In order to gain an insight into the plight of the Acadians of Bay Fortune, one need look no further than the Provincial Department of Tourism, which in 1893 issued its leaflet titled “Prince Edward Island as a Summer Resort”, an advertising booklet intended to entice visitors to our Island. It contained within a description of the Acadian people’s of our Island, which read as follows:
“It has been said of the Acadians, “they are still to a great extent a people set apart from the rest of the population, living in their own villages, intermarrying early with their own race, speaking the French tongue, and keeping up in dress, traditions, customs, etc. the simple, hospitable, kindly traits depicted in Evangeline… peaceful, economical, industrious, in a way belonging to a past age, these Acadians are a peculiar people, full of interest to every traveller fresh from the feverish press of business, or the artificial but onerous demands of modern society” (6).
And while this description no doubt sounds idyllic, it makes no acknowledgement of the very real historical struggles faced by the Acadian peoples, and in fact, serves to erase the legitimacy of their hardships, and this, more than 100 years after their first expulsion. Far from the rosy picture painted above, the story of the Acadians in Fortune, not unlike the story of the Acadians as a whole, is one of hardship, disenfranchisement, and a search for identity, all of which is centralized around their deportations from this land.
The deportation of the Acadians of Prince Edward Island took place between 1755 and 1762, and as Lockerby explains, “deportation is a defining event in Acadian history and has played a profound role in shaping Acadian identity. For Acadians, deportation was a tragedy resulting in the devastation of their society, the dispersal of close-knit families and the destruction of communities. At the same time, the travails of an uprooted pastoral people during deportation and its aftermath, and the extraordinary odyssey experienced by many of them, produced a shared heritage which has helped the Acadian community” (5).
Early Acadians at Havre La Fortune
We first find reference to the Acadians of Bay Fortune in the de la Roque census, which was conducted in 1752. In that census, it is shown that six Acadian families were living in the Bay Fortune area, which at that time was known by the French name of Havre la Fortune (4). What evidence we do have of these early people comes to us from de la Roque, who in his provincial census diligently recorded many aspects of their lives.
According to de la Roque, for these first families “their only title is that of possession, and a verbal permission from Monsieur de Bonnaventure, the King’s comandant in the isle of Saint Jean”. This left the Acadians in a tenuous position of land ownership, for as the shifting levers of power in Europe continued to fluctuate, the ultimate fate of what they rightly considered to be their home and their lands hung in the balance.
Expulsion and Resettlement
A contemporary depiction of the expulsion of the Acadians, seen here in Gagetown, New Brunswick.
But fate was to deal these people a devastating blow, for the edict of expulsion soon reached Bay Fortune. Like much of the Acadian population on the Island at the time, their homes and possessions were seized, destroyed, or forcibly abandoned, in an attempt to eradicate the people and their way of life. From here, the exact fate of these early Acadians is unknown, however, it is known that many “Island Acadians were deported to France. Of these, only about 35% survived this terrible ordeal. Two-thirds of the deportees died, either by drowning when ships that were transporting them sank, or following epidemics on board other ships” (2).
Moreover, about 2,000 Acadians from Isle Saint-Jean escaped deportation, either by seeking refuge in northern New Brunswick or by going into hiding on the Island (2).
Our story is then resumed after the 1755 expulsion of the Acadians of Grand Pre in Nova Scotia, when several families of Acadians fled by canoe to Prince Edward Island, to land at Point Prim. Among them were Bourques, Pitres, Leblancs, and Chaissons. But feeling that they were still susceptible to the whims of the British, they made their way northeastward, landing ultimately at Bay Fortune, where they were joined by several families from St. Peter’s Harbour (8), who had been able to escape expulsion. The Acadians of St. Peter’s had been spared only due to illness; many among them had at the time of expulsion contracted measles, and as a result they were left behind on the Island. Later this group was joined by a few families of Cheveries and D’Aigles (Deagles) from Savage Harbour, who made their way to Little Pond (which was known as Little River at the time) (8).
These Acadians, like many others throughout the Maritime provinces, refused to take an oath of allegiance to the British, and as such were regarded as prisoners of war. They were brutally oppressed by the authorities, and were awarded only the meagerest stock of seeds and supplies each year to sustain themselves, and in the fall of the year most of their crop would be seized in the name of the King, leaving them barely enough to survive through the winter (8).
Farming Under Oppression
De la Roque offered a fine summary of area, writing that “the nature of the soil renders it profitable for cultivation, and the settlers who took refuge here at the time of the last war, praise it very highly. The meadow lands are situated on the banks of these rivers. They yield a sufficiently large quantity of hay to serve as fodder for such livestock as the settlers have in possession at present, but it is thought that if the area was extended a large number of head of cattle might be raised and fed. All the surrounding lands are covered with different sorts of mixed timber, but the settlers have not yet discovered a quarry of any sort” (4).
From these remarks we can conclude, as we know in the present day, that the farmland of Fortune was to be bountiful, if only it could be capitalized upon.
According to de la Roque, however, the development of the Acadian farms was limited greatly by their inability to receive adequate supplies. He writes of one family that “they have made a large clearing and could have sown twenty-eight bushels of seed if they had had it, but have only sown nine bushels”, a fact resultant from lack of supplies (4). This was a problem not unfamiliar to the Acadians of the Island, and as a result, they were forced to adapt clever methods of farming and agriculture in order to survive, given their circumstances.
It was then to the salt marshes that the Acadians turned, for from the marshes could be obtained all that was necessary to sustain life on this Island. As Hatvany relates, “contemporary accounts indicate that the salt marshes were especially prized for the ease by which geese, ducks and other waterfowl could be obtained there. Eels, shrimp, smelt, herring, alewives, flounder, lobsters, mussels, oysters and other fish were like a “manna from heaven” that could be scooped up in nets by the bushel. This natural bounty was, as one commentator wrote, “of great assistance to the inhabitants, and in particular new settlers, before they have time to raise food from the produce of the land”(6).
“Before the timbered landscape could be cleared and sown with grass, settlers also found that the natural grasses of the Island’s salt marshes readily furnished abundant pasture and fodder for livestock and draft animals. And while these grasses were found to be slightly less nutritious than upland hay, it was widely reported that an acre of marsh, supplying an average of one ton of salt hay, was sufficient to support a cow through the winter” (6). By 1751, “it was noted that most Acadian villages on the Island were “located along . . . [marsh] meadows, the inhabitants preferring these areas . . . because it would cost them hardship and labour to clear [upland] fields” (6).
The Acadians too learned how to better cultivate these marshlands, installing an ingenious system of dikes to regulate the flow of fresh and saltwater into these areas, making them fertile grounds for crops. As Girouard explains, “the construction of the dikes demanded enormous amount of work. Sometimes these dikes were built by driving five or six rows of logs into the ground, laying other logs one on top of the other between these rows, filling all the spaces between the logs with well packed clay and then covering everything over with sods cut from the marsh itself. Sometimes dikes were built by simply laying marsh sods over mounds of earth” (3). These were thought to be in place at an unspecified location on the Fortune River, as well as potentially in place near Fortune Back Beach.
“The Acadians devised a system of drainage ditches combined with an clever one-way water gate called an aboiteau. The aboiteau was a hinged valve in the dike which allowed fresh water to run off the marshes at low tide but which prevented salt water from flowing onto the farmland as the tide rose. These efforts were not in vain since the lands, surrounded by the dikes and drained by wooden clapper valves, were completely desalinated and extremely fertile. The immediate result was that the Acadian standard of living, while very rigorous, was greatly enhanced and this very rapidly” (3).
After letting snow and rain wash away the salt from the marshes for between two and four years the Acadians were left with fertile soil which yielded abundant crops” (3).
A Question of Title
The Acadians of the area did see some success from their farming labours, and as a result some of the women of this group were determined to overcome their oppressors and were industrious enough to hide away some reserves of stores in the forest, to secure enough for the winter. But even these efforts weren’t enough to support themselves, and after several years of dire conditions, around the year 1764 (2) they agreed to take the oath of allegiance to the British, and in return they would receive the undisputed possession of “the fruits of their labour” (8). The one provision which was made by them, however, was that they should “never take up arms against the King of France” (8).
In 1787, a group of 13 Acadian men from Bay Fortune tried to secure title to their land by presenting a petition to Edmund Fanning, the new governor of the Island. Fanning was sympathetic to the Acadians’ plight, requesting that their petition be granted and even signing land title to a number of Bay Fortune Acadians himself. Fanning’s recommendations and land grants were ignored and revoked by British authorities, however, and they were forced to remain in their precarious situation of land ownership (2)
Such was their lot in life until 1798 when the proprietor of Lot 43, William Townshend, arrived to exercise his to claim the lands surrounding Bay Fortune. It was his intent to evict the Acadians living there in order to establish a Protestant colony of Dingwells and others who were at the time settled at St. Peters, but who were covetous of the farmlands of Fortune.
The Acadians refused to recognize any claim that Townshend had to the land, on the grounds that they possessed a letter of recognition from the British officer who had sworn them their oath of allegiance, indicating their own claim to the land. This matter was soon taken to the courts, and Townshend won, which meant that the Acadians were once again being forced to leave Fortune (8).
Many of these newly disenfranchised families made their way to Cape Breton, however those who could afford the purchase of land made their way to Rollo Bay, to settle on land purchased from the late John Cambridge. This group numbered approximately fourteen families, including Bourques, Pitres, and Chaissons. This settlement took place in the year 1801 or 1802. From there, they established a community that still retains its French roots today. As for Fortune, it is noted that the old burial ground of these Acadian families, at the time of authorship in 1964, was still visible on the property of Mr. Charles Aitken, of Fortune (8). Today, there stands a cairn and historical memorial, which bears testament to the arduous lives of these, our Acadian ancestors (8).
Acadian Museum of Prince Edward Island. “Where were the Acadians of Isle Saint-Jean (present-day Prince Edward Island) deported in 1758?” Acadian Museum of Prince Edward Island. 2013. Web. 26 January 2019.
Acadians on PEI. Virtual Museum of Canada. 2010. Web. 26 January 2019.
Girouard. Acadian Dikes. Girouard Family Organization. Web. 26 January 2019.
Island Register. “Sieur de la Roque 1752 Census for Prince Edward Island/Ile Saint Jean”. Island Register. 1997. Web. 26 January 2019.
Lockerby, Earle. “The Deportation of the Acadians from Ile St.-Jean, 1758”. Acadiensis: The Journal of the History of the Atlantic Region. 1998. Print.
Hatvany, Matthew. “”Wedded to the Marshes”:Salt Marshes and Socio-Economic Differentiation in Early Prince Edward Island”. Acadiensis: The Journal of the History of the Atlantic Region. 2001. Print.
Provincial Department of Tourism. “Prince Edward Island as a Summer Resort”. Provincial Department of Touris,. 1893. Print.
“Saint Alexis Parish: A Brief History”. UPEI Libraries. 1960. Print.