This year, we celebrate the 250th anniversary of a significant event in the history of America and of Louisiana. The year was 1765. To the great surprise of the French officers in charge of the colony of La Louisiane, a ship arrived at the port of New Orleans carrying nearly 200 French-speaking, Roman Catholic men, women and children. They were exiles from a place called Acadie, the present-day maritime provinces of Canada: Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. They called themselves Acadians, and they were looking for a home.
For the better part of a decade, most of the men on this ship had been resistance fighters. They had waged a guerilla campaign against the British Empire. The latter, with overwhelming military power, was engaged in the forced ethnic cleansing of the Acadians from the lands first settled by their ancestors in 1604. (Yes, the Acadians predate the Pilgrims.) Thousands of Acadians perished. In Acadian history, this struggle is known as Le Grand Derangement, The Great Upheaval.
During the course of that struggle, in an attempt to have these resistance fighters lay down their arms, English forces captured their wives and children; they were incarcerated in a prison on Georges Island in Halifax harbor, Nova Scotia. With the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1763 that ended the French and Indian War, the Acadian resistance fighters surrendered. Those who survived were imprisoned on Georges Island, where they were reunited with their families.
In the process of destroying Acadie and deporting the Acadians to the Atlantic littoral, British troops demolished the aboiteaux, the complex network of dikes that had enabled the Acadians to develop some of the richest farm and pasture lands in North America. The herds, orchards, fields and pastures of the Acadians had long been viewed with envy by hard-scrabble New England farmers. With assistance from opportunistic real estate agents from New England, Protestant, English-speaking settlers moved in quickly to purchase from the crown the farms previously owned by the deported Acadians. (Note that all property of the deported Acadians were expropriated by the crown.)
But the new owners were clueless as to how to repair the dikes, and as a consequence of the deportations, the only Acadians left in Acadie with the requisite know-how were those resistance fighters being held prisoner on Georges Island. As a result, even with the cessation of hostilities in 1763, they were not freed. They remained prisoners for nearly two years and were forced to work to repair the aboiteaux. Failure to cooperate was not an option; their wives and children were held hostage. Think of the humiliation: Many of the Acadian men held prisoner on Georges Island were forced to work on farms that had been in their families for generations.
It goes without saying that conditions in the George’s Island prison were deplorable and the mortality rate was high. When they and their families were finally released from prison in fall 1764, those who survived were able to cobble together enough money to charter a boat and set sail for the Caribbean and then to La Louisiane. In November 1764, they bid adieu to Acadie.
Imagine the surprise of these Acadians when they learned La Louisiane had become Louisiana, a Spanish colony. But Spain would not take official possession of its new colony until 1769.
In the meantime, sympathetic French officers remained in charge and provided the Acadians with the essentials: food, seeds for planting, cattle, farm implements and — most important of all — land grants. They arrived in Louisiana with nothing except the determination to live in a place where they could practice their religion, speak their language and be land owners. Incredible as it may seem, they succeeded, and Louisiana and America would never be the same.
Historian William Arceneaux lives in Baton Rouge.