Cajun: 21st Century Global Brand

Courtesy Fort Butler Foundation

While over 200 years defines USA history, nearly 500 defines the history of the Acadians.   It begins in 1497 with the Italian explorer, Giovanni Caboto, claiming the region north of the state of Maine for England.  Like Columbus, Caboto searched for Asia.  His discovery was settled a year later, but failed.  England however, laid claim to the territory.

In 1524, Giovanni Verrazanno, took possession of the land for France calling it Acadie.  He named it either for the Greek pastoral place, Arcadia, or for the fertile fields of the Micmac tribe known as akade. 

This led to a bloody contest for dominion over Acadia by France and England, which became a subject of controversy, war and human misery lasting more than two centuries.

For eighty years no attempt to settle Acadia was made.  Discovery and conquest of the New World however, did not cease.  In this period France took possession of the Canadian territory, England took the eastern shorelines and Spain laid claim to nearly everything else.  

By 1605, under Samuel de Champlain and Pierre du Guast, France had charted the coastlines of Acadia and founded Port Royal, the first permanent settlement north of the Gulf of Mexico.

Indeed, two years before Jamestown and fifteen before Plymouth Rock, settlers from France's Loire Valley became for the ages, the first Acadians.  Thirty years later, Acadia was the desired destination of thousands of French pioneers.

Some of the names they carried were; Arceneaux, Boudreaux, Breaux, Comeaux, Dugas, Foret, Gautreaux, Guidry, Hebert, Landry, LeBlanc, Martin, Michel, Poirier, Prejean, Richard, Robichaux, Saunier, Templet, Theriot and Thibodeaux.

Seeing French enemies thrive on land considered his, in 1629, England's King James asserted past claims on Acadia, transported in Scottish settlers and renamed the region Nova Scotia (New Scotland). 

Control of Acadia in the 17th and 18th centuries changed almost with the seasons.  Despite constant turmoil, the hardy Acadians flourished, mostly because they were a hardworking agricultural race, independent and deeply religious. They united through their church, finding confidence in family.

In these hard times, many returned to France. By 1713, Acadia was an English possession and Port Royal was renamed Annapolis Royal.  In 1741, war returned.  Hard work and a willingness to defend their property to the death was not enough.  By 1749, many began immigrating west to French Canada.

The exile of the Acadians, Le Grande Derangement, began in 1755 when England seized their weapons and burned their churches.  Unable to resist, England demanded they take the Oath of Allegiance, or leave.

Most agreed to the oath, hoping to be left alone. "Too late," was England's response. "Your consent is without sincerity."  In this environment of fear, the expulsion of the Acadians began. 

On October 27, 1755, twenty-four old English freight ships carried 5,000 Acadians into exile.  Thousands more followed.  To accelerate this, Acadian priests and leaders were arrested, some were murdered, while homes, mills and crops were burned and their livestock confiscated.  In two parishes alone 686 homes, eleven mills and two churches were destroyed. 

One writer observed: "Flames roared for days. Acadian villages that blossomed under four generations vanished.  Left was an annihilated nation.  Hopeless, they had no country, only their hands and prayers"

Another wrote: "With great sorrow the Acadians abandoned their land.  Women, praying and crying, carried their newborn. Others pulled carts with few possessions and aged parents. It was a heartbreaking scene of despair.  At the point of bayonets families were torn apart.  They were packed into vessels so crowded there was not room to lay.  They were cruelly banished overnight into abject poverty. These unfortunate people were guilty of nothing other than their attachment to France. History knows not where humans have suffered with so much cruelty."

The Acadians were scattered to the colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia to prevent their return. Hundreds perished at sea, while native tribes massacred many.  Some reached France and the West Indies.  The largest number settled in Louisiana.

Some say the first Acadians settled on the west bank of the Mississippi River in 1755 in St. James Parish at Cabahanocer.  Others claim they arrived in 1756, settling at Attakapas near today's St. Martinville.  Then there's the claim that some settled at Tabiscania in 1757 near today's Vacherie.  All are legend. 

The 1763 Aubry Letter factually states: "I saw the arrival of sixty Acadian families, but did not foresee the many to follow to make Louisiana the New Acadia.  Three hundred are on the Mississippi.  We do not speak of them in hundreds, but in thousands."

Further proof is found in the 1765 Maxent List, which has Acadians in St. James, Ascension and Iberville Parishes.  When written, St. James was called La Premiere Cote des L'Acadienes, Ascension La Deuxieme Cote des L'Acadienes and Iberville La Troisieme Cote des L'Acadienes; the first, second and third Acadian coasts.

The 1766 Gordon Journal offers: "The colony twenty leagues above New Orleans consists of just-planted, poor Acadians on each side of the river. With them are Houma and Alibamu natives."  A 1769 census shows Taensa and Tunica tribes living on the Acadian Coast.   

Longfellow's epic 1847 poem, Evangeline, mentions the Acadians this way:  "Into the golden Mississippi floated Acadians.  A band of exiles, a nation scattered, bound by common belief and misfortune.  Men, women and children guided by hope, seeking the Acadian Coast."

Like Acadie before, the Acadian Coast was now the destination of the exiles. They came from New England and the West Indies in large numbers for twenty years.   In 1785, the Acadian Coast became the refuge for 3,000 gathered in France since 1763.  As they poured-in, authorities handed-out land, cattle, tools and provisions. 

They were unaware it was troubled times in Louisiana, with England and Spain contesting dominion over the French colony.  In 1762, France surrendered west of the Mississippi River to Spain.  In 1763, England acquired that north of New Orleans and east of the Mississippi. Once again, the Acadians were under the despised English. 

However, by 1775, Spain was granting the Acadians title to their lands.  In time they carved from Louisiana a permanent homeland.  Just as in Acadie, they flourished, and many an exile became prosperous by the dawn of the 19th century.

In 1803, Spain returned Louisiana to France, which sold it to the USA.  In 1804, the Orleans Territory split into twelve counties with William Claiborne as governor.  He appointed the Acadian, Joseph Landry, Acadia County commandant, present day Ascension and St. James. 

In 1807, the counties were divided into nineteen parishes, marking the creation of Ascension Parish.  In 1812, the Orleans Territory was admitted to the Union as the state of Louisiana.

Because of the prosperity at Acadia County, many outsiders saw opportunity.  One was the Englishman, William Donaldson, who in 1806 bought forty arpents of land from the Acadian, Marguerite Allain, widow of Pierre Landry.

Here he built Ville de Donaldson on the site of the ancient villages, Lafourche de Tchitimacha and L'Ascension. A post office was opened and then the place became Acadia County's seat of government.  In 1813, the town was incorporated. From 1829-1831, it enjoyed the distinction of being the Capitol of Louisiana. 

The Acadians later settled much of South Louisiana.  Estimates today show about two million worldwide with half that in Louisiana.  Descendants are called Cajuns. They are proud of their heritage and have preserved their traditions.    

Truly, it is at Acadia County that they finally found their pastoral Arcadia.  Their renaissance as a once banished race constitutes a colossal event in history.  Their survival is the result of their vitality and the strength of their belief in God and family.