Victims of a forced evacuation came to Md.

June 24, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL

We are all probably aware of a case of wretched and horribly painful eviction of a large number of people from their homes or homeland. The forced removal of the Cherokee Indians in the infamous “Trail of Tears” or the eviction of the Japanese-Americans to isolated prison camps comes to mind. A scarcely known case brought about 900 French peasants, craftsmen and fishermen from Nova Scotia (part of Acadia) to Maryland in the fall of 1755.

They were but a portion of an estimated 7,000 hard working and generally peaceful inhabitants wrenched from their farms in Acadia. They were distributed variously in nine colonies and Louisiana. Here, they became known as “Cajuns” — a play on words similar to that of “Injun” from Indian. Their dispersion is a story that tears at the heart to refresh the memory of man’s capacity to inflict pain on other human beings.

By the Treaty of Aix la Chapelle in 1748, the peninsula of Nova Scotia came under the rule of England. Acadians were given their freedom to remain Catholic, but were given one year to decide whether to leave or take an oath of loyalty to the King as was required of all British citizens. This they refused to do even though they were treated well under British rule.

The reason for this refusal was the fear of being forced to take up arms against other Frenchmen in Canada. Tensions mounted as Acadians were accused of stirring up trouble by aiding the Micmac Indians to plunder and scalp British inhabitants.

In 1775, the British government made the momentous decision to punish the troublemakers by shipping them southward to various colonies. At that time, there was a great deal of anti-French sentiment because French officers at Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh) were giving gifts to the Indians to raid the homes of settlers on the frontier and set fire to their homes and scalp the inhabitants. The Acadians were just as unwelcome in the colonies as they were at home.

A proclamation was posted in Acadian villages which ordered all males older than 10 to appear at the church in Grand Pré by three o’clock, on Friday, Sept. 5. In stunned silence, they listened as their British overlords read their awful fate. It read in part, “… your Lands & tenements, Cattle of all kinds and live Stocks of all sorts are Forfeited to the Crown with all other Effects Saving your Money and Household Goods and yourselves to be removed from this Province.”

Joanie and I were mesmerized by a local re-enactor’s reading of the proclamation in that very church. Acadians were then stuffed into the cramped space on vessels and carried southward. Upon arrival in the colony of Maryland, the newcomers were deposited mostly along the eastern and western shores of the Chesapeake Bay — completely at the mercy of the inhabitants.

A law was passed that forbade Catholics to house the exiles and to move westward into Frederick County. At that time, Frederick County included all of the territory to the west within the colony. They also were forbidden to travel more than 10 miles from their place of abode without a pass from a magistrate. Failure to comply brought five days in “Goal.”

While there were reports of generosity, they were regarded as “papists,” “rebels” and “wretched Acadians.” Poverty was widespread and much door-to-door begging ensued. They were treated as little better than indentured servants.

The situation was undesirable for almost all concerned. Indeed, there were petitions to the Maryland Assembly to “… use your endeavors in the Assembly to have this pest removed from us after the example of the people of Virginia and Carolina ….” The feeling must have been mutual because the record shows that an incredible number of 600 exiles relocated — mostly in Louisiana, which was still occupied by the French.

A story of such pathos and human futility was bound to create heated debate about who was to blame. Was it Acadian stubbornness and duplicity or the British display of dominance? There was also the charge that the British had a burning desire for Acadian farmland.

The most scathing indictment was leveled at French officials by the great American historian, Francis Parkman. “They conjured up the tempest, and when it burst on the heads of the unhappy people, they gave no help.” The small number of exiles that remained in Maryland anglicized their names to lose their French identity. Many Marylanders are probably unaware of the tragic story of the French strangers in a strange land.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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