|Editor's note: In 1605, devoutly Catholic French
explorers founded Port Royal, Acadia (now Nova
Scotia). Their loyalty to a way of life has survived
400 years of history in the New World, including
many wars, several plagues, and one of the cruelest
examples of ethnic cleansing in history. Their way
of life survived, though, and is alive and well in
Cajun Country. This is the story of how that came to
be. Today's Part One sees the Acadians arrive in the
new world, as reported by Bona Arsenault in his
book, History of the Acadians, Copyright Ottawa 1978,
Editions Lemeac Inc.
Captain General Pierre du Gast
Sieur De Monts was a man with a mission: "to populate, cultivate and
fortify the area, convert the Indians to Christianity
and carry on trade with them."
A pretty tall order, considering
that the year was 1604 and the "area" to which King Henry IV referred was
the vast, untamed wilderness of the New World. Little
did De Monts know what a rich and varied course
of history he began when he undertook his mission.
Bona Arsenault, in History of
the Acadians, wrote that the adventure began in the heavily forested area
now encompasses Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince
Edward Island, Canada. That's where De
Monts led a crew of about 120 explorers and trader. There
they founded Port Royal, Acadia, the New
World's oldest permanent settlement north of the Gulf
of Mexico. And they did it a full 15 years before the
Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock.
With De Monts were Samuel de
Champlain, who was to found Quebec just four years later; and the first
many Heberts, Louis, who was an apothecary from Paris.
The first Jesuit missionaries, Ennemond Masse
and Pierre Biard, followed soon afterward from France.
As Arsenault reported, the early
years of Port Royal were difficult ones. Scurvy claimed scores of lives
during the first few winters. Ships carrying food, supplies
and addition personnel were repeatedly delayed
by Atlantic storms and French politics.
And then there was the financial
disaster of 1613, when the French noblewoman who underwrote the
colony's expenses decided to explore elsewhere. She dispatched
a ship to Port Royal and collected from
the settlement "all the stores and provisions, even the
church ornaments given by the queen," Arsenault
wrote. The ship also took aboard the two Jesuit missionaries
before setting sail to look for a new colony
As if that weren't enough, the
Acadian settlers had their first run-in with the English that year. Colonists
from Virginia decided to 'rid the entire Atlantic coast
of the French," starting with Port Royal. The village
was sacked and burned, and the Acadians survived the
winter of 1613 on their wits, their will and their
strong relationship with the area's Micmac Indians.
Bickering over Acadia between
the French and English continued for more than a century. The territory
passed back and forth between the two governments, often
with bloodshed, until 1667, when France
regained firm control under the Treaty of Breda. Only
then could French settlement efforts begin in earnest.
Among the first families to
arrive were those of Pierre Martin, Guillaume Trahan and Issac Pesselin.
family names were later recorded in the territory's first
census in 1671, which noted "Mathieu Martin, at age
35, as the first-born among the French in Acadia," Arsenault
Those first families and their
children spread out to settle the whole of Acadia, particularly in the
Beaubassin and Grand-Pre areas. By 1708 the Acadians were well established
throughout the region and were
recognized as a unique cultural group.
According to Arsenault, Acadia's
last French governor described them this way: "The more I consider
these people, the more I believe they are happiest people
in the world."
Happy, at least, until a new
war broke out between the French and English in 1688. The Treaty of Utrecht
officially and finally ceded what is now Nova Scotia
to the English in 1713. The Acadians, a strong,
prosperous people, suddenly found themselves under the
weight of a hostile foreign crown.
Arsenault wrote that the English
were none too happy, either. The Acadians enjoyed a close relationship
with the Micmac and other Indian tribes of the area,
which the English found intimidating. British settlers
feared that them and their "savages" would stage an uprising
against the Crown.
Equally distasteful to the English
was the Acadians' flat rejection of the Church of England. The French
clung ever more fiercely to their Catholic faith.
Also, according to Arsenault,
the Acadians owned the best land,the most prosperous farms, and the largest
numbers of livestock, leaving little profit available
to the families of English settlers who were arriving in the
"These French inhabitants increase
so fast," wrote an English surveyor named Dunbar, "that soon there will
be no land left for other colonists. "
Worst of all to the British
Crown, the "French Neutrals," as the Acadians were called, staunchly refused
take a full oath of allegiance to the King. They feared
such an oath might one day force them to take arms
against their French countrymen.
Arsenault quoted Major Lawrence
Armstrong's 1732 correspondence: "After 20 years under British
authority, these French Catholics are still more subject
to our neighbors of Quebec and Cape Breton than
to His Majesty whose government, in their way, they seem
By 1755, the English government
had had enough of the French in Acadia, and decided that the time had
come to "oblige said inhabitants to take said oath or
leave the country." The exile of the Acadians, one of
the most wrenching events in the history of the New World,
was about to begin.