Cajun History

Acadian Reminiscences – Chapter 6


Acadian Reminiscences
by Felix Voorhies, 1907

 

The Acadian Reminiscences, is a word painting of the life of the Acadians in the Teche Country in the long ago.

 

The plain, simple frugal life of these people, their devotion to principle, their unbounded faith in the goodness of God, their love for each other during all their misfortunes and perilous wanderings, appeal to the heart.

 

The simple pathos of the grandmother’s story comes to us with such consummate art, that the eye unwittingly grows moist, as the reader follows the journeyings of this little band, self-exiled and noble in their poverty, from desolated homes on the bleak Acadian coast, to their final destination in the hospitable valley of the Teche.

 

Chapter 6 – A Night of Terror and of Misery.
The Exiles are Captured by the English Soldiery – Driven to the seashore and embarked for deportation – They are thrown as cast-aways on the Maryland shores – The hospitality and generosity of Charles Smith and of Henry Brent

“As darkness came, we cast a sad look toward the spot where our peaceful and happy St. Gabriel once stood.  Alas, we could see nothing but the crimson sky reflecting the lurid glare of the flames that devoured our Acadian villages.

“Not a word fell from our lips as we journeyed slowly on, and as night came its darkness increased our misery, and such was our dejection, that we would have faced death without a shudder.

“At last we halted in a deep ravine shadowed by projecting rocks, and we sat down to rest our weary limbs.  We built no fires and spoke only in whispers, fearing that the blazing fire, that the least sound might betray us in our place of concealment; with hearts failing, oppressed with gloomy forebodings, the events of the day seemed to us a frightful dream.

“Oh! that it only had been a dream, petiots!  Alas! it was a sad reality, and yet in our wretchedness, we could hardly realize that these events had actually happened.

“Our elders had withdrawn a few paces away from us to decide on the best course to pursue, for, in the hurry of our departure, no plan of action had been decided upon, our main object being to escape the outrages and ill-treatment of a merciless and cruel soldiery.  It was decided to reach Canada the best way we could, after which, after crossing the great northern lakes, our journey was to be overland to the Mississippi river, on whose waters we could float down to Louisiana, a French colony inhabited by people of our own race, and professing the same religious creed as ours.

“But to carry out this plan, petiots, we had to travel thousands of miles through a country barren of civilization, through endless forests, and across lakes as wide and deep as the sea; we were to overcome obstacles without number and to encounter dangers and hardships at every step, and yet we remained firm in our resolve.  It was exile with its train of woes and of misery; it was, perhaps, death for many of us, but we submitted to our fate, sacrificing our all in this world for our religion, and for the love of France.

“We knelt down to implore the aid and protection of God in the many dangers that beset us, and, trusting in His kind Providence, we lay down on the bare ground to sleep.

“As you may imagine, petiots, no one, save the little children slept that night.  We were in a state of mental anguish so agonizing that the hours passed away without bringing the sweet repose of a refreshing sleep.

“When the moon rose, dispelling by degrees the darkness of night, we again pursued our journey.  We made the least noise possible as we advanced cautiously, our fears and apprehensions increasing at every step.  All at once our column halted; a deathlike silence prevailed, and our hearts beat tumultuously within us.  Was it the beat of the drum that had startled us?  No one could tell.  We listened with eagerness, but the sound had died away, and the stillness of night remained undisturbed.  Our anxiety became intense.  Was the enemy in pursuit of us?  We remained in painful suspense, not knowing what danger lurked ahead of us.  The few minutes that succeeded seemed as long as a whole year.  We drew close together and whispered our apprehensions to one another.  We moved on slowly, our footsteps falling noiselessly on the roadway, while we strained our eyes to pierce the shadows of night to discover the cause of our fears.  The sound that had startled us was no more heard, and somewhat encouraged, our uneasiness grew less.

“We had not advanced two hundred yards when we were halted by a company of English soldiers.  Ah!  Petiots, our doom was sealed.  We were in a narrow path surrounded by the enemy, without the possibility of escape.  How shall I describe what followed.  The women wrung their hands and sobbed piteously in their despair.  The children, terrified, uttered shrill and piercing cries, while the men, goaded to madness, vented their rage in hurried exclamations, and were determined to sell their lives as dearly as possible.

“After a while, the tumult subsided, and order was somewhat restored.

“The officer in command approached us:  “Acadians,” said he, “you have fled from your homes after having reduced them to ashes; you have used seditious language against England, and we find you here, in the depth of night, congregated and conspiring against the king, our liege lord and sovereign.  You are traitors and you should be treated as such, but in his clemency, the king offers his pardon to all who will swear fealty and allegiance to him.”

“Sir,” answered Rene Leblanc, under whose guidance we had left St. Gabriel, “our king is the king of France, and we are not traitors to the king of England whose subjects we are not.  If by the force of arms you have conquered this country, we are willing to recognize your supremacy, but we are not willing to submit to English rule, and for that reason, we have abandoned our homes to emigrate to Louisiana, to seek there, under the protection of the French flag, the quiet and peace and happiness we have enjoyed here.

“The officer who had listened with folded arms to the noble words of Rene Leblanc, replied with a scowl of hatred:  “To Louisiana you wish to go?  To Louisiana you shall go, and seek in vain, under the French flag, that protection you have failed to receive from it in Canada.  Soldiers,” he added, with a smile that made us shudder, “escort these worthy patriots to the seashore, where transportation will be given them free in his majesty’s ships.”

“These words sounded like a death knell to us; we saw plainly that our doom was sealed, and that we were undone forever, and yet, in the bitterness of our misfortune, we uttered no word of expostulation, and submitted to our fate without complaint.  They treated us most brutally, and had no regard either for age or for sex.  They drove us back through the forest to the sea shore, where their ships were anchored, and stowing the greater number of our party in one of their ships, they weighed anchor, and she set sail.  The balance of our people had been embarked on another vessel which had departed in advance of ours.

“Is it necessary, petiots, that I should speak to you of our despair when thus torn from our relatives and friends, when we saw ourselves cooped up in the hull of that ship as malefactors?  Is it necessary that I should describe the horror of our plight, our sufferings, our mental anguish during the many days that our voyage on the sea lasted?

“This can be more easily imagined than depicted.  We were huddled in a space scarcely large enough to contain us.  The air rarefied by our breathing became unwholesome and oppressive; we could not lie down to rest our weary limbs.  With but scant food, with the water given grudgingly to us, barely enough to wet our parched lips; with no one to care for us, you can well imagine that our sufferings became unbearable.  Yet, when we expostulated with our jailers, and complained bitterly of the excess of our woes, it seemed to rejoice them.  They derided us, called us noble patriots, stubborn French people and papists; epithets that went right to our hearts, and added to our misery.

“At last our ship was anchored, and we were told that we had reached the place of our destination.  Was it Louisiana?  we inquired.  Rude scoffs and sharp invectives were their only answer.  We were disembarked with the same ruthless brutality with which we had been dragged to their ship.  They landed us on a precipitous and rocky shore, and leaving us a few rations, saluted us in derision with their caps and bidding farewell to the noble patriots, as they called us.  Our anguish, at that moment, can hardly be conceived.  We were outcasts in a strange land; we were friendless and penniless, with a few rations thrown to us as to dogs.  The sun had now set, and we were in an agony of despair.

“Our only hope rested in the mercy of a kind Providence, and with hearts too full for utterance, we knelt down with one accord and silently besought the Lord of Hosts to vouchsafe to us that pity and protection which he gives to the most abject of his creatures.  Never was a more heart-felt prayer wafted to God’s throne.  When we arose hope, once more smiling to us, irradiated our souls and dispelled, as if by magic, the gloom that had settled in our hearts.  We felt that none but noble causes lead to martyrdom, and we looked upon ourselves as martyrs of a saintly cause, and with a clear conscience, we lay down to sleep under the blue canopy of the heavens.

“The dawn of day found us scattered in groups, discussing the course we were to pursue, and our hearts grew faint anew at the thought of the unknown trials that awaited us.

“At that moment, we spied two horsemen approaching our camp.  Our hearts fluttered with emotion.  The incident, simple as it was, proved to be of great importance to us.  We felt as if Providence had not forsaken us, and that the two horsemen, heralds of peace and joy, were his messengers of love in our sore trials.

“We were not mistaken, petiots.  When the cavaliers alighted, they addressed us in English, but in words so soft and kind, that the sound of the hated language did not grate on our ears, and seemed as sweet as that of our own tongue.  They bowed gracefully to us, and introduced themselves as Charles Smith and Henry Brent.  “We are informed,” said they, “that you are exiles, and that you have been cast penniless on our shores.  We have come to greet you, and to welcome you to the hospitality of our roofs.”  These kind words sank deep in our hearts.  “Good sirs,” answered Rene Leblanc, “you behold a wretched people bereft of their homes and whose only crime is their love for France and their devotion to the Catholic faith,” and saying this, he raised his hat, and every man of our party did the same.  “We thank you heartily for your greeting and for your hospitality so generously tendered.  See, we number over two hundred persons, and it would be taxing your generosity too heavily; no one but a king could accomplish your noble design.”

“Sir,” they answered, “we are citizens of Maryland, and we own large estates.  We have everything in abundance at our homes, and this abundance we are willing to share with you.  Accept our offer, and the Brent and Smith families will ever be grateful to God, who has given them the means to minister to your wants, assuage your afflictions and soothe your sorrows.”

“How could we decline an offer so generously made?  It was impossible for us to find words expressive of our gratitude.  Unable to utter a single word, we shook hands with them, but our silence was far more eloquent than any language we could have used.