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History of Acadians at Mount Allison: History

A virtual exhibit on the history of Acadians at Mount Allison University and in Sackville, New Brunswick.

Banner: The History of Acadians at Mount Allison

Early Acadian Settlements 

In 1605, Samuel de Champlain and Pierre du Gua de Monts sailed from France to establish Port Royal, the first of many settlements that would gradually make up the French colony of Acadia. As the population of Port Royal grew, Acadians spread along the coast of la baye Francoise (Bay of Fundy), travelling inland through its many navigable rivers to find suitable land, including on the Isthmus of Chignecto. Starting in 1708, the area that is now known as Sackville became home to three French Acadian settlements: Pré des Bourg (Sackville), Pré des Richard (Middle Sackville), and Tintamarre (also known as Pré des Gaudet, now Upper Sackville).

For decades, the Acadians lived in relative isolation, relying on the Mi’kmaq who had occupied the area for thousands of years to act as guides of the landscape. They built a system of dykes that allowed them to reclaim the rich agricultural potential of the marshlands, on which they raised cattle and planted crops, and travelled as far as Boston and Louisbourg to trade with the British and the French. But imperial politics soon brought war to the region.

Possession of the colony had switched hands a number of times during the seventeenth century, but the end of the War of Spanish Succession marked a turning point for Acadia. Under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, France ceded most of Acadia to Great Britain. Having proclaimed neutrality in the conflict, the Acadians were allowed to stay on their lands as British subjects, but they remained unwilling to pledge their allegiance to the Crown. Their only concession was a vow not to raise arms against either the British or the French. For a time, this proved sufficient for the British, but as their efforts to gain mastery of the continent intensified, the threat posed by the thousands of francophone inhabitants of Acadia became difficult to overlook.

The Great Upheaval

On 11 August 1755, Colonel John Winslow confided the following in his journal: 

This day was one extraordinary to the inhabitants of Tanteamar, Wescoat, Aulac, Baye Verte, Bauséjour and places adjacent; the male inhabitants or the principal of them, being collected together in Fort Cumberland to hear the sentence . . . that they were declared rebels, their lands, goods, chattels forfeited to the crown and their bodies to be imprisoned. Upon which the gates of the fort were shut and they were all confined. [1]

Two months earlier, a combined force of British soldiers and New England volunteers had marched on Fort Beauséjour in an attempt to rid the French military presence from the area. Within days, the French had officially surrendered their stronghold, giving the British undisputed rule of the region. Despite the change, most of the Acadians in the region did not see a cause for concern. Though a small percentage of them had taken up arms alongside the French during the siege, the majority of inhabitants had stood by their oath of neutrality, and so when Acadian men from the region were summoned to the fort, 400 of them willingly made their way to the British stronghold of Fort Cumberland. Their imprisonment within its walls marked the beginning of le grand dérangement, otherwise known as the Great Upheaval, or the Acadian Expulsion.

Starting at Beauséjour, the British stormed through each of the Acadian settlements along la baye Francoise, executing orders to gather and deport all Acadians still residing in the colony. Homes, barns, and churches were set ablaze, and families were torn apart. While some were successful in their escape into the wilderness, the majority of the Acadians were boarded on vessels and dispersed to port cities in other British North American colonies, to France and France’s colonial ports in the Caribbean and in South America, and to Spanish Louisiana, where their descendants came to be known as Cajuns. Thousands died of disease or starvation while at sea.

Scholars debate the number of Acadians exiled from their lands between 1755 and 1763, but most of them estimate the number to be between 7,000 and 10,000. The discrimination, poverty, and insecurity that awaited the Acadian refugees wherever they landed prompted many of them to try to return to their Acadie.

Late 18th Century

Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, Charles Lawrence, wrote in a letter to his fellow provincial governors on 11 August 1755 that as the Acadians “Cannot easily collecte themselves together Again it will be out of their Power to Do any Mischief. [2]

By exiling the Acadians to various far-flung locations, the British military had deliberately tried to shatter the links that bound them together. However, contrary to Lawrence’s prediction, the Acadians did collect themselves together again, often crossing oceans and territories to reunite with the loved ones they had been forced to leave behind. From all corners of the world, Acadians set out to return to the eastern shores of their former homeland, building new communities with individuals who had been fortunate enough to evade deportation by hiding in the woods.

Along the Isthmus of Chignecto, Acadians became vital in the maintenance of the dykes and aboiteaux that generated the rich agricultural potential of the marshlands. Once New England planters arrived to settle the land in the late 1750s and early 1760s, some of the Acadians still held prisoner at Fort Cumberland were released in order that they may repair the ones that had fallen into disrepair. Nevertheless, the lands that they had spent decades cultivating now belonged to new inhabitants, who were not always keen to have them amongst their midst.

19th Century to the present

Amongst the records held in the archives at le Centre d'études acadiennes Anselme-Chiasson is a secondhand account of an Acadian, Vital Cormier, coming to Sackville seeking employment in the early 1860s. According to the document, there was only one Acadian then residing in Sackville: a man from Cap-Pelé by the name of Fred Bourque. Bourque warned Cormier against wandering around town by himself if he wanted to avoid getting attacked by their Anglo-Protestant neighbours, but Cormier would not be intimidated. The incident foretold by Bourque came to pass late one evening, when the two Acadian men were allegedly accosted by six anglophones looking for a fight. Cormier said to them:

Je suis un acadien-français venu au milieu de vous pour gagner mon pain. Je ne suis point un querelleur, mais lorsqu'on m’attaque, je ne me sauve pas et je me défends. Vous êtes six contre moi, je ne puis par conséquent vous combattre tous à la fois. Je suis prêt, cependant à me battre avec chacun de vous l’un après l’autre. Si vous doutez de mes paroles, faites-en l’essai. [3]

A fight ensued, but the quarrel ended with sentiments of friendship expressed on both sides. If the account is to be believed, Cormier, who went on to become chief at the Abner shoe factory, might have had a role to play in the mending of relations between Anglophones and Francophones in town.

The need for labour that had prompted both Cormier and Bourque to seek employment in Sackville continued well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when Sackville witnessed a small industrial revolution. Acadians migrated to Sackville from nearby villages and towns in search of work and readily found employment at the newfound Mount Allison Institutions as well as at the many factories and shops that continued to crop up in Middle Sackville. Around the turn of the century, Standard Manufacturing employed approximately 100 men, most of whom were Acadians. [4] Middle Sackville particularly was a vibrant hub for the Acadian community, whose presence became significant enough that a Catholic church was erected there in 1885. The needs of the community continued to grow until the 1950s, when a French parish school was also built on Salem Street.

Most of the evidence of this history has been lost to time. Both the church and the school have since been demolished, and the community has been dispersed elsewhere in the provinces, but the Acadian presence in Sackville remains. In the words of Douglas Lochhead,

here, right where my foot takes weight,

what Acadian sweated and froze in the

ever wind to make these dykes? there is

a sense of history here and all across this marsh. [5]


[1] Journal of Colonel John Winslow, CNSHS (1884), vol. 3, p. 227

[2] Lawrence to Provincial Governors, August 11, 1755, in Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society 3 (1883): 82

[3] Centre d'études acadiennes Anselme-Chiasson, fonds 1-26-10. Translation: "I am a French-Acadian who came in your midst to earn my bread. I am not a quarrelsome, but when attacked, I do not flee and I defend myself. There are six of you against me, so I cannot fight you all at once. I am ready, however, to fight each of you one after the other. If you doubt my words, give it a try."

[4] Black, Laurie. A Country Store and More, Joseph L. Black & Sons, 1830s-1960s. Tantramar Heritage Trust, p. 32

[5] Lochhead, Douglas. "September 2." High Marsh Road: Lines for a diary. Goose Lane Editions, 1980.

Sources consulted include:

Hamilton, William B. At the Crossroads: A History of Sackville, New Brunswick. Gaspereau Press, 2004.

MacKinnon, Andrew. Acadian Resitance: 1755-1763. Thesis submitted to the department of History, St. Francis Xavier University, 2007.