition to their
French or Spanish origin, as well as by Louisianians who claim a European
As Warren A. Perrin, Past President of CODOFIL so
well puts it: "We applaud C.R.E.O.L.E.Inc and the adoption of
its new flag which symbolizes the pride of Louisiana's Creoles who are
such an important part of our multi-cultural society. We share the
pride of the Creoles of Louisiana in their many accomplishments and are
assisting them in the promotion of their proud culture."
So there you have it. Acadian, Cajun,
Creole - just about anybody can be called by what was once a very definite
individual culture, yet today loosely used by any one group.
complete version, hundreds of pages, from which this condensed version was
taken, go to: Articles
stated above, the material for this article was gathered from articles by
Jim Bradshaw as published in the Daily Advertiser, Lafayette, La. over a
period of several years. Anyone interested in the history of
Acadiana, and Acadians, would do well to procure reprints of supplements
to the Daily Advertiser, starting with No. 1 dated June 24, 1997.
Some of these supplements, numbering over 30 are still available.
They cover extensively all facets of Acadian Heritage and are over 20 pages each.
Contact The Daily Advertiser, 221 Jefferson St., Lafayette, La.