Yarmouth Vanguard, Tuesday, October 31, 1989.
In 1524 took place the first European excursion on our Atlantic shores of which we have a detailed account; it ran from South Carolina to Cape Breton. It was carried out by Giovanni Verrazano (1486-1528), an Italian navigator, born in Florence. It was undertaken under the auspices of Francois I, King of France. In his honor, Verrazano gave to the territory that he visited the name of “Francesca”, the first name ever given to the United States. Five years later, the name had been changed to that of “New France”, which finally applied to the Province of Quebec, sometimes including the Maritime Provinces.
To this trip of Verrazano we owe also the origin of the word ACADIA (Acadia). In the account that the left us of his voyage, he tells us that he gave the name of ARCADIA to a region which corresponds to the Delmarva Peninsula, which is shared by Delaware (DEL), Maryland (MAR) and Virginia (VA). Eighty years after, at the time of de Monts and Champlain, the name ARCADIA of Verrazano had moved up north, to finally designate Nova Scotia, which is slanted on the map towards a south-westerly direction, just like the Delmarva Peninsula.
It must have been around the end of 1523 that Verrazano left France with his vessel, The Dauphine, having with him sailors from Normandy and Brittany. He reached the shores of the New World on the 7th of March of the following year at about the latitude of Washington, D.C. Everything was in full bloom. He found the region so beautiful that he gave to it the name ARCADIA, because it reminded him of the region in Greece of that name, of which the poets had praised with admiration the beauty and serenity, also the affability and the state of happiness of its people. Verrazano must still have had in his mind the recent publication of 1502 of the Greek poem “L’Arcadia”, which is considered in Greece as one of the masterpieces of the time.
Up to the beginning of this century, historians had searched far and wide for the origin of the word ACADIA, but without satisfaction. If today we know its real origin, we owe it to William F. Ganong (1864-1941), born in St. John, N.B. For thirty years, he taught botany at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. His extensive studies of the names of different places in the Maritime Provinces make of him one of our most versed geographers and one of our leading historians.
Already in 1896, in an article which came out in the periodical “Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada,” he argues against those who thought that the name came from the Indians; he states that it comes most probably from Europe, since as early as the 16th century, some maps carried on the Atlantic coasts the name LARCADIA. Three years later, in the review “The New Brunswick Magazine,” he gives convincing arguments which prove without any doubt that the name is not Indian, but European. Two years later, in 1901, again in the periodical “Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada,” he goes one step further in showing that the word ARCADIA of the 16th century maps existed already in 1527, and could have taken birth during Verrazano’s voyage of 1524; but, as a true historian, he did not date announce it as an historical fact. The following year, he repeated the same statement, and again in 1908.
In a well documented talk that he gave in 1915 to the members of the Royal Society of Canada, one feels that he has the right solution just at the tip of his fingers. It was only after the publication of this talk that he received news from a friend of the New York Public Library, stating that in 1909 a letter, from Verrazano to King Francois I, had been discovered in which he tells about the name ARCADIA that he had given to a section of the Atlantic coast that he had visited. The letter had been discovered in the private archives of an Italian Count by the name of “di Cellere”, (which, by the way, is now in possession of the New York Public Library). We can imagine with what emotion Ganong received this news. Immediately he published another article, entitled: “Definitive evidence upon the Origin of the Name Acadia.” This article was to be followed by a number of others on the same subject. Thus, by his discovery, Ganong put an end forever to the myth of the Indian origin of the name Acadia.
What happened is that the geographers of the 16th and 17th centuries, knowing that Verrazano had given the name Arcadia to a peninsula running north-east to south-west on the Atlantic coast, figured that the peninsula was Nova Scotia, which was becoming more and more known to the discoverers. Champlain, for his part, followed the indications given on those maps. At first, in his works, he makes use of the name “Arcadie”. But as years went by, he started to make use of the form “Acadie”, which has been in use ever since.
It would seem that Verrazano gave the name Arcadia only to the south-eastern or Atlantic coast of the Delmarva Peninsula, the only one he had explored. It is a fact that at first the name Acadia was applied only to the coast between Yarmouth and Canso, exclusive of the shores of the Bay of Fundy; at first, Port Royal itself was not included in Acadia. Nicolas Denys, in his work, which gives a geographical and historical description of the Coast of North America, says that leaving the Bay of Fundy, one enters, through the “Grand Passage of Isle Longue,” upon the coast of Acadia, and “takes a course towards Cape Fourchu.”
We may ask ourselves to whom should we be more thankful for giving us this name, to Giovanni Verrazano, who bequeathed it to us, or to William F. Ganong, who discovered it.
The Americans, for their part, have honored Verrazano in different ways for his discoveries. In 1909, they erected a beautiful monument to his memory in New York, at Battery Park, on the southern tip of Manhattan, where Verrazano would have stepped ashore. Then in 1965, they gave his name to the largest suspended bridge in the world, the one that spans the entrance of New York harbor, between Staten Island and Brooklyn.
Did Verrazano set foot in Nova Scotia when he went by, after crossing from Maine to Cape Sable during the second half of the month of May? If so, he does not mention it in his account. But there is one thing that we know for sure, and it is that Nova Scotia owes to him its first name, and that its first European inhabitants owe to him their ethical name, a name which dates back to 465 years ago.