L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
The Expulsion of the Acadians
[This text was written by Arthur G. DOUGHTY and published in 1916. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]
THE imprisonment of the deputies, on George's Island at Halifax, naturally agitated the minds of the simple Acadians. In the ripening fields and in the villages might be seen groups discussing the fate of their companions. But, though they may have feared further punitive acts at the hands of the British, they were totally unprepared for the approaching catastrophe, and did not for a moment dream that they were to be cast out of their homes, deprived of all they held dear in the land of their nativity, and sent adrift as wanderers and exiles.
It is no part of this narrative to sit in judgment or to debate whether the forcible expatriation of the Acadians was a necessary measure or a justifiable act of war. However this may be, it is important to fix the responsibility for a deed so painful in its execution and so momentous in its consequences.
The Council at Halifax had no power to enact laws. Its action was limited to the authority vested in the governor by his commission and his instructions. And, as Lawrence had as yet neither commission nor instructions (1) he asked the chief justice, Jonathan Belcher, to prepare an opinion, as he desired to be fortified with legal authority for the drastic act on which he had determined. Belcher had arrived in Nova Scotia from New England nine months before. He does not appear to have examined the official correspondence between the years 1713 and 1755, or even the Minutes of Council. At any rate, he presented a document ill-founded in fact and contemptible in argument. The Acadians are not to be allowed to remain, he said, because ‘it will be contrary to the letter and spirit of His Majesty's instructions to Governor Cornwallis, and in my humble apprehension would incur the displeasure of the crown and the parliament.' (2) What the instructions to Cornwallis had to do with it is not clear. There is no clause in that document contemplating the forcible removal of the people. But even this is immaterial, since the instructions to Cornwallis were not then in force. Hopson, who had succeeded Cornwallis, had been given new instructions, and the Council was governed by them, since, legally at any rate, Hopson was still governor in 1755 ; and, according to his instructions, Hopson was ‘to issue a declaration in His Majesty's name setting forth, that tho' His Majesty is fully sensible that the many indulgences . . . to the said inhabitants in allowing them the entirely free exercise of their religion and the quiet peaceable possession of their lands, have not met with a dutiful return, but on the contrary, divers of the said inhabitants have openly abetted or privately assisted His Majesty's enemies . . . yet His Majesty being desirous of shewing marks of his royal grace to the said inhabitants, in hopes thereby to induce them to become for the future true and loyal subjects, is pleased to declare, that the said inhabitants shall continue in the free exercise of their religion, as far as the Laws of Great Britain shall admit of the same . . . provided that the said inhabitants do within three months from the date of such declaration . . . take the Oath of Allegiance.' The next clause instructed the governor to report to the Lords of Trade on the effect of the declaration. If the inhabitants or any part of them should refuse the oath, he was to ascertain ‘His Majesty's further directions in what manner to conduct yourself towards such of the French inhabitants as shall not have complied therewith.' (3) Hopson had tendered the oath to the Acadians. The oath had been refused by them. Their refusal had been reported to the government ; and there the matter rested.
In another paragraph of the opinion the chief justice asserted that ‘persons are declared recusants if they refuse on a summons to take the oath at the sessions, and can never after such refusal be permitted to take them.' This, no doubt, was the law. But the king had ignored the law, and had commanded his representatives in Nova Scotia to tender the oath again to a people who, upon several occasions, had refused to take it. It was not reasonable, therefore, to suppose, as the chief justice did, that the king would be displeased at the performance of an act which he had expressly commanded.
We have seen that, in the spring of 1754, when Lawrence had intimated to the government that a number of the Acadians who had gone over to the enemy were now anxious to return to their lands, which he would not permit until they had taken an oath without reserve, he was advised not to ‘create a diffidence in their minds which might induce them to quit the province.' That this was still the policy is evident from a letter to the same effect written to Lawrence by Sir Thomas Robinson of the British ministry on August 13, 1755, two weeks after the ominous decision of the Halifax Council. (4) Lawrence, however, could not have received this last communication until the plans for the expulsion were well advanced. On the other hand, the decision of the Council was not received in England until November 20, so that the king was not aware of it until the expulsion was already a reality. The meaning of these facts is clear. The thing was done by Lawrence and his Council without the authority or knowledge of the home government. (5)
The proceedings in connection with the expulsion were carried on simultaneously in different parts of the province ; and the circumstances varied according to the temper or situation of the people. It will be convenient to deal with each group or district separately.
On July 31, 1755, Lawrence ordered Colonel Monckton, who lay with his troops at the newly captured Fort Cumberland, to gather in the inhabitants of the isthmus of Chignecto, and of Chepody, on the north shore of the Bay. The district of Minas was committed to the care of Colonel Winslow. Captain Murray, in command at Fort Edward, was to secure the inhabitants of Pisiquid, and Major Handfield, at Annapolis Royal, the people in his district.
It is regrettable that we do not find in the instructions to these officers any discrimination made between the Acadians who had persistently refused to take the oath and those who had been recognized by the governor and Council as British subjects. Monckton was advised to observe secrecy, and to ‘endeavour to fall upon some stratagem to get the men, both young and old (especially the heads of families)’ into his power, and to detain them until the transports should arrive. He was also to inform the inhabitants that all their cattle and corn were now the property of the crown, and no person should be allowed to carry off ‘the least thing but their ready money and household furniture.' (6) On August 8 Monckton was advised that the transports would be available soon, and that in the interval he would do well to destroy all the villages in the vicinity of Beauséjour or Cumberland, and to use ‘every other method to distress as much as can be, those who may attempt to conceal themselves in the woods.' Monckton promptly conceived a plan to entrap the people. He issued a summons, calling upon the adult males to appear at Fort Cumberland on the 11th. About four hundred responded to the call. The proceedings were summary. Monckton merely told them that by the decision of the Council they were declared rebels on account of their past misdeeds ; that their lands and chattels were forfeited to the crown, and that in the meantime they would be treated as prisoners. (7) The gates of the fort were then closed.
Less successful was Captain Cobb, who had been sent to Chepody to capture the Acadians there. Before his arrival the people had fled to the woods. Three other parties, detached from Fort Cumberland to scour the country in search of stragglers, reported various successes. Major Preble returned the next day with three Acadians, and Captain Perry brought in eleven. Captain Lewis, who had gone to Cobequid, had captured two vessels bound for Louisbourg with cattle and sheep, and had taken several prisoners and destroyed a number of villages on the route.
The more energetic of the Acadians still at large were not easily caught. The pangs of hunger, however, might tempt many to leave the security of their hiding-places, and Monckton determined to gather in as many more as possible. On August 28 Captain Frye sailed from Fort Cumberland for Chepody, Memramcook, and Petitcodiac, on the north shore, with orders to take prisoners and burn the villages on the way. (8) Captain Gilbert was sent to Baie Verte on a similar mission. Finding the village deserted on his arrival at Chepody, Frye set fire to the buildings and sailed toward Petitcodiac. On the way the appearance of a house or a barn seems to have been the signal for the vessels to cast anchor, while a party of soldiers, torch in hand, laid waste the homes of the peasantry. On September 4, however, the expedition suffered a serious check. A landing party of about sixty were applying the torch to a village on the shore, when they were set upon by a hundred Indians and Acadians, and a general engagement ensued. The British, though reinforced by men from the ships, were severely handled ; and in the end Frye regained the boats with a loss of twenty-three killed and missing and eleven wounded. This attack was the work of Boishébert, the Canadian leader, whom we met some time ago at St John. On the capture of that place by Rous in the summer Boishébert had taken to the woods with his followers, and was assisting the settlers of Chepody to gather in the harvest when Frye's raiders appeared. Frye did not attempt to pursue his assailants, but retired at once to Fort Cumberland with twenty-three captured women and children. He had, however, destroyed over two hundred buildings and a large quantity of wheat and flax. Meanwhile Gilbert had laid waste the village at Baie Verte and the neighbouring farms. (9)
By August 31 the transports had arrived at Beauséjour, and early in the month of September the embarkation began. The work, however, was tedious, and in the interval the English met with another misfortune. On October 1 eighty-six Acadian prisoners dug a hole under the wall of Fort Lawrence and, eluding the vigilance of the guards, made good their escape in the night. (10) But on October 13 a fleet of ten sail, carrying nine hundred and sixty Acadian exiles, left Chignecto Bay bound for South Carolina and Georgia. After the departure of the vessels the soldiers destroyed every barn and house in the vicinity and drove several herds of cattle into Fort Cumberland. (11)
Lawrence was now rid of nearly a thousand Acadians. It was less than he expected, to be sure, and yet no doubt it was a great relief to him. About this time he should have received Sir Thomas Robinson's letter of August 13, conveying to him the king's wishes in effect that the Acadians were not to be molested. (12) This letter received in time would no doubt have stopped the whole undertaking. But now that some of the people had already been deported, there was nothing to be done but to go on with the business to the bitter end.
At Annapolis Royal, more than a hundred miles south of Monckton's camp, matters proceeded more slowly. Handfield, the commandant there, had decided to wait for the arrival of the promised transports before attempting to round up the inhabitants. Then, when his soldiers went forward on their mission up the river, no sound of human voice met their ears in any of the settlements. The inhabitants had hidden in the woods. Handfield appealed to Winslow, who was then at Grand Pré, for more troops to bring the people to reason. (13) But Winslow had no troops to spare. Handfield does not appear to have relished his task, which he described as a 'disagreeable and troublesome part of the service.' What induced the inhabitants to return to their homes is not clear, but early in the month of September they resumed their occupations. They remained unmolested until early in November, when a fresh detachment of troops arrived to assist in their removal. On December 4 over sixteen hundred men, women, and children were crowded into the transports, which lay off Goat Island and which four days later set sail at eight o'clock in the morning.
Meanwhile Captain Murray of Fort Edward was doing his duty in the Pisiquid neighbourhood. On September 5 he wrote to Winslow at Grand Pré, only a few miles distant : ‘I have succeeded finely and have got 183 men into my possession.' (14) But there was still much to be done. Three days later he wrote again : ‘I am afraid there will be some lives lost before they are got together, for you know our soldiers hate them, and if they can find a pretence to kill them, they will.' Of the means Murray employed to accomplish his task we are not told, but he must have been exceedingly active up to October 14, for on that date nine hundred persons had been gathered into his net. His real troubles now began ; he was short of provisions and without transports. At last two arrived, one of ninety tons, and the other of one hundred and fifty : these, however, would not accommodate half the people. Another sloop was promised, but it was slow in coming. He became alarmed. ‘Good God, what can keep her !' he wrote. ‘I earnestly entreat you to send her with all despatch. . . . Then with the three sloops and more vessels I will put them aboard, let the consequence be what it will.' (15) He was as good as his word. On October 23 Winslow wrote : ‘Captain Murray has come from Pisiquid with upwards of one thousand people in four vessels.' (16)
Colonel Winslow arrived on August 19 at Grand Pré, in the district of Minas. After requesting the inhabitants to remove all sacred objects from the church, which he intended to use as a place of arms, he took up his quarters in the presbytery. A camp was then formed around the church, and enclosed by a picket-fence. His first action was to summon the principal inhabitants to inform them that they would be required to furnish provisions for the troops during their occupancy, and to take effective measures to protect the crops which had not yet been garnered. There was danger that if the object of his visit were to become known, the grain might be destroyed. He was careful, therefore, to see that the harvest was gathered in before making any unfavourable announcement.
On August 29 Winslow held a consultation with Murray as to the most expeditious means of effecting the removal of the people. The next day three sloops from Boston came to anchor in the basin. There was, of course, immediate and intense excitement among the inhabitants ; yet, in spite of all inquiries regarding their presence, no information could be elicited from either the crews or the soldiers. On September 2, however, Winslow issued a roclamation informing the people that the lieutenant-governor had a communication to impart to them respecting a new resolution, and that His Majesty's intentions in respect thereto would be made known. They were, therefore, to appear in the church at Grand Pré on Friday, September 5, at three o'clock in the afternoon. No excuse would be accepted for non-attendance ; and should any fail to attend, their lands and chattels would be forfeited to the crown.
Winslow's position was by no means strong. He had taken all the precautions possible ; but he was short of provisions, and there was no sign of the expected supply-ship, the Saul. Besides, the Acadians far outnumbered his soldiers, and should they prove rebellious trouble might ensue. ‘Tings are now very heavy on my heart and hands,' he wrote a few days later. ‘ wish we had more men, but as it is shall I question not to be able to scuffle through.' (17)
The eventful 5th of September arrived, and at three o'clock four hundred and eighteen of the inhabitants walked slowly into the church, which had been familiar to them from their youth, and closely connected with the most solemn as well as with the most joyous events of their lives. Here their children had been baptized, and here many of them had been united in the bonds of matrimony. Here the remains of those they loved had been carried, here they were consigned to their final resting-place, and here, too, after divine service, they had congregated to glean intelligence of what was going on in the world beyond their ken. Now, however, the scene was changed. Guards were at the door ; and in the centre of the church a table had been placed, round which soldiers were drawn up. Presently Colonel Winslow entered, attended by his officers. Deep silence fell upon the people as he began to speak. The substance of his speech has been preserved in his journal, as follows :
This address having been delivered and interpreted to the people, Winslow issued orders to the troops and seamen not to kill any of the cattle or rob the orchards, as the lands and possessions of the inhabitants were now the property of the king. He then withdrew to his quarters in the presbytery, leaving the soldiers on guard.
The first thoughts of the stricken prisoners were of their families, with whom they had no means of communication and who would not understand the cause of their detention. After some conversation together, a few of the elders asked leave to speak to the commander. This being granted, they requested to be allowed to carry the melancholy news to the homes of the prisoners. Winslow at length ordered them to choose each day twenty men, for whom the others would be held responsible, to communicate with their families, and to bring in food for all the prisoners.
Only five transports lay in the basin of Minas. No provisions were in sight. It was impossible as yet to put all the prisoners on board. More had been captured, and they now outnumbered Winslow's troops nearly two to one. Presently news came of the disaster to Frye's party at Chepody. Winslow, having observed suspicious movements among the prisoners, began to fear for the safety of his own position. He held a consultation with his officers. It was decided to divide the prisoners, and put fifty of the younger men on each of the transports. (19) The parish priest, Father Landry, who had a good knowledge of English and was the principal spokesman of the Acadians, was told to inform the inhabitants that one hour would be given them to prepare for going on board. Winslow then brought up the whole of his troops, and stationed them between the door of the church and the gate. The Acadians were drawn up ; the young men were told off and ordered to march. They refused to obey unless their fathers might accompany them. (20) Winslow informed them that orders were orders, that this was not the time for parley, and commanded the troops to fix bayonets and advance. This appears to have had the effect desired, for, with the assistance of the commander, who pushed one of them along, twenty-four men started off and the rest followed. The road from the church to the ships, nearly a mile and a half in length, was lined by hundreds of women and children, who fell on their knees weeping and praying. Eighty soldiers conducted the procession, which moved but slowly. Some of the men sang, some wept, and others prayed. (21) At last the young men were put . aboard and left under guard, while the escort returned to bring another contingent of the prisoners ; and so until all who were deemed dangerous had been disposed of. The vessels had not been provisioned ; but the women and children brought daily to the shore food which the soldiers conveyed to the prisoners.
After this it appears that the soldiers committed some depredations in the neighbourhood, and Winslow issued an order forbidding any one to leave the camp after the roll-call. (22) In the meantime parties were sent to remote parts of the rivers in search of stragglers, but only thirty, very old and infirm, were found, and it was decided to leave them ashore until the ships should be ready to depart. It still remained, however, to bring in the inhabitants of the parish of Cobequid, and a detachment under Captain Lewis was dispatched on this errand. He returned without a prisoner. The inhabitants of Cobequid had fled ; but Lewis reported that he had laid their habitations in ruins.
Neither the needed transports nor the provisions had arrived. Winslow chafed and groaned. He longed to be rid of the painful and miserable business. At last, on the evening of September 28, came the belated supply-ship ; but where were the transports ? Win-slow resolved to fill up the five vessels which lay in the basin, and ordered that the women and children should be brought to the shore. Families and those of the same village were to be kept together, as far as possible.
Meanwhile twenty-four of the young men imprisoned on the ships made good their escape, and one François Hébert was charged as an abettor. Winslow ordered Hébert to be brought ashore, and, to impress upon the Acadians the gravity of his offence, his house and barn were set on fire in his presence. At the same time the inhabitants were warned that unless the young men surrendered within two days all their household furniture would be confiscated and their habitations destroyed. If captured, no quarter would be given them. The result was that twenty-two of the young men returned to the transports. The other two were overtaken by the soldiers and shot. (23)
Finally a number of transports arrived, and, on October 8, amid scenes of wild confusion, the embarkation began in earnest. From the villages far and near came the families of those who were detained in the church and on the vessels. Some came aiding the infirm or carrying the sick, while others were laden with bundles of their personal effects. Most were on foot, although a few rode in the vehicles bringing their household goods. Old and young wended their way to the vessels, weary and footsore and sad at heart. In all, eighty families were taken to the boats. The next day the men who had been imprisoned on the vessels since September 10 were brought ashore in order that they might join their families and accompany the people of their own villages. Four days later (October 13) several of the ships received sailing orders, some for Maryland, others for Pennsylvania, and others for Virginia.
By the 1st of November Winslow had sent off over fifteen hundred exiles. But his anxieties were by no means at an end. There were still a large number of people to be deported. The difficulty lay in the shortage of transports. After the vessels had been taxed to their utmost, Winslow had still over six hundred persons on his hands ; (24) and he was obliged in the meantime to quarter them in houses at Grand Pré. There remained also the task of destroying the villages to prevent their occupation by stragglers, in accordance with Lawrence's orders. Finally, on December 13, transports were provided for the unhappy remnant of the prisoners ; and seven days later the last vessels left port. The cruel task was done. In all, over six thousand persons had been forcibly deported, while the rest of the population had been driven to the wilderness and their homes laid waste. Some wandered to the Isle St Jean and others to New Brunswick and Canada. The land of the Acadians was a solitude.
And so, sorrow-framed, the story of the expulsion draws to its close. Hardly had the deplorable work ended, when England made with Frederick of Prussia the treaty which formally inaugurated her Seven Years' War with France. For Lawrence, perhaps, this was a fortunate circumstance. The day of mutual concessions had passed ; and an act which a few months before might have been denounced as unwarrantable might now, in the heat of a mighty contest, be regarded as a patriotic service. Nor is this the only instance of the kind in history. Often, indeed, has war served, not only to cover the grossest inhumanities ; it has even furnished an excuse for substantial reward.
(1) He had not yet been appointed governor. Hopson had wished to resign in the summer of 1754; but the Lords of Trade, who held him in high esteem, had refused to accept his resignation, and Lawrence had been made merely lieutenant-governor, though with the full salary of a governor.
(2) Public Archives, Canada. Nova Scotia A, vol. lviii, p. 380. Opinion of Chief Justice Belcher.
(3) Public Archives, Canada. Nova Scotia E, vol. ii. Instructions to Governors.
(4) Nova Scotia Documents, p. 279. Here is a sentence from the letter : 'It cannot therefore be too much recommended to you, to use the greatest caution and prudence in your conduct towards these neutrals, and to assure such of them as may be trusted, especially upon their taking the oaths to His Majesty and his government, that they may remain in the quiet possession of their settlements, under proper regulations.'
(5) At the meeting of the Halifax Council which decreed the removal of the Acadians the following members were present : the lieutenant-governor, Benjamin Green, John Collier, William Cotterell, John Rous, and Jonathan Belcher. Vice-Admiral Boscawen and Rear-Admiral Mostyn were also present at the 'earnest request' of the Council. —Minutes of Council, July 28, 1755.
(6) Nova Scotia Documents, p. 267.
(7) Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, vol. iv. Journal of Colonel John Winslow, part i, p. 227.
(8) 'Major Frye with a party of 200 men embarked on Board Captain Cobb Newel and Adams to go to Sheperday and take what French thay Could and burn thare vilges thare and at Petcojack.'—Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, vol. i, p. 131. Diary of John Thomas.
(9) ‘A Party Likewise from ye Bay of verte under ye comand of Capt. Gilbert who had bin and consumed that vilige and the Houses adjasent.'—Diary of John Thomas.
(10) 'Stormy Dark Night Eighty Six French Prisoners Dugg under ye Wall att Foart Lawrance and got Clear undiscovered by ye Centry.'—Diary of John Thomas.
(11) "We Burnt 30 Houses Brought away one Woman 200 Hed of Neat Cattle 20 Horses ... we mustered about Sunrise mustered the Cattle Togather Drove them over ye River near westcock Sot Near 50 Houses on Fyre and Returned to Fort Cumberland with our Cattle etc. about 6 Clock P.M.'—Diary of John Thomas, pp. 136-7.
(12) The date of the receipt of this letter is uncertain ; but it is evident that he received it before the 30th of November, as on that day he replied to a letter of the 13th of August.
(13) Winslow's Journal, part ii, p. 96.
(14) Winslow's Journal, part ii, p. 96.
(15) Ibid., p. 173.
(16) Ibid., p. 178.
(17) Winslow’s Journal, part ii, p. 97.
(18) Winslow's Journal, part ii, p. 94. It is not thought necessary here to follow the grotesque spelling of the original. It will be noted that the doom of the people is pronounced in the name of the king. But, as already stated, the king or the home government knew nothing of it ; and instructions of a quite contrary tenor were even then on their way to Lawrence.
(19) Winslow's Journal, part ii, p. 108. — ‘September 10. Called my officers together and communicated to them what I had observed, and after debating matters it was determined, nemine contradicente, that it would be best to divide the prisoners.'
(20) Ibid., p. 109.— They all answered they would not go without their fathers. I told them that was a word I did not understand, for that the King's command was to me absolute and should be absolutely obeyed, and that I did not love to use harsh means, but that the time did not admit of parleys or delays ; and then ordered the whole troops to fix their bayonets and advance towards the French. I bid the four right-hand files of the prisoners, consisting of twenty-four men, which I told off myself to divide from the rest, one of whom I took hold on.'
(21) Winslow's Journal, part ii, p. 109.— ‘They went off praying, singing, and crying, being met by the women and children all the way (which is a mile and a half), with great lamentations.'
(22) Winslow's Journal, part ii, p. 173. September 13. — ‘No party or person will be permitted to go out after calling the roll on any account whatever, as many bad things have been done lately in the night, to the distressing of the distressed French inhabitants in this neighbourhood.'
(23) Winslow's Journal, part ii, p. 173.
(24) Winslow's Journal, part ii, p. 183.
Source: Arthur G. DOUGHTY, The Acadian Exiles. A Chronicle of the Land of Evangeline, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1916, 178p., pp. 114-137.
© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College