The New World was full of possibility and all the European powers who were anybody were founding colonies as fast as they could. After Columbus’ journey, Pope Alexander, formerly Rodrigo Borgia, divided the New World between Spain and France. He left all other European countries out of the loop. This probably would have annoyed the English, but they didn’t listen to the Pope anyway so they kept on doing what they were doing. However, France was mightily miffed. So they had spent a lot of gold to back Borgia’s rival for the papacy? Was that any reason to leave them out of the colonial gold rush? According to Borgia, apparently so.
However, this did not stop the French. In 1524, Jean Ango was commissioned to find a way through the new continent to Asia. Argo hired Giovanni da Verrazzano to captain the ship and his expedition found the mouth of the Hudson River, which they thought was a lake but points for trying. He also discovered an uncharted peninsula, which reminded him of Northern Greece. He called this new land Arcadia. This was the northern part of Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately, the maps they made were not great. When later French explorers came to settle the beautiful land of Arcadia, they missed and ended up further north on the peninsula of Nova Scotia. The name also went through a couple of changes and ended up as Arcadie. Later in 1535, Jacques Cartier returned and explored further founding Mont Royale, which would later become Montreal, at a fortified Iroquois village called Hochlega. He asked the Iroquois what they called this land, and they replied “Canada”, so that’s what Cartier labeled the country as on his maps. However, as with most things, there was a miscommunication. “Canada” was the Iroquois word for “village”.
Looking for refuge from the ongoing wars of religion, French Huguenots began settling the wilderness of Acadie. In 1604, Pierre Dugua brought hundreds of farmers and craftsman and they made the first settlement in Acadie and called it Port Royal. The winter was rough, but some of the settlers survived and word went back to France that life here was possible. However, no new supplies or settlers came. The French government wanted to save the souls of the Native American’s for the Catholic Church. The settlers were Huguenots, Protestants who were fleeing the wars of religion. The idea of converting the Native Americans to Catholicism went down like a lead balloon. The government insisted priests be sent on all ships of supplies. The Protestant shipowners would not let the priests on board. So the ships of supplies sat in the harbors in a Mexican standoff. This lack of supplies killed the settlement of Port Royal by 1610. Many settlers there left, the ones who remained survived with the help of friendly Native American tribes. In 1627, Port Royal was taken over by the British who arrived with 70 Scottish settlers.
However, Acadie was not dead yet. In reparation for another flair up in the perpetual war between Britain and France, Acadie was turned back over to the French in 1632. Samuel de Champlain took 200 settlers, this time all good Catholics, up the St. Lawrence river and settled in what is now Quebec. The settlers grew and by the end of the 1600s, there were at least 20,000 Acadiens in and around the new settlement of Montreal. All throughout this time, the French made incursions into British held territory. Not enough to make any real gains, but enough to annoy the British into action. By 1713, another deal was on the table and the French traded away their claims to coastal Canada, including Acadie and Newfoundland, for additional European territory. Thus ending the annoying raids into British Canada and effectively hanging the Acadiens out to dry.
British settlers, who had been coming in a steady trickle, now came in a solid stream. By 1754, they outnumbered the French Acadiens and had founded their own town of Halifax. The new governor of Nova Scotia, Charles Lawrence, insisted the Acadiens take an oath of allegiance to the Britain and do active military service, probably against their home country of France. The Acadiens refused, and Lawrence made it his business to make the Acadiens’ lives hell in response. Draconian punishments were enforced for anything construed as a sign of disloyalty. He made plans to force them all to convert to the Church of England and confiscated tools and canoes they needed to survive. By July 28, 1755, Lawrence decided to go whole hog and signed an order of deportation.
Five empty cargo ships landed at the Acadien village of Grand Pre, and Lawrence issued a summons that all males must attend a meeting in the church that night on ‘pain of losing goods and chattels’. 400 men and boys over the age of ten showed up to the meeting. There Lawrence told them they were being evicted and their goods and cattle were forfeit to the Crown. They were only allowed to take what they could carry with them. However, even this was a lie as they were forced to leave what they had on the shore, where it was found by British settlers five years later. Families were separated in the crush of being herded towards the ships. People tried to escape and two were shot. On October 27, 1755, fourteen cargo ships stuffed to the gills with Acadiens left. To make sure they could not come back, Lawrence burned the French settlement and put a price on the heads of the Native American tribes who had helped the Acadiens. It is estimated 12,600 of the 18,000 Acadiens were deported. They did not receive a warm welcome anywhere and were passed from colony to colony. Some made it back across the Atlantic, but lived in Britain in huts on the harborside. Some were forced into servitude in the British colonies further south. Many died of smallpox and other diseases from the unsanitary conditions they were forced to live in. Some were sent to Haiti and used as slave labor by the French colonists there.
After the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763, the Acadien refugees were allowed to finally leave on their own terms. Many of them made the treacherous journey south to the colony of Louisiana, and settled in the Atakapa region. Joseph Broussard led the first 200 settlers to St. Martinville, Louisiana in 1765. The settlers got on well, and wrote to their scattered families to join them. Families who had been split and put on different ships to different destinations reunited in Louisiana. France had ceded Louisiana in 1762 to the Spanish, but the Spanish governor Bernardo de Galvez was kind to them. He allowed them to settle and practice their own religion. The Acadiens settled west of New Orleans in south central Louisiana. By the end of the Revolutionary War, 1,500 more refugees had found their way to New Orleans. Acadien became corrupted to Cajun, and the community flourished.
In the nineteenth century, there was a resurgence of Acadien identity in both Louisiana and the Maritimes of Canada. Represented by Longfellow’s poem Evangeline, a Tale of Acadie. The poem is based loosely on the events of the Great Upheaval as the heroine Evangeline searches for her lost love Gabriel.
So the wandering Acadiens became the well known and well loved Cajuns.