The French in the Spanish Borderlands: Part II
THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms……
Ye who believe in the beauty and strength of woman’s devotion,
List to the mournful tradition still sung by the pines of the forest;
List to a Tale of Love in Acadie, home of the happy.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Boston: Ticknor & Company, 1847
The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was so enthralled with the story of Louisiana’s Acadian people that he penned his epic poem Evangeline, a story of exile, loss, and enduring love. It was an instant hit in 1847 due in large part to its imminently sympathetic main character.
There is a longstanding argument as to whether Evangeline, “a maiden of seventeen summers” at the poem’s start, and her fiancé Gabriel ever existed. Some say they were the product of Longfellow’s imagination. Others believe they were composites of several historical individuals who suffered great loss at the hands of the British during “Le Grande Dèrangement”, the 18th century expulsion of the Catholic French-speaking people from present day Nova Scotia. The historical marker beneath the Evangeline Oak in St Martinville, Louisiana declares that the fictional characters are based on historical persons Emmeline Labiche and Louis Arceneaux. There is no evidence that Emmeline ever existed, but Louis did.
Whatever Evangeline’s provenance, it is interesting to note that while Longfellow never set foot in the state, he set his story there and his Evangeline is now a symbol of heritage and cultural pride for the Cajuns of southwestern Louisiana. She is closely associated with the area, creating romance and mystery set among the moss-drapped live oaks near the murky waters of Bayou Teche in St. Martinville. A statue, the Evangeline Oak, and a state park all commemorate the fictional Evangeline’s contributions to cultural pride. Today, we are enamored of Cajun culture as evidenced by the popularity of any meat or fish that has been “blackened” and other Cajun treats, Zydeco music, Mardi Gras, and just about anything associated with New Orleans and its famous French Quarter.
The history of French speakers in Louisiana is almost as long as the exploration of the New World. First investigated by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1541-43, it was claimed for France by Robert Cavalier de La Salle in 1682. As with many 17th and 18th century European colonies, the original area of Louisiana was monumentally larger than the present US state. The Louisiana of La Salle’s time spread from the Gulf of Mexico into Canada and for many square miles on both sides of the Mississippi River. France held the territory until war with Great Britain.
France lost large parts of her North American territories as a result of her defeat in the Seven Years War and its counterpart in North America, the French and Indian War. The terms of treaties (Treat of Fontainebleau, 1762 and Treaty of Paris, 1763 ) left France with roughly half of what she had claimed before the conflict. In the secret 1762 Fontainebleau agreement, France ceded Louisiana to Spain. She lost Canada to Great Britain at the cessation of hostilities in 1762. By the time all of the postwar shufflings and exchanges of territories among France, Spain, and Britain were completed, the colonial map looked very different from its pre-war layout.
Another shift occurred at the end of the American Revolution. The map shows no French territory in North America and a greatly reduced British presence. It also shows that Spain’s territorial control encircled the Gulf of Mexico. This was to last a mere seventeen years.
A final ceding of the territory occurred when Spain returned Louisiana to France in 1800. Spain was under some pressure from Napoleon with whom five years earlier she had ended the War of the Pyrenees. Napoleon, at the time, was in a superior position and was beginning to cast his gaze across the face of Europe. Once he had Louisiana via the terms of an agreement that he had no intentions of keeping, Napoleon turned around and sold it to the United States in 1803. While the Louisiana Purchase price was low even by the standards of the period, Napolean ultimately used the money to help finance his military aspirations, and it is believed, for a more subtle purpose. He had also just given France’s sworn enemy, Great Britain, a large poke in the eye. Napoleon rightly predicted that a strong United States would provide a buffer against and a distraction to Great Britain. The War of 1812 proved his theory when the United States won against Britain for a second time.
By the time Longfellow set pen to paper, French culture and language were long-established within the bounds of present-day Louisiana. In reading his poem, one might be led to believe that the Acadians arrived in southwestern Louisiana straight from Canada. This is not the case. Their journey there took a more circuitous route.
The Acadians lived in Nova Scotia, or Acadie as they called it, from 1604 until the British governor, Charles Lawrence, decided they should be expelled and deported. The Acadians’ position had grown more tenuous over the years as tensions and military strife between Britain and France grew. They had been persuaded to remain neutral, but when the French Fort Beausèjour fell to the British in 1755, it was noted that 270 Acadian militia were counted among the fort’s inhabitants. That was enough for Lawrence, who decided that Acadian neutrality was a myth. In July, 1755 at a meeting in Halifax, Lawrence urged Acadians to take an oath of allegiance to Britain. When the Acadian delegates refused, he had them imprisoned and issued the order for deportation.
The Canadian Encyclopedia summarizes the expulsion this way.
Lawrence had strong support in his Council from recent immigrants from New England, who coveted Acadian lands. Traders from Boston frequently expressed wonder that an “alien” people were allowed to possess such fine lands in a British colony. On Friday, September 5, 1755 Colonel John Winslow ordered that all males aged 10 years and up in the area were to gather in the Grand-Pré Church for an important message from His Excellency, Charles Lawrence, the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia. The decree that was read to the assembled and stated in part: “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.”
It was a New Englander, Charles Morris, who devised the plan to surround the Acadian churches on a Sunday morning, capture as many men as possible, breach the dykes and burn the houses and crops. When the men refused to go, the soldiers threatened their families with bayonets. They went reluctantly, praying, singing and crying. By the fall of 1755 some 1,100 Acadians were aboard transports for South Carolina, Georgia and Pennsylvania.
The welcome the Acadians received in the colonies to which they were deported was less than warm. They were considered “other” and divided from their neighbors by language, culture, and religion. They were the designated losers in the protracted struggle between Britain and France. Is it any wonder, then, that they were attracted to Louisiana, which with its swamps and alligators certainly didn’t look like their former Canadian home, but must have felt closer to it than any other place in North America. The first significant wave of Acadians arrived in Louisiana in 1765 under the leadership of Joseph Beausoleil Broussard, who had led a guerilla campaign against the British in Canada after the deportation round-ups began. Acadians continued to arrive until they became the dominant group in much of southern Louisiana. Their contributions to their adopted home include beginning the state’s cattle industry, promoting rice cultivation, and establishing the first shrimp canning operation. Cattle, rice, and shrimp continue today as major revenue sources.
The French left their considerable mark on the state. Its legal system and governmental divisions bear greater resemblance to those of France than Great Britain. The state is divided into parishes as opposed to counties and a form of French is still the first langauge of those inhabitants living far back in swamps and on the bayous. A trip to southwestern Louisiana is a little like stepping into rural France and if you look carefully, you might catch a glimpse of Evangeline.
Still stands the forest primeval; but under the shade of its branches
Dwells another race, with other customs and language.
Only along the shore of the mournful and misty Atlantic
Linger a few Acadian peasants, whose fathers from exile
Wandered back to their native land to die in its bosom;
In the fisherman’s cot the wheel and the loom are still busy;
Maidens still wear their Norman caps and their kirtles of homespun,
And by the evening fire repeat Evangeline’s story,
While from its rocky caverns the deep-voiced, neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
Book one of The Creoles Series, captivating novels from bestselling authors Gilbert and Lynn Morris, introduces Chantel Fontaine. Readers follow Chantel through the streets and swamps of Louisiana as she falls in love, faces the loss of both her parents, and searches for the baby sister she thought was lost forever.
The culture of the citizens of nineteenth-century New Orleans was as varied and intriguing as their complexions-French, Spanish, African, and American. As the layers of these cultures intertwine, a rich, entertaining story of love and faith emerges. It is the early 1800s, and Chantel Fountaine, has finished her education at the Ursuline Convent. But the trials and tragedies that preceded her graduation have put her Christian beliefs to the test. The authors’ unique perspective and the distinctive cultural setting make this novel come alive in the minds and hearts of readers.
1. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/the-deportation-of-the-acadians-feature/, accessed June 9, 2017.