Volume II - No. 3
[Editor's Note: This article, one of the few studies ever made of the customs of those Acadian exiles who settled in Louisiana during the latter part of the 18th century, is based on researches carried out by Mr. Ledet while he was a National Park Service student technician in history assigned to Longfellow-Evangeline State Park, St. Martinville. That recreational area, a picturesque preserve on the banks of historic Bayou Teche, has been developed by Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees, supervised jointly by the National Park Service and the Louisiana State Parks Commission, as a rural shrine memorializing the early Acadians in general as well as Gabriel and Evangeline, the semi-fictitious personages of Longfellow's famed poem which bears the heroine's name.]
The Acadians' deportation from their native land off the eastern coast of Canada began in 1755 and continued for seven years. Acadia, formerly a French possession, was declared English territory in 1713 by the Treaty of Utrecht. From the first it was apparent that the French Catholics of Nova Scotia would not accept the state religion of the English and time did not efface the differences. Acadian evacuation was suggested and finally became compulsory. Whether the expulsion was merited is a matter of opinion.
The ships carrying the unfortunate Acadians did not all sail for the same destination. No definite place of settlement had been designated for them. The British vessels sailed along the Atlantic seaboard, spreading most of those French peasants from Maine to Louisiana. Others finally were landed in Martinique, in England and in France. When some of the exiles were debarked on the shore of Massachusetts they were taxed immediately. The people of New York showed even more inhospitality, for in that colony they were nearly starved. Connecticut at first accepted them only to break its principles of tolerance and force the miserable travelers away from the colony. Quaker Pennsylvania allowed them to land only after large numbers had died on the crowded ships, and even then the Acadians were denied the practice of their religion. Virginia refused to let them disembark. After a year on board the English vessels in the Virginia harbors, and eight years in imprisonment in England, they were sent to France. Georgia was a bit more humane than Virginia. She allowed them to land but forced them away from the coast into the wilderness, perhaps to serve as a bulwark against the Indians. One state, however, did accept the Acadians with open arms. That was Maryland. Settled principally by Catholics, the state served as a place of refuge for Acadians forced out of neighboring states. There they were given land, tools, and provisions upon which to live until crops could be produced. A look through the old record books in St. Martin's courthouse, St. Martinville, Louisiana, reveals that marriages between Marylanders and Acadians were numerous.
Unwanted in all the English colonies save one, the wanderers naturally turned southward toward the French settlements in Louisiana. There a kindred people lived, a people who would sympathize with and help them. Pirogues and rafts were launched in the many rivers leading to the Mississippi. Many of the travelers had to cover the distance through the wilderness on foot. Once at the Mississippi it was comparatively easy to float down its murky yellow currents to New Orleans. Before the year 1765 was out many additional Acadians, besides the original 650 who had reached the city, arrived at New Orleans. During the next decade the influx continued. How many settled in Louisiana has not been determined. Precise figures are not available but most historians agree that by 1804 the total had reached approximately 4,000.
Spain had been in possession of Louisiana since 1763 but French officials still presided over the territory. Through their influence and the persistence of the population at large, funds were raised by subscription and before long the Acadians were settled in homes and on soil of their own. But these grants were not made close to New Orleans. The citizens and officers of New Orleans feared such a large aggregation of the exiles and decided to give them homes and land away from the city. Properties were surveyed for them in the Teche region, the name Teche being that of a bayou in southwestern Louisiana. They were given adjoining tracts in order that they might assist each other. Most of the sites were granted along streams of potential navigation.
The section first settled by the Acadians was then known as the Attakapas region, the name of a powerful Indian tribe which formerly held the land. The region comprised territory now included in the parishes of St. Martin, St. Mary, Iberia, Lafayette, Vermilion, Acadia and St. Landry. In 1765 the French government had established the Poste des Attakapas on the bank of the Teche where St. Martinville now stands. At the time of the arrival of the Acadians the poste was described as "a small hamlet having two or three houses, one store and a small wooden church, situated on Bayou Teche." (1).
Like typical frontiersmen the Acadians had to depend on their farms, on their axes, on their traps and on their guns for everything needed. A wife was regarded as a helper. She assisted her husband with the work and bore him many children, for children also meant helping hands. A few essentials, farm implements, traps, guns and salt were not obtainable in the wilderness. These had to be bought with produce or pelts. The land upon which the Acadians settled was fertile virgin soil, but it had to be cleared and that operation required much labor. Once cleared, it grew crops in great abundance. At first, Irish potatoes, indigo and garden vegetables were the principal products but before long sugar-cane, rice and cotton were being cultivated. Today rice is the most important crop in Southwest Louisiana.
In early days water furnished the principal means of transportation. On the many bayous found in the Teche region floated the rafts, canoes and pirogues of the Acadians, loaded with produce and pelts. The currents seldom were strong enough to carry heavy loads at any reasonable rate of speed. Hence long oars had to be resorted to. Sometimes the water carrier was pulled by oxen walking along the banks of the stream. Land transportation was less practicable. The heavy ox cart, often called a beef cart, was the freight conveyance. Made entirely of wood, the vehicle was somewhat cumbersome. Heavy pieces of timber were hewn by hand and then put together by means of tenons and mortises, while wooden pegs and strips of raw hide also were used to hold the parts properly. Large wooden wheels on a heavy wooden axle, greased with tallow, made the cart capable of carrying loads of considerable weight. For traveling, a lighter carriage, the calèche. was used. This light cart, made of wood, was for speed and comfort, and raw hide tugs supported the seat, permitting it to swing backward and forward.
The Acadians for the most part progressed very slowly at first. They cared but for a simple and peaceful life similar to that which they had led in Acadia. Its perpetuation was brought about not by the ignorance of the people, but rather can be attributed to the fact that they were isolated geographically from the established settlements of Louisiana of that time. The average Acadian of yesterday lived in a small one-room, low-slung house with the bare ground serving as a floor. The house had a cypress frame and walls made of a mixture of mud and moss. A chimney of the same mixture usually was erected at one end of the house. The openings serving as windows were closed at night by solid shutters. In time, the man, if industrious, laid a floor of rough-hewn cypress planks on wooden blocks. The floor was low and no steps were needed. As the family grew, partitions were installed. In none of his work did the Acadian use nails, but bored holes and employed wooden pegs.
A cypress table, a half-dozen chairs with cow hide seats, a four-poster bed or two, a large armoire, or ambry, all home-made, along with pictures of saints on the walls, were the only articles of furniture in the house. When the home was still a one-room building the bed or beds and armoire were at one end and the table and chairs at a short distance from the open fire place. The cauldron hanging over a blazing fire was about the only cooking utensil until additional pots and pans were bought with the passing of time. The open fire place furnished the home with warmth and light besides being the place where all the cooking was done. Sweet potatoes usually were cooked in the hot ashes. The home was always very clean, the furniture in order. After the floor had been added the housewife kept it clean by using crushed brick on it. All dirt was removed with it and the golden yellow color of the floor showed that the wife or daughter had spent an unpleasant hour or two on her knees a-scrubbing. Since the early Acadians did not use brick in building they had to borrow some from a more wealthy neighbor.
A small fruit orchard, a large pasture for the stock, and a pig pen were back of the house. Flower gardens were not numerous because by the time an Acadian maid became interested in planting flowers she became a bride and had to turn to the more serious and useful tasks of life. As soon as the first cotton crop was grown a hand-made loom appeared in the home, a cumbersome device made by the man of wood and pegs. It became the duty of the wife to card, spin and weave the cotton which had been picked. Nankeen cotton, introduced into Louisiana from China, was made into a brownish cottonade, and other colors were derived from dyes obtained from indigo grown on the farm and from oak bark. Sometimes the women wove enough blankets to trade for something else needed in the household. Each child, on getting married, received one as a wedding present.
Husband and wife got up at dawn. Probably the man built a fire in the fire place and then went to harness his team. With a crude plow bought at the poste (later St. Martinville) he broke the soil. After an hour or so of labor he returned to the house to eat a coarse breakfast consisting of corn bread, coffee and meat. By that time the children were up and, after partaking of the coarse food, joined the parents in the field.
Although an Acadian girl usually married in her early 'teens, she knew all the household duties and obligations of motherhood before accepting a proposal to wed. On the other hand, the young man usually was launched in business by the time he walked up the aisle of the little Catholic church to be married. Marriage was not the outcome of a whirlwind courtship although long drawn-out love affairs were not common. The boy generally met the girl at the dance hall and devoted much of his attention to her. If in time he began to walk from the church steps to the buggy with her on Sunday the affair was getting serious. When he began calling, usually on Sunday evenings, it was a matter of only a few months before rumors of a wedding-to-be were set afloat by the local gossips (for those ubiquitous persons were found even among the Acadians). Before long the youth made a special call on Thursday night and asked the father for the daughter's hand. It took no time or hesitation on the part of the father to give his answer. He long before had looked into the affairs of the youth, had seen him grow up, knew his parents. The answer would be yes because if the youth were not acceptable he would have been headed off at the beginning.
After three public announcements from the church rostrum the wedding took place. To every bride her wedding was, of course, a red letter day, and it was a gala affair for all. As many as 70 or 80 buggies formed the procession to the church. The ceremony ended, the bride and bridegroom rode in the first buggy, the fathers of the couple rode in the second and a mad scramble ensued to determine who would have the distinction of driving the third, for that was a place of honor. Friends and relatives gathered from miles around for the feast that followed. The merriment was topped with a wedding dance.
The Acadian ball, which usually took place on Saturday or Sunday night, was the outstanding form of recreation. At nightfall people assembled from outlying sections, coming on horseback, in buggies and in pirogues. The large, open dance hall, in addition to providing ample space for dancing, contained an extra room called the parc-à-petits, where the babies slept while the mothers looked on approvingly at the dancers. Music was furnished by the accordion, the fiddle with steel strings, the steel guitar and the steel triangle. The common dances were the one-step, the old jigs and reels, the square dance, the polka du salon, mazurka, the jilliling, the varieties and the lancers.
Education failed for a long time to meet with the approval of the Acadians. It was customary for the children to learn the trade of their father -- farming; to get married at an early age, and to settle down as near as possible to the old homestead. Schools did not make their appearance in the Acadian country before 1875.
The favorite Acadian dish was, and is to this day, gumbo. This is nothing more than soup to which has been added sassafras leaf. The dish is usually eaten with rice. The Acadians resemble the Chinese in their method of cooking rice. It is not properly prepared unless every grain retains its identity. The jambalaya, a dish consisting of rice, bits of beef, pork, game, oysters, shrimp, crabs, cow-peas, chicken or turkey, also has been a favorite dish since the earliest days.
The average Acadian was very superstitious. When he saw lighting, he made the sign of the cross. To appease the fury of the storm he burned palms or blessed candles and sprinkled holy water over the household. If he became ill he sought out a traiteur who, because he was endowed by God with certain powers, was able to cure him by prayer and sign of the cross. The first milk had to be thrown over the cow's back to assure that she would be a good milker. A single woman had to be careful not to step on a cat's tail unless she wanted to be married before the year was out.
Today the Acadians of Louisiana, although they still retain a few unique characteristics, are fast becoming more and more like their more fortunate fellow men who had settled in and about New Orleans. School buses penetrate all sections to take their children to the class room, and good highways have brought the remotest regions in contact with modern civilization. Mining is growing in importance there, but what is contributing more to the disintegration of Acadian simplicity is the advent of the oil business which is industrializing many of the pastorally picturesque spots where, some 175 years ego, primitive pirogues were tied up at the banks of black-water bayous and the harassed wanderers from old Acadia found peace at last.
(1) Voorhies, Felix: Acadian Reminiscences, Opelousas, La., Jacobs News Company, 1907.
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