The Tragic History of the Acadians

In 1534, the French explorer Jacques Cartier was sent to explore the lands at the mouth of what is known now as the Saint Lawrence River. The explorer Verrazano had been there decades before and had described the area as “Arcadia,” or a pastoral paradise. In time, the name had evolved into Acadie, or Cadie, to define the area comprising Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and present-day Maine. Cartier’s optimistic reports brought attention to the area.

Beginning in 1603, settlers began to arrive from France to develop the fur trade, but the first attempts to establish a permanent settlement failed. By 1612, however, the French had a foothold in the new land, and the settlements quickly spread and grew.

The life of the Acadians was idyllic. They farmed and founded towns that were the seat of their government and marketplaces. They fished and manufactured goods that they needed. They lived in peace with the native Mi’kmaq, who allowed the Europeans to live near them unmolested. They continued their ways as Frenchmen, following French law and customs, speaking the French tongue, and worshiping as Catholics.

Far across the ocean, however, changes were taking place that would set the Acadians’ world on its head. France and England had been embroiled in the War of Spanish Succession, in which France and Spain were defeated and forced to make major concessions. In a series of treaties collectively called The Treaty of Utrecht, France in 1713 ceded mainland Acadia to Britain. The treaty ended the war between France and Britain, but it did not put an end to the simmering tension between the two ancient enemies, and the British were nervous about the loyalties of the body of Frenchmen in the midst of their Canadian territory. Almost immediately after taking control of their new dominion, the British demanded that the French Acadians swear an oath of loyalty to their new rulers. The Acadians refused, and a standoff ensued with the parties living in uneasy tension. In 1730, the Acadians offered to resolve the impasse by swearing an oath of neutrality, which the British accepted. The Acadians became the “neutral French,” and a policy of conciliation became the norm into which the parties settled in a comfortable relationship. In 1749, Governor Cornwallis renewed the British insistence for a loyalty oath, but when the Acadians balked, he did not impose harsh measures. His successor, Governor Hopkins, continued the non-confrontational relationship.

In 1754, fighting broke out between the French and English in the Ohio River Valley, commencing the French and Indian War and triggering the Seven Years War in Europe. The old world again was aflame in war, and the tremors of conflict would soon reach Acadia.

Charles Lawrence had succeeded Hopkins as the British governor of Acadia, and he realized that the war made the former policy of accommodation unworkable. He began to contemplate the direction his government should take with the French population of Acadia, which now numbered around 23,000.

While Lawrence was considering his next step, the British captured Fort Beausejour in 1755, and among the captives were 300 Acadian combatants. One of the combatants who was not captured was an Acadian named Joseph Gaurhept Brossard (later Broussard), also known as Beausoleil, who became the fierce leader of the Acadian resistance against the British and the personification of the Acadians’ determination to preserve their French way of life. Beausoleil allied with the Mi’kmaq and carried out raids against the British, including the “Dartmouth Massacre” in which he and his Native American guerillas killed twenty British defenders and took many more prisoner. He armed a ship and attacked British shipping and ports until his ship was seized and he was forced to flee and take refuge among the Miramichi tribe. As long as Beausoleil was on the prowl, the British could not rest easy.

In the face of this resistance, Governor Lawrence renewed the demand for the Acadians to take an oath of loyalty to the British. This time, he demanded that the oath be taken on British terms, with no reservations. The Acadians refused once again. It was obvious to Lawrence that the presence of more than 20,000 Frenchmen in his province, some of whom were waging guerilla war against him in concert with the enemy nation of France, rendered his situation insecure and untenable. He had to take action. Lawrence decided that the Frenchmen must be deported and dispersed among the British colonial population along the American coast in order to dissipate their strength and prevent them from migrating to French-controlled areas where they could bear arms against the British.

Beginning in 1755, Lawrence began summoning the Acadians to meetings at their local churches. Once inside, the Acadians were locked in and held by force of arms. They were dispatched on ships bound for the Atlantic seaboard. Their homes were burned to discourage their return, and the lands and livestock were forfeited to the British crown. Rather than being shipped out immediately, the deportees were held on prison ships for several weeks before setting out for their final destinations, and as a result hundreds died aboard the ships. Of the approximately 23,000 Acadians before the deportation, as many as 2,700 died before reaching their destinations. Ten thousand may have died from displacement during the winter of 1755-1756. Several thousand escaped to Quebec or hid among the Mi’kmaq or holed up in the countryside. This deportation of the Acadians came to be known as Le Grand Derangement – the great upheaval – and that is the term used even 250 years later for the tragedy of the Acadians. It was a tragedy in which good people died, families were torn apart, and wealth and homeland lost, all for the crime of being French.

In 1762, Beausoleil was captured and imprisoned in Halifax. His capture, along with the diminishing French population, effectively ended the resistance. By 1763, the deportation had accomplished its goal, and the only remaining French in the Province were concealed among the Native Americans or hiding out in the hills.

In the meantime, the Acadians who had been shipped out were not faring well. Some ships were detained in port and refused permission to debark the captive passengers. Food ran short and disease took hold, and Acadians were dying aboard their prison ships. In some places where they were allowed ashore, the exiles found themselves unwelcome and persecuted. Children were taken from their parents and siblings and given to “honorable families,” many of whom were Protestant. In the Carolinas, some Acadians were sent to plantations as “pressed labor,” which was a polite term for slavery. The unfortunates who disembarked in Massachusetts were persecuted and imprisoned, fined and whipped for the crime of being vagabonds. The colony even adopted a law making it a crime to be an Acadian in Massachusetts. Pennsylvania and Virginia refused the Acadians permission to land, and Virginia even dispatched one ship of deportees to England as prisoners of war, where they were sentenced to labor for free in factories and road gangs. In Georgia and Carolina, the governors were so eager to be rid of the Acadians that they freely issued them passports to return to Nova Scotia. Some deportees wound up in France, but their welcome there was not friendly, and the deportees there were transported inland and resettled on barren land so that many starved. No one wanted the burden of supporting these penniless refugees until, if ever, they could support themselves.

The most cordial reception came in Catholic Maryland, where the residents took in 900 Acadians. Connecticut likewise had prepared for the newcomers and welcomed them.

To this day one finds the Acadian names Landry, Broussard, LeBlanc, Martin and many others along the Atlantic coast. Some of the people today bearing those names know nothing of the bitter heritage that brought their forebears to those places. Many Acadians were assimilated into the predominately Protestant culture, and lost their French customs and language.

In 1764, Beausoleil was released from prison and allowed to sail with several other released prisoners to the French island of Domenica. The tropical climate was not to Beausoleil’s liking, however, and his thoughts turned to another land where he dreamed of re-establishing the Acadian people. He had been hearing of Acadians making their way to French Louisiana, and he began making plans to get there himself.

Like Beausoleil, many of the Acadians who survived in the colonies were not satisfied with their lot. They found themselves strangers in an alien land among people who did not speak their language or understand their customs, who were suspicious of these interlopers friendly to an enemy nation, and who resented the charity their care entailed. The Acadians longed to move on to a more hospitable land where French ways would be welcome. Word began to spread among the Acadians that Louisiana would welcome them. And so they set their sights on Louisiana, which was known to them as French territory, and by the tens, dozens and hundreds they began their migration there. What they did not know was that in 1762 France had secretly transferred Louisiana to Spain, which now controlled the vast territory. The Spanish, though, were friendly to the arriving Acadians because of the good relations between the two nations and their common religion, and the Acadians found in Spanish Louisiana a land where they could maintain their cultural identity and live lives much as they had in their native Acadie.

Beausoleil was among the first 200 Acadians to arrive in Louisiana on February 27, 1765, aboard the Santo Domingo. He led them into the area of St. Martinville. On April 8, 1765, he was appointed militia captain and commander of the “Acadians of the Atakapas.” The Atakapas were a cannibalistic tribe of Native Americans who occupied much of southwest Louisiana from the great swamps in the east and as far west as Sabine pass, but who had been dissipated in wars with neighboring tribes. The district bears their name. Beausoleil continued to provide courageous leadership for the Louisiana Acadians until he died in St. Martinville in October 20, 1765. His fierce determination to protect the Acadians, their freedom, and their ways from the British, and his leadership in re-establishing Acadian culture in Louisiana makes him a true hero of the Acadians. In the Acadian Heritage Museum in St. Martinville is a mural depicting the arrival of the Acadians in their new land. At the head of the new arrivals is the legendary Beausoleil.

Today, the Acadian descendants of those exiles nurture their unique culture. They preserve their language, customs, religion and cuisine, and their descendants in Louisiana alone number more than half a million.