Expulsion of the Acadians

On September 5, 1755, the men and boys of Grand Pré, Nova Scotia gathered in the warmth of the town’s church. Huddled together in the pews as the chill of the Canadian winter crept in over their lands, they listened to a proclamation from the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, Charles Lawerence. “… your Land & Tennements, Cattle of all Kinds and Livestocks of all Sorts,” the missive began, “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.”1 The expulsion of the Acadians had begun. 

Expulsion of the Acadians
The Expulsion of the Acadians at Grand Pré

The History of the Acadians

Beginning in 1604, the ancestors of the Acadians in Grand Pré, and all over Nova Scotia, had arrived to settle the land in the name of France. Like most colonists, Acadians proved ill equipped for their New World home when they first arrived, and may not have survived if not for the help of indigenous peoples. But, survive they did, and for more than a century, these French colonists and their posterity lived on the island they called Acadie, dyking the rivers and farming the reclaimed land. Due to the snail-like pace of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century communications, and the sparse population of France’s New World domains, France left the Acadians, by and large, to their own devices.2 

After the British took control of the island in 1713 as part of the Treaty of Utrecht (a treaty that ended a war about who would sit on a throne 3,000 miles away), the Acadians’ new colonial overlords began pestering them to sign an unconditional oath of loyalty to Britain. In 1717, after years of back-and-forth, the Acadians told the British governor they would sign if they could continue to practice Catholicism, remain neutral in any Franco-British dust-ups, and gained recognition from His Majesty’s government as a distinct community.3 Trying to gain the upperhand, the British gave “verbal assurances” that these demands could be met. But, they never were, and so the awkward stand-off between Acadians and the British continued. 

As the years wore on, and British control over the island they now called Nova Scotia tightened, the Acadian presence became more and more of a nuisance. Many New Englanders grew desirous of the arable land the Acadians owned, asking why the crown allowed an “alien” people to hold such valuable pasture.4 Despite their new status as an annoyance at best, and a pariah at worst, the Acadians walked a careful line of neutrality during the many wars between France and Britain in the early decades of the eighteenth-century. Unfortunately, this didn’t stop the tensions from rising.

In 1755, the British and French Empires marched toward yet another war, the Seven Years’ War, aka the French and Indian War. Unfolding on a much more global scale than other Franco-British hostilities, the Seven Years’ War saw battles fought in colonial holdings across the globe, including Canada. As the British and French sought to fortify their Canadian possessions, the Acadians became “viewed by the colonial administration as subversives whose continued presence jeopardized British society.”5

Acadians and Mi’kmaq: A Troubling Alliance

While the Acadians still had some connection with the French colonies in Canada, their relationship with the Mi’kmaq was probably more concerning to the British. A semi-nomadic Algonquian people, the Mi’kmaq’s homelands, which they called Mi’kma’ki, spread across Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, the east coast of New Brunswick, and the Gaspé Peninsula.6 With this widespread territory, and their hunters’ proclivity for traveling far and wide, the Mi’kmaq became closely tied with the fur trade in French towns like Montreal and Quebec.

Expulsion of the Acadians - Map of Mi'kmaq homeland.
Map showing the extent of Mi’kmaq territory and the different Mi’kmaq communities that made it up.

Over centuries of colonization efforts in Canada, the French had learned how to get along fairly well with the Mi’kmaq. Much like other Algonquian nations, gift giving ceremonies played a large role in Mi’kmaq diplomacy and trade, a custom the French colonists learned to adopt in their dealings with their new neighbors and trading partners. This larger pattern of Franco-Mi’kmaq relations played out in Acadia as well. Not only were Mi’kmaq “concepts of gift, gratitude, and reciprocity… understood by the Acadian people,” they also earned points for not taking Mi’kmaq lands. In fact, many historians agree that the “Acadians and Mi’kmaq worked together and did not interfere with the land the other wished to inhabit, as Acadians lived on the marshlands and the Mi’kmaq in the uplands.”7

This, however, was not the tactic the British took. In typical British fashion, they arrived, attempted to take the land as their own, and paid no mind to indigenous forms of respect and diplomacy.8 These British encroachments on Mi’kmaq land alienated the inhabitants of Mi’kma’ki, so when the French and Indian War broke out, the Mi’kmaq counted themselves among the ‘Indians’ who sided with the French.

As war began, Britain took aim at an important link in the French supply chain – the Mi’kmaq-Acadian alliance. Early on, British officials deported small numbers of Acadians and offered bounties for Mi’kmaq scalps.9 But, as the war continued, Britain became ever more convinced that the Acadians remained loyal to the French. If the Acadians decided to aid their French cousins using their Mi’kmaq trading networks, or fought alongside the Mi’kmaq in battle (which they’d done before), the Acadians could have done some damage to British security. But, those were pretty big ifs.

Then, in June 1755, a piece of propaganda fell into British laps. After capturing Fort Beauséjour, Charles Lawerence counted around 270 Acadian militia men among the French soldiers who surrendered.10 His paranoia about the “Acadian problem” now seemingly verified, Lawrence ordered the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia. 

Grand Pré and the Expulsion of the Acadians

Let’s end this post where it began, in the town of Grand Pré. There, Colonel John Winslow had the unfortunate task of doing Lawerence’s dirty work. Arriving in late August of 1755, Winslow kept the deportation orders secret for several weeks, giving more British ships time to arrive at Grand Pré. On September 2, Winslow “posted his Majesty’s proclamation in the village of Grand-Pré, giving notice to the People that they assemble in the Church on Friday at three of the Clock.”11

On the afternoon of September 5, curious about the presence of the growing number of British ships in their harbor, the Acadians of Grande Pré made their way to the town church. After learning of their fate, Winslow ordered “the French Inhabitants… not to extend their walks to the Eastward of the Commandant’s Quarters without leave from the officers of the Guard.”12 The Acadians were now prisoners in their own home.

While his journal handled the events with the matter-of-fact nature one would expect from a career soldier, Winslow ended his entry for the day by writing: “Thus ends my Memorable fifth of September, a Day of great Fatigue for me and Trouble.”13 Clearly, the orders he was forced carry out weighed on him.

Winslow’s next journal entry did not occur until September 10, the day the Acadian’s were rounded up and marched out of town. Winslow set the order that the Acadians (he called them “prisoners”) were “to be drawn up Six Deep, their Young Men on the left,” and that no time should be wasted in getting the Acadians on board the ships that would carry them to other colonies. “The Tide would in a very little time favor my Design,” Winslow wrote, “I could not give them above an Hour to prepare for going on Board.”14

Scared, angry, and filled with sorrow, the Acadians made their way through town to the ships that would deport them to Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia. Prodded on by Red Coats with fixed bayonets, the Acadians marched “Slowly, and they went singing and crying and praying, being met by the Women and Children all the way… with great lamentations and upon their knees.”14 When they reached the ships, the Acadians “went so Sorrowfully and Unwillingly, the Women in great distress carrying their Children in their arms and Others carrying their decrepit Parents in their Wains and all their Goods, moving in dire Confusion.”15

The expulsion of the Acadians was now complete. With a diaspora that spread across the American colonies, and some even being sent back to France, many Acadians slowly made their way to New Orleans. Though a Spanish possession at the time, New Orleans remained heavily influenced by French colonists. Drawn there by the French language, the Acadians settled across the Louisiana territory, where, as they interacted with Afro-American and indigenous peoples, their culture slowly transformed into what we now call Cajun.

Sources on the Expulsion of the Acadians:

  1. James H. Marsh, “Acadian Expulsion (the Greath Upheaval),” thecanadienencylcopedia.ca.
  2. Ibid
  3. Carl A. Brasseaux, The Founding of New Acadia: The Beginnings of Acadian Life in Louisiana, 1765-1803 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 14.
  4. Marsh, “Acadian Expulsion (the Greath Upheaval),” thecanadienencylcopedia.ca.
  5. Brasseaux, The Founding of New Acadia,” 21.
  6. “18th-Century Mi’kaw-French Alliance,” canada.ca.
  7. Katie K. McLeod, “Emergence and Progression of Acadian Ethnic and Political Identities: Alliance and Land-Based Inter-Peoples Relations in Early Acadia to Today,: Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 23, Iss. 1 (2015): 55.
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid
  10. Marsh, “Acadian Expulsion (the Greath Upheaval),” thecanadienencylcopedia.ca.
  11. John Winslow, “John Winslow’s Journal at Grand Pré,” acadian-home.org.
  12. Ibid
  13. Ibid
  14. Ibid
  15. Ibid