The Expulsion of the Acadians began in 1755. Sadly, the Acadians’ troubles did not end with their forced migration from their homeland. Packed into British transport ships like French-speaking sardines, they were sent as far afield as Boston, Maryland, England, and France. Ousted from their land during the French and Indian War, the British made sure the Acadians could not aid their fellow French Canadiens or their closest Native American allies, the Mi’kmaq. Ultimately, most of the deported Acadians found their way to New Orleans, and from there to the Louisiana countryside. While the Acadians in Louisiana eventually thrived, it took them over a decade to create their new home on the Bayou.
From Nova Scotia With(out) Love: The Acadian Migration
The rounding up and shipping out of the Acadians was not exactly pleasant, even British soldiers described how the Acadians “went so Sorrowfully and Unwillingly.”1 The next decade, however, proved even bleaker. Cooped up in ships meant to transport goods, not hundreds, or sometimes thousands, or people, the typical European diseases took their toll. Having been relatively isolated for over a century, many Acadians succumbed to smallpox and other maladies before they even reached the land of their exile.
No matter their port of call, the Acadians found themselves largely unwelcome, especially in New England, where English protestants were tired of being the dumping grounds for homeless French ‘papists.’ Indeed, when 1,000 Acadians showed up in Boston harbor one August, they were refused entry into the city and forced to stay aboard the cramped quarters of their ship, before getting sent back to Halifax, Nova Scotia.2 Even when they did disembark and attempt to make their way in the cities and towns of England’s American colonies, the Acadians faced the reality of abject poverty.
One of the coldest receptions the Acadians received was in Maryland, a colony originally founded as a haven for England’s unwanted Catholics. Over the centuries, however, more and more Protestants had gravitated toward the Chesapeake, and turned the Catholics into the minority. With English Protestants now wielding power in cities like Baltimore and Annapolis, the English Catholics were banned from helping their francophone coreligionists.3 While in Maryland, the Acadians never rose above the poverty level, forced to take low-paying jobs just to survive. Even those who left the cities in search of work in the Maryland countryside met with hard times, where, of those who could find work, many worked as day laborers on plantations.4 Forced into a life of poverty and toil, many more Acadians died in the American colonies from disease, exposure, and malnutrition.5
The fate of those Acadians who made it to France wasn’t much more pleasant. In the 1750s and ‘60s, France had one of the most entrenched, rigid systems of socio-economic hierarchy in Western Europe. The nobility even thought of the peasants as a different species! So when a ragged, emaciated bunch of Acadians started showing up in their ports, French officials kept them largely confined to the slums. In the ten years following their expulsion, 3,000 Acadians came to France’s Atlantic ports.6 Eventually, some worked their way out of the slums and into a more normal level of poverty (most French peasants back then weren’t exactly well off either), and some took their chances on another Atlantic crossing.
All in all, up until the end of the French and Indian War, the Acadians felt like prisoners of war. According to one English Marylander of the time, “The simple French at Annapolis… call themselves prisoners of war. They did likewise here [Oxford] at first; but when one considers that they were treated as prisoners of war by Governor [Charles] Lawrence… they might have thought themselves not only in duty bound to declare themselves prisoners, but also in that character to be entitled to better treatment than they have met with as faithful subjects.”7
But, after years of hardship, the Acadians saw some light at the end of the tunnel when Britain and France signed the Treaty of Paris in 1763, ending the French and Indian War.
Acadians in Louisiana
As they left the negotiation table, the ministers of Britain and Spain must have held their tricorns high. The Treaty of Paris had obliterated France’s New World empire and humiliated a mutual rival. Britain left the peace talks in possession of Canada, the easter half of the Louisiana territory, and Spain’s Florida territories (back in those days Florida was divided into an eastern and wetsern half). The Spanish ministers traveled back to Iberia knowing they had secured the western half of Louisiana and received New Orleans in exchange for the Floridas – not a bad trade.
Unlike other European peace talks of the day, the treaty that the Paris delegates produced actually mentioned a group of people other than European elite – though it wasn’t exactly good news. The Treaty of Paris gave the Acadians living in exile in British territories 18 months to get out.8 With no love lost for their British neighbors, the Acadians in exile throughout the American colonies turned their eye toward New Orleans.
While the Treaty of Paris was signed in February of 1763, for some reason or another (probably mostly having to do with living in the 1700s), the first Spanish governor of Louisiana did not arrive until March 1766.9 So French governors ostensibly had an extra three years worth of control of New Orleans and half the Louisiana territory. And boy did that work out well for the Acadians.
In January 1764, the first group of Acadians, 21 people in all, landed in Mobile, becoming the first Acadian arrivals in Louisiana. Having sailed from Georgia, the small band continued on to New Orleans, arriving in February. The acting French governor Jean-Jacques Blaise d’Abbadie welcomed these immigrants as a pleasant surprise. Even though the territory he oversaw now belonged to the Spanish, d’Abbadie wrote to his superior in the French imperial hierarchy that “I have the honor inform you of the arrival of four Acadian families…”10 Apparently more than happy to welcome Acadian refugees to Louisiana, d’Abbadie aided them in settling a stretch of land north of New Orleans known as Cabahannocer. There, along with 4,000 other Euro-Americans, 5,000 enslaved Africans, 200 African-American slaves, 100 Native American slaves, and 100 free men of color, this quartet of families became the first of many Acadians to settle on the Bayou.11
Before the Spanish governor, Antonio de Ulloa, arrived in Louisiana in March 1766, hundreds more Acadians entered the colony’s ports. Amazingly, the Acadian communities scattered throughout the Atlantic world remained in contact through an extensive grapevine; and once word got out about Louisiana, the full on exodus to the port of New Orleans began.
Wary of the British colonists and the Native Nations that bordered his kingdom’s new territory, Ulloa sought to take advantage of the growing Acadian population he inherited. Writing to his boss, the Spanish colonial minister, a few months after his arrival, Ulloa explained how the Acadians “would rather expose themselves to mortal dangers while searching for the desired freedom of religion and civil treatment than remain… under English rule.”12 Inclined to view the Acadians as a people willing to risk it all for a shot at the good life, Ulloa planned to use the Acadian settlements as a buffer between his colony and its antagonists.
In the beginning, Ulloa’s plan worked like a charm. The first several groups of Acadians were able to settle near one another, reestablishing the communities they’d left behind in Nova Scotia. “Moved by the greatest demonstration of love,” and perhaps by the relief of finally having a bit of luck, the Acadian’s even promised to serve the Spanish King, Carlos III.13 Urged on by their kin who had built farms and ranches along the Mississippi, and Ulloa’s bienvenido, over 1,000 Acadians relocated to Louisiana by 1768.14 With the Acadian numbers swelling, Ulloa began settling newcomers farther up the Mississippi, around the fort at Natchez. Unhappy with being a several days journey away from their Acadian compatriots, the Acadians at Natchez grew bitter toward Ulloa; the sentiment didn’t take long to spread.
On October 29, 1768, the Louisiana Rebellion, led by wealthy Creole and French colonists still loyal to the fleur-de-lis, drove Ulloa from the colony. Recounting the event, Ulloa described how there were Acadians among the rebel’s ranks, who “warmed by the excessive drink which they had imbibed…, agreed without repugnance… to take up arms.”15 Cleary, Ulloa had misjudged the Acadians.
With Ulloa gone, the Spanish government sent an Irish mercenary, Alexander “Alejandro” O’Reilly, to act as governor. Aside from having the best name of anyone in this story, Alejandro O’Reilly proved sympathetic toward the Acadians’ plight. Soon after taking office, in October 1769, O’Reilly received a petition stating that the Natchez Acadians were “continuously exposed to assassination” by the Native Americans living near the fort and that the land they had been granted was “quite sterile.” After taking his time to mull over the request to move, in December O’Reilly allowed the Acadians at Natchez to move farther south.16 The Spanish were once again in the Acadians’ good graces.
By the end of the 1780s, Louisiana was home to well over 2,000 Acadians. As they made their homes along the Bayou and interacted with the numerous cultures that surrounded them, the Acadians in Louisiana slowly turned into the Cajuns – a unique culture that only colonial Louisiana could have produced. Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Sources for Acadians in Louisiana:
- John Winslow, “John Winslow’s Diary,” acadian-home.org.
- Dean Jobb, The Cajuns: A People’s Story of Exile and Triumph (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005), 174.
- Carl A. Brasseaux, The Founding of New Acadia: The Beginnings of Acadian Life in Louisiana, 1765-1803 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 39.
- Brasseaux, The Founding of New Acadia, 39-40.
- Brasseaux, The Founding of New Acadia, 41.
- Brasseaux, The Founding of New Acadia, 56.
- Brasseaux, The Founding of New Acadia, 38.
- Jobb, The Cajuns, 174.
- Steven A. Cormier, “A New Acadia,” acadiansingray.com.
- Jobb, The Cajuns, 190.
- Brasseaux, The Founding of New Acadia, 80.
- Tim Hebert, “The First Acadians in New Acadia,” acadian-cajun.com.
- Antonio de Ulloa taken from R.E. Chandler’s Ulloa’s Account of the 1768 Revolt,” Louisiana History, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Autumn. 1986): 432.
- Brasseaux, The Founding of New Acadia, 89.