“They were essentially mediaeval peasants, simple, pious, frugal. They had the peasant’s hunger for land, the peasant’s petty cunning, the peasant’s greed, all perfectly comprehensible in view of their hard, narrow life of unending toil.
“Their disputes over land were endless. The government found it necessary to settle many of these, to issue proclamations against the neglect of fences and failure to repair dykes; and to repeat orders frequently.”
Will R. Bird wrote this description of the Acadians in a 1950s government publication, Historic Nova Scotia. Bird is describing the Acadian population under English rule after the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713 and his assessment is unflattering, to say the least, and perhaps inaccurate.
It may be presumptuous to question an historian and writer of Bird’s stature but should we accept his inference that the Acadians were a rather base and useless people? Other historians state the opposite when writing about the Acadians. In his Kings County history, for example, Arthur W. H. Eaton writes of the Acadians in this area, which he refers to as the chief districts of Minas and River Canard, as having performed miraculous tasks in settling the area. The Acadians, Eaton wrote, “built houses and churches and small forts, reclaimed from wildness many hundreds of acres of upland fields.”
While historians such as Bird portray them as ignorant, uneducated and shiftless, the Acadians managed to perform a near miracle with their dykes, wresting hundreds of acres of land from the sea. Quoting Eaton again: “And most laborious industry of all (the Acadians) enclosed from the sea several thousand acres of marsh land on the Grand Pre and along the county’s five rivers, the Grand Habitant (Cornwallis River) the Riviere aux Canard, the Petit Habitant (Canning River) the Pereau and the Gaspereau.”
In a recent address before the Kings Historical Society, Advertiser columnist Brent Fox put the industrious character of the Acadians in perspective. Noting that the Grand Dyke protected almost 2,000 acres of the Canard River valley from the salt tides, Fox said this it was all done with hand tools. “One can only imagine the enormous organization that was needed for both the cross dykes and running dykes on the Canard River prior to 1755,” Fox said. “And this does not mention the enormous maintenance efforts required,” he concluded.
The great dykes Eaton and Fox saluted could not have been built by the sort of people Will R. Bird describes. A truer picture of the Acadian character can be seen in that excellent paper on early settlements around the Minas Basin by James S. Martell.
“The Church was the centre of Acadian society,” Martell notes, telling us there was a resident priest at Grand Pre as early as 1689. “Before the expulsion there were five churches in the three population groups around the Minas Basin,” Martell says.
As for the Acadians generally being uneducated and ignorant, at the time this was true of most of the working class population of North America and Europe. However, there’s a hint that the Acadians may have had the first public school in North America. Quoting Martell again, “One writer asserts that Abbe Geoffrey… established schools at Minas, the fruits of which were borne out in the signatures in the Church registers.”
On a lighter note, not all was work and no play in the Acadian settlements on the Minas Basin. “Tradition has it,” Martell writes, “that they even had a track on the marshes for horse racing.”