a brief history
Acadian history began in 1603 when the first colony of Frenchmen arrived at Ste. Croix Island in New Brunswick in search of a new fishing and fur-trading base. In 1604, they sailed around the Acadian peninsula to the Bay of Fundy and Port Royal (now Annapolis Royal) in Nova Scotia and established colonies in the Riviere-Aux-Cannards and Grand Pre areas.
By 1607 both France and England began to establish colonies in the New World. By 1671 the French had expanded their colonies throughout Acadia. In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht established English control over most of the Nova Scotia peninsula, including Cape Breton (Island) and Prince Edward Island. Control of New Brunswick remained disputed. Both the French and the English began building forts to protect their settlements, the French to the North and the English to the South. The Acadians, now numbered in the thousands, remained "neutral" in accordance with treaty terms - - refusing to assist either country. Fighting between the two countries continued.
In 1753, Colonel Charles Lawrence became Governor of Nova Scotia. Lawrence was a very cruel person and had a strong hatred towards the Acadians, who were of French descent. He demanded that the Acadians take an Oath of Allegiance to Great Britain and, also, to the Church of England. The Acadians, being devout Catholics and a peaceful folk, refused. On July 20, 1755, the governor and the council of Acadia issued expulsion orders. Some 18,000 Acadians lived in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. On October 8 to the 27th, ships at Grand Pre' were loaded with 5,000 people and the expulsion began. This continued until 1759. The Acadian refugees were dumped and scattered in Maryland, the Carolinas, Georgia and along the New England coast. They were people without a country and were considered undesirables wherever they went. Because of this, the Acadians were not welcomed in these areas. In the meantime the words reach them about Louisiana and their being welcomed there. They began their voyage to Louisiana. Many were sent back to France and some to prisons in England. Some 4,000 were to eventually settle in Louisiana.
Louisiana was under Spanish rule at that time. The Spanish government was sympathetic towards the Acadians and agreed to let them come down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and then through the bayou tributaries to the coast of Southwest Louisiana. They again were able to live in peace. They befriended the Attakapas Tribes of Indians who were willing to assist them in their "New World."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow relates their story so eloquently in his most famous poem, "Evangeline," by romanticizing the plight of the Acadians from Grand Pre', Nova Scotia, to the banks of the beautiful Bayou Teche, near St. Martinville, Louisiana.
They then spread all over Southwest Louisiana and for over 240 years the Cajuns' ancestors lived, in most part, in total isolation. They lived maintaining their Catholic faith, their French language, their customs intact, peacefully: a small miracle.
With well over one million descendants of the exiled Cajuns living today in Southwest Louisiana, French is still widely spoken. Gumbo and jambalaya are still the two most important dishes. Crawfish is still the favorite ingredient for these dishes. Cajun-French music and dancing are still the favorite pastimes; Mardi Gras is the favorite holiday; working hard all week and going to Church on Sunday is still a must; and "Laissez les bon temps rouler," translated, "Let the good times roll" and "Laissez-faire," (Live and let live) are still the rules of the day.
The uncertainty of the times must have been overwhelming. The thought of having to leave your home, your land, all you have worked for all your life must have been incomprehensible. This is the dilemma our ancestors found themselves in the fall of 1755.
They were given a choice. They could keep their land or be forced to leave their country forever. If they chose to stay they would have to swear allegiance to the King of England and change their religious affiliation from Catholicism to the Church of England. They would then become British subjects and would be forced to fight for England against the French in a territorial dispute concerning what is today, New Brunswick. If they refused to obey these orders they would be banished from their land forever. They refused. To them this was not a question of choice. They would continue to practice their faith in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and they would continue their allegiance to their French heritage.
Thus began the "Great Exile" and what could be considered the darkest days of British history. Some ten-thousand citizens of Acadie (what is now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and parts of Maine) of French descents were forced to leave their homes with only what they could carry on their backs. These Acadiens, my Acadians, were a people without a country... a people unwanted... a people forsaken.
The father. "How hard it is to be huddled together in groups along the shores by soldiers with guns treating us like common criminals. They say we are waiting for ships to take us away. Where are we going? No one will tell us. What have we done to deserve this? I am a God-fearing, hard-working, peaceful man. I worked my fields in the warm springs and hot summers from sun-up to sun-down. I hunted, fished, and trapped; all to provide food for my family. We survived the harsh winters of Acadie in the warm comforts of our simple home. We had plenty to eat. We had each other to love. We were happy. Now look how sad we are. Why?"
"I feel numb. They have separated us in groups. All the men and older boys are being loaded on one ship. The women and younger children will be loaded on another ship later. I don't understand the cruelty in this madness. I look back and see my home burning. I see the fields burning. I see the soldiers burning my barn with this fall's harvest in it. I see all my farm animals running wildly in confusion. What will happen to them? What will happen to me? What will happen to my family? Will I ever hold my wife and children again? What does the future hold for us? I don't understand."
The mother. "I can't stop crying. Where's my husband and sons? Why did they take them away from me? The soldiers are laughing as they burn down my home… my beautiful home with my loom and spinning wheel in it…our beds and all of our furniture that my husband and I made…our clothes that I made with my bare hands…my children's toys all hand-made by my husband with loving care…all gone. Who is going to take care of my little girl's kittens and my son's pet dogs? Who, dear God, will take care of us?"
"They took my husband, my father, my brothers and my oldest sons away. I can't find my mother or my sisters. I feel so lonely. But I must be strong for the little ones. They ask questions I cannot answer soon. Maybe this is just a bad dream. I pray silently."
The children. It is impossible for the little children to understand what is going on. Maybe their innocence will protect them. Maybe in their journey of growing up they will see beauty in the flowers and forget the horrors of the fires burning their homes. Maybe they'll see their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, together again as a family. Maybe God, in his infinite mercy, will bring peace and justice to them again.
They will never forget.
Our ancestors would be very proud of us. We have not forgotten. Two-hundred-and-forty-four years after the dark days of expulsion and cruelty suffered by our ancestors, we feel more strongly about remembering and honoring those who lost all and survived. We have learned much from them. We have learned that our French heritage is our identity and we will not lose it. We have learned that "no man is an island," that no one stands alone. In order for our culture to survive; in order for our French language to survive; in order for our "joie de vivre" to survive; in order for our strong family bond to survive; and more importantly, for the survival of our faith in God; we must work together…as a family. This is what our ancestors did.
We must never forget!