The Acadian Expulsion

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Podcast Transcript

Beginning in the 16th century, French settlers crossed the Atlantic to settle in a French colony located in the new world. That colony wasn’t modern-day Quebec, however. The colony was known as Acadia. 

When the British took control of Acadia in 1713, the Acadians were allowed to stay, but eventually, that privilege was revoked by the British, and those people were scattered to the winds. 

Today, the descendants of the Acadians can still be found all over the world. 

Learn more about Acadia and the Acadian Expulsion on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before we get into the details of the Acadian expulsion and its aftermath, we need to know the events which lead up to it. 

The French, like the British, had set up several colonies in the New World. Collectively, all of the French lands in North America were referred to as New France

The French had beaten the English to the punch and had claimed an enormous amount of land in North America which included what is today Canada’s Atlantic Provinces, everything around the southern shore of Hudson Bay, all the Great Lakes, and all the Great Plains, going down to the Gulf of Mexico

New France was made up of five colonies: 

  • Canada, which is today most of southern Quebec and Ontario, the Great Lakes, and much of the midwest going up to Lake Winnipeg. 
  • Hudson Bay, which was the land around Hudson Bay.
  • Louisiana, which consisted of much of the Mississippi River and the Great Planes.
  • Plaisance, which was most of the island of Newfoundland.
  • And Acadia, which consisted of what is today is the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick, as well as the northern half of the state of Maine. 

When most people think of French Canadians, their thoughts turn immediately to Quebec which is where most French Canadians live today. 

However, Acadia was separate from Quebec. They were run as different administrative entities and separate cultures emerged in the different colonies. Not that different from how very different cultures emerged in the British colonies of Massachusetts and South Carolina. 

Acadia was formally founded in 1604, and over the next century, the population grew quickly from a small initial group of French settlers. 

The region was on the border of French and British colonies and there were small armed skirmishes all over the region for decades as the British tried to take control of the colony and its valuable Atlantic ports. 

The British finally got their wish in 1713 when the Treaty of Utrecht was signed, ending the War of Spanish Succession. As part of that treaty, the British were given control over Acadia, not including what is today Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton Island. 

With control of Acadia, now called Nova Scotia, the British found themselves with thousands of French settlers living in what was now British territory. They spoke a completely different language, practiced a different religion, and had a totally different set of loyalties. 

The British were concerned that the French settlers would aid and support the French, and hurt British affairs in the region. 

They initially wanted all of the French settlers in Acadia to sign loyalty oaths of allegiance to the British King, but that wasn’t going to fly. The Acadians were worried that they might have been forced to fight against the French if they had signed. Also, their neighbors, the native Mi?kmaq tribe, didn’t recognize British control of the region. They feared if they signed the loyalty oaths, it might set the Mi?kmaq against them, where they otherwise had good relations. 

Instead, the British requested that the Acadians sign an oath affirming that they would be neutral in any conflict between the British and the French.

Most of the Acadians signed the oath, but not all because many of them were still very anti-British.

This status quo managed to stay in effect for about 40 years. Tensions between the British and the French were still high during this period. There were minor conflicts that flared up because of anti-British French priests and there was an arms race of fort building between the two countries.

This all changed in 1754 when a young Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army named George Washington broke the peace and launched the Seven Years War, and here I’ll refer you to my episode on the subject. 

The British never quite trusted the Acadians, and this all came to a head in June 1755 when the French Fort Beauséjour was captured by the British. Inside they found 270 Acadians serving in the French militia, violating their neutrality.

With this, the British no longer would settle for an oath of neutrality. The Acadians had to sign a loyalty oath to the British Crown.

In a meeting between the British Governor Charles Lawrence and Acadian representatives, the Acadians refused to sign the loyalty oath. On July 28, 1755, the decision was made to expel all of the Acadians. 

On September 5, British Colonel John Winslow ordered all the Acadian men in the colony over the age of 10 to come to the church at Grand-Pre, Nova Scotia. There, he notified them, “That your Land & Tennements, Cattle of all Kinds and Livestocks of all Sorts are forfeited to the Crown with all other your effects Savings your money and Household Goods, and you yourselves to be removed from this Province.”

Needless to say, the Acadians didn’t want to go and have all their possessions taken away. 

And of course, there were many British colonists who eyed the land that the Acadians already had.

The British began forcibly expelling the Acadians. They would often surround churches on Sunday to round everyone up.  Crops were burned, dykes were breached, and some homes were even burned as well. 

In 1755, 1,100 Acadians had been placed on ships and sent to British colonies in the Americans such as South Carolina, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, where many were pushed into forced labor.

Many Acadians fled to the woods, some began fighting in guerilla raids against the British. Over 1500 ended up fleeing to New France. Some just moved to Cape Breton, which was still under French control for the time being. 

Over a period of eight years from 1755 to 1763, over 10,000 Acadians were forcefully expelled from Acadia. 

They ended up in places all over the Atlantic, often without any choice in their destination. Many went to France, some were sent to Britain, some were sent to the Caribbean. Several thousand died along the way of disease and starvation due to poor conditions on the ships. 

Many families were split up with the family members never to see each other again because they had no clue where their loved ones were sent.

The most notable group of Acadians went to France and then were recruited by the Spanish to come and settle in the Louisiana territory. These Acadians became known as Cajuns. 

The legacy of the Acadian Expulsion can still be seen today. 

The poem Evangaline was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1847. The epic poem tells the story of an Acadian girl named Evangeline who was separated from her love Gabriel.

Today you can visit Grand-Pre, which is located only about an hour’s drive outside of Halifax. The location is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it preserves the history of the Acadian Expulsion. It has become the Mecca for Acadians which have been scattered around the world. 

I visited Grand-Pre several years ago which is when I first learned about the Acadian Expulsion, which was something I had no idea about at the time. 

One of the most interesting exhibits was photos of Lousiana Governor Hewey Long visiting during the Great Depression with a Cajun group on a pilgrimage. 

Probably the biggest legacy of the Acadians can be found in the existing Acadians communities which still exist. 

The Cajuns in Louisiana still practice French customs and traditions and speak their own dialect of French. I attend a cajun Mardi Gras in Layfette several years ago and it was very unlike what you would find in New Orleans. 

I also attended a Cajun Boucherie, which is a community event where they butcher a hog and cook everything, from the head to the skin. It was one of the best culinary experiences I’ve ever had.

The other big community of Acadians can be found in New Brunswick, Canada. 

After 250 years apart, the New Brunswick Acadians are very different culturally and linguistically from the Canjus in Louisiana. 

The type of French spoken in New Brunswick is different from what you will find in Quebec, and it is primarily spoken in northern New Brunswick.

However, in southeastern New Brunswick, you can hear people speaking Chiac. Chiac is noteworthy because of the large number of loan words from English. I remember having dinner once at a restaurant in rural New Brunswick and I overheard two people having a conversation at a table next to me. I could understand about 20% of what they were saying because the words were in English. 

There is another French dialect known as Brayon which can be found in the northwest corner of New Brunswick, near the border of Quebec. 

In both Lousiana and New Brunswick, you can see the Acadian flag flying in front of houses. It is basically the French flag, with a gold star in the upper left on the top of the blue stripe. 

The Acadian Expulsion was one of the most significant events in the history of Canada and of the British Colonial era. Yet, unless you are from some parts of Canada or Louisiana, it is a part of history that many people have never heard of.