Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Lost Colony of New Acadia: Why it Matters

Summer in south Louisiana can be unpleasantly hot and humid, with only occasional relief from afternoon thunderstorms rolling in from the Gulf. Two hundred and fifty years ago a group of Acadian families spent their first summer in Louisiana. They arrived in New Orleans at the end of February of 1765, exiled by the British from their homes in Acadie (Nova Scotia). More Acadian émigrés continued to arrive and soon the 193 who had arrived in February numbered more than 500. A scouting party visited the Attakapas District, present-day Iberia, Lafayette, St. Martin, St. Mary, and Vermilion parishes, in hopes of finding a suitable place to establish a settlement. They had been told they would find “magnificent grasslands with the finest soil in the world.”[1]

A Live Oak on the Teche Ridge in the area formerly known as Fausse Pointe.

Among the leaders of the Acadians who arrived in 1765 were Joseph “Beausoleil” Broussard, newly-appointed Commandant of the Acadians in the Attakapas District, and his older brother Alexandre, also known as Beausoleil. The Beausoleil brothers had become legendary for stealthily resisting deportation for years, finally being captured and imprisoned by the British. Most of the Acadians who arrived in New Orleans were impoverished and uncertain of their future in an unfamiliar country. For those who could not afford it, Joseph Broussard had paid for their voyage from Halifax.[2]

In April of 1765 eight prominent Acadians, including Joseph Broussard, agreed to raise cattle for Antoine Bernard Dauterive in the Attakapas District. Supplied by the French colonial administration with tools, seed, and provisions, the Acadians made their way through the Atchafalaya Basin by way of Bayou Plaquemine to a place known as Fausse Pointe. [3] At the time, Fausse Pointe referred to the area around a loop of the Bayou Teche as it meandered along an ancient channel of the Mississippi River. The Acadians must have arrived at the Teche along one of the many portages to the bayou, which had likely been used by the native Atakapa and Chitimacha for more than a thousand years.

Plat map showing Spanish land patents along the Teche Ridge.

Rather than establish a single village center or raise cattle for Dauterive, the Acadians built their houses along the Teche Ridge in what Jean-Francois, the priest who traveled with them, called New Acadia.[4] The hardships they encountered there were described by Jean-Baptiste Semer in a letter to his father, Germain Semer:

“We went to Attakapas with guns, powder, and shot, but as it was already the month of May, the heat being so intense, we started to work in too harsh conditions. There were six plows that worked; we had to break in the oxen [and] travel fifteen leagues to get horses. Finally, we had the finest harvest, and everybody contracted fevers at the same time and, nobody being in a state to help anyone else, thirty-three or thirty-four died, including the children.”[5]

According to historian Carl Brasseaux, the colony of New Acadia was comprised of several communities along the Teche Ridge, the natural levee of the Mississippi overlooking the tranquil Teche. The community of “le dernier camp d’en bas” was among the very first to be established, “near present-day Loreauville by late June, 1765.”[6]

The hardships increased, as many of the Acadians succumbed to a virulent epidemic, possibly yellow fever. Having survived years of combat with the British and endured the travails of imprisonment, deportation, and forced exile, Joseph Beausoleil Broussard died on October 20, 1765. Preceded in death by his brother, Alexandre, Joseph was buried in a grave at his home site, a place Jean-Francois called Beausoleil.[7]

Two hundred and fifty years later, the graves of Joseph Beausoleil Broussard, his brother Alexandre, and other Acadian émigrés who traveled with them remain unidentified and unmarked. The locations of home sites of the New Acadia colony of 1765 have also been forgotten. Some of these places may have been plowed for sugarcane over the centuries, or perhaps covered with concrete, asphalt, or shell.

Darrell Bourque, Poet Laureate of Louisiana, challenges us to imagine what life was like at New Acadia in 1765.[8] Although the surrounding landscape must have seemed like a strange and foreign land, the cattle ranching the Acadians were accustomed to was well-suited to the natural levees and rolling prairie terraces. Not much is otherwise known about how they survived those first few months, or even where they built their first homes. The last line of Bourque’s poem “Beausoleil’s Last Night” leaves a haunting image of what we might share in common with Joseph Beausoleil Broussard:

“… so that last night he slept a dreamless sleep, at last an endless quiet on a nameless coast.”[9]

If history is about remembering as a community (commemorating) what is meaningful about the past, then New Acadia is truly a lost colony. Known today only through few brief written records, the original places of New Acadia are nameless and neglected even in our dreams.

So why was New Acadia forgotten? Could the original homesteads and associated graves really be found? More importantly, why does it matter?

Why It Matters

1. The Advancement of Historical Knowledge

History is important, whether or not people will admit that it is. From the standpoint of historians and archaeologists, scholars whose professions are dedicated to learning about the past, the significance of historical knowledge includes public education and improved quality of life. But it is also pertinent to understanding the human condition, to commiserate with those who lived in the past, and how their lives have influenced and shaped our own world. 

So the advancement of historical knowledge is one reason the lost colony of New Acadia should be found and studied. The archaeological information to be potentially gained could shed light on a wide range of poorly understood topics, such as: where did they settle, what sort of houses did they build, what material culture did they have, and what did they eat?

 2. Heritage, Identity, and Culture

For those uninterested in the advancement of historical knowledge and skeptical of its relevance to education and quality of life, there is another, second and perhaps more compelling reason why history matters. The contemporary identities of all people, whether political, religious, economic, or social, are actively based on collective representations of the past. Sometimes called heritage or cultural tradition, these historical narratives find expression in commemorations and rituals, historic buildings and landscapes, even everyday practices such as cooking and playing music. At its most basic and individual scale, history is lived through memories and practiced traditions, as experienced in the preparation of a cherished family recipe handed down from a beloved great-aunt. Without memories or tradition the cuisine shared by families and kinfolk would be mere sustenance or fodder.

On a larger scale, representations of the past are used for present purposes. Politicians try to get elected or perhaps gain support for legislation by appealing to shared values steeped in cultural tradition. Sporting events can be ideal opportunities for creating and sustaining collective identity and tradition through the shared enthusiasm of devotees, as might be experienced during the homecoming of the Ragin’ Cajuns at Cajun Field. An enormous amount of resources, including millions of dollars, are expended each year to publicize and promulgate what are regarded as the collective interests of a community, whether at a convention center and arena called the Cajundome, at the Université des Acadiens, or at events such as Festivals Acadiens et Créoles. Newly-registered initiates of Université des Acadiens have been admitted into the campus community with the greeting “we’re all Ragin’ Cajuns now.”

History matters because identity, as well as culture itself, is inextricably rooted in the past. How do we know this for certain? A people without a past would be without tradition, lacking heritage, and without a shared experience or culture. On those occasions when important aspects of the past are unknown or forgotten, communities create collective memories from personal imagination and popular fiction. All people have the uncanny capacity to reinvent tradition. Cultural revitalization in particular, demands that at least some of the blanks are filled in. Historical narratives, landscapes, places of historical significance, monuments and memorials, even tombs of famous people who never lived can be fabricated in an amalgamation of social memory, historiography, and myth.

A people in need of history will create narratives and memory places, where shared experience and tradition might reside. In such cases it may become impossible to distinguish the genuine from authentic reproduction. Commemorations and narratives without historical precedent or substantiation may eventually ring hollow or seem absurd, even becoming a subject of ridicule. If neither Evangeline nor her alter ego is buried in Evangeline’s tomb, precisely what does the statue cast in the likeness of the actress who portrayed Evangeline memorialize?[10] The Beausoleil brothers did not disembark with fanfare at the Evangeline Oak, or sail up the Bayou Teche bringing crawfish to Cajun Field. Historical accuracy matters.

Historic marker at the Evangeline Oak in St. Martinville, directing visitors to Evangeline's tomb (State Library of Louisiana).

The suffering and anguish of the Acadian expulsion and diaspora may be beautifully expressed and deeply felt through literature and art, but the commemoration and subsequent history of the grand dérangement should be methodically studied and grounded in systematic, scientific research. The search for New Acadia is important whether it is done for historical knowledge and a better understanding of how the past has shaped the present, or to connect present-day heritage, identity, and culture with actual places and substantive discoveries. Archaeological survey to find the lost colony of New Acadia might also strike an emotional chord – by locating the unmarked graves of Acadian ancestors, as-yet-unknown hallowed places where their descendants might go to pray.

More than two centuries separate the arrival of the Acadians from official recognition of a place called Acadiana, the homeland of the Cajuns, yet we still do not understand how or where it all began. The gulf that separates the Cajuns of today from the colonists of New Acadia is not insurmountable or incredibly wide. Yet it is unfathomably deep.

3. Development of the Cultural Economy

The Acadians of 1765 would be foreigners to most present-day residents of Acadiana. In the ongoing commemoration, celebration, and commodification of Cajun heritage, would the remembrances seem hollow and misdirected to those whose burial places have been forgotten? Would anyone, then or now, find it ironic or at all strange that more than 10 million dollars is regularly budgeted for Ragin’ Cajun Athletics each year, while a modest proposal to find the lost colony of New Acadia was turned down by the Louisiana Board of Regents?

Luckily, there are people who are interested in discovering history that matters. The New Acadia Project (NAP) was launched with the formation of a Steering Committee that is raising donations and grant funding. NAP was initially funded for two years and is now in its second year of investigations. The search for New Acadia has drawn interest from businesses and civic organizations that see a connection with economic development.

This leads us to the third and final reason why history should matter. The history of New Acadia that lies as-yet undiscovered within archaeological sites along the Teche Ridge represent an unutilized and largely unrecognized economic asset. The Acadiana and Cajun labels are today commonly appropriated in commerce, just as the name of Evangeline was during the first part of the last century. As with Evangeline, Acadiana is still a mythic landscape of which little is actually well known.

Opportunities for development of the cultural economy, and not just cultural tourism, are enormous and practically untapped for the region. For example, a restaurant in a small village not far from the Teche has at times struggled to stay open due to a lack of customers. Establishment of a heritage-trail with historical markers through New Acadia would draw visitors to the restaurant from overseas, as well as local residents who might appreciate that their ancestors were among those who founded the colony of New Acadia – the founders and progenitor of Acadiana. 

Farming and continued land development, including new residential subdivisions, may have already adversely impacted or even destroyed some sites. Future generations of Acadian descendants might ask why the colony of New Acadia was never discovered and preserved, or at least studied and recorded before being obliterated.

If we endeavor to ever truly understand the history of the Acadians in Louisiana, to connect heritage and identity with systematic scholarship, or to develop a cultural economy from it, the mythic landscape of Acadiana must be carefully scrutinized and methodically re-examined. The lost colony of New Acadia must be discovered.

Coming Soon:
How Do You Know Where to Look?
Have You Found Anything?

[1] Letter by Jean-Baptiste Semer, an Acadian in New Orleans, to His Father in Le Havre, April 20, 1766. Jean-François Mouhot and Bey Grieve. Louisiana History: the Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association. Vol. 48, No. 2 (Spring, 2007), pp. 223-224.
[2] A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland. John Mack Faragher. W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. Pp. 395-97, 415, 428-30.
Letter by Jean-Baptiste Semer, p. 224.
[3] The Founding of New Acadia: The Beginnings of Acadian Life in Louisiana, 1765-1803. Carl A. Brasseaux. Louisiana State University Press, 1987. Pp. 75-77, 90-94.
"Scattered to the Wind" Dispersal and Wanderings of the Acadians, 1755-1809. Carl A. Brasseaux. Louisiana Life Series No. 6. Center for Louisiana Studies, 1991. Pp. 61-65.
[4] The Founding of New Acadia, p. 75-77, 92.
[5] Letter by Jean-Baptiste Semer, p. 224.
[6] The Founding of New Acadia, pp. 91-92.
[7] A Great and Noble Scheme, p. 429.
[8] Megan's Guitar and Other Poems from Acadie. Darrell Bourque. University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2013. P. 68.
[9] Megan's Guitar, p. 69.
[10] In Search of Evangeline: Birth and Evolution of the Evangeline Myth. Carl A. Brasseaux. Blue Heron Press, 1988. P. 41.