Our Acadian Heritage

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First Families Settled In Pastoral Annapolis Valley

By 1650, more than 300 people were settled in and around Port Royal, then the principal place of the Acadian colony. A few more settlers remained at La Have, and there were forts at St John, and Penobscot Bay.

Among the Acadians were men from Aunis and Saintonge in France who were skilled at building dikes. They were able to reclaim rich alluvial lands that were flooded regularly by the strong tides pushing up the Bay of Fundy, and also to harvest salt from the marshes that were left to dry.

Charles Mahaffie gives a good description, "The key to (the Acadians') success - and indeed the key to understanding the way of life that evolved in Acadia in the last half of the 17th century - is one of nature's most remarkable phenomena, the tides of the Bay of Fundy. The bay is so formed and so located that it has the world's highest tidal range - 20 to 30 feet at its mouth, 40 to 50 feet in the narrow bays and basins at the head. Where the shore is low and flat - as it is in the lower Annapolis Valley and the Minas Basin and at the ends of Chignecto Bay - the tides of thousands of years have brought and taken away sediment, tons of it every day. More has been brought than taken, and some 76,999 acres of tidal marshland are the result.

"Using a simple system borrowed from the Netherlands and other low-lying parts of Europe," Mahaffie continues, "the Acadians turned it into cropland and pasture. Earthen dikes held back the tides and ditches drained the marshes. The ditches led to wooden sluices under the dikes and the gates hinged at the top - opening automatically at low tide with the flow of water out of the marsh. As the tide rose, the reverse flow pushed them shut, keeping out the sea. Fresh water from springs and streams flushed the salt, and the marshes dried, leaving meadowland so rich that even today it produces fine stands of hay without fertilizer."

D'Aulnay's plans to convert Acadia from a fur-trading outpost to a settled agricultural community seemed to be coming to fruition. But he was not to enjoy the fruits of his labors. Early in 1650, a canoe carrying d'Aulnay and a servant overturned near Port Royal while he was inspecting a diking operation. The servant survived, but d'Aulnay drowned in the frigid waters.

D'Aulnay's death left the Acadian colony with little direction and, as usual, virtually no help from France. The settlers turned to the soil, and to New England. For once, the French and the English needed each other. The fertile Annapolis Basin gave the Acadians enough crops to feed themselves with some left over to trade in Massachusetts, where a huge influx of Puritans caused a food shortage.

New Puritan colonists were flocking to New England faster than crops could be grown to feed them, and Yankee traders had little recourse but to look to the neighboring French farmers. The trading was completely illegal, but neither official France nor official England took much notice of it.

The trade brought a measure of independence to the Frenchmen in Acadia. Farming, along with some fishing and hunting, gave them a good livelihood. They found that they could survive in the New World through their own efforts, despite the neglect of official France. They began to think of themselves as allies of France, but citizens of Acadia. They spoke French and remembered French roots, but they had become Acadians.

According to early histories, they lived in a place favored by nature and, even in the early times of the settlement, began to form the communal bonds that are a part of their cultural heritage today.

Historian Rameau de Saint-Pere described the life in Acadia, drawing from accounts by Father Ignace de Senlis, a priest who came to Acadia about the same time as the first families.

"On Sunday," historian Rameau de Saint Pere wrote, "the Acadian farmers emerged from the folds of this charming valley, some in canoes, others on horseback, their wives and daughters riding behind, while long lines of Micmac, brightly painted and with colorful ornaments, mingled with them. Around the church grounds, (Charles Menou, Sieur d'Aulnay) had developed extensive green areas, which were called les champs communs, where the arrivals tethered their mounts and left their belongings. After the service, the colonists relaxed on the champs communs, discussing crops, hunting, progress of clearing the land, the work undertaken by the Seigneur, a thousand and one topics about their private lives and gossiping the way it is done in all French countries.

"D'Aulnay himself often mingled with them," Saint Pere continued, "recounting adventures of his travels into the interior Indian country. Many old timers...added their bit to the conversation, while the most venerable sages of the Micmacs often solemnly joined in the conversation. It was an auspicious occasion to find out how each family was making out. The banter naturally encouraged new marriages and ways to establish new homes on new farms, because one of the dominating desires was to increase the number of homes."