The Acadian Odyssey

 

A reprint from articles by Jim Bradshaw in The Lafayette Daily Advertiser


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 fishermen.
     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 other nations.
     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 fish trade.
     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 500-foot hills.
     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 Scotia.
     (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 peninsula:

     "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 Derangement."
    
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 maturity.
     The transports arrived at Grand Pre on September 10, and Winslow wrote:
         ".....the 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 desolation....."
     "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 humidity.
     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 comrades." 
     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 Nantes.
     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 persevered.
     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 and name.
     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 Cornwallis, respectively).
     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 Grand Derangement).
    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 Acadiana.
     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 work.
     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 origin only.
     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.

For the complete version, hundreds of pages, from which this condensed version was taken, go to:  Articles on Cajuns/Acadians.

As 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. 

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