History of Acadia

Acadia has its origins in the explorations of Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian explorer serving the king of France. In 1524-25 he explored the Atlantic coast of North America and gave the name "Archadia", or “Arcadia” in Italian, to a region near the present-day American state of Delaware.

Tantramar Marsh
The present-day marshes are among the densest breeding grounds in the world for some species, such as the marsh hawk (photo by John de Visser).
Antonine Maillet, writer
Maillet's novels fuse adventure, desire, frustration, agony and joy to offer a new image of the original Acadia (photo by Andrew Danson).
Port of Louisbourg
View of Louisbourg from a warship, as it would have appeared in 1744 (artwork by Lewis Parker).
Acadia, Places
Merchant Ship
From beginning of the 19th century until the 1920s, merchants vessels like this one were used to export wood and fish towards Europe and South America. Many Acadians worked in this type of economy, either as builder or sailor (courtesy Centre de rechèrche, Nicolas Denys, Campus de Shippagan, Université de Moncton).
Port-Royal, Nova Scotia, established by Champlain in 1605, was the centre of Acadian life. This reconstruction is a national historic park (photo by Bill Brooks/Masterfile).
Louisbourg Wooden Buildings
The fortress of Louisbourg is one of Canada's most elaborate historical reconstructions (Corel Professional Photos).
Acadian Ancestry
Grand Pré Chapel
This memorial chapel, in the style of mid-18th-century French architecture, opened in 1930 (photo by Freeman Patterson/Masterfile).
Grand Pré Memorial
Stained-glass memorial dedicated to the memory of the Acadian Deportation (courtesy T.E. Smith).
Acadian Village
This historical reconstruction near Caraquet, New Brunswick, recreates life in early Acadia (photo by John deVisser/Masterfile).

History of the Name "Acadia"

Acadia has its origins in the explorations of Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian explorer serving the king of France. In 1524-25 he explored the Atlantic coast of North America and gave the name "Archadia", or “Arcadia” in Italian, to a region near the present-day American state of Delaware. In 1566, the cartographer Bolongnini Zaltieri gave a similar name, "Larcadia," to an area far to the northeast that was to become Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The 1524 notes of Portuguese explorer Estêvão Gomes also included Newfoundland as part of the area he called “Arcadie” (see also Acadia).

French Presence (1534--1713)

The abundance of cod off the coast of Newfoundland was known of long before the explorations of Jacques Cartier (see Norse voyages; Fisheries History). In 1534, during the first of three voyages to Canada, Cartier made contact with Mi’kmaqs in Chaleur Bay.

The first French colonists did not arrive, however, until 1604 under the leadership of Pierre du Gua de Monts and Samuel de Champlain. De Monts settled the 80-odd colonists at Île Sainte-Croix on the St Croix River. The winter of 1604–05 was disastrous, scurvy killing at least 36 men.

The next year the colony looked for a new site and chose Port-Royal. When some French merchants challenged his commercial monopoly, de Monts took everyone back to France in 1607; French colonists did not return until 1610. During this time the French formed alliances with the two main Aboriginal peoples of Acadia, the Mi’kmaqs and the Maliseet.

Factors other than commercial rivalry stifled Acadia's development. In 1613 Samuel Argall, an adventurer from Virginia, seized Acadia and chased out most of its settlers. In 1621 the government renamed Acadia Nova Scotia and moved in the Scottish settlers of Sir William Alexander (1629). France appointed Charles La Tour as lieutenant-general of Acadia in 1631, however, and he built strongholds at Cape Sable and at the mouth of the Saint John River (Fort La Tour, later Saint John). Alexander's project of Scottish expansion was cut short in 1632 by the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which allowed France to regain Acadia.

Renewed Presence and Settlement

Renewed settlement took place under Governor Isaac de Razilly, who moved the capital from Port-Royal to La Hève, on the south shore of present-day Nova Scotia. He arrived in 1632, with "300 gentlemen of quality" (see Lahave). A sailor by trade, Razilly was more interested in sea-borne trade than in agriculture and this influenced his decision where to establish settlements. As early as 1613 French missionaries participated in the colonial venture. By the 1680s a few wooden churches with resident priests were established.

Razilly died in 1635, leaving Charles de Menou D'Aulnay and La Tour to quarrel over his succession. D'Aulnay moved the capital back to Port-Royal, then proceeded to wage civil war against La Tour, who was solidly established in the region. D'Aulnay was convinced that the colony's future lay in agricultural development that assured both self-sufficiency in food supply and a stable population. Before his death in 1650, D'Aulnay was responsible for the arrival of some 20 families. With the arrival of families, agricultural production was stabilized and adequate food and clothing became available.

French-English enmity once again affected Acadia's fate, causing it to pass to the English in 1654 and back to the French through the Treaty of Breda (1667). It was taken by the New England adventurer Sir William Phips in 1690 and returned to France again through the Treaty of Ryswick (1697).

Establishment of New Colonies

Starting in the 1670s, colonists left Port-Royal to found other centres, the most important being Beaubassin (Amherst, Nova Scotia) and Grand-Pré (now Grand Pre, Nova Scotia). The first official census, held in 1671, registered an Acadian population of more than 400 people, 200 of which lived in Port-Royal. In 1701 there were about 1400; in 1711, some 2500; in 1750, over 10 000; and in 1755, over 13 000 (Louisbourg excluded).

These highly self-reliant Acadians farmed and raised livestock on marsh lands drained by a technique of tide-adaptable barriers called aboiteaux, making dikeland agriculture possible. They hunted, fished and trapped as well; they even had commercial ties with the English colonists in America, usually against the wishes of the French authorities. Acadians considered themselves "neutrals" since Acadia had been transferred a few times between the French and the English. By not taking sides, they hoped to avoid military backlash.

Peninsular Acadia was not the only region with a French population along the Atlantic. In the 1660s, France established a fishing colony at its post Plaisance (now Placentia, Newfoundland). In both regions the French population appeared to enjoy a fairly high standard of living. Easy access to land and the absence of strict regulations allowed the Acadians to lead a relatively autonomous existence. A vital contribution to the survival of the Acadians was made by the Mi’kmaqs. At the end of the 17th century aboriginal peoples exerted considerable influence on the Acadians due to their knowledge of the woods and the land.

Into the Hands of the English

Following the War of Spanish Succession (1701-13), Acadia passed definitively into the hands of the English. Through the Treaty of Utrecht, Plaisance was ceded along with the territory which consisted of "Acadia according to its ancient boundaries," but France and England failed to agree on a definition of those boundaries. For the French, the territory included only the present peninsular Nova Scotia, but the English claimed, in addition, what is today New Brunswick, the Gaspé and Maine.

Difficult Neighbours (1713-63)

Following the loss of "Ancient Acadia", France concentrated on developing Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island) and Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), two largely ignored regions until that time. On Île Royale, Louisbourg was chosen as the new capital. Louisbourg had three roles: a new fishing post to replace Plaisance; a strong military presence; and a centre for trade. Île St-Jean was more looked upon as the agricultural extension of Île Royale.

Even though the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht provided for the theoretical departure of the Acadians, they showed little initiative to move to the new French colonies because of the lack of marshes that were so vital to their agricultural system. As well, the British authorities at Port-Royal (renamed Annapolis Royal) did not facilitate the transfer but rather interfered in its process. They were worried about the emptying of the colony of its population and the subsequent increase in the population of Île Royale. Acadian farmers were also needed to provide subsistence for the garrison.

Except for the garrison at Port-Royal, the English made virtually no further attempt at colonization until 1749 in what was once again named Nova Scotia. From 1713 to 1744, the small English presence and a long peace allowed the Acadian population to grow at a pace which surpassed the average of this whole era. To some historians, it is considered Acadia's "Golden Age."

England demanded of its conquered subjects an oath of unconditional loyalty, but the Acadians agreed only to an oath of neutrality. Unable to impose the unconditional oath, Governor Richard Philipps in 1729–30 gave his verbal agreement to this semi-allegiance.

In 1745, during the War of the Austrian Succession, Louisbourg fell to an English expeditionary force whose land army was largely composed of New England colonists. However, France regained the fortress through the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), to the great displeasure of the New England colonies. It was in this context that England decided to make the Nova Scotian territory "truly" British.


In 1749 the capital was moved from Annapolis Royal to Halifax. Intended to serve as both a military and a commercial counterweight to Louisbourg, Halifax was selected because it was a better seaport and was far from the Acadian population centres. England finally took steps to bring its own settlers into the colony. They came primarily from England and from German territories with British connections (Hanover, Brunswick, etc). From 1750 to 1760, an estimated 7000 British colonists and 2400 Germans arrived to settle in Nova Scotia.

The French authorities reacted by building Fort Beausejour in 1751 (near Sackville, New Brunswick) to keep the English from crossing the Isthmus of Chignecto into their "new" Acadia. The British wanted to keep an eye on the French and their Mi’kmaq allies, and so constructed Fort Lawrence. They also wanted to protect potential English settlers and stop any possible invasion by land coming from Canada.

With Louisbourg and Canada in the north, Fort Beauséjour in the east and an Acadian population viewed as a potential rebellious threat, the British authorities in Halifax decided to settle the Acadian question once and for all: by refusing to pledge an unconditional oath of allegiance, the population risked deportation. The British first captured Fort Beauséjour and then again demanded an unconditional pledge of allegiance to England.

Caught between English threats and fear of French and aboriginal retaliation, Acadian representatives were summoned to appear before Governor Charles Lawrence. Taking the advice of Father Le Loutre, the representatives initially refused to make the pledge, but they ultimately decided to accept. In 1755, Lawrence, dissatisfied with an oath pledged with reluctance, executed the plans for deportation.

The Politico-Social Context of the Deportation

The deportation occurred as a result of the contemporary geopolitical situation and was not an individual choice made by Lawrence. He knew that English troops under General Braddock had just been bitterly defeated by French armed forces in the Ohio Valley (see Fort Duquesne). Fears of a combined attack by Louisbourg and Canada against Nova Scotia, theoretically joined by the Acadians and the Mi’kmaq, explains, to a certain degree, the order for deportation.

The deportation process, once instigated, lasted from 1755 to 1762. The settlers were put into ships and deported to English colonies along the eastern seaboard as far south as Georgia. Others managed to flee to French territory or to hide in the woods. It is estimated that three-quarters of the Acadian population were deported; the rest avoided this fate through flight. An unknown number of Acadians perished from hunger or disease; a few ships full of exiles sank on the high seas with their human cargo.

In 1756 the Seven Years' War broke out between France and England. The two French colonies, Île Royale and Île Saint-Jean, fell in 1758. Being French subjects, their settlers were expelled and repatriated to France. More than 3000 settlers were deported from Île Saint-Jean alone, half of them losing their lives by drowning or through disease. The Treaty of Paris (1763) definitively put an end to the French colonial presence in the Maritimes and in all of New France.

The Founding of a New Acadia (1763-1880)

After 1763 the Maritimes took on a decidedly English face when New England planters settled on lands earlier inhabited by the Acadians. English names replaced French or Mi’kmaq ones almost everywhere. The English at first reorganized the territory into a single province, Nova Scotia. In 1769, however, they detached the former Île Saint-Jean, which became a separate province under the name of Saint John's Island; it received its present name of Prince Edward Island in 1799. In 1784 present-day New Brunswick was in turn separated from Nova Scotia, following the arrival of American Loyalists who demanded their own colonial administration.

As for the Acadians, they began the long and painful process of resettling themselves in their native land. England gave them permission once they finally agreed to take the contentious oath of allegiance. Some returned from exile, but the resettlement was largely the work of fugitives who had escaped deportation and of the prisoners of Beauséjour, Pigiguit, Port-Royal and Halifax who were finally set free.

They headed for Cape Breton, where they established themselves along the coast by the Île Madame and on the island itself; for the southwest tip of the Nova Scotia peninsula and along St Mary's Bay; and to northwestern New Brunswick (Madawaska). A small number also established in Prince Edward Island, but the majority of Acadians went to the eastern parts of New Brunswick.

Economic Decline

The British authorities preferred to see the Acadians spread out over the territory and the Acadians themselves accommodated this directive, since it allowed them to avoid the regions with a British majority. British settlers then, in the majority of the cases, occupied the lands formerly owned by the Acadians.

Most Acadians, except for those on Prince Edward Island and in Madawaska, found themselves on less fertile land, and so these former farmers became fishermen or lumberers, cultivating their land only for subsistence. As fishermen, they were exploited and subjected to great dependence and poverty, especially by companies from the Isle of Jersey.

In 1746, the British Crown annihilated the Scottish Catholics in the Culloden massacre. The Protestant Crown stripped the Acadians of their civil and political rights because they too were Catholics; they could neither vote nor be members of the legislature. From 1758 to 1763, they could not even legally own land. Nova Scotian Acadians gained the right to vote in 1789; those in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island in 1810. After 1830 Acadians could sit in the legislatures of all three colonies following the enactment of the Roman Catholic Relief Act.

Seeds of a New Acadia

In general, Acadians at the start of the 19th century had virtually no institutions of their own: the Catholic clergy came either from Québec or France, and the church was the only French institution in all the Maritimes.

There were few francophone schools and teachers, for the most part, were simple "travelling masters" who spread their knowledge from village to village. There was no French newspaper. Nor were there any lawyers or doctors. In fact, there was, as yet, no Acadian middle class. However, whether they were conscious of it or not, these Acadians sowed the seeds of a new Acadia in the soil, without any help from the state.

At the start of the 19th century, there were 4000 Acadians in Nova Scotia, 700 in Prince Edward Island, and 3800 in New Brunswick. Their establishment and growth during that century was remarkable: they counted some 87 000 at the time of Confederation and 140 000 at the turn of the century.

Growth of Collective Awareness and Identity

The Acadians began to express themselves as a people during the 1830s. They elected their first members to the legislatures of the three Maritime provinces in the 1840s and 1850s. The poem Evangeline (1847) by American author Henry W. Longfellow went through several French translations and had an undeniable impact.

In Acadia itself, a pastor born in Québec, François-Xavier Lafrance, in 1854 opened the first French-language institution of higher learning, the Séminaire Saint-Joseph, New Brunswick. It closed in 1862 but was reopened two years later by Québec priests of the congregation of the Holy Cross under the name of Collège Saint-Joseph (later amalgamated into the University of Moncton). Then, in 1867, the first French-language paper in the Maritimes, Le Moniteur Acadien, was established in Shédiac, New Brunswick. This paper was followed by L'Évangéline, the longest lasting (1887-1982), in Digby, Nova Scotia, and in 1893 by L'Impartial in Tignish, Prince Edward Island.

Religious orders of women were also coming to Acadia where they played a vital role in education and health care. The Sisters of the order of Notre Dame of Montréal opened boarding schools in Prince Edward Island at Miscouche (1864) and Tignish (1868). Also in 1868, the Sisters of Saint Joseph took charge of the lazaretto at Tracadie (now Tracadie-Sheila), New Brunswick. They also established themselves in Saint-Basile, New Brunswick, where their boarding school would eventually become Maillet College.

Just prior to Confederation, Acadians announced themselves in a spectacular way on the Maritime political scene. In New Brunswick, a majority of Acadians voted against Confederation on two different occasions. Though a large number of politicians accused them of being reactionary, it should be noted that these populations were not the only ones in the Maritimes to oppose Confederation.

The Nationalist Age (1881-1950)

As of the 1860s, an Acadian middle-class had begun to take shape. Though Saint-Joseph College and Sainte-Anne College (1890) in Church Point, Nova Scotia, definitely contributed to the emergence of an intellectual elite, there were at least four elite categories in Acadia. The two most conspicuous were the clergy and the members of the liberal professions (ie, doctors and lawyers). But even though Acadian farmers and tradesmen did not profit from the same financial resources as their English-speaking counterparts, a number of them, nonetheless, succeeded in distinguishing themselves.

As of 1881, Acadian national conventions became forums where Acadians could establish a consensus of opinion about important projects such as the promotion of agricultural development, education in French and the Acadianization of the Catholic clergy. Assemblies were held intermittently in different Acadian localities until 1930.

Acadians founded the Société Nationale de l'Acadie whose purpose was to promote the French fact. National symbols were chosen: a flag (the French tricolour with a yellow star in the blue stripe), a national holiday (the Feast of the Assumption, celebrated on August 15), a slogan ("L'union fait la force") and a national anthem (Ave Maris Stella). One of the larger victories was of Monseigneur Edouard le Blanc's appointment in 1912 as Acadia's first bishop.

Also between 1881 and 1925 at least three Acadian religious orders of women were formed. The convents run by these orders made an important contribution to improving the education of Acadian women and enhancing the cultural life of the community. These female orders also founded the first colleges for girls in Acadia, at Memramcook, New Brunswick (1913), Saint-Basile, New Brunswick (1949) and Shippagan, New Brunswick (1960).


The period was also characterized by an important socioeconomic turning point: the full integration of Acadians into the mainstream of Canadian industrialization and urbanization. Though the migration of Acadians to the cities was less pronounced than in other parts of Canada, a large number of them nevertheless moved to Moncton, Yarmouth and Amherst and the cities of New England to work in factories (men) and mills (women).

Certain members of the Acadian elite considered this to be a dangerous development towards assimilation into the Anglo-Saxon masses. Colonization movements from 1880 to 1940 were intended to hold back the numbers of people in exile; to divert Acadians from the largely foreign company-owned fisheries industry; and to help families fight the harsh realities of the Great Depression. The Co-Operative Movement (see also Antigonish Movement) in the 1930s finally allowed fishermen, after generations of exploitation, to regain control of their livelihood.

Certain distinctive regional features also emerged. Because of their larger numbers, the New Brunswick Acadians took the lead in speaking for Acadians as a whole.

Cultural Recognition

In the 1950s, Acadians started to make an impact at many levels on the economy, the politics and the culture of the Maritime Provinces. By preserving their values and culture at home, they were able to develop a French education system (mainly in New Brunswick). The vigour and distinctiveness of their culture shielded them from the devastation of assimilation and helped them to be recognized as a minority people within the Maritimes.

In terms of advantages, almost all Acadians have access to an education in French. St. Anne University in Nova Scotia and the University of Moncton in New Brunswick provide francophones with the choice of two post-secondary educational institutions offering full programs in French. The Liberal government of Premier Louis J. Robichaud made New Brunswick officially bilingual in 1969 (which does not, however, guarantee municipal services in French).

All these victories are not a guarantee of survival. The 1960s saw a sovereignty movement in Québec and an anti-bilingualism movement in the West take the stage at the national level. Ironically, as had happened in the 1750s, Acadians became caught in the middle. Nevertheless, they were able to make some gains to preserve their rights.

See also Contemporary Acadia; Culture of Acadia.

Further Reading

  • Sheila Andrew, The Development of Elites in Acadian New Brunswick, 1861-1881 (1996); Georges Arsenault, The Island Acadians: 1720-1980 (1989); Jean Daigle, ed, Acadia of the Maritimes: Thematic Studies from the Beginning to the Present (1995); Margeurite Maillet, Histoire de la littérature acadienne: de rêve en rêve (1983); "Québec français," no 60, pp 29-50 (1985); Sally Ross and Alphonse Deveau, The Acadians of Nova Scotia: Past and Present (1992).