Tomb of Acadians
Tomb of Acadians, St. Marys, Georgia (courtesy of Explore Georgia)

Let’s return to the history of the Acadian people through the engravings on the oldest tombstones of Oak Grove Cemetery in St. Marys, Georgia. Some Acadians from Beaubassin did prefer returning to Georgia rather than settling in a Spanish Louisiana after they had left Santo Domingo (Haiti). Their greatest sorrow in Georgia was not having a priest among them. This amazing anecdote is posted on the “Tomb of Acadians” in St. Marys on the Atlantic coast of Georgia, 177 kilometres (110 miles) south of Savannah.

More than 600 Acadians were deported to Georgia. On Monday, October 13, 1755, the British ships Jolly Phillip and Prince Frederick left Chignecto, Beaubassin in Nova Scotia, with some 400 Acadians on board for Savannah, Georgia, where they arrived after two long months at sea. Governor John Reynolds greeted them with some trepidation because his sparsely populated and underdeveloped settlement had only 3,000 inhabitants, half of whom were black slaves, and the Native Americans on the western flank of Georgia were allied with the French in Colonial Louisiana. Nevertheless, Acadians were offered the choice of settling their family in half a dozen small villages along the coast of Georgia. Those who preferred to stay in Savannah erected their cabin on the west bank of the Savannah River. Acadians wishing to leave their settlement were given permission to build boats. Some 200 Acadians went back to sea, some navigated north, carried by the Gulf Stream and the wind, others went south, attracted by Santo Domingo (Haiti).

Well-deserved recognition of the Acadian know-how

In 1757 Henry Ellis, the new governor, reported to the Savannah Chamber of Commerce that “They (the Acadians) are very useful to the colony“. They were employing themselves in making oars, hand spikes, and other implements for sea craft for which they found a ready market in the French West Indies. This was a well-deserved recognition of the Acadian know-how that contributed to Georgia’s badly needed economic development.

Regarding Santo Domingo, the Georgia Gazette of February 9, 1764 reported that “The Acadians who lately went from this place (Georgia) for Cape-François (present-day Cap-Haitien) are to have settlements there, with plantation tools, and two years provisions”. A note in the Georgia Gazette also reported that “This did not work out well for the Acadians. Of the seven hundred who went there 400 would die from the heat, hunger and lack of proper housing”. See Colonial and Early American Newspaper Articles.

Gravestone of Joseph Desclaux
Gravestone of Joseph Desclaux (Courtesy of Detour Through History)

From the beginning of the Haitian revolution in August 1791 many Acadians returned to the coast of Georgia. Among them, Joseph Desclaux, born in Sète (written Cette), France, as his gravestone shows.

Unfortunately, unmarked graves in Oak Grove Cemetery will never be identified. Worse still, many tombs, it is said, will never be found because they lie under walls, buildings and roads. In addition, during a yellow fever epidemic, entire families died within days of each other and were mass-buried in trench-like makeshift graves.

According to a school of popular thought, the destiny of Joseph Desclaux and his fellow Acadians of Beaubassin was guided until his death in St. Marys of Georgia by the star Stella Maris of Mary.

The historic district of St. Marys
The historic district of St. Marys, where Oak Grove Cemetery is located, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places of the United States since May 13, 1976 (Photo credit: Tim Oliver, free of rights)