The Reasons for the Failure of the Acadian Settlement
In Poitou during the 18th century
A Speech by G.C. Bugeon December 3, 1997
I am taking part in these days of francophonie to try to explain the reasons for the failure of the Acadian settlement in Poitou.
The majority among you are very well acquainted with the history of Acadia - from the early part of the 17th century, until the Expulsion of 1755. It will serve no useful purpose, therefore, to rehash that painful episode.
This talk, then, will deal only with those Acadians who were repatriated to France and those who were deported to England and held captive there until the Treaty of Paris in 1763 which put an end to the Seven Year War and with it, the aspirations of the French settlers of that era for a new life in Canada.
We know that the first 450 deportees from Isle- royale (today Cape Breton) landed at Rochefort in Charente -- Maritime in September 1758. The refugees from Louisbourg arrived in La Rochelle in October. More and more Acadians were landed at French ports along the English Channel, particularly at St-Malo (1,102 in April 1759). In 1760, the English continued to disembark their pitiful human cargo at Le Havre, Cherbourg and La Rochelle.
As a result of the surrender of Quebec and Montreal, many ships loaded with Canadian settlers arrived in French ports in 1761. And let's not forget that, having been refused permission to land in Virginia, 1,226 Acadians were taken to the English ports of Liverpool, Bristol, Falmouth and Southampton where, ragged, starving and diseased, they were held captive until 1763.
French ships were able to repatriate them to Morlaix and St-Malo in 1763; 778 more Acadians to feed and shelter! The question was what would the French Government be able to do to help these new arrivals? It must be said that in spite of difficulties, the government of Louis XVdid not remain idle. From the first arrivals, Choiseul, the Minister of the Navy and Colonies, ordered the payment of 6 sols a day to all the needy repatriates - a significant amount at the time even if it was not paid regularly.
The Port Authority took care of lodging them as best it could, had the sick admitted to hospitals, the elderly and the disabled in hospices and--inasmuch as it was possible -found work for the able-bodied men.
But these men and women were in terrible misery and disarray. They had lost everything; left their past behind them in Acadia, lost many members of their families who were scattered and - most important - they had lost their freedom to live and act as they saw fit.
Such were the hardships they suffered that, upon their arrival at St-Malo for example, many died at that city's hospital! But the Acadians had the reputation of being courageous, skillful and hard workers. In addition, the Government of Louis xv believed it needed to do everything to keep this workforce in France before it succumbed to the many attractions from outside the country. The result was a multitude of projects, each progressively more utopian, generated by members of the nobility who were above all looking after their own interests. Agriculture was the in thing at the time and many economists - they were called physiocrats - believed that the soil and agriculture were the key to wealth. Therefore, without any regard for their previous occupations, it was decided that these new arrivals could be turned into first rate farmers. Suffice to mention among many of these projects, two that actually got off the ground prior to the attempt at Poitou: in Guyana (from 1763 to 1767) and at Belle-Ile-en-mer (from 1765 to 1773). For various reasons (climate was a major one and so was the feudal system) both of these were total failures.
The Marquis de Pérusse des Cars comes on the scene at this point.
To simplify his biography (he was born in 1724 and died in Germany in 1795), let's say that this career military man, who became a war casualty in 1762 and who was a wealthy property owner, heartily embraced the new ideas I have just mentioned. Born in Paris but living in the Château de Monthoiron in Vienne which he bought in 1755, he decided to clear the uncultivated wastelands that surrounded it in order to farm them. A decree of the State Council dated June 14, 1763 gave him this authority. Pérusse des Cars, who was well connected to the Court where he had influential supporters such as Bertin - Controller General of Finance, who allowed him to settle some Acadians on his lands in August 1772 - plunged right into this new venture. He had already enjoyed some success between 1762 and 1764 having hosted 10 Rhineland farming families at Monthoiron. This small colony, to which Pérusse de Cars added 65 maids and manservants, comprised sixty one people, as well as two wagon makers, two blacksmiths and a harness maker from Germany. It formed the nucleus of a modern agricultural establishment. All these people had to be housed; not a small problem! Pérusse des Cars purchased some small farms located adjacent to his own uncultivated lands without giving too much thought to the fact that that an agricultural undertaking of that scope required a large amount of capital. He was sinking deep into debt and his only way out was government assistance.
The Acadian settlement of his lands came in the nick of time. Pérusse des Cars' project, on paper, appeared revolutionary for the time and the region.
Let me quote a few excerpts from the memorandum which he submitted to General Commissioner Lemoyne February 14, 1773: "The settlement boasts 7,110 acres (3,650 hectares). These will be divided into five parts with each part having a village with 30 houses, lodging 10 people each. There will be three acres of land per person, and the 10 people will be allocated the house they live in as well as four oxen, two cows, two plows, a wagon and all the required farm implements."
I emphasize the word "allocated" because the Acadians who remained with the settlement would not receive title to their land until 20 years later in 1793. That was one of the main reasons some of them left the project in 1775 and 1776.
Let me quote further: "The house (three types of houses were planned) consists of two rooms, one with a fireplace, a storeroom, a small shed and a barn large enough to hold the harvest. The house will be built of clay mixed with heather on wood framing over a three-foot high wall of stone and will be covered with thatch or heather until tile roofs can be installed.
In addition to the lands to be cultivated, each village will have its communal pasture. This year, 1773, a fifth of the houses will be built, and a third of the land will be cleared, ready for the sowing of oats next March. The rest of the houses will be completed in 1774 and the second third of the land will be cleared in 1776. The settlers will receive title to their property.
I'll stop the quotation here so as not to bore you( it's five pages long!!!).
It's easy to see that these plans were wildly optimistic given that construction on the first house was not begun until July 1773 and that construction proceeded much slower than planned. Only 58 houses were built in the end in the parishes of Archigny, Cenan, and St-Pierre-de-Maillé. One of these, No. 25, would be built in the middle of the woods away from all the rest in the parish of Bonneuil-Matours. It was apparently to have served as a school of agriculture(it was a duplex) but curiously it was not mentioned either in the 1777 or the 1784 census, nor in the 1793 survey!
All this makes us want to unearth the causes of the of the failure of the Acadian settlement, a project that looked so good on paper. There are many causes and we will try to analyze them. First, there was the hostile environment. We would say today that the dice were loaded from the very beginning. Professor Ernest Martin says it best in his reference book "The Acadian exiles in France in the 18th Century and their settlement in Poitou". Quote: "Given that the Acadian colony stretched across four large seigneuries, three of which were church seigneuries (land holdings), the ground breaking for the Acadian settlement immediately set in motion in that part of the country the whole complex feudal property apparatus". The Bishop of Poitiers, as the Seigneur of Angle-sur-l'anglin and Chauvigny, the religious communities of la Puye and l'Étoile were immediately hostile to the project and made it known.
The Marquis de Pérusse attempted to convince his immediate neighbors to accept Acadian families on the same terms as he himself had taken them in order to extend the settlement onto the lands immediately adjacent to his, which he judged to be better than his own. He encountered many obstacles to the point where the investigation which was undertaken on behalf of the Count de Blossac, the Administrator of Poitou, by his appointee at de Châtellerault, took almost 10 years! Financial difficulties were the other major obstacle. Let me say that Pérusse des Cars, generous but ambitious, was ahead of his time as a promoter. He had big ideas, both to help the Acadians and to further his own cause.
As early as 1762, the Marquis applied for long term loans to help defray the start-up costs. First it was 100,000 livres (francs), then 150,000, then 450,000 offering his entire personal fortune as security. Nonetheless, the Minister of Finance, Trudaine, sent him a cautionary letter dated July 31, 1764. Let me quote: " I am quite annoyed, Sir, that you are in the position of having to ask the King for assistance in order to sustain the settlement you established on your lands in Monthoiron. I am much too familiar with state of the Royal Treasury to hope that your request will be granted. Undoubtedly, you had to make many initial expenditures, but you must have known that. However, if your project does succeed, as I hope it will, this success will compensate you for those expenditures and for the interest on the money you had to advance". The message was very clear! However, in 1764, only the Rhinelanders were taken on; the Acadians would have to wait until 1773. For them, the initial plan presented to the Government by Pérusse des Cars was subsequently reduced to 900,000 livres (francs). Later this was reduced to 600,000 livres, but with the stipulation that the Marquis would pay an allowance of six sols (sou) per day to each Acadian for two years.
Pérusse des Cars' big mistake was his stubborn refusal to be associated with capitalist projects such as the ones that launched the drainage of the Poitevin swamp in the early 17th century. He wanted to be his own man, and this resulted in his having to borrow the capital necessary to finance his agricultural undertakings throughout his lifetime. The Government was forever complaining to him about the slow progress of construction and the rapidly increasing costs. This soured his relationships with the ministers in both the Louis xv and Louis xvi Governments. Just imagine, the construction costs between 1773 and 1776 came to 1,072,409 livres!
Lets get back to our exiled Acadians. Needless to say, after the failures at Guyana and Belle-Ile, they were not anxious to leave the Channel ports - with access to the open sea - to settle down inland in Poitou. Who can blame them? Here was a group of people who, for close to 20 years, had been shuffled from port to port after a cruel deportation, painful Atlantic crossings, the loss of all their possessions and now they had to start from scratch and learn a completely new lifestyle in a country with a feudal system that they didn't understand. Wasn't it normal that they would ask much of their new country, having struggled so much for their God and their King? They weren't therefore prepared to accept the first offer that came along. Contacts were established with Acadians in Le Havre, Cherbourg, Morlaix, La Rochelle and Rochefort where volunteers accepted to go to Poitou. In St-Malo, however, the was a misunderstanding right from the first interview between Lemoyne, Commissioner of the Navy, and the Acadians who were against relocating to Poitou.
One of them -Jean-Jacques Leblanc (of whom more later) - stood out as the leader and spokesman, wasting no time in stating that the Acadians wanted above all to go to Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon or to Louisiana.
It is obvious that two Acadian representatives who had visited Poitou in the fall of 1772, came back disappointed from their visit and convinced the others never to set foot in this poor and desolate region. Nevertheless, it was decided that a new delegation of three Acadians (including Jean-Jacques Leblanc) would visit the lands of Pérusse des Cars in July 1773 accompanied by a farmer from Brittany. This time, the visit was more detailed and the representatives recommended the place to their fellow Acadians. However, not all were impressed since Lemoyne succeeded in signing up only 800 of the 1500 he expected.
At this point, it was decided to get things moving. On August 15, 1773 the order came to all the Acadians who had agreed to relocate to Poitou to get underway and to get there no later than October 1st. Two ships, the Saint-Claude and the Sénac would leave St-Malo for La Rochelle to disembark 154 Acadians in mid-September. In fact, due to the lack of co-ordination in such a large undertaking, this group would not arrive until October 2 and 7, 1773. Construction of the houses was barely underway and the town of Châtellerault (a town of about 10,000 at that time) was forced to lodge the majority of the new arrivals, since others came from Le Havre and Cherbourg during the same month. There were now 497 Acadians in the town.
Following his inspection at Châtellerault November 30, 1773, Lemoyne wrote to the Administrator of Poitou. Quote: "the heads of families are pleased to have arrived and are full of hope for a happy future". Alas, such optimism would not last. At the end of November, 1773, despite the lodging problems, Lemoyne insisted that the rest of the 1500 refugees be brought in. In the spring of 1774, groups of 779 and 177 people arrived from Nantes via the Loire and Vienne Rivers. By the end of July, 1774, 1,472 Acadians from 362 families received from Châtellerault a total of 13,248 livres in monthly allowance. Finally, here were the Acadians finally arrived in the Vienne Valley. The question was where would they be housed? They had to be put up in temporary housing scattered all over from Châtellerault to Monthoiron, Leigné-les-Bois, Archigny, at the nearby Château de Marsujault as far as Bonnes et Chauvigny. While their representatives were angry, the families, who above all wanted to remain as a group and who believed they had seen the light at the end of the tunnel, were terribly disappointed.
This was one problem, however, that was not really of Pérusse des Cars' doing. The death of Louis xv on May 10, 1774, proved painful for the colony. Permit me once again to quote Professor Ernest Martin whose well-considered remarks clearly explain the causes of a problem that was going from bad to worse: "Right from the beginning, the Acadians had been promised letters patent that would settle their future and guarantee the benefits that had convinced them to come to Poitou. However, it quickly became obvious that it was no simple matter to inject a large community of lower-class landowners with all sorts of benefits, into a kingdom where real property was still subject to a feudal system.
First of all, the project got under way without any official agreement regarding how much the Government and Pérusse des Cars would invest in the project, the amount of grain to be collected in rent by the feudal lords other than Pérusse, nor the nature or the exact amounts to be paid to the church and feudal lords on an ongoing basis by the settlers after the expiry of the royal decree exempting such payments for a period following land clearing.
These unfortunate administrative bungles created nothing but chaos. The situation worsened! The settlers began refusing to till or clear the soil until they received clear title to their lands. The whole winter passed without a single acre of land being cleared. Mr. Hérault, the representative of de Blossac, the Administrator at Châtellerault, was given a difficult task. I'll quote part of a letter he sent to the Marquis de Pérusse des Cars on June 26, 1774: "A large number of Acadians came to see me recently. Most of them want to leave and gave various reasons. In a letter sent from Poitiers dated June 4, 1775, Mr. de Beauregard expresses his exasperation: " The enumeration you are asking me to undertake, sir, to determine those who want to stay in Poitou and those who want to leave can only be carried out successfully by calling together all these people. This would take a very long time, given that they are scattered in various villages and small towns. However, this could only be done when Mr. de Pérusse is in the country because he knows all the Acadians; the ones who influence the others, and who should be sent on their way. You have also indicated that, as a result of complaints against them, nine Acadians and their families should be sent to another Poitou town far enough away so that they would be able to have any communication with their fellow Acadians in the settlement."
The Marquis de Pérusse is quite aware of the displeasure among the Acadians and of the various maneuvers being taken to discourage them from staying in the settlement.
On July 29, 1775, he writes a letter to the Count de Maurepas, one of his friends at the Court and the only minister who is of the old school" (Murard's papers) quote: " I must let you know what it happening here regarding the Acadians, who were already quite alienated by the three-month delay in receiving their allowance all winter, and whose attitudes were even more soured by the speech delivered by Sieur Dubuisson who was sent here by Mr. Turgo to examine the condition of the lands". Pérusse des Cars complains bitterly in that long letter about the actions of Mr. Dubuisson, a Flemish farmer. Quote: "This man has it in his head that none of the soils in this region has the potential to provide sustenance for its inhabitants. He managed to arrive here a few days before me (Pérusse had gone to Paris), accosted five or six Acadians who for some time were the self-appointed leaders of the group, and who led a sort of mutiny that existed all winter to convince those already established not to till".
While Pérusse des Cars names no names in his letter, de Blossac, the Administrator of Poitou, jumps in with both feet. He writes to him in November 2, 1774 in an effort to get rid of the leaders, Jean-Jacques Leblanc in particular. It was he who had led the revolt in Saint-Malo and was to pursue the same activities at Monthoiron with the help of Basile Henry and Jean-Baptiste Doiron. He stated that " the Acadians were brought to this country to have them starve to death, with no lodging or cultivatable land ready for them." (letter from de Blossac to Pérusse dated November 2, 1774). No work of any consequence was done in the fields during the winter of 1773-1774 which explains the extremely poor harvests in 1774.
In addition, the neighboring farmers, hard working but poor, looked disapprovingly upon these strangers who don't work but who continue to receive their allowance. This caused jealousy. In a letter to Mr. de Sutières (an agronomist who came to assist him), Mr. Pérusse des Cars would so far as to accuse the locals of having contributed to the failure of the settlement. The Marquis wrote the following to Mr. de la Croix, chief clerk to the Controller General: "The Acadians continue to delude themselves with the fantasies fed them before they came here and added to by the parish priests of Archigny, Sainte-Radégonde and Cenan, the Prior from the Abbey de l'Étoile and even a friar from Châtellerault who reads them daily letters he claims to have received from Paris, from the Court and even from abroad dealing with their returning to Acadia. By the end of 1775, nothing is working at the colony. Rumors, true and false, are rampant and the majority of settlers - except for the real farmers-- have only one thing in mind, and that is to get away from there at any cost. Exasperated, Pérusse des Cars wrote to Mr. Hérault, assistant to the Administrator of Châtellerault on October 7, 1775 that "it is urgent that we get rid of those who contribute the least to the settlement and who can cause problems because of their bad attitude and their total dislike of this region." Very strong words! The letter carried a post script in Pérusse des Cars' own handwriting containing the list of the names of the 15 families to get rid of as soon as possible including the three ring leaders.
The Administrator of Poitou, the Count de Blossac, who hadn't hesitated to give help and friendship to Pérusse des Cars, wrote the following in a letter from Poitiers dated December 31, 1775: "I more than anyone, Sir, share your annoyance with the tactics and mutiny of the Acadians, but I must admit to you that I see no way to change things." The problem came to a head in the last half of 1775; Pérusse des Cars' projects are headed for failure. A series of letters was launched. The Marquis wrote from Targé first to Mr. de Limon, Mr. de Blossac and to the Count de Maurepas on August 2nd. On August 3, 1775, he wrote a very long missive to the Bishop of Poitiers; on August 12 from Monthoiron to the Count de Blossac, Mr. de Limon again and to the Controller General; again to Turgot August 16th etc.etc. I'll stop here, but there's a lot more.
The Departmental Archives of Vienne, hold the Marquis de Pérusse des Cars' correspondence under the title of "Papiers de Murard". Among this collection is a document entitled, and I quote: "Docket containing copies of the letters written by Marquis de Pérusse to ministers and other concerned individuals regarding the settlement of Acadians in the wastelands of Poitou; these copies follow those written previously by the said nobleman on the same subject and which have been kept in Paris." The last letter in this collection, written from Monthoiron February 18, 1776 (prior to the departure of the fourth convoy from Châtellerault to Nantes) to Mr. de la Croix, head clerk to the Controller General, is full of praise for those Acadians who stayed at the settlement.
Let me come back to the tense situation that existed at the time at the settlement where problems were increasing.
The few Acadian families who were happy at the settlement, specifically those who were attached to their land compared to the sailors, fishermen and carpenters who had claimed to be farmers before leaving Saint-Malo so as not to lose their allowances, no longer dared to work their fields fearing reprisals from the ring leaders and their friends. Finally, on September 26, 1775, Turgot decided to sign the order to remove from the settlement all those who wanted to leave. The departure was planned for October 22, 1775.
On October 24, the small Vienne flotilla left Châtellerault carrying the first group consisting of 28 leader families -116 people. I say "leader" but I might have said "patriot". A second convoy left on September 13th and 14th with 314 Acadians and a fourth left on March 6, 1776 with 311 passengers. The delay was caused by the winter weather as mentioned by Pérusse des Cars in his letter to Mr. de la Croix, quote: "The terrible weather over the past three months, Sir, prevented us from sending the rest of the Acadians to Nantes.
The rivers that are at a very low lever three quarters of the year are now overflowing."
The fifth and last convoy left March 13, 1776 with 138 people. Only 25 families -157 people in all-remained at the settlement. Of these, 10 were bedridden and 16 were orphans. Many houses were vacant. A few families subsequently left to go to Nantes. Let me list the occupations declared by the Acadians as they left Châtellerault for Nantes in the first three convoys. It is enlightening.
First convoy: 3 framers 4 carpenters 16 seamen
Second convoy: 3 farmers 10 carpenters 46 seamen
Third convoy : 0 farmers 29 carpenters 52 seamen
Total 6 farmers 43 carpenters 114 seamen
I'd like to quote for you a few extracts from a letter written by Pérusse des Cars at Monthoiron March 9, 1776 -after the fourth convoy had left Châtellerault for Nantes--addressed, it would appear, to the Administrator of Poitou in which Pérusse des Cars expresses all of his frustrations and anger.
Quote: "The Acadians, Sir, succeeded in trying the patience of those who most zealously tried to help them Yesterday 311 left instead of the planned 400 that the boats could accommodate, the others claiming the boats were too crowded. This necessitated additional boats to finally get rid of these people who, for the past 15 days had succeeded in changing the minds of 17 or 18 families that had already agreed to settle in the project. This is the extent to which a small clique has been able to sway these poor people.
I hate having to admit that I, more than anyone, have been duped into commiserating with them given their terrible misfortune. I sincerely pity the small group of Acadians who are very respectable, honest and hard-working who can be blamed only for letting themselves be led by their children rather than acting themselves as the leaders. The seamen and those of other occupations are unbelievably lazy and uncommonly greedy. It is clear to me today that all these people are only interested in collecting their allowance which, without any doubt, was a necessity when they first arrived in France, but which, after 18 years, has caused them to lose all desire to work "
Pérusse des Cars closes his long letter with some advice on how to make the settlement prosper in the future with the small number of Acadians remaining. Quote: " When the weather improves, Mr. de Bauregard should spend a few days here and see for himself so that he might be in a better position to report back to you and that you, in turn, may inform the Court."
I shall now conclude this long account which might have bored you with its many figures and quotations.
It is said often said that this plan to introduce Acadians to France was a failure. It's true. But, it wasn't a total failure. First, a small colony of Acadians did succeed in establishing itself in the region and, thanks to marriages between them and French natives, managed to produce many descendants. Secondly, among those who had established in the settlement and left, many did reach Louisiana in 1785. Without listing each of their names, let me just quote the numbers of the farms they had occupied: 2,8,17,22,23,31,37,39,40,41,43,46,48,49,51,53,55 and 57. Along with their parents, this group comprised 150 children and adolescents, born prior to or during the short period in France, who rejoined other Acadians already settled in the bayous of Louisiana, and who contributed to the development of the Acadians-called Cajuns--in the United States. All has not been negative because in the Vienne (in France) the memory of the Acadians is becoming increasingly more vivid.
This document is reproduced with thanks to the "Acadian Cousins of Archigny"
Thanks to Bernard Cormier for translation
Ferme-musée d'Archigny - The Acadian Farm-Museum of Archigny