That Richmond was an unwilling host to several hundred Acadians is one of the many half-forgotten bits of history being brought to light as a result of researches done under the direction of the Virginia Capital Bicentennial Commission.
Contrary to popular belief, the unhappy Acadians, whose melancholy history has been immortalized by Longfellow in "Evangeline," were not directly exiled to Louisiana. Instead they were scattered among the American colonies. Five ship loads of the unfortunate exiles were landed in Hampton Roads from whence one boat full of miserable passengers were sent to Richmond.
The story of the "neutral French" during their enforced stay in "Richmond at the Falls of the James River" will unquestionably form one of the episodes in the stirring dramatic and romantic history of Richmond to be presented in the great drama to be given at the Stadium for two weeks beginning September 12 as the climax of Richmond's bicentennial celebration. There is little to be found in histories about the stay of the Acadians in Richmond beyond the fact that they were provided with houses and rations for the next four or five months until they were again placed on boats and sent to England, but the comission hopes to find new records which will describe their entire stay here.
Their story, however, must be similar to that of the other unwanted exiles in Virginia who were regarded with suspicion and treated as unwelcome guests. While the reality of the existence of such a person as Evangeline herself is doubted, her story, too, may be duplicated in the sad annals of the families and lovers heartlessly separated in exile, perhaps forever.
The Acadians were expelled in 1755 from their homes in Nova Scotia because they refused to take the oath of allegiance to the king of England, except in a qualified form. Although it was determined to remove all French inhabitants who refused to take the oath as early as July of that year, it was not until fall that the cruel work of deporting a people actually got under way.
An examination of the orders given by Governor Lawrence of Nova Scotia, on the disposal of neutral French shows that Longfellow's accounts are far from exaggerated. Governor Lawrence directed that "as many of the inhabitants as can be collected, particularly the heads of families and young men, are to be shipped on board--at the rate of two to a ton."
He also ordered "the most rigorous measures possible, not only in compelling them to embark, but in depriving those who shall escape of all means of shelter, or support, by burning their houses and destroying everything that may afford them the means of subsistence in the country."
In another communication, the Governor writes: "if these people behave amiss, they should be punished at your discretion; and if any attempt to molest the troups, you should take an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, and, in short, a life for a life, from the nearest neighbor where the mischief should be performed."
The Acadians, crowded into small sailing ships, were allowed a daily ration of five-sevenths of one pound of flour, and one-seventh of a pound of pork for each person. After the hardships of the voyage they were not to meet with either sympathy or friendship, only suspicion and hostility.
No preliminary notice had been served on the Virginia colony that the vessels containing the 1,140 evicted men, women and children were to be expected. Governor Dinwiddie reported that the appearance of the Acadians caused great discontent among his people. He had much difficulty in inducing the Council to receive them and only succeeded by one vote.
According to M. Edouard Richard, in a work on Acadia, the Virginians refused to allow the exiles to land and "neither disease, which was making frightful havoc among the crowd of human beings huddled together in the holds of the dreadfully overladen ships, nor any other considerations . . . could induce the Virginians to change their determination." He goes on to say that such vigorous protests were made that "all these exiles, after being several weeks on board the vessels, were told to set sail for England."
M. Richard is obviously wrong in several instances since it is evident that the Acadians were not confined to their ships, that they were not sent to England within several weeks. Not only were the exiles in Virginia from fall until spring, but they left on ships other than those in which they arrived.
The House of Burgesses on March 29, 1756, petitioned Governor Dinwiddie to have the neutral French sent to Great Britain. The Assembly promised to bear the expense and Governor Dinwiddie agreed to the petition if persons were appointed to "make provision for their subsistence from this time to their embarkation" and "those gentleman may agree for proper vessels to transport them."
An act appropriating 5,000 pounds was passed by the Assembly and a committee, consisting of Peyton Randolph and others, was appointed to contract for the transportation of the unwelcome French.
Governor Dinwiddie, having no authority to deport the Acadians to England, was under displeasure from the crown for his action. On November 9, 1756, he wrote of Rev. Hon. Henry Fox:
"It gives me very great concern to be under his Majesty's displeasure, and disapprobation of sending the Neutral French (that were sent from Nova Scotia) to Great Britain; it was what I could by no means evade, they refused taking the Oaths to his Majesty, I had them maintained for four months; the Assembly addressed me to clear the country of them as they were bigotted Papists; they were afraid of their corrupting their Negroe Slaves; and they had once concerted to run away with a sloop from Hampton, which obliged me to have a guard over them for two months; there were addresses from many of the Counties praying that the Country should be cleared of them; and some proposed giving them vessels to go where they would agreeable to the conduct of the Southern Colonies; I dreaded that such a step would defeat the design of the Governor, etc., of Nova Scotia, in dispersing them. I therefore, under the uneasiness of the people, and to prevent any further Clamour, agreed to their being sent to England, at the Charge of this Country, which I hope you will think more eligible, than to give them their liberty to go where they pleased, which was done in Carolina and Georgia, and I fear many of them are returned to Nova Scotia. As this is the true state of the affair, I shall be greatly obliged if you will do me honor to lay the whole before his Majesty, in hopes of meeting with his Approbation thereon, as really it was not in my Power to quell the General Disturbance and Clamour of the People, in any other Manner."
Governor Dinwiddie also wrote on May 24, 1956, that Governor Glen of South Carolina had sent a ship with 50 of "these people to be landed here." He ordered the ship's master to carry them back again "for our people are much alarmed and in great confusion in having any of them amongst us; the above Master tells me, there are 300 of them from Georgia coasting the Shore in Canoes, they certainly will land at proper places, rob and I fear, murder the unguarded and unwary people, and probably in Time reach Nova Scotia, and be of great Prejudice to the Colony."
How the Acadians who went to Louisiana got there has been told by Senator Edwin S. Broussard, who says that "Some of those who were considered leaders among them and had limited means traveled from one country to another trying to reassemble the scattered members of each family.
"After a period of 10 years, they managed to group together a contingent of over 300 at San Domingo, who were carried at one time to Louisiana after arrangements had been made with the French government to grant them lands in Southwest Louisiana, where their descendants are still to be found in great numbers."
"After these first settlers were established in Louisiana, others came from practically every part of the Atlantic Coast and from Canada to Louisiana, seeking the lost members of their families and remained thereto."
Information is lacking on the number of Acadians who did not survive the various deportations they underwent, nor are there any figures on the number who succumbed during their internment in Liverpool, Southampton, Penryn and Bristol, although it is known that camp fever and smallpox took a terrific toll.
Some of the Acadian survivors established a small colony at Belle Ile en Mer, off the coast of Brittany, and their descendants still inhabit this settlement.
Meanwhile, every source is being examined to find the true account of those Acadians who were sent to Richmond, and their effecting story will be woven into the colorful drama of Richmond's 200 years to be given September by the Bicentennial Commission.