Lafayette (LA) Daily Advertiser, September 21, 1991

The Founding of L'Acadie: The First Settlers
by Jim Bradshaw

Modern historians have pretty well shot down the idea that Frenchmen were the first white men to set foot in America, and that one of them led the way for Columbus. But it could have happened.

According to the discredited story, a French navigator from Dieppe named Cousin was sailing off the coast of Africa in 1488, four years before Columbus' voyage, and was forced westward by wind and tides until he reached an unknown shore. On board the ship was a mutinous seaman named Pinzon who, after the voyage, was thrown out of the French Navy. Pinzon went to Spain, met Columbus, told him of discovery, and sailed with him in 1492.

There is not much evidence to make us think the story is true, but who knows? We do know, of other instances when ships were blown far to the west and onto strange shores.

There is, however, good evidence that the first Europeans to establish a permanent settlement in North America were Frenchmen. They were our ancestral Acadians. And they, like many of us, were fishermen.

We think that Norman, Breton, and Basque fishermen were fishing Newfoundland's Grand Banks as early as 1497. The first reliable records of any French ship on the Grand Banks are those of Jean Denys of Honfleur, who fished there in 1504, and of Thomas Aubert of Dieppe, who was there two years later. In 1507 a Norman fisherman returned to Rouen with an extra cargo of seven sauvages, most likely Beothunk Indians. We know of an early Breton fishing voyage by La Jacquette of Dahouet because of a shipboard brawl. The master, Guillaume Dobel, alleged that the ship was carrying too much sail. He called the skipper, a man named Picart, an idiot and the quartermaster, named Garrouche, a veall, apparently a serious insult.

Garrouche dropped the tiller, roared up to the quarterdeck, and collected himself in the jaw from Dobel --who then drew a knife and chased him overboard. The crew tried to rescue Garrouche, but he drowned. Dobel made the best restition he could to the widow. He married her.

The early fishermen who visited the Grand Banks made two trips each year. The first was in late January or early February, and, braving winter westerlies in the North Atlantic, they returned to France as soon as their holds were full. They sailed again in April or May and went home in September.

At first, these fishermen cleaned the cod aboard ship and stored them between thick layers of salt. But it was not long before they found that cod could be sundried on land, and that cured cod tasted better and was easier to store. The fishermen began to go ashore each summer, to build makeshift villages for them selves and drying stands for their fish. By 1519, the French, the Portuguese, and the English had set up depots on Newfoundland, on the Acadian peninsula, on Cape Breton Island, and on the St. Lawrence River.

Salt fish became big business. and they were sold wholesale in France by the thousands. In 1515 Michel Le Bail of Breton sold more than 17,000 codfish to local merchants at Rouen. By 1529 the Normans were shipping Newfoundland codfish to England. On just one day in 1542, no fewer than 60 ships departed from Rouen alone for the Grand Bank. In 1578 there was 250 Frech vessels there, and 200 from other nations.

But except for the temporary villages, the French made no attempt at settlement. For one thing, they were being kept busy with wars on the continent.

Jacques Cartier, lured by Indian tales of gold and and of a Northwest Passage to the riches of Cathay, made voyages to the Canadian wilds in 1534 and 1535, and attempted a short- lived settiment. But a bitter winter and equally bitter Indians ended that. The Sieur de Robeval tried to revive that colony, but met even less success. Then official France got itself involved in another war, and forgot about North America for awhile.

But the fishermen kept coming.

By the middle 1500s, the fishermen, still drying their cod ashore, had begun trading with the Indians for a rich harvest of furs. The furs found a ready market back home, and official interest in the New World picked up direct relation to the value of the fur and trade.

It was in the spring, April 7, 1604, that Pierre de Gua, Sieur de Monts, set off with Samuel Champlain and a tiny fleet to sail around the southern tip of the Acadian peninsula. He discovered the Anapolis Valley, charted the Bay of Fundy, and, on miniscule Saint Croix Island, near the mouth of the river that today divides New Brunswick from Maine, put down a colony of 79 men.

Listen to historian Fran is Parkman describe the place:

The rock-fenced islet was covered with cedars, and when the tide was out the shoals were dark with the swaczh of sea-weed .... [Here], in their leisure moments, the Frenchmen, we are told, amused themselves with detaching the limpets from the stones, as a savory addition to their fare. But there was little leisure at St. Croix. Soldiers, sailors and artisans betook themselves to their task. Before the winter closed in, the northern end of the island was covered with buildings, surrounding a square, where a solitary tree had been left standing. On the right was a spacious home, well built, and surmounted by one of those enormous roofs characteristic of the time. This was the lodging of DeMonts. Behind it, and near the water, was a long, covered gallery, for labor or amusement in foul weather. Champlain and the Sieur d'Orville... built a house for themselves nearly opposite that of DeMonts; and the remainder of the square was occupied by storehouses, a magazine, workshops, lodgings for gentlemen and artisans, and a barrack for the ... soldiers, the whole enclosed with a palisade. Adjacent there was an attempt at a garden ... but nothing would grow in the sandy soil. There was a cemetery, too, and a small, rustic chapel on a projecting point of rock.

In the summertime, the island was very pretty and cozy. But winter there was something entirely different. Vegetables would not grow in the sandy soil, even in summer, so the colonists had to plant their garden and sow their wheat on the mainland. The spring went dry, so fresh water had to be brought from the maiziland as well. So also with firewood.

The first snow fell on October 6. By December 3 ice floes began to cut off the Frenchmen from the mainland garden, woodlots and water. A bitter wind blew constantly from the northeast, making it impossible to keep warm. Food froze hard, then rotted. Scurvy began to take its toll.

Thirty-five of the 79 men were dead by the following spring, when DeMonts decided to move his colony across the Bay of Fundy to a place he named Port Royal. It would become one of the first permanent settlements in North America.

All of the buildings on Saint Croix Island were taken down and freighted, plank by plank, across the Bay of Fundy. There, at a place later named Lower Grenville, the same materials were used to build a single habitation in the form of a hollow square.

This time, the habitation was well sited, fronting on the Annapolis Basin, its back protected from winter Northers by a range of 500-foot hills.

The Acadians had settled in to stay, and that was a first.

As another historian, J.A. Doyle, put it:

For the first time there was to be seen in America a colony of Europeans, not a mere band of adventurers or explorers, but a settled community subsisted by their own labor.

These colonists would call the place L'Acadie, a name derived from the work of the ancient Virgil, who gave it to an idyllic--if imaginary--land inhabited by simple, virtuous people. The name had been popularized in the 1400s in a novel by Jacopo Sanazzaro, which opens with a tribute to a grove of "uncommon and extreme beauty" in a place called Arcadia.

There is another theory about the name--that it was derived from Micmac Indian word quoddy or cadie, which meant "fertile" or "beautiful landscape." But folks who believe Micmacs on the land over an ancient Greek's imagination have no romance in their souls.

Copyright ©1991 by the Lafayette (LA) Daily Advertiser. Reprinted with permission.
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