In the winter of 1755, two Marshfield, Mass., selectmen knocked on the door of the Michel family, seven Acadian exiles. They brought bad news: The two oldest sons, 23-year-old Francis and 15-year-old Paul, had to go into involuntary servitude. Francis would work for a farmer, Paul as a sailor, though he suffered from debilitating seasickness.
New England had no love for the French families living among them. But the French families — Acadian exiles — had no choice because the British had resettled them there by force.
The French and Indian War raged, and French families who refused to take a loyalty oath to the British ended up in exile from Nova Scotia. The Acadian refugees who landed in Puritan New England bore the stigma of their Catholic religion — and of their poverty.
Beginning in 1755, the British took nearly 10,000 Acadians from their homes and forcibly deported them to the British colonies and to England. They confiscated or burned the Acadian exiles’ houses and farms, and deliberately separated families.
The colonies, Massachusetts and Connecticut, treated the Acadian exiles like prisoners of war. They could not practice their religion, nor could they move from town to town.
The Michel family had more luck than most. They survived the disease-ridden voyage to Boston, and the family stayed together. The two eldest sons threw off their indentures and worked for wages. The town even helped feed and shelter them.
French and Indian War
For many years the French and British fought over Acadia. The region included Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, parts of southern Quebec and northern Maine.
By 1713 the British took control and demanded loyalty from Acadians. Most refused, earning the nickname ‘French Neutrals.’ That posed a problem for the British, since the French far outnumbered them in Acadia.
Massachusetts officials also worried about the Acadians. Gov. William Shirley feared for the safety of Massachusetts merchants and sailors in Acadian waters. Usually three or four boats from Boston anchored there at a time.
In 1751, the French began to build Fort Beausejour in nearby New Brunswick. Shirley began recruiting forces to kick them out of Acadia. Troops that left Boston in May of 1755 captured Fort Beausejour in June.
Le Grand Derangement
On Sept. 5, 1755, the expulsion of the Acadians began. The British announced they would seize the homes and property of the French Neutrals. The Acadians called it Le Grand Derangement.
The British lured Acadian men into churches under false pretenses and then locked them inside. They seized others in their homes and their fields. Their wives and children had to feed them at gunpoint until ships took them away. The British took over their farms and livestock, pillaging and burning their homes to make sure they wouldn’t return.
Estimates vary, but the British rounded up as many as 10,000 Acadians out of a population of 12,000. On Oct. 8, 1755, they boarded ships provided by Thomas Hancock, uncle of John Hancock. The ships sailed to the 13 British colonies in North America and to France. Several thousand died of disease, starvation and drowning.
John Winslow, the second in command in Nova Scotia, described the scene. They “began to Embarke the Inhabitants who went verry solentarily and Unwillingly. the women in Great Distress Carrying Their Children In their arms.”
Others, he wrote, carried their decrepit parents in carts in scenes of confusion, woe and distress.
On Nov. 15, 1755 the first overcrowded ships filled with sick, hungry Acadian exiles arrived. There hadn’t been enough food for the journey and many died of smallpox or malaria.
Nearly 2,000 Acadians sailed into Boston Harbor to be parceled out to the colony’s 98 towns. The General Court gave overseers of the poor the power to ’employ, bind out or support’ the Acadian families. That generally meant indentured servitude.
The first ship, the sloop Seaflower, entered Boston Harbor with 206 destitute Acadians aboard. They then continued to arrive until the French and Indian War ended in 1763. Once on shore, the colony treated them like convicts.
Some took pity on the Acadian exiles. As a member of the General Court, Thomas Hutchinson tried to keep families together and helped write letters petitioning the Legislature. He may have helped Joseph Michel write a letter asking that his sons be released from their indenture. In Westborough, Ebenezer Parkman (grandfather of historian Francis Parkman) befriended Simon Leblanc and gave work to his children.
More often the Acadian exiles were feared and hated. A letter to the editor of the Boston Gazette cautioned the Acadian exiles could escape in stolen ships. Or they could destroy the town or powder house, ‘heated with Passion and Popish zeal.”
If there were any Catholic priests in Massachusetts, they weren’t allowed to say Mass. Acadians who wanted to get married did so by laymen and hoped they could renew their vows in front of a French priest some day in the future.
At first, the Acadian exiles had some freedom. Some took jobs as sailors and left for Canada. In response, the General Court passed a law in April forbidding Acadian exiles to work as sailors. Soon after, lawmakers ordered them to stay within the boundaries of their assigned towns.
Marbleheaders complained about the 37 Acadians they got stuck with. The exiles could escape by water, but the town would have to support them if they didn’t.
An Acadian fisherman named Belloni Melancon ended up in the frontier village of Lancaster. He apprenticed his son to an artisan to earn money, but the artisan beat him so badly he couldn’t use his arm for a month. Then the town got sick of supporting the destitute Melancons. Some townspeople took Belloni’s crippled wife from her bed and threw her into a cart.
Melancon then petitioned the General Court to let him move to Weymouth, where he could earn a living as a fisherman. The General Court allowed him to go to Weymouth and fish, and the state paid for his rent and wood.
On The Town
The towns expected the General Court to reimburse them for the expense of keeping the Acadian exiles. The General Court in turn expected payment from Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia expected payment from Great Britain. Only Massachusetts helped pay to feed, house and clothe the Acadian exiles who couldn’t support themselves.
In Newton, only two of the 13 Acadian exiles could work, since most were children. The town billed the General Court for a six-month supply of food for them: 206-3/4 pounds of pork, 166 quarts of milk and 10 bushels of Indian meal to the Acadians.
In Methuen, Laurence Mius protested in the fall of 1756 that he worked for two months, but received only three rods of old cloth, two pounds of dried cod and a pound of pork fat. The overseer of the poor chased him with a poker and beat him so badly he spit blood for a day.
In Wilmington, John Labrador and his seven children lived in a house with no roof. He complained when the house flooded, and a town councilor told him to build a boat and navigate in it.
Not Wanted Here
Early on, Massachusetts officials tried to get rid of some of the refugees. Thomas Hancock outfitted a vessel to take some of them to North Carolina in May 1756. But the Acadian exiles overpowered the crew and forced their way back.
Massachusetts asked New Hampshire to take in some of the Acadians, but New Hampshire refused.
Some Acadian exiles were confined to the workhouse or hospital in Boston. But then in 1760, colonial troops returned from the war. The sick Acadian exiles were turned out of the hospital to make room for the sick and wounded troops.
In 1762, French forces occupied St. John’s in Newfoundland, galvanizing the Acadians. In response, the British rounded up more Acadians and put them aboard five English vessels headed toward Boston. But then the Massachusetts government refused them permission to land and sent them back to Halifax.
Acadian exiles began arriving in New London, Conn., in late 1755 and continued through the next year. In the end, 400 arrived in Connecticut and went to 50 different towns. Haddon received three, Hartford 13, Wethersfield nine, Farmington 14, and so forth.
A 76-year-old man and his seven grandchildren went to Woodbury in the winter of 1756. The malnourished, vermin-ridden cousins had been separated from their parents. The town’s overseer of the poor put the children to work for joiners and farmers.
On Jan. 2, 1757, four adults described as ‘skeletal,’ ‘naked’ and ‘having the itch, vermin, etc.,’ staggered into Woodbury for a joyous reunion with their children. The British sent the parents to Annapolis, Md. They then spent a year petitioning officials to let them reunite with their children.
Under the Treaty of Paris of 1763, the Acadian exiles had 19 months to leave the British North American colonies for any French colony. They began petitioning to go home to Nova Scotia, to Quebec, to France, or to the French West Indies, specifically Saint-Domingue (Haiti).
However, they had to pay for their own transport.
In 1766, 900 Acadian exiles in Massachusetts gathered in Boston and decided to return to their native land. They marched 400 miles through the wilderness. Many died along the way. Then in Acadia they found the English had taken over their farms. They found new homes in the counties of Digby and Yarmouth.
Many found their way to Louisiana, where they are called Cajuns.
The Michel Family
The Michel family belonged to the lucky ones. A wealthy Marshfield landowner, Nathaniel Ray Thomas, supported them briefly. The town helped pay for wood for cooking and heating, let the family use a cow for milk and eventually paid for Joseph Michel’s funeral.
Michel then petitioned the General Court for help. He argued that Francis and Papul already had jobs and the indenture should be considered null and void. The General Court investigated and finally agreed with Michel. Since the Acadian boys were willing to work, they shouldn’t be forced into indenture, the Court decided. The family then stayed in Marshfield after the war ended.
For an alphabetical list of the Acadians/French Neutrals exiled to Connecticut, click here.
Photos: Map of Acadia 1754 By Mikmaq – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1351882; Portrait of Thomas Hancock, By Cullen328 (Jim Heaphy) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18351503. With thanks to The Acadian Diaspora by Christopher Hodson and Le Grand Derangement 1755-1766, The Acadian Exile in Massachusetts by the Massachusetts Secretary of State.
This story was updated in 2020.