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Paradise Lost

Archaeologists in Nova Scotia are uncovering evidence of thriving seventeenth-century French colonists and their brutal expulsion

March/April 2022

Acadia Grand Pre FieldsStarting in the early seventeenth century, the French began settling the colony of Acadia—which stretched across what is now Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and south into Maine—where they established a number of prosperous agricultural communities. A key to their success was a system of dikes they created, particularly in Nova Scotia, that allowed water to drain out of the marshes but prevented seawater from flowing back in. Once rain washed the salt away from this reclaimed land, it became extremely fertile thanks to the rich organic material that had been deposited by the tides over thousands of years. The great quantity of peas, wheat, and other grains, as well as livestock, which the Acadians consumed and exported, helped fuel population growth that is among the fastest ever recorded in human history, up to 4.5 percent per year. Between 1710 and 1730, the Acadian population doubled and then doubled again by 1755, when it reached around 14,000. The Acadians’ ambitious land reclamation project reached its apogee at Grand Pré, or “great meadow,” a village founded by a group of extended families around 1682. Grand Pré overlooked a vast expanse of marshland abutting the Minas Basin, home to the highest tides in the world, which can rise more than 50 feet. The Acadians’ expertise allowed them to tame the tides and transform this salt marsh into robust farmland.


Acadia MapIn part because they created their own agricultural land, the Acadians had friendly, collaborative relationships with the Indigenous Mi’kmaq. In a place with such plenty, there was no need to compete for resources. There were even a significant number of marriages between the groups, which was unheard of in the New England colonies to the south, where Native peoples and Europeans were, at best, wary of each other. Heavily influenced by the Mi’kmaq, the Acadians developed a social structure based on communal cooperation that contrasted starkly with the rigid hierarchy they had known in France. This communal spirit was particularly helpful in organizing and carrying out the hard labor necessary to build and maintain the monumental dikes that held back the tides. “In France, if you were a peasant, you were under a nobleman’s control and had no real freedom,” says Rob Ferguson, a retired Parks Canada archaeologist. “When the colonists came to Acadia, they suddenly had control of their own lives. They had their own farms and they could sell their crops. There was intermarrying between levels of society that would never have happened in France. In a way, they really did have a paradise.”


Regardless of their successes, the Acadians were repeatedly caught up in the geopolitical rivalry between France and Britain, with control of Nova Scotia passing back and forth between the two empires multiple times. The Acadians endeavored to remain neutral, resisting attempts by both sides to win their fealty. They cultivated profitable trade relations with New England merchants, whom at least one source records they dubbed nos amis les ennemis, or “our friends the enemy.” Over time, the Acadians came to see themselves as an independent creole people, native to their new land and no longer bound to their home country. They would raise the French or English flag depending on whose gunships were coming to pay a visit. When the British took control of Nova Scotia for good in 1713, the French tried to entice the Acadians to move to Île Royale, modern-day Cape Breton Island, but most remained where they were, reasoning that the British were more likely to leave them alone. They were mistaken, however, and their position grew increasingly precarious. Suspicious of the Acadians because they were Catholic and friendly with the Mi’kmaq, British representatives pressured them to pledge an unconditional oath of allegiance to the Crown. The Acadians managed to fend off their demands for several decades, in no small measure because local British forces depended on their crops for sustenance.

Sidebar Louisiana Bayou Teche
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