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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
In fact, as Governor Richard
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
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
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.