In November 1755, when the first Acadians landed on Province Island, where present-day runway 8/26 of Philadelphia International Airport is located, they were the poorest of the poor in the Quaker City of about 13,000 souls. For these Philadelphian humanists, egalitarianism, charity and freedom of religion were paramount beliefs. The citizens of this city of “brotherly love” were particularly affected by the plight of the Acadians in exile, despite their concern over a crushing defeat of British forces four months earlier against the French in Monongahela near Pittsburgh (formerly Fort Duquesne). This major British setback most likely influenced the decision made to deport the Acadians from their homeland in Nova Scotia.

In October 1755 the British ships Boscowan, Hannah, Swan and Three Friends left Beaubassin, Grand-Pré and Pisiguit in Nova Scotia with some 500 Acadians on board bound for Philadelphia, where 454 of them arrived on November 18 and 20, 1755. The deportees were left at the home of the plague victims on Province Island, a quarantine site established in 1743, at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. A fifth ship, the Union, perished at sea with 392 Acadian deportees.

North side of Pine Street
North side of Pine Street between 5th and 6th Streets (photo credit: RE/MAX of Reading)

With the help of Antoine Bénézet, a Huguenot teacher from Philadelphia born in Saint-Quentin, France, the Acadians were housed in decent wooden residences on the north side of Pine Street between 5th and 6th Streets in the Catholic parish of St. Joseph. Since then, these outdated structures have been replaced by red brick houses (photo). Each Acadian received a daily pound of bread and a half pound of meat at the expense of the colony.

Death in anonymity

East entrance to Washington Square Park
East entrance to Washington Square Park (photo credit: Beyond My Ken, without modification)

In the fall of 1756 dozens of Acadians died of smallpox despite the care they received. Their remains wrapped in a linen sheet were piled in a common grave called Potter’s Field near Pine Street at the crossroads of two streams (now the northeast quadrant of Washington Square Park). An epitaph says “A lonely Acadian refugee found eternal rest here, along with epidemic victims.” The following words probably should have been added “Death in anonymity, in Philadelphia their needs were comfortably alleviated and all were treated with humanity and compassion (i.e., with brotherly love). Moreover, they benefited without restriction from all the ecclesiastical services of their religion.

It is in Philadelphia among the sick, wrote Longfellow, where Evangeline found her Gabriel who passed away in her arms. Evangeline interpreted by Marie-Jo Thério of Acadian origin (with French and English lyrics).

Old Saint-Joseph Catholic Church
Old Saint-Joseph Catholic Church at 321 Willings Alley (photo credit: Teaching American History)

St. Joseph’s Church (photo), founded in 1733, where many Acadians were parishioners, is the oldest Catholic church in Philadelphia. The marriage registry maintained by Father Ferdinand Farmer for the period from 1758 to 1786 reveals interesting data regarding Acadians. In about 43% of the 52 registered marriages involving an Acadian, one of the spouses was either a widow or a widower. Thirty-eight marriages were celebrated in which both spouses were Acadians. In five marriages, Canadians married Acadians. and seven French, including two from Bordeaux, married Acadian women. At least two other mixed marriages were celebrated, one of them uniting Jonathan Birt, an British Protestant and an Acadian. For instance, on February 3, 1763, Simon Babin (widower) married Anastasia Le Blanc (widow).