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Acadians prosper in la nouvelle Acadie: Part 5
By Alice Ferguson 
Editors Note: When the author Nathaniel Hawthorne first heard the romantic story of Evangeline and
her lost lover Gabriel, he thought - unlike Longfellow - the tale had no literary value. Little did he
know what a wealth of stories was passed up when he dismissed those early accounts of the Acadians'
long journeys. Part Five of our series on the Acadians tells the early history of St. Martinville, their
first Louisiana settlement. 

     If history means anything at all, then it was probably an Acadian who made up the saying, "From rags to
riches." Or maybe we should credit them with "If at first you don't succeed..."
     It seems those credos enccapulate the hardy Acadians' history in the New World. First they tamed the
wilderness of Nova Scotia and transformed themselves from impoverished explorers into the weathy,
landed subjects of so much English envy.
     Then they did it again in Louisiana, beginning with Poste des Attakapas, what is now St. Martinville.
Acadian refugees arrived there with virtually nothing but were soon throwing lavish balls and relishing in
performances of the French opera cormpanies that toured there from New Orleans.
     Louisiana: A Guide to the State credits Gabriel Fuselier de la Claire with being the area's first settler,
having purchased land from Attakapas chief Rinemo in 1760. Soon afterwards an indigo plantation was
established by the Marquis de Vaugine, and was said to afford him a grand lifestyle. His simple home,
located in the heart of allegedly cannibalistic Attakapas territory, was filled with silver, crystal and other
finery. The Spanish officially named the area Poste des Attakapas in 1767.
     The area was not fully settled, though, until the arrival of a ragged band of Acadian refugees led by
Alexandre and Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil. Joseph, who was made "capitain commandant des
Acadiens des Attakapas," died soon after; but he gave his followers a starting point: An untamed
wilderness, and a small herd of cattle granted to him upon his arrival at Poste des Attakapas.
     Over the next decade, many more Acadian refugees made their way to the Bayou Teche country, seeking
relatives who had been lost in le Grand Derangement from Nova Scotia. Probably mostfamous among
them were Emmeline Labiche and Louis Arceneaux, the true-lifeinspiration for Longfellow's famous poem
about Evangeline and Gabriel.Like so many couples, they were forced onto different ships during the
English deportation of Acadians from Nova Scotia.
     In real life, Emmeline spent three years searching for her lover - carrying her wedding dressall the way,
before arriving in Poste des Attakapas, only to find that Louis was already there, and had married someone
else. Stricken, Emmeline took refuge with the Widow Borda, and purportedly died of grief a few months
later. Only in Longfellow's story are Evangeline and Gabriel briefly reunited, as Gabriel lies on his death
bed.
     But the Acadians weren't the only ones arriving in the Attakapas region. Creole and French families from
New Orleans and the West Indies also made their way there, perhaps lured by the profitsto be made from
indigo, flax, hemp and cattle ranching. The lure was indeedstrong, given the era. Typical settlement grants,
according to A Guide to the State, included 200 acres of land; 50 additional acres For each newborn child;
and 20 extra acres for each slave the grantee owned.
     Those who administered the grants were, however, somewhat particular as to whom they welcomed to the
community, the Guide notes: "A bachelor colonist must prove he was successful in the tillage of land for four years before he could secure title to homesteaded grants. If recommended by some 'honorable planter' whose daughter would be given in marriage to the newcomer, the land could be secured sooner. Catholies were preferred as settlers but others 'of great personality' were occasionally accepted." Protestant ministers, however, were not - at least not for several years.
     At about the same time in history, many members of the French aristocracy arrived at Poste des Attakapas
in flight from the bloody French Revolution. Determined to maintain their lifestyle, they brought with them
jewels, silver, expensive furnishings, and all the lavish trappings of the French Court. Poste des Attakapas
soon became known as Le Petit Paris because of these new arrivals' relatively opulent lifestyle.
Steam-boats brought tourists and opera companies from New Orleans, and the Acadians' life on the bayou
was both peaceful and prosperous.
     Travellers in the area wrote of grand balls, complete with chamber music, dancing and grand ladies in be
jewelled gowns. The Barber of Seville drew crowds to the local theater, and Poste des Attakapas was
described as "a pretty little village full of barons, marquis, counts and countesses. "And all of them were
waiting for the day when the French Revolution would be quashed so they could return home to their native
France.
     Those hopes were not to be realized, the Guide recorded, bit by bit, jewels and other finery were sold to
buy food and maintain homesteads. A few of the titled aristocrats were able to marry into wealthier
Acadian and Creole families. Some were reduced to trading or farming or, even worse in the eyes of their
hard-working Acadian neighbors, to living in poverty with only their pride and their grand memories for
comfort. 
     Another important source of prosperity for residents of the area was smuggling, with none other than the
British, who had, just a few years before, stripped the Acadians of their possessions and forced them from
their homes in Nova Scotia. Now, in the French-and-Spanish-held Louisiana territory, the British found
themselves running contraband under cover of darkness along the bayous to Butte La Rose and Petit
Manchac. In a classic case of the tables being turned, the "Brits" now depended upon the nouveau riche
Acadians to help them earn subsistence from their less-than-legal ventures. In keeping with their rocky
history, a wave of bad luck hit the Acadians at Poste de Attakapas in the 1850's, when yellow fever, a fire,
and a hurricane devastated much of St. Martinville and claimed many inhabitants' lives. But after all the
Acadians had been through during their centuries in the New World, these catastrophes seemed only new
challenges to be met with fortitude. The Acadians had established la nouvelle Acadie. 

© 1994 Lafayette Daily Advertiser [July 3, 1994]