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Le Grand Dérangement


Historians disagree as to who bears responsibility for the great tragedy suffered by the Acadian people. What is known for sure is that the decision to proceed with deportation was approved by the council of Nova Scotia, and that officials in New England supported and facilitated the process. The first step was to take Forts Beauséjour and Gaspereau, and to ship New England settlers to the area (Reid 1987). An expeditionary force of 2,000 New England militiamen and a small force of British troops sailed from Boston and successfully took both forts in mid-June 1755.

"The Deportation Order," painting by Claude Picard Having at his command a large army, a large transport fleet, and at least three months of good campaigning weather, Governor Lawrence of Nova Scotia had all the resources needed to deport the Acadians. After a final series of meetings in Halifax where Acadian representatives again refused to alter the wording of their oath of allegiance, the Nova Scotia council resolved to expel the Acadians from the colony on July 28, 1755 (Reid 1987: 40-43). The New England troops stationed at Fort Beauséjour began deporting the Acadians living on the Isthmus of Chignecto on August 11, and those of the Minas Basin and at Annapolis Royal were deported during the following months.

At the time of the deportation the population of Acadia was approximately 13,000. Over 6,000 people were banished during the second half of 1755 (Roy 1982: 152), and the deportation continued until the Treaty of Paris put an end to hostilities between Britain and France in 1763. During the intervening 12 years, the Acadians were reduced to being either captives or fugitives.

Those Acadians deported from Nova Scotia were spread among various colonies on the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Georgia. There they lived in miserable conditions, suffering "Ships take Acadians into Exile," painting by Claude Picardfrom disease and starvation (Griffiths 1987: 111). The 1,100 Acadians sent to Virginia were refused entry and were eventually sent to England where they were held for years as prisoners of war. Approximately 3,000 of the 5,000 Acadians living on Ile Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island)--half of whom were refugees from Nova Scotia--were deported in 1758, following the final capture of Louisbourg and the end of French military presence in Acadia. The deportees were shipped to France and England, while the remainder of the Acadian island population evaded capture and fled to the mainland.

Detail of St. John Valley map from Frederick B. Roe's Atlas of Aroostook County Maine, published in 1877. Acadian Archives collection, University of Maine at Fort Kent.

During the next four years, about 2,000 of the Acadians who had escaped expulsion by fleeing through the woods had been captured and were held as prisoners in Halifax and in various other military forts. Most of the others had either fled to Québec, where 2,000-3,000 Acadians had resettled, or died in hiding (Roy 1982: 156). When peace was finally restored by the Treaty of Paris, the Acadians were free to settle where they wished, but their communities had been destroyed, their fertile farmlands taken over by thousands of settlers from New England, and the close-knit groups they had formed over the years had been broken into fragments. The challenge facing them over the next 30 years would be to obtain lands where they could begin to rebuild their shattered communities.

Among the Acadians who had been deported to England and France, the largest group subsequently went to Louisiana in 1785, despite having been guaranteed lands in France. The heavily populated countryside of France was not appealing to people who were accustomed to a very different environment in North America. Most of the Acadians who had been living in destitute conditions in the American colonies eventually made their way to either Québec or Louisiana. Those who had remained in Nova Scotia during the years of banishment were set free in 1763 and began to search for lands where they could re-create the life they had known in Acadia. They settled on the coasts of southwestern and eastern Nova Scotia, on the north shore of Prince Edward Island, on the shores of Northumberland Strait and Chaleur Bay, and in the St. John and Memramcook valleys in present-day New Brunswick. These settlers were joined by small groups of Acadians returning from France, Québec, or the American colonies. With the exception of the St. John and Memramcook valleys, the land in most of the areas where the Acadians settled was not nearly as fertile as the marshlands of the Bay of Fundy, and they were forced to combine fishing and farming for their livelihood, when farming had previously been their dominant occupation.

"Migrations and Return," painting by Claude Picard By the 1780s the Acadians had recovered some of their former numbers and had fast-growing communities in both Nova Scotia and Louisiana. According to Griffiths (1992: 127), "their sense of themselves as a people was undiminished. As far as it lay in their power, they attempted to re-create the same self-contained and independent life they had had before 1755." The Acadian community continued to grow through the 1800s, mainly in eastern and northern New Brunswick, but with pockets of settlement in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and what became northern Maine. A place called Acadia no longer existed, but it was still possible to be an Acadian in North America.

Today St. Croix Island is recognized as the first European settlement in northern North America and as the cradle of Acadian presence on the continent. Due to its importance in the histories of Canada and the United States it is now the Saint Croix Island International Historic Site, a unit of the National Park system.

With the passing of two centuries, the history of the first Acadians and le grand dérangement is retold as part of oral tradition among Maine Acadians, aided in many cases by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's romantic poem "Evangeline." As one Maine Acadian expressed it during a 1993 focus group,

I've always considered Evangeline as a legendary character. I learned it that way in school.

Local historian Guy Dubay (1993: 172) contends that the popular acceptance of Longfellow's poem by Valley residents obscures the historical facts. Most of Maine Acadians' ancestors escaped to present-day Québec during the deportation of Acadians by the British.

Our ancestors then, were not deportees; they were refugees. . . . The more famous story [of Evangeline], however, has taken over the collective memory of our people. Today the Acadian pioneers of the region are all remembered like they had all experienced the grand derangement. . . .

On the New Brunswick side of the St. John River Valley far less importance is given to historical links with early Acadia (Le Clerc et al. 1979; Bérubé 1979).

Detail of St. John Valley map from Frederick B. Roe's Atlas of Aroostook County Maine, published in 1877. Acadian Archives collection, University of Maine at Fort Kent.
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