Farming was a major part of the livelihood of the Acadians. But they were not farmers in the common sense of the word clearing land to make their fields. They made use of a system of dyking to create their fertile fields, using knowledge and skills that were familiar to them from France. The high tides and great marshlands of Port Royal, made this location ideal to apply these techniques. It is likely part of the reason the site was chosen in the first place. Upon arrival, the Acadians knew exactly what to do and began the process of dyking immediately.
As we know, the Acadians settled on the shores of rivers which emptied into the Bay of Fundy, or Baie Française as it was called during this period. The Bay of Fundy, because of its funnel-like shape, has very high tides, which also affect all the rivers connecting to it. At high tide, these rivers would overflow their banks at various points, covering a considerable area of lowlands, or marshes. When the tide went out, these lands were still wet with leftover salt tidewater, a spongy, marshy terrain which was built up from layers of fine rich soil due to the twice-a-day ebb and flow of tidal action over many centuries.
To make use of these rich lands the Acadians built dykes, or long walls around the perimeter of the lands affected in this manner. The dykes were so well compacted and tight, that they stopped the river water from flooding these lands as the tide was rising. The Acadians then hand-dug canals or ditches on this land, each draining towards an aboiteau, a one-way door or gate, which lead back out to the river. In this way, the rain and snow would wash the salt off the land, into these canals and back out to sea through the aboiteau. The drainage would occur only at low tide, when there was no salt water on the sea side of the gate, and the salt river water could not come back in when the tide was raising, because the doors only opened one way. As the tide came in, the salt water would put pressure on the one-way gate, causing it to close and pressing the seal even tighter as the tide came up, putting more pressure on the gate. After two years of this land drainage process, the salty soil on the marshes became de-salted and dry, and these marshes thus made excellent rich soil for farming.
Sometimes the dykes were built by driving five or six rows of logs in the ground, laying other logs on top of the other between these rows, filling all spaces between the logs with well-packed clay and then covering everything over with sod cut from the marsh itself. Sometimes dykes were built by simply laying sods over mounds of earth.
The Acadians were called lazy by settlers from other communities. They were referred to as defricheurs d’eau (clearer’s of water) because they built dykes and cultivated the natural meadows and marshes, rarely clearing the upland forests for agriculture purposes…
For example, it is the complaint of Governor de Broullan in 1701 that…
“…they [the Acadians] are found retreated to small portions of land, although their concessions are large…”
Upon deeper reflection, it is obvious that the Acadians used the higher ground just above the marsh for their houses and buildings, to guarantee a dry location. Rather than being lazy, they were simply good readers of their landscape, being in harmony with it, and knowing well how to harness the natural resources around them. Considering the agricultural methods of the period, the marshlands were more efficient and more productive than clearing uplands for agricultural purposes.
Sally Ross and Alphonse Deveau give the best rationale possible for the Acadians in this regard, quoting an original source, the Sieur de Dièreville, who arrived at Port Royal in 1699 from Normandy, and who is credited as being the most important source of firsthand description of life in the settlements of Rivière Dauphin (Annapolis River). Dièreville writes the following concerning their efficiency and hard work:
“It costs a great deal to prepare the lands which they wish to cultivate. To grow wheat, the marshes which are inundated by the Sea at high tide, must be drained; these are called Lowlands, and they are quite good, but what labour is needed to make them for cultivations! The ebb and flow of the Sea cannot easily be stopped, but the Acadians succeed in doing so by means of great dykes, called aboiteaux.”
Coarse salt hay (spartina) on the sea side of the dykes, which grew in the marshes in the salt water ebbing of the tides, was another natural resource that the Acadians quickly harvested. During the low tide the spartina was exposed. The Acadians cut the salt hay and piled in on “saddles” (platforms), which they built to keep it above the highest seasonal tidemark, so it could stay dry. They later baled the hay and stored it in barns to feed their animals all winter. Thus it was not necessary for them to slaughter their cattle for lack of winter fodder, as it was in most of the New England colonies. Consequently, unlike the New England colonies, they were not dependent on receiving new cattle from Europe each spring, to replace those they had to slaughter the previous fall. This provided the Acadian colony at Port Royal with stability and self-sufficiency.
The Acadians soon had finer grasses growing on the dry landside of the dykes replacing the spartina hay, which had always flourished in the tidewaters, although they continued to harvest it on the seaward side of the dykes.
Before 1755, the Acadians lived largely self-sufficient lives on their marshland farms. They tilled the soil and it yielded abundant crops of wheat, oats, barley, rye, peas, corn, flax and hemp. They also kept gardens in which they grew beets, carrots, parsnips, onions, chives, shallots, herbs, salad greens, cabbages and turnips. Cabbages and turnips seem to have been particularly important in their diet.
The Acadians kept cattle and sheep, as seen from the census documents. Pigs roamed freely in the forest behind the houses, and also fed on kitchen scraps, and in winter especially, on leaves and peelings from the cabbages and turnips stored in the gardens and covered with straw until needed. The Acadians seem to have eaten a lot of pork but relatively little beef, preferring to keep their cattle for milk, as working animals, (i.e. oxen) and for trade.
The Acadian life was a hard life, but good in many ways. They understood their landscape, and made it work for them. In a land where regulations were kept to a bare minimum, the settlers could supplement their needs by hunting and fishing, as well as berry picking and making various liquids. They brewed their own beer from branches of fir trees, and dried fruit and berries as food.
Those Acadians who devoted their lives to farming were very busy, depending on the season. Their day consisted, for the most part, in dyke building, making hay, fencing, house-and-barn-building, cutting firewood, clearing land in wooded areas, gardening, hunting and looking after domestic animals, making candles, soap, butter, dye, clothing. Also they prepared and preserved food, and made furniture, tools, and toys in their leisure time, depending on weather and crops.
Photo courtesy of Madelaine Pearson
Acadians had large families. When a son married, he would settle some distance from his father’s house and start another little village. Any group of two or three houses, was called a village. In the census of 1671 there were 361 souls and in 1686 almost double that: 622 souls, including 30 soldiers. By 1733, when Mitchell’s map was drawn, there were small Acadian villages as far away as Paradise. Acadian villages as seen from Port Royal maps of the day, formed little family hamlets… a sort of clan or extended family concept that was very common in France.
“The extended family… gathered at the same hearth and under the same roof, a large social group, based on several generations, with the old parents, the married children and their spouses, the youngsters of the different couples… A patriarchal image dominated by the noble figure of the head of the family, who decides at once the destiny of each one, directs the management of the farm, allots the tasks and chooses his successor. These solidly established family communities, that were generally linked to the possession of a domain, were encountered in many of the provinces [Old France]. It is possible that they were that in the 16th and 17th centuries, the form most often seen south of Loire.”
The area south of the Loire was the general vicinity of many of the Girouard/Giroir/Giroire and other first Acadians: the department of Vienne, Deux-Sèvres and Vendée. There is further evidence of this kind of extended family and support for each other in the Last Will of Michel Haché Gallant, married to Anne-Marie Cormier, the daughter of Thomas Cormier and Madeleine Girouard.
The early settlements in Acadie (i.e. Champlain’s expedition and others) were almost exclusively male, and it was assumed that men in these frontier establishments would intermarry with the native population. From 1632 onward, settlements became more permanent, however, and land was brought under cultivation by entire families who were recruited to come to the new colony.
Brenda Dunn, in her article “Looking into Acadia”, in Aspects of the Lives of Women in Ancienne Acadie explains how French law ensured that women were respected in their own right. Legally, men and women were both considered minors until the age of 25, or marriage, whichever came first. Even after marriage though, women continued to be known by their original family surname, although the name of the married couple, was the husband’s. The custom of Paris provided for a marriage contract to be drawn up before a couple wedded, and that marriage established a community of goods, between the couple. Neither husband nor wife could conduct propert transactions without the other’s written consent.
Marriage contracts usually stipulated that, on the death of one spouse, one half of the couple’s property was to be inherited by the survivor, and the other half divided among the children, male and female. This meant that widows and widowers had legal autonomy, at least until remarriage (which was almost inevitable). There appears to have been very few single women in Acadie; perhaps the pressures of survival in the new land, demanded partnership.
Sally Ross and Alphonse Deveau point out that:
“The family was the cornerstone of Acadian life in the 17th and 18th century. By 1650, some 50 families were living in or near Port Royal and constituted the foundation of the Acadian People.”
Brenda Dunn elaborates in women’s roles as follows:
“Women obviously played important roles in a society based on family and kinship networks. There were few aspects of Acadian life that they were not involved… there was very little variety in Acadian Christian names. The majority of Acadian women were named Marie, Anne, Madeleine, Cécile, Jeanne or Françoise. One of the reason for the repetition, was the children often took their godparents names. Wives kept their maiden names all their lives… widows in seigneurial families were exceptions, known as “Madame” rather than widow, as seen in the 1707 census where we find “Mde. le Belleisle widow”, “Mde Freneuse”, … along with “widow Naquin”.
Although Acadian society was more egalitarian than that of France in the late 17th and 18th centuries, there was some stratification. The upper level consisted of families that had been granted seigneuries, such as the Mius d’Entremonts, la Tours, and the Damours. While a seigneurial grant gave them status, it did not mean that they were wealthy. Families that were prosperous and respected in the community such as the Bourgeois, the Melansons, the Robichauds [and the Girouards… Claude Girouard was an Acadian Deputy]. but who lacked seigneurial grants were also part of the elite. To these groups could be added the French officials and Military officers assigned to the colony before 1710, many of whom married Acadian women.”
Acadian women led extraordinary busy lives. Families were large; many women were married in their teens, and continued bearing children well into their forties. Certainly, these large families meant that the small settlements were full of close kin who could help care for the youngest children, but women were also largely responsible for producing domestic necessities themselves. They spun, dyed and wove wool and flax for clothing, tended gardens, cooked and baked, and helped as necessary with other, heavy labour.
Speaking of the household inventory of Marguerite de Sainte Étienne de la Tour, widow of Plemarais, made at Port Royal, 1707, Brenda Dunn continues as follows:
“The household goods included a hand-worked tablecloth and six hand-worked napkins. There were also two irons, which came in pairs so that one could be heated while the other one was in use. These household objects give us an idea of the technology available to Acadian women who were noted for their industry, especially as it related to the domestic chores of cooking and making clothing for their large families.”
Many people are interested in knowing more about the Acadian dress of the period. Brenda Dunn expresses her views, based on the information presently available:
The everyday dress of the 18th century Acadian women, is believed to have been linen chemise, worn under either a vest or a jacket, with a woven wool or linen skirt often striped. An apron, neck scarf and cap would complete the outfit. No respectable women of the period would have been seen with her head uncovered. It is possible that different regions of France had a distinctive style of cap. Knit stockings and wooden shoes were worn for everyday wear. Leather shoes were probably worn on occasions, such as attending Church.”
As they did in France, women worked in the fields at harvest-time. In Acadian however, it appears they were also responsible for culling the fish entangled in the weirs at high tide, and they are know to have used canoes.
Obviously, for most Acadian women, there were few luxuries and little time for ceremony. A mid-18th-century visitor from New England commented on the few, cracked china cups of one household, and the rough-and-ready dress of the women. Women wore wooden shoes at work, as men did, another custom which drew the visitor’s comment.
There were a few exceptions however, as Brenda Dunn points out:
“Some of the administrator’s wives did enjoy silks, beads and laces imported from France, as well as the occasional trip back to France itself. Most women however, although their legal status and many traditions were informed by customs of the mother country, made their lives entirely within the close community of Acadie.”
As previously discussed, the building of dykes and houses were two major community events in which Acadians demonstrated their support for each other and their community spirit by coming together as friends, neighbours and extended family, to complete the task at hand. This would be true whenever there were big tasks to be accomplished, such as the cutting and storing of hay.
Jean Daigle describes this vital community spirit:
“Despite the continual attacks and looting… Port Royal was attacked once in 1704, twice in 1707 and again in 1710… the Acadians held firm. They had developed an ability to resist and adapt that kept these difficulties from becoming insurmountable. The system of family organization goes a long way toward explaining how the inhabitants of the Bay of Fundy, could cling to a territory coveted by several great powers, for over 150 years.
Limited immigration to Acadia meant that, after three or four generations, all inhabitants of the various settlements were related to one another (uncle, cousin, distant cousin) etc. As is always the case in this type of rural society, the emotional and blood ties created by kinship, formed a basis for the establishment of a system of mutual aid, solidarity and independence, in which the wealthier distributed their surplus to those whom war or natural disaster, had touched. This homogeneity created what is commonly called the Acadian extended family, a traditional society that was able to resist the great social upheavals of the period, thanks to its natural resources.”
Religion was a a very important part of Acadian life. Sally Ross and Alphonse Deveau quote Father Petit, a priest who in 1676 became pastor at Port Royal and who was named the first Vicar-General by Bishop Saint-Villier of Québec:
“One sees no drunkenness, nor loose living and hears no swearing or blasphemy. Even though they spread out four or five leagues along the shores of the river, they come to church in large numbers every Sunday and on Holy Days.”
The Acadian were very friendly with the Mi’kmaq, who helped them in many ways to survive this new land. They traded with the Indians, New England colonies and other French settlements. As power shifted back and forth between France and Britain, the Acadians welded closer and closer together, almost oblivious to the governing power and the long transition periods, while developing character and way of life.
The following information on trade comes from the Nova Scotia Museum publication, The Acadians; Settlement
“Although the Acadians were remarkably self-sufficient, there were some things they could not make or grow themselves, and for these needs they established trading links with New England and with other French settlement. Molasses, cooking pots, broad axes, clay pipes, gunpowder, fabrics and rum, came from New England. Through Louisburg they obtained cottons, thread, lace, firearms and religious items, from France.
Acadians were fond of smoking (both men and women smoked). Their clay pipes came mostly from England, although at times they did fashion their own, using local red clay. In return for these items, the Acadians traded grain from their fertile reclaimed marshlands, their cattle which were healthy and well-fed on salt-marsh hay, and furs they had obtained from trapping and trade with the Micmac Indians.
I am grateful to my good friend, Bill Gerrior, for having provided me permission to quote portions of his excellent “Acadian Awakenings” series of books. Connect to https://www.acadian.org/gerrior.html for complete details.