Today 257 Years Ago — The Story of the Cajun People Tragically Began, July 28, 1755
If you're like me, then you're well aware that your Cajun heritage stretches all the way back to France several hundred years ago. But there was a definite moment in history when our ancestors stopped being French Canadians and became exiles that would be eventually known as Cajuns -- even if they themselves didn't know it yet. And that moment happened 257 years ago today, July 28, 1755.
If you really want to get into "Le Grand Derangement," as the Cajuns have called it, then there are plenty of websites you can go to that will explain it in greater detail than I will here (and probably the best few are here and here and here). And it's something you should definitely take the time to read at some point in your life -- you should know where you came from. But like most history, it's not something that all happened in one day. The exile of the Acadian people was simply the end of a long struggle that lasted almost 100 years and the beginning of a new struggle that would go on for hundreds of years more. July 28, 1755 was just the turning point when there was no looking back. I'm going to give you a VERY simplified version of it here.
The British vs. The French
The story of the Acadians goes all the way back to around 1604, when they first landed in Canada even before the British created Jamestown or the Pilgrims hit Plymouth Rock. By the 1650s, they were in constant battle with the British as the two sides fought over eastern Canada for the next 50 years.
By 1710, the British had conquered Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, and by 1713, they officially took the land in the Treaty of Utrecht. The Acadians, now thriving in Canada, were now stranded in enemy territory.
Now that the British had won, they wanted the remaining Acadians to swear loyalty to the English crown. But the Acadians had seen too many battles between the French and the Brits. Swearing an oath to the British crown could mean that Acadians could be drafted into the British army and forced to fight their own people in war. And for many Acadians, that was simply not an option. Plus, the British were Protestant and the Acadians were fiercely Catholic, and swearing an oath to the crown meant renouncing their religion, which was REALLY not an option.
So instead, they decided to sign an agreement of "neutrality." The Acadians basically said, "We won't be on anyone's side if you'll just leave us alone." The British, not yet strong enough militarily in the area to do anything about it, weren't happy, but agreed.
Even if they signed an agreement to keep peace, some Acadians were still rebels. They made alliances with local Indian tribes like the Mi'kmaq and continued to fight against the British occupation. Behind the scenes -- as early as 1720 -- many British thought it was simply time to kick all of the Acadians out of the new British territories.
And that's how things stayed for 40 years -- the Indians and the Acadians thumbing their nose at the British and the British trying to punish them. The French were also hoping that at some point they could re-take their Canadian lands, and by the 1740s were pursuing that option.
But in 1749, the British built the city of Halifax, which gave them more military strength, and the days of the Acadians were numbered. The Brits got bolder and started burning entire Acadian villages over the next few years, trying to get them to leave.
The Fall of Fort Beausejour and The British Decision
It was in June 1755 that the British put the Acadian stronghold, Fort Beausejour, under seige and conquered it. This was more or less the death-blow to the Acadians, as now they had no choice -- they had to bow to the English crown. "Neutrality" was no longer going to be an option.
Still, the British said they were willing to give the Acadians one last chance to take the oath. But the Acadians were trying to do everything they could to avoid it. On July 25, 1755, the Acadians promised to surrender their guns to the British in an attempt to keep neutrality. The British refused, and on July 28, the Acadian leaders were called to appear before their new masters. They were given one last opportunity to swear the oath and refused to. And that gave the British the excuse they needed to reveal the secret plan they had devised earlier that month on July 15.
Every Acadian leader was arrested and the British immediately began the deportation of any and all Acadians from Nova Scotia -- a process that stretched out over 10 years, breaking up families, destroying ancestral homes and killing thousands. It's probably true that it wouldn't have mattered what the Acadian leaders had said that day -- the British would have probably deported them anyway. But, if nothing else, the Acadians stayed true to their cause, and July 28, 1755 was the day the Brits' true intentions became apparent.
Le Grand Derangement
Some Acadians were deported south to the 13 colonies which would later become the United States. Some were deported back home to France -- though several of those ships sank at sea, killing off entire families.
Contrary to popular belief, the British did not send the Acadians to Louisiana. Some of the Acadians who made it back to France found there was no life for them there. Seeking a place where they could be welcome, some decided to make the trek to Louisiana -- which at the time was in Spanish hands. The Acadians were more willing to live under Spanish rule because they, too, were Catholic. By the 1760s, some of the other deported families in New England heard about the Cajun settlements, and they, too, made the trip to Louisiana. Still others came from failed re-settlements of Acadians in the Caribbean and Central America.
Once the Cajuns made it to Louisiana, they still faced more challenges, obstacles and heartbreak, but they had finally a place to call home.