More Acadian History

More Acadian History

The Acadian settlement was established as a result of a ten-year monopoly of the fur trade that was granted by the king of France. The immigrants were all of French Catholic heritage. The expedition set sail from Le Havre in two ships in March of 1604. Two months later the ships made landfall in the area later known as Nova Scotia. Settling in what is now known as the Bay of Fundy, Acadia was born.

Note: The following correction was received from Jeannita Theriault:

“Une précision…The first settlement of French ancestors…the first ships anchored in New Brunswick, near St-Andrews, near the Maine border, where they spent their first winter in 1604…many died of scorbut, absence of Vitamin D…next spring, in 1605, the remaining French settlers left for Annapolis Royal where the real colonisation took place and where the climate was much milder and more secure during the winter months…but History is correct in saying that the first settlement took place in New Brunswick in 1604, and that the permanent colonisation (settlement) took place in 1605 in Nova Scotia.”

The local Mi’kmaq tribe helped the Acadians survive that first winter since they were unprepared for the harsh season. The Mi’kmaqs, led by a chief named Membertou, soon became friends and allies of the Acadians. According to Dean Jobb in his book The Cajuns, “without Membertou’s friendship and support, the colony would not have survived as long as it did.” The Acadians location in the Bay of Fundy made them quite isolated from the major French settlement in the St. Lawrence Valley and there “gradually emerged a cultural distinctiveness despite the common antecedents of both groups.” By settling in the Bay of Fundy, more specifically the Annapolis Basin, the Acadians found themselves in the midst of one of “the most fought-over pieces of land in Canadian history” according to Alan Melanson, president of the Historical Association of Annapolis Royal. Carl Brasseaux writes that, “the colony of Acadia changed hands — either through conquest or diplomatic negotiations–ten times between 1604 and 1710.” Acadie changed hands for the last time and in 1713. The Treaty of Utrecht formally changed possession of Port-Royal and Acadie from France to England and it remained in their possession until Canada became its own country. Under the provisions made by the Treaty of Utrecht the Acadians, Who should desire to remain, should be permitted to retain their property and enjoy all the privileges of British subjects, and if they chose to remove elsewhere, they were at liberty to dispose of their property by sale ere they departed. This provision made for the Acadians was for a limited period of only one year. The Acadians were encouraged to move to Newfoundland, which at that point was still under French rule. The Acadians investigated the area proposed for them to relocate to and they deemed that “there were no lands in Cape Breton suitable for the immediate maintenance of their families, since there were not meadows sufficient to nourish their cattle”; thus they chose to remain in Annapolis Royal. After the period granting the Acadians the freedom to leave the area had expired, the British insisted they swear allegiance to the British Crown. The French king had encouraged them to move to Ile Royale and eventually the majority of Acadians felt this was a smart move. The Acadians applied for permission to the English government to depart from the area and they were not given permission. The request was “refused by Governor Vetch on the ground that he was retiring from office and was acting only in the absence of Colonel Nicholson, who had been recently appointed governor.” According to Doughty, the “English regarded with alarm the removal of practically the entire population from Nova Scotia” because moving to Cape Breton would drastically strengthen the French holding and the English perceived this move as a tactical threat by the French. The Acadians wished to move to Ile Royale, but were forbidden to use British vessels to accomplish the task. They began to construct their own small boats with which to carry their families and effects to Ile Royale. These boats were seized by order of the governor and were forbidden to remove their possessions from the area. Because of the death of Queen Anne, the Acadians request for permission to leave got lost in the shuffle. With the accession of George I the Acadians were again faced with the requirement of swearing allegiance. They refused, on the grounds they had “already pledged their word to migrate to Ile Royale.” But they also “agreed not to do anything against His Brittannic Majesty as long as they remained in Acadia.” Some historians argue that the Acadians, at this juncture, found themselves a pawn between the French and the English. France still hoped that Acadia would be restored to them so it made no gesture to help them remove themselves from the area. The English, threatened by the power the French would gain by having the Acadians move to Ile Royale and the prosperity they would loose in the region, refused to let them move. The ascension of King George the Second in 1727 prompted the third and final attempt to come to a resolution with the Acadians and pledge their allegiance to the sovereign. The Acadians were again encouraged to pledge their allegiance to the British crown. In order to assure compliance, Governor Philipps provided the Acadians a verbal promise that they could remain neutral and did not have to take up arms for Britain. They agreed to sign because they trusted the word of Philipps. He was placating the major point they raised of not wanting to bear arms against anyone, brethren or the new administration. This, unfortunately, was not a tidy end to this messy situation. After reaching this accord with Governor Philipps during his visits with them in 1729 and 1730, “the Acadians considered their relationship with their rulers had been settled.” Griffiths argues that they truly believed that they had been granted the exemption they requested from bearing arms against anyone. Due to mounting tensions between France and Britain this promise made by the Acadians was harshly tested. War in both Europe and North America erupted in the 1740s between the French and the English. Due to the oath of allegiance taken to the British Crown, the Acadians were expected to fight for Britain in the war that was fast approaching with France, or they would be forcefully removed from their homes. This came as a shock to the people since they thought they had already come to a mutual agreement as to their right to bear arms, or preference not to in this instance. The Acadians maintained their pledge to remain neutral as long as the British were in power because they did not want to take up arms against England or France. This request was not honored as they had anticipated it would be based on the previous agreement and steps towards the deportation began. Governor Lawrence believed that the French were plotting “aggressive movements” so Lawrence decided that the English would attack first in order to take the French by surprise. An expedition of two thousand men set sail from Boston in May of 1755 bound for Fort Lawrence to attack the French. The fort, manned by 165 officers and soldiers and several hundred Acadians, recruited to help only until the reinforcements arrived, were left to fight the English when the 1,200 soldiers promised from Louisbourg never arrived. The fort was surrendered and among those in the fort upon capture were approximately 300 Acadians. The English agreed to pardon those Acadians who had taken up arms if they agreed to take the oath of allegiance but they all refused to do so. Griffiths notes that “the taking of Beauséjour and its impact upon the government of Nova Scotia in the spring of 1755 is the immediate prologue to the deportation itself.” After taking Beauséjour the English found themselves in a complicated position. They were convinced that the French would try to re-take the area. The New England troops used to gain control over the area were only enlisted for one year and could not be kept in Acadia for long-term defense needs. Lawrence decided he was “not strong enough to cope at once with attack from without and insurrection from within.” In a letter from Governor Lawrence to the Lords of Trade he states “I am determined to bring the inhabitants to compliance, or rid the province of such perfidious subjects.” The Acadian situation, according to the majority of the literature, tried the short temper of Governor Lawrence and he was of the opinion that if they were “ingratitude for the favor, indulgence, and protection they have at all times so undeservedly received from His Majesty’s Government . . . it would be much better, if they refuse the oaths, that they were away.” Lawrence and the Council determined that “if they were sent to Canada, Cape Breton, or the neighbouring islands, they would strengthen the enemy, and still threaten the province.” The English resolved to put an end to this conflict with the Acadians by “distributing them among the various English colonies, and to hire vessels for the purpose with all dispatch.” Despite previous correspondence with Governor Lawrence on the matter, the Lords of Trade produced an official document in October of 1754 stating the following, Without an absolute oath, the Acadians could not be considered as English subjects nor treated as such. Their refusal to take such an oath invalidated their titles of possession, and made of them, in consequence, foreigners, enemies within the gate, with whom there was only one thing to be done – expel them as quickly as possible.” This gave Lawrence the approval needed to do whatever he deemed necessary, which the Lords of Trade already understood was expulsion, to resolve the conflict over the area. The Acadians were separated from their families, herded onto ships, and loaded to an unreasonable capacity. One historian notes, “Immigrant ships of the era usually carried no more than one person per ton of cargo capacity. But unlike settlers headed across the Atlantic, the Acadians were not paying passengers – or willing ones, for that matter.” Governor Lawrence, packed people tightly on to the ships with no regard for the standard capacity limits. One group of deportees said later “there had not been enough room for everyone to lie down at the same time.” The ships were filled beyond capacity and were sent to ports all along the eastern seaboard of North America and Europe. It is estimated that the “British transports carried approximately one-third more passengers than they were designed to hold, resulting in rapid depletion of the ships’ stores.” Plank notes that the Acadians were a British “project” and the goal was to “transform the Acadians into Protestant ‘faithful subjects’” which “reflected a simple logic flowing directly from contemporary ideas about the nature of colonial identity within the British Empire.” They were intentionally sent to English ports in hopes to assimilate the Acadians into English culture and to speak the English language, a skill they would have to develop out of sheer necessity, having been separated from their francophone communities. These grossly overloaded ships were coming into their destination ports with shiploads of human misery. Sickness ran rampant, food was running low, and the water onboard was not fit to drink. Brasseaux writes: The general decline in the exiles’ state of physical well being was exacerbated by the detrimental effects of stress and seasickness produced by storms and heavy seas that plagued the crossing. It is hardly surprising that, almost without exception, epidemics (usually typhus and smallpox) broke out among the exiles either during the crossing or upon their arrival at an English colonial seaport. These epidemics did little to ingratiate the exiles with their reluctant hosts. Not only were the Acadians unwilling travelers, but the ports they were deposited in were just as unhappy to see them as they were to be there. Virginia was so unwilling to accept the 1,500 exiles shipped to them that they not only refused them at their ports, but paid to have them shipped them to England. There was much hostility on both sides, from the deportees as well as from the officials at the ports they were shipped to. Brasseaux points out “the Acadian exiles arrived unannounced at the colonial seaports designated as their destinations by Charles Lawrence, and the stunned colonial officials in these ‘host’ communities were understandably wary of their destitute and decidedly hostile Acadian charges.” Not only were the port officials unaware they were going to have these exiles dispensed to their ports they perceived them to be unruly and a great deal of anti-French propaganda began circulating as a result, making the job of the Acadians harder to not only cope with their new surroundings, but also assimilate as they were intended to do. At some ports the deportees were refused and the ships had to continue on to another port to unload its cargo. In the case of Virginia, they were unwilling to “accept the 1,500 Acadian exiles entrusted to its care. These Acadians were dispatched to England, where they remained in coastal detention centers for the duration of the Seven Years’ War.” Virginia was not the only location where deportees were refused. The same hospitable tendencies resonated also in Georgia and South Carolina, to name just a few. There were some Acadians that escaped the fate of their compatriots. According to Brasseaux it is “a popular misconception that all of the Acadians were deported from the region in 1755. Only 6,000-7,000 of Nova Scotia’s 12,000-18,000 resident Acadians were removed from their homeland during the Grand Dérangement.” Those that were able to escape being loaded onto ships were viewed as fugitives. Hundreds of these fugitives journeyed to Ile St-Jean, present day Prince Edward Island, which, at the time, was still controlled by the French. In 1758 Ile St-Jean, whose population by this time had reached between 3,400 and 5,000, became “occupied by British forces who deported to France two-thirds of the Acadian population.” This is also known, as Lockerby writes, as “the second major deportation” which, despite its much less talked about nature, proved “equally traumatic and tragic.” Many of those Acadians who remained in Ile St-Jean “made their way to either Quebec, while a much smaller group migrated to St.Pierre and Miquelon islands,” while a very small few “hid in the woods on Prince Edward Island for the duration of the Seven Years’ War” because they were just tired of running and refused to run anymore from the British. Acadians also turn up in New Brunswick as well as the St. John River Valley for the same reasons as the Acadians who voyaged to Ile St-Jean. They all sought to escape the transplantation efforts of the British to assimilate them into English/Protestant culture. Although they all faced adversity in these locations, they nevertheless make a valiant effort to rebuild their lives and regain some of what they lost. According to Robert LeBlanc in his article The Acadian Migrations, “for many years there after, the Acadian exiles sought either repatriation or a new homeland. They moved across the map always seeking but seldom finding a permanent home.”

I am very grateful to Lisa Michaud of the University of Maine in Orono, for having provided me permission to reproduce this article on my web site. The article can also be found on the Franco-American Archives web site.