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HUSTON, JAMES – Volume VIII (1851-1860)

d. 21 Sept. 1854 at Quebec


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

The Acadians

Acadian history has been a lengthy story of cultural distinctiveness and political compromises. The territory called “Acadie” was the site of the first real attempt made by the French to settle in North America. Its centre was the south shore of the Bay of Fundy and its exact boundaries were never precisely defined. If one traces the placing of the word “Acadie” on maps made of North America during the 16th century, the name is to be found consistently south of the St Lawrence River but by no means equally consistently in one location. Many maps place “Acadie” across the region which is today divided into northern Maine, northern New Brunswick, and southeastern Quebec, including much of the Gaspé peninsula. On a map made in 1587 the name is specifically attached to what is today Nova Scotia. In 1601 Guillaume Levasseur, one of the most influential European mapmakers of the late 16th century, lettered the words “coste de Cadie” over what is now New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Other maps of the same era, made during the last years of the 16th century or the first years of the 17th, have the word “La Cadie,” “Lacadye,” or “Acadie” placed over all the above regions combined as well as Prince Edward Island. There would be little agreement, at any period, among all the parties concerned with Acadian history – France, Great Britain, New France, New England, not to mention the people of Acadia themselves – as to where the frontiers should truly run.

Continual argument over the actual borders of Acadia became more important as the European settlement of North America progressed. The lands settled by the Acadians became a border country between New England and New France, a “continental cornice,” as John Bartlet Brebner* terms it, in dispute between great empires. Acadian political traditions were decisively moulded by this fact. Claimed by France in the patents issued by Henri IV to Pierre Du Gua* de Monts in 1603, it was claimed with as much conviction and equal imprecision by the Scottish crown in 1621, when James VI granted Sir William Alexander* the authority to colonize what the charter in question called Nova Scotia, land whose boundaries were located somewhere between the Gaspé and the St Croix River. From that time until 1763 international treaties would refer to the area as “Acadie or Nova Scotia,” underlining by dual title the experience of the Acadians, as much a people of the frontier as the inhabitants of Monmouthshire, Cumberland, Alsace-Lorraine, or the Basque country.

Whether or not England controlled the colony, as was the case between 1654 and 1670, the people of Massachusetts became and remained a most important influence for the Acadians. Although the treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1632 acknowledged France as the rightful European authority for the development of “Acadie or Nova Scotia,” the colony of Massachusetts Bay was a constant and never completely hostile force in their lives. It was almost always more important as a trading partner than anywhere else; and its influence was further strengthened during the years 1656 to 1670 when Thomas Temple* governed the Acadians for both Oliver Cromwell and Charles II, using Boston as his major source of supplies. Even when the treaty of Breda, signed in 1667 but not implemented for Acadia until 1670, restored the colony to France, the links remained. It was the opinion of the priests who were in the colony during the 1640s and 1650s, as well as the judgement of Governor Frontenac [Buade*], writing in the 1680s, that the Acadians had acquired a deplorable “parliamentary” turn of mind by associating too much with the colony of Massachusetts Bay. A report by the intendant of New France, Jacques de Meulles*, who visited Acadia in 1685–86, noted that Boston merchants had established the most considerable shops in the largest community in the colony, that of Port-Royal (Annapolis Royal, N.S.). By the end of the century, the English had become, in an Acadian phrase, “our friends the enemy,” and contacts with them were more frequent, closer, and friendlier than is generally recognized.

In fact Acadian contacts with other people were considerably wider than has usually been accounted. Within their own lands their relations with the Indians were, for 150 years, most amicable, leading not only to the unmarried liaisons first deplored by missionaries in 1616, but to a significant number of church-registered unions. François‑Edme Rameau de Saint‑Père, the French historian who published his first work on the Acadians in 1859, remarked that given the smallness of the Acadian population, the number of such registered partnerships was a significant formative factor for that community during the 17th century. From the time of Charles de Saint-Étienne* de La Tour the elder’s first marriage to a Micmac in 1626, through Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie* de Saint‑Castin’s union with a Penobscot in the 1670s, until after the deportation of 1755, there was always at least one Acadian family in most settlements where one partner, usually the woman, was an Indian. The census returns of 1671 and 1686 indicate five families where the woman is described as a “sauvagesse,” out of a total of some 75 and 135 families respectively. More important, perhaps, than this sprinkling of marriages is the general tenor of relationships with the Indians, relations which meant that the Acadians, as one of their governors, François‑Marie Perrot*, remarked in the 1680s, quickly adopted Indian-styled small boats for coastal voyaging and accompanied the Indian bands as they travelled through the forests. The Indians, in Acadian eyes, were permanent neighbours, neither the middlemen in commercial enterprise nor a hostile force. It was particularly fortunate for both sides that the Micmacs, the Indians with whom the Acadians had the greatest contact, were people with a migratory way of life, whose demands on the land were not in immediate conflict with those placed upon it by the newcomers from Europe.

The excellent relations between Acadian and Indian were helped by the way the Acadian community struggled into existence and painfully developed. During the first 30 or so years of the 17th century, every effort to organize European development around the Bay of Fundy resulted only in the maintenance of a European presence, never in the establishment of a settlement. Even after 1632 when the French authorities actively encouraged migration, rather than exploration and the conversion of the Indian, the colonists who set sail from France were few [see Isaac de Razilly*; Charles de Menou* d’Aulnay]. By 1671, when an official census was made, the population of European descent was recorded as less than 75 families, 68 of them within the confines of Port-Royal, and the others at Pobomcoup (Pubnico, N.S.), Cap Nègre (Cape Negro, N.S.), Pentagouet (on Penobscot Bay, Maine), Mouscoudabouet (Musquodoboit Harbour, N.S.), and Saint‑Pierre (St Peters, N.S.), making barely 500 souls in all. Even the developments of the last decades of the 17th century brought the population to no overwhelming number. When the British acquired “Acadie or Nova Scotia” by the treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the population of New France was more than 19,000, that of New England 92,000, but the official computation of the Acadians was under 2,000. So gradual had been the growth of settlement through migration, and so non-exploitative the Acadians’ way of life, that unlike other European societies transferred to America they posed no serious threat to the indigenous population. New England settlement meant eventual extirpation of Indian groups, while the logic of the expansion of New France meant the relatively benign exploitation of dependent Indian populations. Only with the Acadians did something akin to a symbiotic relationship with the Micmacs and other tribal groupings emerge. From this relationship the Acadians reaped positive benefits, not only in their early adoption of Indian canoes, but also in their use of such articles of clothing as the moccasin and their consumption of herbs and vegetables unknown in Europe.

It was possibly the diversity of their origins, as well as their small numbers, that made the Acadians more open to learning from the Indians. The work of the French linguist Geneviève Massignon has established how lacking in communal “set” the Acadians were. She undertook to trace the roots of Acadian speech patterns and found that although certain centres in France, such as Loudun and its region, contributed significantly to the Acadian stock, in fact more than half the population came from other parts of the country. Indeed, she was able to show that by 1707 about five per cent of the Acadian population came from one part or another of the British Isles.

Massignon’s main purpose had been to decide whether the Acadian speech patterns were primarily a matter of European heritage or if the North American environment had added a crucial ingredient to the vocabulary. Her conclusion was that the lack of any single, overwhelming influence from any particular locality in Europe made Acadian speech very much a matter of colonial development. It had evolved as an amalgam of a variety of dialects, mostly French, a few English, one or two Indian, compounded into a whole by the distinctive life of the Acadian community and its need for a special vocabulary to render the precise quality of Acadian experience.

Massignon restricted her work to linguistics. But her research was one of the first steps towards an understanding of Acadia’s European heritage. Migrants such as the Leblancs, who sailed via La Rochelle, and the Bastaraches, Basques from the Pyrenees who sailed from Bayonne, not only spoke different dialects but had lived in villages ruled by differing legal customs and differing religious traditions. It must be remembered that the France that helped establish Acadia was the France of a multitude of local variations, each region linked to the central government in its own peculiar way and each region undeniably different from its neighbours. The time of arrival of each contingent of migrants to Acadia, the sorts of power the newcomers attained, and the ways in which one heritage rather than another would be chosen to solve a problem of community relations, to contribute the folk songs for weddings, or to be used as the basic source of recipes for the provision of food, are crucial factors in the development of Acadian life. Since at no time did a group of migrants arrive imbued with either a religious or a secular ideology that would dominate all others, the gradual melding of old and new migrants was of particular importance for the colony. It is in this context that the chains which link the first expedition of de Monts in 1604, with its ideals of settlement and its belief in the value of cooperation with the Indians, to all later migrations are so important.

To outline one of the most important of many such chains: Jean de Biencourt* de Poutrincourt et de Saint-Just was one of the most stalwart supporters of de Monts, sailed with him in 1604, and helped found Port-Royal in 1605. When he returned to Acadia in 1606 he brought his son, Charles de Biencourt* de Saint-Just, with him. As the father is linked to the founder of the colony, so is the son linked to its developer, Charles de Saint‑Étienne de La Tour, who arrived in Acadie in 1610, barely a teenager. During the next decade, when the colony suffered attacks by the English and was claimed as Nova Scotia by James VI of Scotland, the two young men worked together for its survival; when Biencourt died in 1623 or 1624 he left La Tour all his rights in the colony. These two families illustrate a general process in the creation of an Acadian people.

For the next 40 or so years La Tour was one of the most important men in Acadia, working for the growth of the colony mostly as a landholder and official whose authority and rights stemmed from France, but occasionally as an official deriving title and authority from the king of Scotland. (His father, Claude*, obtained a Scottish baronetcy for the family from Charles I during the winter of 1629–30, while he himself was commissioned lieutenant-general of the French king in Acadia by Louis XIII in 1631.) The ability of the La Tours to accord their governance of Acadia with either of the most interested European countries meant the existence in the colony of a powerful and enduring family whose first loyalty was to the reality of life in North America. Charles de La Tour married three times and had five surviving children. Some of his descendants would intermarry with the children of settlers such as Charles Melanson* and his brothers, people who came to the colony as migrants in search of a new life rather than as administrators organizing a new endeavour. The daughter of La Tour’s son Jacques and Anne Melanson (her descent was Scottish) was named Agathe*. She would marry in succession two English subalterns who came to the colony as a result of the settlement arrived at in Utrecht; her son John Bradstreet was to become a major-general in the British army. It was family friendships and connections such as these which cemented a relationship between the visions of the earliest arrivals and the contributions made to the Acadian identity by those who came later.

A further strengthening of such relations was made possible by the longevity of the population. This was particularly significant for a community which knew a succession of differing authorities claiming its governance during a space of some 50 or 60 years. Politically, the colony became a reality under French authority during the years 1632–54. Between 1654 and 1670 a basically but not completely French population was ruled in the name of England. For the next 40 years, 1670–1710, it was once more officially French; however, during the last 20 years, 1690–1710, the colony suffered a succession of English forays, at least one of which, the expedition of Sir William Phips* in 1690, resulted in some Acadians’ swearing an oath of loyalty to the English crown. The presence in the Acadian population throughout the hundred years preceding the deportation of a significant body of middle-aged people, capable, for the most part, of remembering two, if not three, changes of national allegiance, gave the Acadians a certain mistrust of the claims of either France or England as to permanent possession of the colony. It also gave the Acadians a most cheerful attitude to smuggling, since what was illegal in the eyes of one government was the sole permitted trade in the eyes of the other. But above all, given the slow accretion of population by migration, Acadian marriage patterns, coupled with the general health of the population, allowed the colony to absorb all newcomers into a slowly developing family net, a net that brought together old and new generations and old and new village settlements. During the crucial period between 1671 and the close of the century, the last years of any significant French immigration to the mainland of the colony, Acadia received something less than 100 people to add to the stock already there. As Rameau de Saint-Père has noted, some four-fifths of those considered Acadian in 1755 could claim an ancestor recorded in the nominal census of the colony taken in 1671. It is remarkable that the nucleus of the Acadian population developed from such a base.

The Acadians were a people of unusually large and flourishing families and their food supply was adequate and varied enough not only for the expansion of the population but for the maintenance of a high level of fertility. Further, diseases such as typhoid, smallpox, and cholera never reached epidemic proportions in the colony. Visiting in 1699, the French surgeon Dièreville* was astounded at the size of Acadian families, some of which numbered 18 or more children. The norm in his own country was an infant mortality rate that gave the newborn no more than one chance in three of survival into adulthood. In Acadia, however, families such as those of Pierre Commeau and Daniel Leblanc were common enough. Pierre Commeau had arrived in the colony in 1636 and was married at its major settlement, Port-Royal, in 1641. He had 9 children; his grandchildren by 4 of his sons numbered 46. From their sons came some 68 children. Daniel Leblanc, who was also married in Port-Royal, probably in 1645, had 7 children, 6 of them boys. There were 52 grandchildren from the male line alone. The great-grandchildren numbered over 200, including the offspring of René Leblanc. He was the notary immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Evangeline, and himself had 3 children with his first wife, and 17 with his second, including triplets born in 1721.

Such families did not merely provide cohesion for a particular village, they also linked each new settlement to all others in the colony. In particular, and during the greater part of the 17th century, kinship ties helped carry the influence of the first major Acadian settlement, Port-Royal, into almost every other part of the colony. Beaubassin (near Amherst, N.S.) was the first major village settled after the establishment of Port‑Royal. It was begun in 1672 to a large extent as a result of the work of Jacques Bourgeois*, who had come to Acadia in 1642 and had spent some 30 years in and around Port-Royal before moving on. Companions in his endeavour included second-generation members of families such as the Bernards and the Commeaus, whose relatives were soon to be found in other new villages, such as Pisiquid (Windsor, N.S.) and Grand Pré. Newcomers to the colony, such as Pierre Arsenault who landed in 1671, often married in Port-Royal before setting out to join another village. Arsenault himself married the daughter of Abraham Dugas, and Dugas had come out to Acadia early in the 1640s to live throughout his life in Port-Royal. In sum, the increase in the Acadian population meant much more than just the growth and development of a number of separate families: it also meant an intricate net of kinship lines criss-crossing the entire colony.

As the 17th century drew to a close, Acadian history could be summarized as a tale of official neglect and a barely successful struggle towards settlement. Nevertheless, when the treaty of Utrecht was concluded in 1713, bringing to an end yet one more phase of Anglo-French warfare and making the colony once more a British possession, “Acadie or Nova Scotia” had both an international identity and a colonial population. Both the British and the French governments had become aware of the strategic worth of the “continental cornice”; the French negotiators had in fact made a strenuous effort during the treaty negotiations to retain Acadia. “We have directed all our energies towards regaining Acadia,” they wrote to Louis XIV on 18 April 1712, “but it has been absolutely impossible for us to achieve that end.”

Acadia had been lost to France by the treaty, but not permanently, at least in French eyes. The continuation of strong French interest in the territory was of crucial significance to the Acadian position. The French not only had ambitions for the repossession of Acadia; under the terms of the treaty they had a case for recovery of part of it. The treaty stated that Great Britain was given “all Nova Scotia or Acadie with its ancient boundaries as also the city of Port Royal, now called Annapolis Royal, and all other things in those parts which depend on the said lands and islands.” No map was appended, nor were the northern and western limits of “all Nova Scotia or Acadie” specified. By the treaty, the French kept Île Saint‑Jean (Prince Edward Island) and Île Royale (Cape Breton Island). At the same time they maintained that the limits of the territory ceded to Britain were not those granted to de Monts in 1603 but the much smaller concession made to Poutrincourt in 1608. In other words, the expression “ancien” in the treaty did not mean “ancient” or “original” but “former,” in reference to the 1608 grant or to other interpretations favourable to the French case. For the French, therefore, there were two parts of Acadia: “Acadie française” comprising Île Royale, Île St Jean, and as much of the mainland between present-day New Brunswick and the St Lawrence as they were disposed to claim, and “Acadie or Nova Scotia,” which they had ceded to the British and being as little of that peninsula as possible. A map submitted by the French government in an attempt to settle the boundaries of the territory after the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 even made a case for British rights extending only along a thin slice of the eastern coast of Nova Scotia. On the other hand, of course, the British were convinced that what was signed on 8 May 1713 had given them at the very least the whole of the peninsula of Nova Scotia, quite probably all present-day New Brunswick, and, if the French were but honest, some rights to the land between New Brunswick and the St Lawrence, including the Gaspé peninsula.

Border warfare between the two great powers was made almost inevitable by these arrangements. But the plight of the Acadians was further complicated by other provisions of the treaty. One of the articles negotiated gave them the liberty to “remove themselves, within a year to any other place, as they shall think fit, together with all their movable effects.” If any decided to remain, however, they were “to be subject to the Kingdom of Great Britain” and “to enjoy the free exercise of their religion according to the usage of the Church of Rome as far as the laws of Great Britain do allow the same.” These last stipulations were amplified in a letter dated 23 June 1713 from Queen Anne to Francis Nicholson*, governor of Nova Scotia and commander of the expedition that had captured Port-Royal in 1710. He was bidden to allow those Acadians who “are Willing to continue our Subjects to retain and Enjoy their said Lands and Tenements without any Lett or Molestation as fully and freely as other our Subjects do or may possess their Lands and Estates or to sell the same if they shall rather Chuse to remove elsewhere.” As time passed, the Acadians were to be less and less certain whether the article of the treaty itself, or the instructions in the letter to Nicholson, defined the limits of their rights: once the year (from a time not specified – the moment the treaty was signed? the moment Acadians were told of the provisions?) had elapsed, did they still have the right to move? with only their “movable effects,” as the treaty stipulated? or having sold their “Lands and Estates,” as the letter said they might?

In many ways these problems were of more moment to the British and French than to the Acadians themselves. Between 1714 and 1719 both powers considered the advantages and disadvantages of moving the Acadians from their original lands. The authorities of Île Royale, in particular the governor, Philippe Pastour* de Costebelle, wished to see the Acadians people that colony. But the authorities of Quebec and the French minister of Marine, Pontchartrain, were of two minds whether it would be more useful to persuade the Acadians to remain under British rule in the hope of a French reconquest of the colony, in which the Acadians ought to prove of immense help, or to encourage their emigration. The British were equally uncertain. The lieutenant governor of the colony, Thomas Caulfeild*, wrote to the Lords of Trade in 1715 that it was necessary for the Acadians to remain, not only for their cattle and hogs, which they would take if they left, but also “in case ye french quit us we shall never be able to maintaine or protect our English family’s from ye insults of ye Indians, ye worst of enemies.”

The Acadian reaction to this situation has been the cause of quite as much debate among historians as has any other aspect of their history. In the minds of many, such as Francis Parkman* and James Hannay*, Acadian policy was dictated by the priests. To others, such as Émile Lauvrière, it was the sole practical reaction to intolerable pressure from the British. It is possible, however, to consider the Acadian attitude at this time as an intelligent solution to an obvious dilemma: the need to evolve a policy that would permit them to live comfortably under British authority, for as long as that might continue, while losing neither their religious practices nor the confidence of the French. There is no doubt that the Acadians considered the provision of priests a matter of importance; there is also no doubt that they considered the priests’ part, not the leaders, of their community. As the Acadians tried to respond to the varying demands made upon them by French and British, the recorded advice of the priests among them, in the years immediately following the treaty of Utrecht, was diverse. Father Dominique de La Marche*, superior of the Recollets on Île Royale, tried with considerable eloquence to persuade the inhabitants of Minas (Wolfville) to migrate, but without success. Father Félix Pain*, on the other hand, seems to have ignored direct instructions from Pontchartrain to encourage Acadian migration, thinking Île Royale too harsh a land for his flock.

The Acadians’ policy was of their own making. Asked to take the oath to King George I by the authorities at Annapolis Royal at the same time as the authorities of Île Royale were asking them to emigrate, the Acadians evolved their own strategy. They sent a temporizing reply to the British and a delegation to the French. They told the British that they knew their reply had been slow in coming, but that not all could read, and those who did must travel through the settlements to translate the oath demanded to explain its terms. There is no suggestion here that the priests could be relied upon to speed the work. It was the villagers themselves who would consider how the demand should be answered, the answer being presented to the authorities signed, often with a full signature, sometimes with an X, by the men of the area and brought to Annapolis Royal by the village delegates. It took three years for the replies to be organized in many cases, the demand for the oath not having been formally made until 1715. In sum, the Acadians refused to comply because as those of Beaubassin remarked “while our ancestors were under English rule such an oath was never required of them.” However, as the inhabitants of Minas noted, they would guarantee not to cause any trouble while the British remained in power and they remained in the colony. Further, as those of the Annapolis River suggested, they might consider some oath that bound them not to take up arms against either Britain or France.

If such replies exasperated the authorities at Annapolis Royal, they pleased the authorities at Île Royale no better. The Acadians temporized as skilfully with French demands for migration as with British demands for oaths of loyalty, remarking that it was too late in the season to think of even considering the problem of migration, or that, even if they wished to remove themselves, they had insufficient boats, or that, though they were considering the matter, lack of roads to Île Royale made the project very difficult. Some historians consider that the Acadians were prevented from leaving Nova Scotia by the British; however, as the Acadian historian Joseph-Henri Blanchard has pointed out, had the Acadians wished to quit their lands, the British could not have prevented them. A report written in 1720 by Paul Mascarene*, the French speaking Huguenot who was to become the lieutenant governor of the colony in the 1740s, remarked that the Acadians were able to muster a thousand men capable of bearing arms, noting that those along the Annapolis River alone were able to “arm and assemble four hundred men in twenty-four hours time,” a force quite capable of overwhelming the small British force in the province.

In fact, as Governor Richard Philipps* accurately summed the matter up in 1719, the Acadians “will neither sweare allegiance, nor leave the Country.” During the 1720s, however, as the Acadians realized that the British appeared firmly ensconced at Annapolis Royal, there was a clarification of their policy. In 1726 the lieutenant governor, Lawrence Armstrong*, persuaded the settlers around Annapolis Royal to take an oath of loyalty with an exemption from bearing arms, “the same,” it being noted in the Council records but not reported to the Lords of Trade, “to be writt upon ye Margent of the french Translation in order to gett them over by Degrees.” By the end of the decade the majority of Acadian communities had sworn an oath similar to that taken by the inhabitants of the Annapolis River area and with similar provisions for their neutrality [see Robert Wroth*]. In making the final report on this matter to the Lords of Trade on 2 Sept. 1730, Philipps stated that the Acadians, now numbering some 4,000, had sworn an oath reading: “I sincerely promise and swear on my faith as a Christian that I will be utterly loyal, and will truly obey His Majesty King George the second, whom I recognize as the sovereign lord of Acadia or Nova Scotia. May God so help me.” He said nothing of the provisions of neutrality to which he had agreed verbally, merely mentioning that the Acadians were a “formidable Body and like Noah’s progeny spreading themselves over the face of the Province.”

By 1730 the situation of the Acadians in Nova Scotia had within it everything necessary for a first class débâcle. As far as they themselves were concerned they had managed to bring the British to agree to their own terms for remaining in Nova Scotia. From this year forward most Englishmen, as Brebner points out, “spoke of them as ‘the Neutrals’ or ‘the neutral French.’” The policy of neutrality was, in Acadian eyes, not a passive position but a positive strategy adjusted to border life. It was an adaptation to the reality of their existence on lands ruled by one power while another, which had earlier controlled the area, established in their neighbourhood a massive fortress, Louisbourg. The British had little military strength within the colony, but more than enough to make their presence uncomfortable for any Acadian village they visited, and there was always the possibility of reinforcements from Massachusetts. The French were careful not to provoke open warfare but their presence was equally obvious. In the forests surrounding the Acadian villages were the Indians, whose clashes with the British were an ever present reminder of their strength and their partiality to the French, and of the weakness of the British. Although in their own eyes the Acadians were as native to the valleys and marshlands, the seashore and the forests as the Indians, to the French and British the matter was by no means so clear. To these struggling imperial powers the most important characteristics of the Acadians were their language and their religion, and these same characteristics made them natural allies of French interests, natural enemies of British rights.

The next 18 years, however, were for the Acadians a time of growth and prosperity. This period was the golden age, 1730 to 1748, that would be a significant memory for every Acadian over the age of ten at the time of the deportation. The expansion of the population, the growth of the flocks and herds, the ever expanding cultivation of the land have been admirably chronicled by Andrew Hill Clark* in Acadia: the geography of early Nova Scotia to 1760 (1968). The statistical record reveals the base of what was to become the legend embodied by Longfellow in the poem Evangeline, the story of Acadia, a land flowing with milk and honey. The population of Annapolis Royal alone grew from about 900 people in 1730 to some 2,000 by 1748. From this community, during these same years, young people moved out towards Minas and Cobequid (near Truro, N.S.) to establish their own families. The livestock holdings for the total population in 1714 were likely 4,000 cattle, the same number of sheep, and some 3,000 swine. By 1748 Minas alone had 5,000 cattle and Clark’s estimates for all the settlements in the years 1748–50 are 17,750 cattle, 26,650 sheep, 12,750 swine, and 1,600 horses. These bare details of economic growth indicate the Acadians enjoyed a life without famine and without epidemics. Their food was plentiful and varied, and Acadian apple cider added to the gaiety of their festivities.

Founded upon the reality of plenty, Acadian society in the pre-deportation period, as the Acadian writer Antonine Maillet has shown, owed much to the traditions that formed Rabelais and little to asceticism, whether of the Reformation or of the Counter-Reformation. The Acadians developed with enthusiasm the arts of singing, violin-playing, dancing, story-telling, feasting, and drinking. All of these activities are mentioned with disapproval by those who worked as missionaries in Acadia, starting with the Recollet reports of 1616 and 1617 and continuing with Capuchin and Sulpician complaints. Massignon’s study of vocabulary traces phrases such as “jouer à monter l’échelette” (in reference to a child’s game played with the hands) straight back to 16th-century France, and Maillet’s study of Acadian folklore links Acadian songs and hymns to the same century. The tradition of Acadian violin-making, and of Acadian step-dancing, has been compared as it now exists in the Canadian Maritimes and in Louisiana: the similarity of music and dance has led authorities to conclude a pre-deportation origin for the themes exploited. Coming from such a variety of villages in Europe, Acadians were able to assemble a wide collection of folk-tale and legend, of customs for Christmas or customs for weddings, which would relieve any last vestige of monotony in the colony.

Acadian society was remarkably unconstrained by external governance, either of the Catholic Church or of the state. The tradition of clerical authority as a hallmark of Acadian society is a tradition that developed from the circumstances of Acadian life after the deportation. The Acadians’ concern for religion up to, and during, the years of exile was very much a concern that a particular institution and activity should be observed, and they practised their faith with a secular utility, registering their baptisms, marriages, and deaths. Theirs was not a concern that produced vocations to the priesthood, the monastic or the conventual life; it was not something that gave the church saints for her altars. It was, instead, a concern that would be expressed in argument, such as that recorded disapprovingly by the Capuchins who encountered Charles de La Tour’s second wife, Françoise-Marie Jacquelin*, in 1640. It was a concern that would make the village of Beaubassin complain bitterly in 1693 of the Sulpician Father Jean Baudoin*, who, they alleged, neglected to say mass for them, being more interested in missionary activity among the Indians than in Acadian souls; or similar concern voiced in 1695 by the inhabitants of Minas Basin against their priest, Father Cosme, for trying to interfere too rigidly in a domestic quarrel between husband, wife, and sister-in-law. The clergy were, for the Acadians, a necessity but not an unquestioned authority.

Part of their attitude towards Catholicism was rooted in the manner in which they were provided with priests. Secular priests were as important in their communities as the regular clergy and were by definition linked more directly with ordinary daily life. Moreover, no one religious order dominated Acadian development. Through their relations with the Indians the Acadians had been brought into contact from the earliest times with Jesuit missionaries, while in the settlements two branches of the Franciscans, the Capuchins and the Recollets, were influential. The presence of Jesuit and Franciscan meant the existence among the Acadians of more than one framework for Catholic belief. As the 17th century drew to a close priests were sent from the Séminaire de Saint‑Sulpice in Montreal as well as from France. This diversity of experience in an important aspect of community life was yet another encouragement to the growth of a particular Acadian quality.

Acadian Catholicism, it is clear, was a religion far less authoritarian than the Catholicism of New France. Similarly, during the golden age the political demands of the British, at least in the Acadian consciousness, were mere shadows. Even during the War of the Austrian Succession the essential independence of Acadian community life remained. This was partly because the transformation of Port-Royal into Annapolis Royal in 1714 had helped to shift the centre of Acadian society both psychologically and in terms of population density to the settlements of Beaubassin, Minas, and Grand Pré, and away from the officials and the governor. As the years passed, the growth of the Acadian community meant a movement of settlement even further away and the Acadian population spread into settlements along the present-day New Brunswick shoreline as well as across to Île Saint-Jean. The Acadians might be subjects of the British crown, but their contact with its representatives, military or civil, was haphazard, erratic, and rarely such as to impress upon them its might. The garrison of the colony was always undersupplied during the first half of the 18th century and frequently harassed by the Indians. Although Acadian disputes over land ownership were brought often enough to the authorities at Annapolis Royal, many of the villagers preferred to have such matters settled during the visits of the priests. British government in the colony was as much a “phantom rule” as ever the rule of France had been over their ancestors.

That this golden age was coming to an end during the War of the Austrian Succession does not markedly alter the essentially peaceful aspect of the period for the Acadians. The hostilities of the 1740s [see François Du Pont Duvivier; Jean-Baptiste-Nicolas-Roch de Ramezay] merely served to make them believe that they had achieved recognition, at no very great cost, from both French and British for their policy of neutrality. It is ironic that the conclusion of warfare between France and Britain in 1748 is truly the conclusion of peace for the Acadians. The treaty signed that year signals a new interest in the Acadian lands on the part of both powers. The next seven years succeed one another with the beat of inevitable tragedy running through the events. The policy followed by the Acadians with such success until 1748 became, after that year, a major contribution to the tragedy of deportation.


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