The old house, many-hued in ruin, stands rotting, some thirty miles above New Orleans, farther from the changing river bed than in its youth, deserted, its records mostly forgotten; but it speaks of the land of the Acadians, of the Bayous Teche, Vermillion and LaFourche and of a distinctive people. Acadians lived here for many years. They did not build the old mansion, to be sure, for that was the work of the Creoles, the aristocrats.
If the Acadians were but the second French “wave” into Louisiana, they are in many ways to this day the most remarkable and least assimilated people in the United States. The “Cajun” (he does not relish an outsider’s calling him this) keeps to his old ways, and speaks an ancient patois which few modern Frenchmen can follow. On Saturdays he goes to his all-night dances, his fais dodos (that is, go-to-sleeps) and on Sundays to Mass sung by a curé who is, as in the olden time, the head of the community.
They are a stubborn people. Theirs was the first French colony to survive in Canada. For 45 years after Britain seized Acadia in 1710 and renamed it Nova Scotia, the conquered race refused to give the oath of allegiance to the king. Finally, in 1755, an impatient British governor ruthlessly uprooted them. Their houses were burned and their lands seized; 6,000 of them were herded onto ships and scattered throughout America. But they would not stay scattered nor give up their culture. Almost 4,000 of them surmounted endless hardship to find their way to Louisiana, them still a French possession, and reëstablish their lives.
It was left to a New England poet, who never visited Louisiana, to establish the Acadians in American folklore. They will lake you today to the grave of an orphan girl named Emmeline Labiche, the “Evangeline” of Longfellow’s famous poem, who sought her lover, Louis Arceneaux, throughout the long trek from Acadia. But the Yankee poet, they say, had everything else a little wrong. The real Evangeline was not old when she found her Gabriel and he did not die in her arms after the accepted Victorian manner. Instead, still young, still beautiful, she ended her quest with a discovers that drove her to madness. Gabriel, that practical Acadien, had married another woman.