In September of 1755, England, a political world power began one of history’s largest mass movements of people united by their Catholic faith. Acadians of Nova Scotia were dispersed throughout English lands without benefit of property, family ties or compassion. Their holdings were torched, as they were loaded on to barely seaworthy ships, on which many perished.
More than 7,000 were deported to English colonies in North America: 300 to New York, 2,000 to Massachusetts, 500 to Pennsylvania, 700 to Connecticut, 1,200 to Virginia, 1,000 to Maryland, 500 to South Carolina, and 400 to Georgia. Others were sent, ill and destitute, to England. Smallpox killed 237 relocated Acadians by November of 1755. Orders were given for colonials to remove children from their parents and raise them as English Protestants. Between 1755 and 1763, nearly 10,000 individuals, out of a population of between 13,000 and 15,000 Acadians, were dispersed to England and the American colonies. Within eight years many thousands disappeared.
The first Acadians from this dislocation arrived in Louisiana in 1763 during the first possession of Louisiana by Spain. The Mouton family of Nova Scotia hired a ship and sailed to New Orleans. While most of these refugees died of disease, enough survived to make a lasting impact on Louisiana history. Later, in 1765, the first arrival of forcefully expelled Acadians appeared in Louisiana.
By 1790 over 4,000 Acadian refugees relocated to Louisiana. Some, who did not perish from disease and poor treatment in the American colonies where they lived, managed to make it overland to Louisiana. There they met well-established Acadians throughout southern Louisiana, from north of New Orleans to the prairie lands west of Lafayette. Soon after, the first Roman Catholic diocese of Louisiana was established in 1793.
American Indians generally received early European settlers to the Louisiana territory warmly. The success of these settlers’ survival depended heavily on the American Indians since the topography and fauna were quite different from that of Nova Scotia or France. Unfortunately, the increasing pressure of new arrivals from France pushed the Indians from their original lands into the swamps and marshes. Nonetheless, many present-day American Indians in this area claim French as their language of choice.
Throughout the early 1800s, descendants of the original dislocated Acadians in France continued to migrate to Louisiana, extending the French influence in Louisiana north and west. An additional 6,000 Acadian refugees arrived in 1806 while fleeing political turmoil in the West Indies. Although there were enslaved people in this French colony, it was the later Acadian immigrants who brought the concepts of plantations and enslaved labor to the new territory.
In present-day Acadian Louisiana and its Cajun culture, the term “Cajun” comes from a corruption of “Acadian.” Acadianne (local pronunciation) was corrupted to “Acadjan” and in time shortened to “Cadjan.” The English pronunciation evolved to “Cajun.” Descendants of those early settlers consider their heritage special since they can trace ancestral lines on this continent to a time prior to the settlement of the English colonies. Their ancestors were part of the Acadian diaspora, but they survived that dispersion and thrived in areas normally rejected as unsuitable for colonization.
Many Louisianans are descendants of the Acadians. Others have ancestors who arrived from France in the 1840s to escape war, famine and religious persecution. Most married into Cajun families. Today, a version of French is still spoken in many smaller towns and villages. It differs from modern French in that it is based on oral 18th-century French and resembles the classical French of the time of the early French Kings.
Image: Deportation of the Acadians by Henri Beau, Acadian Museum University of Moncton
This article first appeared as: Ted Jambon, “Le Grand Derangement: 250 Years of Acadian History in Louisiana” in ALHFAM Bulletin, Spring 2006, pages 6-7.