The term Cajun comes from the term Acadian. The story of the Acadians will take us from Nova Scotia to Louisiana, through persecution and poverty, from separation to reunification. Let’s get started…
The Acadian Exile
The Acadians were French citizens who left their homeland in the early 1600s to establish Acadie in Nova Scotia, Canada in hope of a better life. For approximately 150 years, Acadie was a thriving agrarian community, and the people successfully lived peacefully and in cooperation with the native Indians. The Acadians were a Catholic people who remained neutral in the French/British rivalry. However, in 1754, one of the British commanders in their area forced the Acadians to renounce their Catholic faith and swear allegiance to Britain. The Acadians refused. The British then falsely lured the Acadian men to a town meeting and burned their homes and farms. The Acadians were forced to leave Canada, but the chaos of the send-off separated many family members from each other. This act led to a diaspora and very dark times for the Acadians. Acadians were literally shipped all over the world to: France, Great Britain, South America, and the American colonies. Some fled the deportation, but they faced cold and starvation in the Canadian wilderness. The time of exile was a time of deep poverty for all the Acadians, they were treated as outcasts wherever they landed.
Louisiana was Spanish territory at the time, and Spain agreed to provide passage to Louisiana as well as land grants there for any willing Acadians. The Spanish perspective was that it would be helpful to settle the land with more non-British. Once landed in Louisiana, the Acadians began contacting others still in exile to join them. Between 1764 – 1785, some 3000 Acadian refuges arrived in Louisiana. That is several decades after the diaspora.
Once in Louisiana, the Acadians clung dearly to their Catholic faith, each other, and their unique culture and dialect. They were able to reunite families and rebuild their society. They were the poorest of the poor, settling the most undesirable swampland. Their new homeland could not have been more foreign to their Nova Scotian lifestyle. Their faith bound them together in their difficult task, and they survived as a self-contained culture.
Let’s make the Acadian exile story come alive by learning the journey of one woman…Mrs. Prejean
Prejean grew up in Acadie in Canada. During the deportation enforced by the British, she was separated from her sisters and sent to the American colonies. She spent 9 years there, married and had 2 children. She then traveled to Saint Domingue (now Haiti) where her parents and first husband died from the climate. She remarried and had 9 more children, 7 of which reached adulthood. They became prosperous, until the slave uprising (1790s) in which her husband and one of her sons was beheaded. This time, the British helped her family to escape and sent them to Jamaica. Again, they lived in poverty and later moved to New Orleans. She learned of the Acadian settlement in St. Martinville and moved her family again to the settlement. She was reunited there with her lost sisters.
What happened to the Acadians in Louisiana?
The Acadians were a peaceful, thriving community thrust in to exile and the deepest poverty, separated from the only place they belonged…with each other. They were a common people consistently overcoming uncommon challenges. Their faith guided and sustained them through their many difficulties. They continued a self-contained existence until after the Civil War. With the collapse of the Southern economy, the Acadians were no longer the poorest of the poor. Much of the South was now confronted with poverty. Half of the Acadians became sharecroppers, like so many others in the South. Once public education became mandatory, Acadians began to mix more outside of their own culture. Louisiana Acadians called themselves “Cadiens”, but American immigrants began to call them Cajuns. Even in the 1900s, Acadians faced persecution as they were prohibited from speaking French at school. It is a testament to the perseverance of these people that they have faced so many efforts to change them, yet their ancestors still survive today and make up a large part of the Cajun culture.
I hope you enjoyed learning about the Acadians as much as I did. We learned all of this information and the Prejean story at the Acadian Memorial and Museum in St. Martinville and the Acadian Village in Lafayette. Click here for more of our Cajun country experience.