Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline is based on a true event: the expulsion of the Acadians from their homeland and their dispersal in exile in the lands of the future United States. This tragic event has given rise to much scholarly work, but although parts of the story are sentimentalized and embellished by Longfellow, his account is still useful as a vivid account of the experiences of these unfortunate individuals.
Native peoples occupied the lands of Acadia (now Nova Scotia) before the first Europeans arrived in the 16th century. Settlements arose even before the French claimed the land and called it “New France.” The name “Acadia” probably referenced Arcadia, the idyllic and pastoral land found in Greek poetry. Acadia became well known for its fur trading during this time.
Different settlements were founded by the French throughout this region, but the British destroyed two of the main ones—Port-Royal and St. Sauveur—in 1613. As Acadia was somewhat of a border colony between the rival settlements of New France and New England, tensions remained high for a time. France regained Port-Royal by treaty in 1632 and the population of the region grew. In 1654 the British took Port-Royal back and held it for thirteen years until France was able to secure it once more by treaty. In 1710 the British once again took the site and it remained in British hands permanently due to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.
The French settlers had to learn to adapt to the English language, political traditions, and customs. The next thirty years constituted something of a golden age for the Acadians. There were few problems and population grew. However, tensions soon arose again between France and Britain. The War of Austrian Secession mostly took place overseas, but the British did take the French fort of Louisbourg on Île Royale and the French took a garrison at Minas, right in the Acadian heartland. A treaty was signed in 1748, but it did little to quell tensions. New England had grown resentful of the Acadian presence and wished to expand into the Bay of Fundy territory. In response to this clamoring the British government began to oppress the Acadians, in particular by asking them to sign an oath of loyalty. Some Acadians moved in French territory in the region while others stubbornly remained.
The year 1755 saw “Le Grand Dérangement,” the expulsion of the Acadians. This was facilitated both by the British and by New England officials. The British took Forts Beausejour and Gaspereau and sent New England settlers to the region. Acadian representatives continued to refuse to alter the wording of their oath of allegiance and the Nova Scotia council decided to move forward with expulsion. This began in the summer of 1755. There were about 6,000 people banished during these months and the expulsion continued until the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.
The Acadians were sent to almost all the British colonies. Some went to England after Virginia refused to allow them to enter. Acadians who’d tried to escape were held as prisoners in Halifax and other forts. Many fled to Quebec.
The years following the 1763 Treaty of Paris were not much better. Even though the Acadians were now free to settle wherever they wished, land was scarce and their communities were fractured. During this time a large group of Acadians settled in present-day Louisiana, where they formed the basis of the Cajun culture.