boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
WILLIAM FOWLER

A dark chapter in Mass. history

IT IS TIME for Massachusetts to recognize a great wrong. Two hundred and fifty years ago this summer, Massachusetts helped launch a brutal campaign of ''ethnic cleansing" against the Acadians of modern day New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

In the early part of the 17th century hundreds of French peasant families migrated from France and settled in a region they called L'Acadie (modern day New Brunswick and Nova Scotia). These families diked and farmed the rich marshlands bordering the Bay of Fundy. Isolated from the principal French settlements in the Saint Lawrence River Valley, the Acadians evolved a distinct culture, one that drew heavily upon their native Micmac neighbors with whom they often intermarried.

Unfortunately for the Acadians, their homeland was contested ground as the world's two superpowers, France and England, struggled to dominate North America. In 1713, at the end of one of the many wars fought between these two nations, France ceded Acadia to England and with it sovereignty over the native Acadians. However, customs, language, and religion divided these people from their new English rulers. In neighboring Massachusetts, ministers and politicians railed against the Acadians. Venomous attacks on the ''perfidious" French filled newspapers while from their pulpits ministers damned the ''papists."

Behind the violent rhetoric venal land speculators, led by William Shirley, royal governor of the Massachusetts, schemed to seize Acadian lands. Nova Scotia's lieutenant governor, Charles Lawrence, along with Jonathan Belcher, chief justice of the colony, Robert Monckton, an army officer, and John Winslow of Marshfield, an officer in the Massachusetts militia, joined Shirley and laid plans to expel the Acadians and seize their lands.

At a meeting on July 28, 1755, Lawrence ordered Monckton ''to send all the French Inhabitants out of the Province." Monckton realized that he would have to move quickly before the Acadians discovered their fate. He turned to Winslow and the Massachusetts militia to help him.

On the morning of Aug. 6, 1755, Monckton summoned Winslow to his headquarters at Fort Cumberland near the northern end of the Bay of Fundy. He told Winslow that he planned to order all the male Acadians to the fort. Once they were inside, Winslow's men would surround and confine them. Unaware of their peril on Sunday, Aug. 10, more than 400 Acadian men entered the fort. All went according to plan. And as soon as the men were locked up, messengers were sent to their families telling them to report to the fort lest the men suffer. Those who fled would be hunted down and killed.

Less than a week later at the village of Grand Pre, Winslow pulled the same maneuver and several hundred more men were seized. Within weeks several thousand Acadians were taken up and the expulsion began. Thousands of Acadians were herded aboard transport vessels. Families were often separated and no one was told their destination. Some escaped and fled to French Canada, but most did not and they were shipped off to distant places including Louisiana where they became known as Cajuns. Nearly 10,000 Acadians died in this Grand Derangement.

Having successfully removed the Acadians Governor Lawrence published a proclamation in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia announcing that there was now ''a favourable Opportunity for the peopling and cultivating of the Lands vacated by the French." Over the next decade 10,000 Yankee farmers took up the ''vacated" lands.

In the early 1840s Horace Connolly, the rector of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Boston, heard the story of the expulsion from his Acadian housekeeper. He shared her tale with his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and in 1847 Longfellow published ''Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie." The epic poem begins ''This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks."

Although highly romanticized, ''Evangeline" helped keep the story of the Acadian expulsion alive. Over the last 250 years descendants of those Acadians who either eluded Winslow's troops or managed to return to their homes at a later time, have kept alive a vibrant Acadian culture in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Determined to gain an acknowledgement of the injustice done to their ancestors these modern Acadians brought pressure on the Canadian government. In December 2003, the governor general of Canada, on behalf of the queen, issued a royal proclamation acknowledging this ''dark chapter" and declared that henceforth July 28, the day on which the expulsion was ordered be every year observed as ''A Day of Commemoration of the Great Upheaval," commencing on July 28, 2005."

This year marks the first commemoration in Canada. Perhaps on July 28 we, too, should take a moment to reflect on this dark chapter of our own history.

William Fowler is director of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search