Yarmouth Vanguard, October 3, 1989
It has been said that Longfellow, in his poem EVANGELINE, has exaggerated somewhat the simplicity of the life that lead the Acadians before the Expulsion. Indeed, they were not all angels. There were at times serious disputes among them, some even having been condemned to be whipped with the “cat-o’-nine-tails,” which consisted of nine cords with knots in them or even small iron scraps. But those were the exceptions.
There is a description of their simple life which is little known even by historians. It was written in 1790 by Moses Delesdernier, from Switzerland, who came to Nova Scotia in 1750. He lived for some time among the Acadians at Pisiquid, now a part of Windsor. At the request of Dr. Andrew Brown, of Halifax, who made an extensive study of the life of the ancient Acadians, he sent him what he called the “Observations of the Situation, Customs and Manners of the Ancient Acadians,” of which here are some excerpts.
“The Acadians are the most innocent and virtuous people whom I have ever known or heard tell of in any history. They live in a state of perfect equality, without distinction of rank in society. The title of ‘Messieurs’ is not known among them. Ignorant of the luxuries and even of the conveniences of life, they are content with a simple mode of life, which they easily derive from the cultivation of their lands. Very little ambition or avarice was seen among them; they helped each other’s wants with benevolent liberality; they required no interest for loans of money or other property. They were humane and hospitable to strangers, and very liberal to those who embraced their religion. They were very remarkable for the inviolable purity of their morals. I do not recollect a single case of illegitimate births among them, even now. Their knowledge of agriculture was very limited, although they cultivated their dyked lands pretty well.
“They were completely ignorant of the progress of arts and sciences. I knew but a single person among them who could read or write; some of them could do so, but very imperfectly, and no one among them had learned any trade. Each farmer was his own architect, and each proprietor was a farmer. They lived almost entirely independent of other nations, except to procure salt and tools, as they exployed very little iron for any other farming implements.”
“They raised and made their own clothing, which was uniform. They were fond of black and red with stripes down the leg, bunches of ribbons and long streamers”.
“Notwithstanding their negligence, their lack of means and scanty knowledge of agriculture, they laid up abundant stores of provisions and clothing, and had comfortable houses.
“They were a strong, healthy people, capable of enduring great hardship, and generally lived to an advanced age, although no one employed a doctor. The men worked hard in planting and at harvest time and the season when the dykes were to be made or repaired, and on any occasion when work was pressing. They thus secured for half the year, at least, leisure which they spent in parties and merrymakings, of which they were very fond. But the women were more assiduous workers then the men, though they took a considerable part in the amusements. Although they were almost all entirely illiterate, it was rare to see any one remain silent long when in company, they never seemed at a loss for a subject of conversation. To conclude, they seemed always cheerful and light-hearted, and on every occasion were unanimous. If any disputes arose in their transactions, etc., they always submitted it to arbitration, and their last appeal was to the priest. Although I have seen cases of mutual recrimination on returning from these decisions, you seldom, if ever, discovered among them any thought of malice or vengeance. In fact they were perfectly accustomed to act candidly in all circumstances; and really, if there be a people who recall the Golden Age as described in history, it was the old-time Acadians.”
Another description of the Acadians, of an altogether different nature, is given by a doctor of Beverly, Massachusetts, Robert Hall. In 1731, he took a trip to Nova Scotia, when he kept a journal, which was published in 1906 in Historical Collections of the Essex Institute (Salem, Mass.). He describes his journey by vessel from Boston to Chignecto, which goes from the beginning of June till the end of August. He followed the coast of Maine up to Grand Manan, then crossed the Bay of Fundy, entered Annapolis Basin up to the town. Up to here, he describes only the scenery and gives the number of houses he saw.
The same can be said of what he had seen up to Chignecto, where he set foot on land and met the Acadians, by whose ways of living, so different from that of the New Englanders, struck him so much that he gave a description of them.
He says that where he lodged at night, he was surprised to see some members of the family, “just about bedtime, on their knees praying their devotions to the Almighty, and others near them talking, and smoking. This they do all of them, mentally, but not orally, every night and morning, not altogether, but now one and then another, and sometimes two or three together, but not in conjunction one with the other. The women here differ as much in their clothing, beside wearing of wooden shoes, from those of New England, as they do in features and complexion, which is dark enough by living in the smoke in the Summer to defend themselves against the mosquitos, and in the Winter against the cold. They have but one room in the houses … Their bedrooms are made something after the manner of the sailor’s cabin, but boarded all around … except one little hole on the foreside, just big enough to crawl into, before which is a curtain drawn and has a step to get into it. They had not more than two or three chairs in the house … I saw but two mugs among the French … when they treat you with strong drinks, they bring it in a large basin and give you a porringer (metal cup) to dip it with. The women’s clothes are good enough, but they look as if they were pitched on with pitchforks, and very often their stockings are down about their heels.”
He tells about two “Mass houses” or churches in the village, “on one of which they hand out a flag morning and evening for prayers; to the other the priest goes once a day only.” One morning, when he gad gotten up at five, he went for a walk, when he saw a priest going to the other church, “habited like a fool in petitcoats, with a man after him with a bell in one hand ringing at every door, and a lighted candle and lantern in the other.”
As we would say in French: “autre temps, autre moeurs,” other times, other ways.