LAFAYETTE, La. — A growing number of Cajuns want to set the record straight about their cultural heritage. They want to know where the earliest Acadian settlers lived, what they ate and how they survived.
The truth these Cajuns seek could give less credit to the legend of Evangeline and Gabriel and more credit to Joseph Broussard, the freedom fighter and Acadian hero more commonly known as Beausoleil.
A long-term, multidisciplinary effort called the New Acadia Project, or Projet Nouvelle Acadie, is under way to locate, identify and investigate the 18th-century homesteads and unmarked grave sites of Acadian exiles along the Teche Ridge in Loreauville. As money is raised and research conducted, those spearheading the project say time could be the enemy: the high-priority archaeological dig sites are in an area of rapid residential and commercial development.
Under the shade of mossy live oaks that line the calm, muddy waters of the Bayou Teche hide Beausoleil and key artifacts that could provide information on how the first Acadian settlers in south Louisiana lived.
It is important to find remains from the original Acadian settlements, known as camps, as soon as possible, according to Acadian historian Warren Perrin and anthropological archaeologist Mark Rees.
“We’re losing the archaeological information potential,” Rees says. “We’re losing our heritage, and we’re losing the cultural economy. There’s commercial development, and some sites are being destroyed, so we don’t know how much of it is being destroyed. Is it 5 percent or is it 50 percent?”
Rees has developed a map of high-priority sites based on a 2003 research project he conducted with University of Louisiana at Lafayette students.
The 2003 archeology project, named for Joseph “Beausoleil” Broussard’s son, Amand Broussard, unearthed Acadian artifacts from the 1780s.
The New Acadia Project will include a search for artifacts that date back to as early as 1765, the year hundreds of Acadians arrived in south-central Louisiana.
The search will also be for the burial sites of about 34 exiled Acadians, including Beausoleil and his brother, Alexandre Broussard, who died from a virulent epidemic in 1765 within the first few months of arriving in Louisiana after the year-long voyage from Nova Scotia.
The remains of these Acadians likely are buried at the three original Acadian camps, called premier camp d’en bas, le dernier camp d’en bas and camp Beausoleil.
“People did move away after the epidemic of 1765,” Rees says. “But you don’t just turn your back on the land and place where your parents are buried. That’s an assumption, but it’s a pretty good assumption to start on.”
According to research, these camps are located about 30 miles southeast of Lafayette, between present-day St. Martinville and New Iberia, along the Teche Ridge.
“It’s really these people that were the founders of the Cajun culture that is so well known around the world today,” Perrin says. “We need to find out what they ate, what they threw away as trash, what kind of shelter they had.”
Beausoleil is lost in time, Perrin says. A historical gap exists from the time the group of Acadians, led by Beausoleil, left New Orleans to 20 years later, when Beausoleil’s descendents show up.
“It’s just a big, black mystery as to what took place,” Perrin says.
Perrin is an eighth generation descendent of Beausoleil, and Rees is a descendent of Beausoleil’s brother, Alexandre Broussard.
“It’s just a quest personally,” Perrin says, “to find and walk among the leaves and the trees and the grass on the Bayou Teche where these people decided it was the best place to start a new life, what they called a New Acadia, in south Louisiana.”
Area historians believe the Acadians didn’t document their early days in the Bayou Teche region because they thought of it as a temporary home. It is also the reason early settlers referred to their communities as camps, Perrin says.
“We know they had determination because they fought the British, they survived prison camps, they survived a one-year voyage to Louisiana,” Perrin says. “So for us to neglect what happened once they arrived in Louisiana is inexcusable, and we need to focus on that in the future.”
Although the first Acadians settled in south-central Louisiana about 250 years ago, Native Americans in the area have historical documentation dating back more than 1,000 years earlier than that.
Rees questions whether there was a historical record at all for the Acadian settlers, especially since they had more pressing matters such as survival to worry about.
“We have a great awareness and a great appreciation for heritage today and looking back,” Rees says. “And the importance of these places today to us is quite different than it would have been for them at that time.”
The citizen effort of the New Acadia Project began with a presentation in May at Vermilionville and has since continued with the development of a 21-member committee and donation fund.
The steering committee has received endorsements of about $5,000 from area and state cultural organizations, the Famille Beausoleil Association and other supporters. The donated funds have allowed for the hiring of a UL graduate student to conduct project research this fall.
Still, the $100,000 goal is far from being met.
If all goes well, the preliminary portion of the project will take two to three years, which includes public outreach, historical research and surveying high-priority areas to determine sites that merit excavation.
Rees expects the New Acadia Project to span about five years, including the process of locating camp sites, uncovering artifacts, dating the discoveries and determining how the relics fit into the Acadian story.
“We could correct a lot of false assumptions or misinformation about Acadian history,” Rees says.
So far, the New Acadia Project has been welcomed enthusiastically, both by Acadian descendents and by those living in high-priority dig areas.
Loreauville Mayor Al Broussard is excited to see the project come to fruition, not only for his village’s cultural economy, but because he, too, is a descendent of the Broussard brothers.
“The public is interested, especially the land owners,” Al Broussard says. “The way we’re going about it is letting the public know what we want, what we need. People here are very cooperative.”
The mayor is also a member of the project’s steering committee.
“Loreauville is kind of off the beaten path, and our potential for economic development is limited because of our geographic limitations,” he says. “I believe that culture and tourism could have a huge impact and be very beneficial to the village.”
Along with a possible boost in tourism, the project could mean a new cultural identity for thousands.
About 25,000 Cajuns living in south Louisiana descend from Beausoleil, according to Warren and Rees.
“Whether it’s fabricated or real, we take bits and pieces of culture from the past and use it to build our identities today,” Rees says. “It really is important to Louisiana in terms of identity, heritage and culture.”
Sara Beanlands, a Canadian archaeologist who spearheaded a similar Acadian project in Nova Scotia, says the most important aspect of the dig was including Acadians in the process.
“I think archeology should only be done when it’s meaningful and relevant to the people living today,” Beanlands says. “Why would we bother otherwise? Why dig up all these artifacts if it doesn’t mean anything to anybody?”
In time, Beanlands also hopes to compare recovered artifacts from her digs with those that will be uncovered during the New Acadia Project.
“We can really get a sense of how the culture evolved over time and space,” Beanlands says. “What are the biggest differences between life pre-deportation in Nova Scotia and post-deportation in Louisiana?”
When the Acadians arrived in the area, they had little more than their clothes and traditions.
Many second-generation Acadians left behind great legacies, however.
“They obviously made some good choices,” Perrin says. “They worked hard, but they made some good choices.”