> France Historical introduction

Detail of the painting “The Port of Nantes, 1785” by Robert Dafford, rue des Acadiens in Nantes, illustrating the boarding of Acadians for Louisiana (author Jibi44, CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

The Acadian refugees in France

It all began on July 26, 1758. The British had just conquered the fortress of Louisbourg, the capital of Isle Royale (today’s Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia). Four weeks later, they took possession of Isle Saint-Jean (present-day Prince Edward Island).

Port-la-Joye-Fort-Amherst National Historic Site, Prince Edward Island (formerly Isle Saint-Jean) from which most of the Acadians deported to France originated (author MTLskyline, license CC BY-SA 3.0)

During the massive deportation of Acadians to the original American colonies in 1755 and 1756, some of them did manage to take refuge in Quebec and in these two isles still under French sovereignty. But after the decisive takeover of Louisbourg, their fate was cast. The French and Acadian population of Isle Royale was deported to France, not to the original American colonies, as was the predominantly Acadian population of Isle Saint-Jean. The British acknowledged it was now up to the King of France to take care of his subjects…

Towards a large grouping in Saint-Malo

Approximately 3,500 Acadians were transported to French ports on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and of the English Channel from mid-September 1758 to March 1759. The conditions of their overseas voyage were often appalling and many of them perished as a result of shipwrecks or illness during the crossing. The survivors from Isle Saint-Jean, the most numerous, landed alongside the Channel, including Saint-Malo, Cherbourg, Boulogne and Le Havre, those from Isle Royale landed in Rochefort and La Rochelle, but also in Saint-Malo and Brest. We know that the port of Île d’Aix did serve as another port of entry for Rochefort with a view to allowing sick refugees to be treated at the isle’s hospital.  This was only the beginning. In fact, a second major wave of Acadian refugees did later arrive in France…

Estuary of the Rance River, here in Dinan. It is in this region that approximately 70% of the Acadians who became government welfare recipients, especially in Saint-Malo and Saint-Servan, were grouped together (author Luna04, CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

Many Acadians from Grand Pré, in British-controlled Acadia, were treated as prisoners of war since 1756 in England’s ports of Liverpool, Southampton, Falmouth and Bristol. At first they were deported to Virginia in November 1755 but, considered undesirable by the Virginian administration, they were deported a second time to England, where their fate was hardly more enviable. Only after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, was the King of France able to repatriate about 800 of them in the ports of Morlaix and Saint-Malo. Of course there were more punctual arrivals and departures thereafter, especially to or from the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, which remained under French sovereignty. Very quickly, the government organized the distribution of relief to refugees, most of whom were totally destitute, excluding those who could provide for their own welfare. Were all of them really Acadian? No doubt they were not all descendants of settlers who inhabited Acadia for at least one or two generations…

According to estimates provided in 1772 and 1773 by Antoine-Philippe Lemoyne, the colonial administrator, the Acadians (or those considered as such) authorized to receive welfare payments of six sous per day still numbered about 2,500. By this date, most of them (approximately 1,800) had gradually regrouped in Saint-Malo and in the estuary of the Rance River, thus forming a core nucleus, most likely motivated first of all by the desire to keep families together. More broadly, the Acadians did organize themselves into a community by choosing members to represent their common interests. However, the community was deeply divided on strategies to adopt. What did the Acadians want? Stay on French soil to clear good land? Return to Acadia (English) or to the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon (French)? Migrate to Louisiana (Spanish)? It must be said that since the arrival of the Acadians in France, the government did engage in various initiatives to deal with them, but without much success. Let’s go back to the 1760s…

To cultivate the Kingdom or migrate to Louisiana?

Early on, the government proposed to willing Acadians to populate French colonies in South America, particularly French Guiana and the West Indies. These initiatives turned out to be resounding failures. Acadians have always expressed strong reluctance to migrate to colonies with a tropical climate that scared them. A large majority who did try paid for it with their lives. Well aware of their reluctance, the government then sought instead to establish the Acadians on land of the Kingdom in need of cultivation. Only one initiative succeeded but not until 1773…

Port du Palais of Belle-Île-en-Mer, where 78 Acadian families landed in 1765 (photo http://maisondelacadie.com/belle-ile-en-mer)

In July 1763, the States of Brittany proposed a general feoffment of Belle-Île-en-Mer, this Breton island just returned to France by England needed to be rebuilt. The authorities wanted to repopulate the island and redistribute the lands to the old Bellilois colonists so that they become landowners. By also offering lands to the Acadians, considered more industrious, they were undoubtedly hopeful that a healthy emulation would result. In November 1765, all expected Acadian families (78, or 363 people) did arrive at the Port de Palais. Was the establishment of Belle-Île-en-Mer a success? Even though several departures were obviously linked to economic reasons in the first decade, a significant number of families remained permanently on the island and integrated into the local population. However, by 1773, several Acadians had been allowed to reach Poitou where a proposed agricultural colony had been accepted by the government. The proposal was that of a certain Marquis de Pérusse des Cars…

The Acadian line, between Monthoiron and La Puye (Vienne), where there remain only thirty houses today, including the Archigny farm museum

The Marquis’ initial plan was to install 2,000 Acadians on a field to be cleared and cultivated on his Archigny (Vienne) property. A large piece of land wide enough to build a house and outbuildings for livestock and various tools were to be made available to each Acadian family of ten members, out of the 200 families in all. The Marquis had planned everything, applying new agronomic methods to make his enterprise profitable. But nothing happened as planned. The government limited the colony to 1,500 Acadians and by August 1773, confusing speed and haste, decided to accelerate the Marquis’ plan and to converge the Acadians toward Châtellerault. In November 1773, there were already almost 500 Acadians present in Châtellerault, while the construction of the first houses of the colony had barely begun. More seriously however, new convoys of Acadian families were sent to Châtellerault in the spring of 1774 when the colony’s first houses were still incomplete. At the end of July 1774, close to 1,500 Acadians were in Châtellerault, where their homecoming was difficult, even if the government continued to pay their meager welfare…

In the end, if the first settlers seemed satisfied, the second wave of Acadians changed the overall behaviour of the community and caused the operation to fail. Many people rightly pretended that their welfare payments were irregular and chose not to work in the colony, some probably never intended to settle in Poitou. The government threatened the recalcitrant recipients with removing their financial support and sending them to Nantes for overseas departure. Despite these warnings, in the spring of 1776, 1,360 Acadians chose to leave Châtellerault for Nantes, mostly from Saint-Malo’s core nucleus. Pérusse, however, was proud of having kept a small group of Acadian families who wanted to integrate into the region, thus forming the Acadian line.

After the failure of the colony of Poitou, Nantes experienced in turn, from autumn 1775, the largest concentration of Acadian refugees in France. The families spread over several parishes, especially Saint-Martin in Chantenay (now a district of Nantes). But it was not until 1785, after the American War of Independence, that the Acadians migrated to Louisiana, creating in the process what would become the Cajun people…

List of the Acadian communities

étoile acadie star

The other geographic areas

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