Acadian Culture and History by Curtis • Fall to the Rising Sun Trip
Due to the nature of our trip, it being so long and extensive, it just didn’t seem right to throw bits of disjointed history at you over the span of several posts. History should be read linearly (or so some believe). So instead I’m going to write one post on history and talk about the places where one might see this history throughout. If you think this is a better way to present these topics, let us know!
Whoever visits the coast of Maine or the Atlantic Provinces will always see references to “Acadia”. Acadia National Park, Acadia Mountain, Acadia Trail, Acadia Forest…scenic drives, towns, food. It’s everywhere. But what is not everywhere is an explanation of what Acadia is! So was my impression at least, coming for the first time into the region.
If you love history, then this is a post for you. If you’re more interested in just knowing about the historic sites so that you can go visit and see for yourself, scroll to the bottom for a summary of the sites that we visited.
In short, Acadia is a culture and a people group deeply linked to the region.
In 1604 (before Jamestown, but after Saint Augustine), a French colonial expedition under the leadership of Pierre Dugua de Monts arrived on the island of St. Croix on the St. Croix River between present day Maine and New Brunswick. There, by permission and authority of King Henry IV of France, they established a small settlement with the intent of permanent colonization. But during the winter of 1604-05, around half of the settlers died from what researchers believe was scurvy. Unable to grow enough food on the island, the colonists abandoned their home and crossed the Bay of Fundy to found the settlement of Port-Royal on the southern peninsula of Nova Scotia. Port-Royal, located on a large ice-free harbor, offered much better prospects for these French colonists and became the de facto capital of the french colony of L’Acadie. (For those interested, Acadia comes from the word “Arcadia” a term used by 16th century explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano to describe the whole Atlantic coast north of Virginia. Arcadia in turn is Greek for “idyllic place” or “refuge”. Quite the apt name.)
View from the coast at St. Croix International Historic Site
Today, both sites are National Park Sites. St. Croix Island is an International Historic Site with interpretative trails on both the American and Canadian side although access to the island itself is restricted. This makes for a very brief but informative stop while driving by on US 1. Port Royal has been reconstructed and is a National Historic Site in Nova Scotia (we didn’t make it this far south though).
Over the next 90 years the colonists of Acadia (i.e. Acadians) would go through the struggles of a New World colony: Fighting off disease and hostile natives, famine, civil war and war with the English colonists. Most of the time they were French subjects, but other times they were English, once even Dutch. But the Government of France, and even the government in New France (all of France’s New World Colonies) paid little heed to Acadia. Attempts to encourage immigration had so little effect that by the 1670’s the population was put at less than 450 people. All growth of population came almost exclusively from intermarrying between the established colonists and the native Mi’kmaq people. This served to make the Acadians a very reclusive and independent group.
The first that Acadia really began to feel the pressures of the outside world came in 1688 with King William’s War (in Europe the Nine Year’s War), the first of the four French-Indian wars. At that point in time, Acadia encompassed all of present day Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island (known as Ile-St-Jean), New Brunswick, and Maine north of the Kennebec River. During this war, Acadians and New Englanders exchanged blows and raided each others’ coasts. But with the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, all captured lands were returned to “status quo antebellum”. But the hostilities remained.
Five years later in 1702 war broke out again during Queen Anne’s War (in Europe the War of the Spanish Succession). During this war, the exchange of blows continued, and the Acadians and Natives (part of the Wabanaki Confederacy) raided New England farms south of the Kennebec, and the New Englanders raided the coastal Acadian towns. During this (and previous wars) Port Royal was often the primary target for assault (no less than 9 times). In 1707, the New Englanders made two unsuccessful attempts to take the capital with the Acadians retaliating in force as per the usual. But in 1710 the New Englanders made a third attempt at the fort, this time with regular British red coats in accompaniment. The Acadians on the other hand had no regular support from France. The siege advanced and the fort fell. And so spelled the beginning of the end for Acadia.
The Acadians and natives attempted over the next several years to regain Port Royal, but were never able to surmount a force large enough. In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht was signed ending the war. In the treaty was the new layout for the colonies. England would gain control of peninsular Nova Scotia while France retained control of Ile-Royale (Cape Breton Island) and Ile-St-Jean (Prince Edward Island). Dominion over New Brunswick and Northern Maine (largely uninhabited areas) remained unresolved with both sides claiming sovereignty. Acadians who lived in the new British colony of Nova Scotia were given the option to either swear fealty to Britain, or leave.
Inside the Fortress of Louisbourg
The next 30 years were years of peace and of military buildup. France, now restricted to the islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, had to set about rebuilding its defensive network. The cornerstone of this would be the Fortress of Louisbourg. Located on the eastern edge of Ile-Royale (Cape Breton), Louisbourg was originally just a small fishing village. But due to its ice-free harbor and strategic position in relation to Quebec and Canada, the French built it up over 28 years to become a massive Fortress and Naval Yard capable of protecting the colony and the shipping lanes across the Atlantic.
The British in the meantime did little in Nova Scotia, allowing instead for the Acadians to largely govern their own affairs, much as the French had done. That is until the 1740’s. Then, war broke out yet again between the British and French during King George’s War (in Europe the War of the Austrian Succession and in Georgia-Florida The War of Jenkins Ear). The French launched the first offensive in 1744 against Port-Royal but ultimately failed. And in 1745, the English (or more appropriately, New Englanders mostly from Massachusetts) launched a counter against Louisbourg. This assault, which resulted in a six-week long siege, culminated in the surrender of the great fortress to the British. The French attempted to regain it, but were unsuccessful. And so, the war (in America at least) devolved again into raids and counter raids. The War between Britain and France ended in 1748 with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, in which, much to the chagrin of the New Englanders, Louisbourg was returned to the French in exchange for the Netherlands.
Fortress of Louisbourg NHS
However the fighting in the Northeast did not end with the treaty. During the War Acadians and Mi’kmaq Natives were instrumental in conducting the raids on the fringes of New England society. It became clear to British authority that the current population of Nova Scotia was not loyal to Britain. They would need to be ruled militarily and a more loyal population would need to be set into place. In 1749, to control the population, but also to serve as counter balance to Louisbourg, the British set about construction of the military complex that would become Halifax. Halifax was yet another ice free harbor ideally situated on the Atlantic trade routes. It was in fact so ideal that it remained a British/Canadian military base until the latter 20th century.
Inside the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site
Much like the coastal defenses of Charleston, the Halifax Defense Complex was composed of several smaller forts and batteries all with the express purpose of defending the harbor. The defenses were perhaps so good that no one has ever tried to break them (some scholars even suggest that the existence of Halifax is the primary reason why Nova Scotia did not join in the American Revolution). Today, many of the forts and batteries remain intact and under the jurisdiction of Parks Canada. The center piece of it being the Halifax Citadel, a large star shaped earth/brick structure in the heart of downtown Halifax. At the southern end of Halifax is Point Pleasant Park which offers hiking trails and the remains of several batteries.
Some of the history that you’ll find in the Halifax Point Pleasant Park
But, back in 1749, Halifax was little more than a small fort and garrison. But this was enough to spark insurrection among the Acadians and Mi’kmaq who viewed the Fort as both a violation of a treaty and encroachment of Protestants upon a predominantly Catholic society. During the next six years, in what would be come known as Father Le Loutre’s War, the British gradually established military forts in almost every Acadian settlement and attempted to force the Acadians to sign an unconditional oath of fealty to Britain. The Acadians and Mi’kmaq instead conducted raids against these same forts and began to immigrate to the French controlled islands. France, officially a neutral in this “civil war” obviously favored the Acadians and aided their cause by building forts in New Brunswick including Fort Beausejour; a fort built on the isthmus connecting Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
In 1754, the balance in America reached a new breaking point when Colonel George Washington ambushed a French force in the Pennsylvania Backcountry sparking the final French and Indian War (in Europe the Seven Years War). The war progressed slowly for the first years with few actual successes in New York or the Ohio country. But in 1755 there was one success that would begin the end of Acadia. In June 1755, Massachusetts’ forces began a campaign against Fort Beausejour ultimately leading to its surrender.
Fort Beausejour National Historic Site
The second major success in the Atlantic was the second capture of Louisbourg in 1758. Just as in the previous war, New Englanders, aided by British regulars laid siege to the Fortress and captured it. This time, however, the New Englanders were not going to risk the fort being returned to the French and in 1760, British engineers systematically blew up the entire fortress. The grounds of the once mighty fortress would remain barren for the next 200 years with only the ruins of some buildings showing. Then, in 1960, the Canadian government undertook a massive and thorough reconstruction of 1/4 of the town/fortress as it was in 1748. It is incredible what they have done. Not only have they reconstructed buildings where they originally stood, but they built all of the buildings according to the methods used then. All sorts of minor details are included. They literally have a warehouse filled with barrels, lumber, and cannon balls. 100 cannon balls specially made to sit in a warehouse. The amount of research and archaeology and fine craftsmanship that went into building this site is astounding. The site itself is out of the way, but it really is the crown jewel of National Historic Sites in Canada and well worth the visit. But for those unable to make the long trek to Louisbourg, many lesser forts like Fort Beasejour have also been restored and open to the public. Beausejour is especially convenient as it is located just off the 104 on the New Brunswick/Nova Scotia border.
But this is a (long) post about Acadians. What happened to them? Assisting in the defense of Fort Beasejour were Acadians. The Acadians, who were technically British subjects and therefore “neutral” (even though there was a civil war going on) were committing treason. Fearing that the Acadians would further aid the French and conduct raids into New England as they had in the past 3 wars, the British undertook a mass deportation: the Expulsion of the Acadians. From 1755 to 1764, the British would round up and deport Acadians from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Following the surrender of Louisbourg, those Acadians who had escaped to Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island would be rounded up as well. All told, some 11,500 Acadians were dispersed through the American colonies, Britain, and, towards the end of the war, France. Land speculators from New England (and later American Loyalists) quickly moved in behind the Acadians and took over their farms, so that, in 1764 when Acadians were allowed to return, they would return landless and had to subsist as fishermen. Other Acadians, with permission of the Spanish crown, settled in Louisiana where eventually they became the predominant populous and the denonym Acadian was changed to Cajun (try saying Acadian with a Cajun accent).
Today in Canada, Acadia is celebrated as a part of Canadian history. Towns and villages seek to restore and draw attention to those structures and areas that were once Acadian. Although we never saw any, Acadian festivals are quite popular in the region as is Acadian cuisine.
Throughout this trip, we were able to see many historical sites, and we highly recommend taking some time if you’re ever in this area to visit one. Here, we’ll briefly describe the places we visited.
St. Croix International Historic Site – Calais, ME: We almost didn’t stop here. It was cold and raining and we were getting ready to cross the border. But at the very last second, Jess said “TURN HERE!” so we did. It was a brief but informative stop with a visitor’s center and a short interpretive walk.
Fort Beausejour National Historic Site – Aulac, NB: This one is right on the border of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and a short drive from the interstate, so it’s an easy stop and can be as short or long as you’d like. It was actually closed for the season when we arrived on September 26, but we were still able to park and walk around the fort – only the visitor’s center was closed. However, it’s important to remember to always check before going out of your way to visit these sites because some close earlier in the season than you’d think! Here, we were able to walk around the fort and have a good view of the area. It’s dog friendly as far as we could tell — there was no one there to tell us no!
Halifax Citadel NHS and Point Pleasant Park – Halifax, NS: Our day in Halifax was completely focused on history before it was cut short due to rain. We first toured the Citadel National Historic Site which is right in the middle of downtown Halifax. It’s a really neat site with museums, reenactors, rifle demonstrations, and views of the city around. Dogs are allowed in the fort, but cannot go into the buildings or museums. Charlotte did fine for the rifles but was not a big fan of the guys dressed up as guards. After that, we walked all the way down to the peninsula park where you can find ruins scattered around that were preserved to show off the defense system. There were a lot of trails and most of the area is dog-friendly, even with some off leash areas. Charlotte made friends with a doberman named Zoe and they tried to run away together. Then, it started to downpour, so we called it a day and went back to our hotel. To continue with our history and culture theme, we ate at an Acadian restaurant for dinner.
Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site – Louisbourg, NS: This one was definitely our favorite site of the trip! It was definitely worth driving out of our way to visit. As I mentioned in the history, they have done an incredible job recreating what the fortress used to look like and despite it being very cold and rainy, we really enjoyed walking through and experiencing it all. We’re glad we came when we did, because it closes for the winter season on October 10 – just 2 weeks after we were there. However, dogs are not allowed, so Charlotte stayed warm and cozy in the car — it was probably better that way with the rain! We took about 2 ½ hours to walk through the entire place, and thankfully there were plenty of indoor places to tour so we weren’t in the cold that whole time. There’s also an area dedicated to all the work it took to create this place, which just goes to show the amount of detail they went into making it perfect. If you have the time and can go a little out of your way, this place is definitely worth a visit.