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We know of instances in the 20th century of ethnic cleansing and forced cultural elimination—families uprooted, lives destroyed, communities purged.  Could anything like that ever happen in New England?  In fact, things like that DID happen nearly two centuries before!

In 1755, British and Massachusetts militia forces, headed by Gen. John Winslow of Marshfield, took part in the enforced removal of the French farmers in the land England had renamed Nova Scotia. The Grand Derangement, as it was known, resulted in the dispersal of the Acadians to the British colonies along the East coast, Louisiana, the Caribbean, Britain, and France. 250 years later, ‘1755’ remains an infamous date in Acadian History; it is the date when the Acadians lost most of what they had worked for, most of what they had created. Their plight was made famous in Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline—but how accurate was this portrayal? What was the role played by New Englanders in this episode?  What became of the Acadians?  What are the stories about this that we do not know?  

The Acadians—descendants of 17th century French settlers of Nova Scotia—were farmers and fishermen who resided along modern-day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the eastern banks of Maine, in a region they called L’Acadie. They had carved out their living by utilizing the Bay of Fundy to form an economic haven, and isolated from other French settlements in mainland Canada, they formed a distinct culture.

The name originally “Acadia” applied to an area that included southeastern Quebec, eastern Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Some say the name came from the Greek “Arcadia” meaning “rural contentment.” It was thought to be named by the explorer Verazanno who sailed near the Maritime Provinces in 1524. The name “Acadian” was the name given to the early French settlers who migrated from France to Acadia.

These early settlers came to the region because in 1604 there was a war going on in Europe between France and Great Britain. Many were tired of fighting the war and anxious to see the new world. Like the Jamestown settlement in 1607 and the Plymouth colony in 1620, the first winters were extremely hard and the earliest settlers suffered mightily. Many of the early settlers perished due to scurvy and malnutrition. However, using the farming methods learned in the Low Countries of Europe, these Acadians tilled the soil and erected dikes which prevented high sea tides from soaking and ruining the mainland. These dikes also led runoff from the fields back into the ocean. Aided by the lack of trees (in comparison to the early New England forests), they found the area easier to farm than other newly-settled regions.  And, working with the local native tribes, particularly the Micmac, these settlers learned to co-exist peaceably and established roots along the coast.

The role of women was vital to the lives of the new Acadian settlers. They spun and wove wool, cooked, sewed and worked in the fields. In those days wealth was measured by workload, so most people had large families knowing that all the children would do their own share of the work.   They were very religious and they, along with their husbands, believed in peace, tranquility, and equality. Children were taught their schooling at home, or the oldest person in the village would teach them. A brave, strong woman was usually picked to become a midwife or doctor (in French they were known as a “Sage Femme“).

Throughout the 1600s L’Acadie grew in communities and population. It passed back and forth between England and France several times. During one of its English periods in the 1620s, James I, a Scottish King, granted the land to a poet and fellow Scot, William Alexander, who named it Nova Scotia or “New Scotland”.

Except for some short periods of British occupation, Acadia remained French up to 1713.  In 1713, with the Treaty of Utrecht ending another in a series of English-French conflicts, part of Acadia (Nova Scotia with the exception of Cape Breton, which housed the fortress of Louisbourg) was ceded to Britain. For the next forty years, the British periodically demanded that the Acadians swear loyalty to the British king, and for forty years the Acadians refused. They promised to remain neutral in the event of war, but they were desperately afraid of casting their lots with the English. In this period of near-constant warfare between England and France, it was difficult for people of French ancestry to side with the British. Another reason was that the Acadians were mostly Catholic and were fearful that siding with an Anglican country may mean the end of their church. So, they managed to keep the British at arms length and the British would choose not to press the issue.

However, this period of benign neglect all changed in 1755.  William Shirley was royal governor of Massachusetts; Charles Lawrence was lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia. Each understood that the French & Indian War was looming and each viewed the Acadians as potential military collaborators. Each also understood that the Acadians inhabited valuable property and had lucrative fishing and farming industries in place.  Massachusetts ministers and politicians verbally attacked the Acadians and distrusted the “papists” in their midst. Shirley, Lawrence and Winslow joined up with Massachusetts chief justice Jonathan Belcher and British General Robert Monckton to formulate plans on how they could drive out the Acadians and take over their property.  At a meeting on July 28, 1755, Lawrence instructed Monckton to “send all the French inhabitants out of the province.”  Monckton wanted a rapid conclusion to this, before the Acadians realized what was happening.  He turned to Winslow and the Massachusetts militia for aid.

In June of 1755, Winslow wrote that “we are now hatching a noble and great project of banishing the French Neutrals from this province; they have ever been our secret enemies and have encouraged our Indians to cut our throats.  If we can accomplish this expulsion, it will have been one of the greatest deeds the English in America have ever achieved; for, among other considerations, the part of the country which they occupy is one of the best soils in the world, and in that event, we might place some good farmers on their homesteads.”

In August of 1755, Winslow went to the village of Grand Pre and ordered a meeting of all males in the town, ages 9 and older.  He gave them a choice: either take the oath of fealty to the King of England or face banishment from the province.  The Acadians were stunned and horrified—yet, after years of seeing the British refuse to press the issue of loyalty, assumed that this was yet another bluff on the part of the redcoats.  It was anything but.  Upon their rejection, Winslow locked the door to the church and left the males there for weeks. Even as the mothers, daughters, sisters and wives of the village pleaded with Winslow to set their family members free, he doggedly refused.  In fact, he instructed them that anyone who left the village would be hunted down and killed. (There were several hundred Acadians who did flee into the nearby forests and formed a guerrilla force that engaged in brutal conflict with the British for years.) Winslow ordered ships and within weeks nearly 7,000 Acadians were rousted up and herded aboard the vessels. While Winslow and the ships’ captains tried to keep families and inhabitants of the same villages together, the haste and confusion of the “evacuation” often made this impossible and family members became separated. They were deported and sent to various locations along the maritime Atlantic colonies (some 2,000 were taken to Massachusetts and others relocated all along the Eastern Seaboard, from the Carolinas all the way to Georgia.) Winslow tried to show compassion to the Acadians, taking two families to his native Marshfield.  However, in captivity, the French-speaking transplants quickly became quasi-slaves to the wealthy—particularly Nathaniel Ray Thomas of Marshfield, who was cruel in his treatment of the relocated Acadian families placed in his care.

Having successfully removed the Acadians, Lawrence urged English farmers to occupy the newly-gained territory.  In the next decade, 10,000 colonial farmers moved to the area that the Acadians had inhabited.

Meanwhile, the displaced Acadians had heard of a French-speaking, Catholic territory called Louisiana.  Many of them migrated there and found safe haven, establishing a new homestead and location for their existing culture.  They merged with the population and became known as “Cajuns”.  And, in a bit of irony, the Acadians/Cajuns enjoyed some sweet revenge on their British overseers.  When the American Revolution broke out in 1775, no group was more anxious to take on the English than these Acadians.  They were fierce fighters on behalf of the colonials and when the American side emerged victorious, they enjoyed the fact that they no longer had to report to either the French or the English king. Three decades of personal hell had ended.

General Winslow has been blamed for the cruel removal of the Acadians but he almost certainly acted under the orders of the British military service of which he was a member, for he was eminently a kind-hearted and generous man. (Source: Genealogies of Mayflower Families, 3:849 (1985).)  Later Winslow descendants were Tories and many remained so during the American Revolution.

In the early 1840’s, a rector of the St. Matthews Episcopal Church in Boston heard the story of the expulsion from his Acadian housekeeper. He told this story to his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and in 1847, Longfellow published his epic poem, “Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie.”  Although romanticized, “Evangeline” helped to keep the Acadians’ tale alive.  Descendants of those settlers who evaded Winslow’s troops or managed to return home at a later date have kept their Acadian culture alive in Nova Scotia. The Grand Derangement, or “Great Upheaval”, was recognized in the 250th year of its occurrence. July 28, 2005 was declared “A Day of Commemoration of the Great Upheaval” in Canada, and will be so honored every year in the future.

General John Winslow was the great-grandson of Edward Winslow, a Mayflower passenger and Governor of the Plymouth Colony, in 1633, 1636 and 1644. John’s father was Isaac Winslow for whom the Historic 1699 Isaac Winslow House was built in 1699. This house is extant in Marshfield, MA and offers a vibrant Program of Events throughout the year under the leadership of Executive Director Mark A. Schmidt.

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