The lives of 17th century European settlers in North America seems unimaginable compared to today. English colonists along the Atlantic Coast who struggled to maintain their settlements were constantly being besieged by disease, the threat of starvation, Indian raids, and unforgiving weather. Further west, French fur traders led a primitive existence, sleeping in tents and eating the campfire-cooked meat of game they caught. Under such harsh circumstances, most of the endeavors to settle in the New World ended in disaster, and only a handful of communities survived.
Acadia, an early colony encompassing what is today Northern Maine, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island), not only survived, but thrived. The colony was founded in the early 1600s by a small group of adventurous French settlers eager to make a living through transatlantic fur trade. After barely surviving their first winter, the Acadians quickly built villages, forts, and dykes along the coast. They created the first permanent European settlement north of Florida, and by 1606, were successful enough to create and stage lavish plays for visiting French dignitaries.
As time went on, the Acadians became an entirely self-reliant community of farmers, growing distant from France. When France and England began fighting over claims to Acadian land, the Acadians strategically remained neutral. Because of their large population, their knowledge of the land, and their alliance with the surrounding Mi’kmaq tribe, Acadians were left alone by the competing English and French empires for close to a century.
Acadian neutrality came to a violent end in 1755, when the British decreed that the Acadians were to be removed from their homelands and forcibly relocated to England, France, the Caribbean, and the American colonies. While commonly known as Le Grand Dérangement, (or “The Great Expulsion”), the displacement of the Acadians might today be considered genocide. Under the command of Governor Charles Lawrence, a zealot for the British monarchy, Acadian families were ripped apart and crowded into ships built for transporting goods rather than people, all the while British troops burned down Acadian homes and farms. Overcrowded and provided with only the meagerest of meals, many Acadians succumbed to disease before the ships even arrived to shore. Those that did survive were often met with hostility and apathy in their new lands.
After years of searching for a new home in Europe and North America, many Acadians made their way to Louisiana. Still under the rule of the French and Spanish, officials in Louisiana were sympathetic to the plight of the Acadians, and offered them lands of their own to cultivate. The news spread to other displaced Acadians, and soon a new Acadia was growing in Southern Louisiana. After decades in this new land, the Acadians became known by the nickname given to them by others in Louisiana: the Cajuns.
Throughout their endeavors to settle Acadia and new lands following Le Grand Dérangement, music and dance has served as a continual source of comfort and joy for the Acadians. Historical accounts of the Acadians throughout the centuries regularly note the community’s affection for song and dance, and the characterization of Acadians as a musical people was solidified by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie. But singing and dancing together served as more than a distraction for the Acadians: it was an essential vehicle to preserve their culture and the continued survival of their society.
In this lesson, created in partnership with the Association for Cultural Equity, students trace how the French and Indian War led to the Acadians’ displacement and their resettlement in Louisiana by examining historical maps and reading excerpts from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie. In addition, students will examine historical documents and ethnographic film clips from the Alan Lomax Collection to consider how music and dance has been a way for the Acadian/Cajun community to preserve their cultural and genetic lineage, even in the most perilous of circumstances.