“The Gates of the Fort Were Shut” — The Acadian Imprint on the Tantramar

From time to time this column will survey the imprint of the earliest settlers on the Tantramar region. The Mi’kmaq people were considered last October; today it is the turn of the Acadians. Later Flashbacks will spotlight other founding groups such as the New England Planters, Loyalists, Yorkshire settlers and others.

On Aug 11, 1755 Colonel John Winslow (1703–1774) confided in his journal: This day was one extraordinary to the inhabitants of Tantemar, Wescoat [Westcock], Aulac, Baye Verte, Beausejour and places adjacent; the male inhabitants, or the principal of them, being collected together in Fort Cumberland [as Beausejour was renamed] 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, to the amount of four hundred men and upward.

So began le grand dérangement — the expulsion of the Acadians from this area. Obviously, in the space available, it is impossible to cover such a complex and controversial event. Instead, this Flashback will consider the lasting cultural imprint of the Acadians on the Tantramar.

Readers interested in delving more deeply in local Acadian history are directed to the excellent study by Dr Naomi Griffith, The Contexts of Acadian History 1686–1784. Still in print and available in paperback, it’s a distillation of three decades of scholarly research in Acadian history. During 1988–89 Dr Griffith was the Winthrop Pickard Bell Professor of Maritime Studies at Mount Allison. Many readers will recall her public lectures on Acadian themes. These were later incorporated in this book, published by McGill-Queens University Press in 1993.

What was the appearance of the Tantramar prior to 1755? We have a few eye witness accounts to fill in some details. One of these, by surveyor Charles Morris (1711–1781), described the view from Beausejour ridge as: one of the most beautiful the Basin of Chignecto affords in summer… from here may be seen a number of villages built on gentle rising hills interspersed with gardens and woods. The villages are divided from each other with long intervals of marsh.

By the time of the Morris visit in 1748 there were Acadian settlements at Weskak, (Westcock); Pré des Bourgs, (Sackville); Pré des Richards, (Middle Sackville); Tintamare, (Upper Sackville); La Butte, Le Coup, Le Lac (Aulac); Portage, at the head of the Missaguash; Beaubassin, adjacent to Beausejour; Jolicoeur, (Jolicure) and Pont à Buot, (Point de Bute). Farther afield, there were settlements at La Planche (Amherst) and Baie Verte for a total population of approximately 3,000.

The Chignecto Isthmus saw its first Acadian settlers in the early 1670s. The majority moved northward from Port Royal in search of new areas where they might reclaim land from the sea. Among European pioneers, the Acadians were unique in that they had little interest in chopping down the forest in a search for arable land.

In this respect, they were continuing an ancient tradition, for more than half of the original Acadian stock came from the west coast of France. Here, in areas such as La Rochelle, in Saintonge and Poitou the reclamation of tidal marshlands was well developed. Having already mastered the fine art of dyke building; how thrilled the Acadians must have been when they spotted the potential of the Tintamare!

Very quickly, the dominant feature of the local landscape became an extensive network of dykes behind which the Acadians were to successfully practise marsh agriculture for almost a century. That they were able to build these dykes without the aid of any modern earth moving equipment is little short of miraculous.

Although the dykes were sometimes referred to as the aboiteaux; this term is used today for the sluice gate which acts as a valve to hold back the tide. Essentially it is a wooden gate with horizontal hinges that lets out fresh water when necessary, and is closed by the incoming tide as a barrier to salt water. Although the word is Acadian French in origin, it was adopted by the English and remains in popular use in both languages.

A key element in the Acadian saga was their return and eventual revival. The best known of the Acadian migrations occurred in 1767–68 when a group assembled in Boston and decided to go home. All who were fit to travel, numbering about 900; men, women and children, trekked through the wilderness along the Atlantic coast to the Isthmus of Chignecto.

By then their lands were occupied by others. As has been the case with many refugees, both before and since, they moved on. Some found land in parts of present day southeastern New Brunswick and to the north in what is now the Acadian Peninsula. Additional numbers secured a safe haven in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island where their descendants may still be found.

There are but few reminders on the Tantramar of the once flourishing Acadian villages. A few melodic place names linger: Aulac, Point de Bute, Baie Verte and Fort Beausejour… occasionally a metal or stone artifact is unearthed on marsh or upland… and tales are told of buried treasure at Jolicure and of a friendly ghost that stalks the banks of the Missiguash. But in the final analysis, it is the many hectares of fertile Tantramar marshland that, nearly three centuries later, serve to symbolize a people who though exiled, were destined re-establish themselves elsewhere in the Maritimes.

The bard of the High Marsh Road, Douglas Lochhead, has captured their enduring legacy in words that only a poet could find:

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.