It’s been called the Cajun “lost colony,” the area where the earliest Acadian exiles settled in south Louisiana in the 1700s after being expelled by the British from what is now Nova Scotia.
Despite the pride this region draws from its Acadian roots, little is known about those early settlers.
What did they eat? What did their houses look like? Why did so many die so soon, and where were they buried?
A team of researchers has been poring over historical records, gathering oral histories and digging dirt along the banks of the Bayou Teche in the hopes of answering those questions in an effort dubbed the New Acadia Project.
“I want to know more about the people who arrived and what their lives were like,” said Mark Rees, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette archaeologist and anthropologist who is overseeing the work.
He spoke about his research Thursday at a symposium at Vermilionville in Lafayette, one of several events this month to mark the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the Acadians in Louisiana.
Rees and his team began their archaeological research last year, focusing on the banks of the Bayou Teche near Loreauville in Iberia Parish, where Cajun cultural icon Joseph “Beausoleil” Broussard led a group of 192 Acadian settlers in 1765.
Historians are fairly certain 39 of those settlers perished in the first year, because their deaths are recorded in church records.
Many are suspected of having fallen victim to disease, said Donald Arceneaux, a historian of early Acadian settlements who also spoke at the Thursday event.
“There was an epidemic that swept through the Acadian population soon after they arrived,” he said. “We don’t know what that epidemic was.”
Also unknown is where they were buried — important historical information on its own but also a key piece of the puzzle in trying to pinpoint early Acadian settlements, because the graves likely would have been nearby, Rees said.
He said one component of the field work has focused on old family cemeteries that can still be located.
No graves or grave markers from the 1760s have been found, but Rees said the hypothesis is that cemeteries used by descendants of the early Acadian settlers might have been on sites traditionally used as burial grounds.
“The people who buried their parents knew where they buried them. They knew where they buried their children,” Rees said. “Once a cemetery is used as sacred ground, it continues to be used as sacred ground.”
Guided by that hypothesis, the team has researched the ancestry of names found on existing grave markers, coaxed bits of history from the community and used a device called a magnetometer to find underground anomalies that might indicate an unmarked grave from more than two centuries ago.
“It’s a fancy metal detector that can detect disturbances in the earth, like burials,” Rees said.
The research team also has visited an area near Loreauville where one of Beausoleil’s sons, Amand Broussard, lived. It is possible the son built his home on or near land where his family already had been established.
In areas where settlements are suspected, researchers are excavating in search of ceramics or other items that can be dated to the mid-1700s. They are using remote sensing equipment to search for underground disturbances: a structure, fire pit, water well or anything offering a clue of human activity.
Rees said there is a sense of urgency to the task because areas along the Bayou Teche in Iberia Parish have seen increasing residential and commercial development in recent years. Researchers are concerned that an important site might be lost to history if not discovered soon.
“Many of these sites are already built upon,” he said.
Events marking the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the Acadians in Louisiana continue Friday at the Cajundome Convention Center, with a full day of panel discussions and workshops focused on the Acadian history and language.