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  • Nantes
    – Louisiana was not necessarily self-evident
Church Saint-Martin de Chantenay
Church Saint-Martin de Chantenay, in Nantes, the most frequented by the Acadians (author Gwendal, CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

From the autumn of 1775 to the spring of 1776, Nantes saw the arrival of the largest gathering of Acadian refugees in France (nearly 1,400 people). After the failure of the colony of Poitou, dear to the Marquis de Pérusse des Cars, the Acadians had no longer a choice. Nantes was the first step toward their emigration overseas, even if the final destination remained uncertain…

In fact, the Acadians’ stay in Nantes lasted 10 years until they left for Louisiana in 1785. The families had been spread over several parishes, especially Saint-Martin in Chantenay (village now attached to Nantes), but also Saint-Similien, Saint-Nicolas and Saint-Jacques, to name only those where acts of marital status concerning Acadians have been found. It is, however, very difficult to trace the life of the Acadians, most of whom inhabited the old popular district of L’Hermitage, with substandard housing near the port of Nantes. Families had also settled in Paimboeuf, much further downstream. However, after such a long stay, was Louisiana the dream destination of the Acadians? Today, even if Nantes honors the memory of its Acadians and their departure for Louisiana, it must be recognized that this destination was not self-evident…

A Louisiana dream, really?

In 1993, the city set up rue des Acadiens, in Chantenay, two monumental murals by the American painter Robert Dafford. The first one, entitled “Port of Nantes, 1785” depicts to the departure of the Acadians for Louisiana. It was restored by the painter himself in September 2019. The second one evokes the arrival of the same Acadians in Louisiana, but is a reproduction of the original mural exhibited at the Musée des Acadiens in Saint-Martinville, Louisiana. However, this magnified vision of the fate of the Acadians in exile hides a much more nuanced reality. Let’s go back to the early 1780s…

Port of Nantes in 1785
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)

At the end of the American War of Independence (1775-1783), Louisiana had finally emerged as a compromise acceptable to both Acadians and the government. Western Louisiana (prior to the 1803 Louisiana Purchase) was Spanish, but Spain was an allied catholic country and agreed to cover the Acadian transportation and settlement fees. Were many Acadians still suspicious, fearing that they would be sent to Guyana, and not to Louisiana with a more temperate climate? The government had agreed to pay the Acadians any arrears (outstanding welfare) and allowed French women to accompany their Acadian husband. The Nantais (non-Acadian) Henri-Marie Peyroux de la Coudrenière and the Acadian Olivier Terriot had also played a decisive role in convincing a large number of recalcitrants.

From May to October 1785, 1600 Acadians finally left Nantes and Paimboeuf for Louisiana. For the most part they came from Nantes, but also from Saint-Malo, Paimboeuf, Morlaix and Belle-Ile-en-Mer, collectively forming in Louisiana what was later become the Cajun people.