Historical Perspective

Some of the earliest Europeans to colonize the North American continent were a small group of 60 French families who arrived in what is present-day Nova Scotia (then Acadie) in the early 17th century. The contest between England and France to colonize North America became a fierce one and a continuation of their centuries of power struggles. The French were concentrated in Canada and the English were mostly located in the Atlantic Seaboard region. The 60 families were composed mostly of families from northwest France, but some came from other regions such as Burgundy and some from other areas. The colonists found in Acadie a hostile environment of very cold winters, poor soils for agriculture, and a large population of Indians. The first tasks were to build a fort to protect the colony and to construct shelters for the families. A food source was necessary which meant agriculture, but they would have starved waiting for harvest. Fortunately, the Indians were friendly and provided them with food and showed them how to survive in their environment by hunting and fishing.

The colonists, who became known as Acadians, quickly discovered that Nova Scotia was composed of sandy, rocky soils punctuated by bogs and forests that were not conducive to successful agriculture. They found the best lands to be along the seacoast, but these were too narrow to produce the food they needed for survival. They reclaimed the land they needed from the sea by building a series of small levees in which gates were installed that would allow water to flow to the sea, but not allow salt water to flow back towards the inhabited land. They brought this method with them from France where they had harvested salt from seawater. Due to the high salt content, the reclaimed land had to lie fallow for several years while the dike system did its job before it would be suitable for agriculture. In the meantime, the newly-recovered land was used as pasture to transition it to agricultural use. As the colony grew, more land was reclaimed, and the Acadians became self-sufficient. Animal stocks of cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens completed their nutritional needs. They stored extra production of grains in communal depots to share with families who did not produce enough or suffered some catastrophe.

Through hard work and industriousness, the colonists became successful and established villages in present-day Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. A high fecundity rate and successful agricultural operations produced a rapid population growth which doubled every 20 years. They had achieved their dream—freedom from a peasant existence and the onerous French monarchy. They were very content and in control of their destiny. They enjoyed 80 years of this contentment that ended in 1710 with the British conquest of French Acadie. The Acadians would endure 45 years of British rule during which time they would continue, nevertheless, to prosper. The problem was that the British wanted an unconditional oath of allegiance from the Acadians to the British Crown; however, in 1730, they had been allowed to give a conditional oath exempting them from military service in any future wars against the French. They were very resistant to this new idea of unconditional allegiance. The French and Indian War (1755–1763), also called the Seven Years’ War, would eventually lead to the disruption of the Acadians’ paradise. The British colonial officers suspected the Acadians of aiding the French; consequently, in the period from 1755–1764, the Acadians were expelled from Nova Scotia. This expulsion resulted in tragic consequences as over 11,000 Acadians were rounded up, placed on ships (some not seaworthy) and dispersed to the Atlantic seaboard. Virginia refused to receive them and sent their allotment of Acadians to England because they were considered British subjects. The homes of the Acadians were then burned to prevent their return. Some families were separated and at least 2,000 drowned, died of disease, or starved at sea.

After the war, the Acadians tried to resettle in many other places such as the Caribbean, South America, and the Falkland Islands. The Acadians were unhappy no matter where the British deposited them. Those deposited along the Atlantic coast were forced to live among the English colonists who often regarded them as lazy, ignorant, and inferior refugees. The Acadians sent to France were no more pleased as they were already four to five generations removed from France, and because of their taste of independence, were unwilling to deal with the French monarchy and the infertile soils proffered. The Acadians had become, in essence, francophone North Americans—a whole new ethnicity.

In 1765, a group of 202 Acadian émigrés voluntarily sought refuge in Louisiana which was Spanish-owned at that time due to the Seven Years War. These Acadians were given a good welcome along with land, tools, seed, and animals to initiate their farmsteads. They sent word to relatives in France, England, and the Atlantic coast about the great opportunities in Louisiana. Additionally, the Spanish government recruited Acadian exiles in France and gave them passage to Louisiana. The Acadians felt very fortunate finding themselves in an extremely fertile territory with no need to reclaim land from the sea. Fish and game were abundant everywhere, and those long, cold winters were no more. Most of the inhabitants of Louisiana at that time were French and Creoles with whom the Acadians could communicate. Most importantly, they found a land where they could protect their culture

They adapted to their new home and quickly carved out farmland from wooded and prairie areas. They built settlements where they were in the majority and saw no need to learn another language. Later, with the attainment of statehood at the turn of the 19th century, many English-speaking Americans came to Louisiana. With the Great Expulsion still fresh in their memory, the Acadians were considerably less than enthusiastic about this intrusion. But they prospered, produced large families, and changed little until the 20th century. One thing that did change: they became known as Cajuns instead of Acadians.

While most Cajuns worked small farms, fished, or trapped for a livelihood, some became cattle farmers or entrepreneurs who were able to gain financial success, learn English, and enter mainstream culture. This group produced leaders in the field of politics, education, and business. It was not until the Great Depression’s grip was broken by WWII, the enlistment of Cajuns in the military, and the employment of many Cajuns in the oil industry that a large number of Cajuns were able to experience upward mobility and assimilation. Unfortunately, many Cajuns didn’t catch that train and remained sharecropper farmers. The author’s family were in this group.