The Ends of the Acadian Diaspora

I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore, choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.

—Deuteronomy 30:19

In 1817, seventy-five-year-old Marie-Josèphe Dupuis welcomed a group of lawyers into her modest home in Assumption Parish, Louisiana. They had tracked her down for information related to a probate dispute involving an Acadian who, like her, had been exiled to Philadelphia from a village near Grand Pré in Nova Scotia. Having been only thirteen years old in 1755, Marie-Josèphe confessed to recalling little “relative to the circumstances of their removal from said province.” Her memory, however, quickened when it came to the diaspora. “To the best of her recollection,” wrote one of the deposing attorneys, the British had displaced “about 19,000 or 20,000 souls” in all:

The Migration was in general to Philadelphia, some settling there, some in Boston, some in Baltimore, Norfolk & many in Maryland. After remaining in these places from 5 to 20 years, they scattered into different countries; to England, to France, to St. Domingo, & from these last mentioned countries & also from Maryland, a great many came at different periods to Louisiana, where they or their descendants now reside.1

From her vantage point, Marie-Josèphe’s description of the grand dérangement rang true. Most of the Acadians from Grand Pré and its hinterland had indeed been shipped to ports between Massachusetts and Virginia in 1755, with Georgia and South Carolina taking the partisan inhabitants of Chignecto. The “scattering” accelerated thereafter, with thousands of exiles sailing east to Europe and south to the Caribbean in multiple waves. Dupuis did not mention the date of her own arrival in Louisiana, but she recalled well that bands of Acadians set foot in the then Spanish colony “at different periods.”

The first such group, consisting of four interrelated families initially exiled to Georgia, reached the lower Mississippi in 1764 by way of New York and Mobile; they were followed by Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil, the Chignecto renegade who guided 192 Acadians from Halifax first to Cap Français and then New Orleans in 1765. Dozens of survivors from Môle Saint-Nicolas in Saint-Domingue came next, straggling into Louisiana later that year. By 1767, several hundred Acadians, probably including Marie-Josèphe, had arrived from Pennsylvania and Maryland. In 1785, the 1,596 Acadians recruited by the Spanish made the journey from Nantes. Totaling just over 2,500 people, migrants from all of these groups took lands upriver from New Orleans or on the prairies and bayous west of the Atchafalaya River. Home to former residents of the British Empire’s great cities, Louis XV’s France, the Caribbean and South American tropics, and the farms of Belle-Ile-en-Mer and Poitou, Louisiana’s backwater Acadian settlements were, by certain measures, among the most cosmopolitan places in North America.2

They were also home to people who had, in the words of one historian, resisted the “insidious death of assimilation.”3 In other words, the Acadians of Louisiana had retained their idiosyncratic culture while tending to the reunification of their families, refusing to adopt the beliefs, practices, or identities of the societies they encountered in the diaspora. The same might be said of the several thousand who, by the mid-1770s, had ended up in Canada. At the invitation of James Murray, the postwar governor of the new British province of Québec, hundreds of Acadians migrated from New England to the Saint Lawrence Valley in 1766 and 1767, linking up with former compatriots who had escaped from Nova Scotia and Ile Saint-Jean during the dark days of the 1750s. They settled in villages and rural seigneuries, or proprietary domains, from Montréal to Trois Rivières.4 Still others filtered into the expulsion-era refugee camps in Miramichi, the Baie des Chaleurs, and the Gaspé Peninsula, farming and fishing along the western shores of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.5 Some even went back to Nova Scotia. Seizing on conciliatory policies during the late 1760s, they formed a string of communities that began just southwest of Annapolis Royal and dotted the Atlantic coastline all the way up to Cape Breton Island.6 Québécois and Anglo-Canadian neighbors noted that Acadians kept to themselves, nursing wounds from an injustice that, according to a Nova Scotia physician in the 1790s, had no equal “in cruelty and atrociousness” except, perhaps, the “Massacre of St. Bartholemew.”7

No doubt, the grand dérangement had not turned the Acadians of Louisiana and Canada into Bostonians, Philadelphians, Charlestonians, Englishmen, Caribbean planters, African slaves, or French peasants. But the diaspora had left its mark. The communities that emerged in its aftermath owed much to the fast-moving demand for good colonists that had swept across the imperial world during the 1750s, 1760s, and 1770s. The bulk of the Acadians who settled in Louisiana in 1785, for example, had endured the violence that overwhelmed Pérusse’s colony. Moreover, everyone who crossed the Atlantic in the Spanish flotilla had been thrust together in no small part by the efforts of men such as Jean-Jacques Leblanc, who conspired to forge a single Acadian body from a disjointed mass of refugees. Perhaps less dramatically, the same processes shaped the Acadian presence in Canada. Murray’s desire to place Acadians in Québec, after all, reflected a reorientation of British imperial thinking that mirrored events in the French Empire. Faced with the prospect of governing a land populated almost entirely by “popish recusants,” Britons such as Murray rethought decades of anti-Catholic policy, focusing less on orthodoxy than on the creation of communities to meet the province’s most pressing need: the rebuilding of Canada’s war-torn agrarian economy.

Acadians fit the bill. In 1766, Murray wrote to Francis Bernard, governor of Massachusetts, who knew the exiles well. On January 1, 1765, he had received a letter from Jean Trahan and several other Acadians in Boston, wishing him a “happy new Year” and begging for help in migrating to Saint-Domingue. Unwilling to let British subjects change sovereigns and reasoning that “it is improbable that they will survive the effects of the climate,” Bernard had refused to let the Acadians go—but upon hearing from Murray, he changed his mind.8 Rather than boosting French power in Saint-Domingue, hardworking Acadians could now “become a fresh accession of wealth and strength to the British Empire in America.”9 Out of imperial competition, then, began an Acadian exodus from New England to the Saint Lawrence Valley, where the exiles’ distinctive villages and parishes soon dotted the landscape.

The desire to reunite families and renew friendships, of course, helped inspire the Acadians to do what they did. Antonio de Ulloa, the governor of Spanish Louisiana in the 1760s, complained that Acadian migrants declined to settle on the colony’s northern borderlands, instead moving only to lands “contiguous to those of the other Acadians.”10 Seen from an ethnic or national perspective, the key storyline of the grand dérangement may indeed be the Acadians’ dogged refusal to assimilate. But seen from another angle, one that takes in the pan-Atlantic moment of experimentation triggered by the Seven Years’ War, the Acadians did assimilate, bending to the demands and soaking in the characteristics of the imperial world around them. The creative, brutal commodification of laboring people that defined that world was etched into the communities inhabited by onetime exiles such as Marie-Josèphe Dupuis in the years after 1755.

But as Marie-Josèphe could sense only dimly in 1817, neither the Acadians turned Cajuns of southwestern Louisiana nor the Acadians of Canada represented the cut-and-dried end of the diaspora. Her estimate that “19,000 or 20,000 souls” had endured thegrand dérangement only slightly exceeds those of modern historians, who put the pre-expulsion Acadian population at somewhere between 15,000 and 18,500. About 2,500 Acadians made it to Louisiana, while several thousand eventually put down roots in Québec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, or Prince Edward Island in Canada; these figures include many children born in exile. In short, it appears that perhaps half of those captured or driven off in the 1750s managed to reach the major Acadian settlements of North America. What happened to the rest?

A horrifying number, of course, had died. Shipwreck, disease, and malnutrition claimed thousands of lives during the British campaign in Nova Scotia, and conditions in exile were hardly conducive to good health. But thousands more Acadians did survive and made choices—albeit constrained ones—that landed them elsewhere. For all their terrors, Saint-Domingue and Guiana retained hundreds of refugees even after the 1760s: hundreds of Acadians remained in France after the great migration to Louisiana in 1785; a similar number lingered on in the British colonies (later American states) after 1763; hardy folk such as the Cyr family might have stayed in Port Saint-Louis on East Falkland had the affairs of Europe not intervened.

Contemporaries confronted the scope of the diaspora often. Judges in the admiralty court of Halifax did so in 1777, when British sailors towed the crippled French brig Copinambou into the town’s harbor, accusing its captain, Jean-Jacques Pichot, of smuggling supplies to the rebelling American colonists. As Pichot protested that his cargo, ruined by leaks sustained near the Azores, consisted only of salt bound for Cap Français in Saint-Domingue, the judges discovered that the Copinambou’s crew was composed almost entirely of Acadians from Nantes. With the French monarchy barring sailors with naval experience from leaving the country on nonmilitary voyages, Acadians (who, Pichot remarked, “enjoyed the privilege of foreigners in France”) had become an indispensable resource.11

Stories such as that of the Copinambou’s nameless Acadian crew are important. On the ragged edges of the grand dérangement, they reveal with even greater force the link between the inner workings of the Acadian diaspora and the complexities of the outside world.

By the late 1770s, the site of the Acadian colony near Châtellerault had become an eerie, half-dead place. Some of the original settlers were there, but native squatters and weeds had claimed many of the Acadians’ stone houses. To Pérusse and various royal officials, “the unfortunate inhabitants of the New Acadia” painted “a portrait of the greatest misery,” detailing suspended allowances, bad harvests, and evaporating credit.12 Locals continued to hold grudges. In 1780, Ambroise Guillot protested to Louis XVI’s intendant in Poitiers that after selling and delivering several oxen to a landowner named Pertier for 156 livres, the buyer had refused payment, claiming that “he was owed more than 400 livres for provisions sold during the first settlement of the Acadians.” 13Most pathetically of all, Martin Porcheron—the first and only Acadian to declare his eagerness to migrate to Poitou from Saint-Malo when Lemoyne first pitched the settlement in 1773—kept insisting on his special rights as an Acadian, badgering anyone who would listen for free firewood and other benefits.14

For those controlling the purse strings, it was a little hard to stomach. “After all of the care taken and expenses made by the government in this affair,” wrote controller general Necker from Versailles in 1779, “I would have expected at least a community of sixty households capable of subsisting by itself.”15 But thanks to Jean-Jacques Leblanc, Anne-Robert Turgot, and the allure of settlements across the sea, it was not there. While Necker lauded the Acadians’ “rare attachment and loyalty, which produced all sorts of sacrifices,” he eyed the economic bottom line: “I believe that those in condition to work cannot ask for assistance that we do not give to ordinary subjects of the king.”16 Pérusse’s dream slowly disintegrated, sending its Acadian settlers trickling back toward the seaports from which they had come.

Those who had weighed Louisiana in the balance and found the Spanish colony wanting had, it seemed, made an exceptionally poor choice. Acadian patriarch Michel Quessy, for example, turned up on the census lists of Saint-Malo in the summer of 1787. Unemployed and starving, he strained to care for three of his seven children, including a thirty-year-old son who had gone mad. Quessy’s fellow Acadians had it no better. Pierre Broussard and Madeleine Henry struggled with a deaf and mute twenty-year-old son, while Anne Haché, who had fled Belle-Ile-en-Mer as a young woman many years earlier, was now an unemployed widow watching over six young children. In nearby Morlaix, fourteen-year-old Jean-Baptiste Hébert had lived off charity since his father, doubtless a sailor aboard a slave ship, died off the coast of “Guinea.” Once robust, Guillaume Gallet was a shell of himself in Lorient, “worn out” by sickness and work.17

In February 1791, however, an unusually harmonious discussion on the subject of Acadians like Gallet took place on the floor of the National Constituent Assembly. Less than two years earlier, many members of the Constituent Assembly had been deputies at the Estates General, the ancient deliberative body called by Louis XVI to deal with the kingdom’s heightening financial crisis. Combining with some forward-thinking clerics and nobles (including the marquis de Pérusse) on June 20, 1789, the deputies of the Third Estate took refuge in an outdoor tennis court near the palace at Versailles after being locked out of their usual quarters. Declaring themselves representatives of the entire French nation, the crowd of rebels swore an oath not to disband until they had produced a written constitution. Since that day, the men of the Constituent Assembly had staked out an uneasy peace with the monarchy of Louis XVI. Pushing against the reluctant king, they had abolished serfdom and engineered the most far-reaching political revolution in Europe’s history. By February 1791, however, plodding drafters had yet to finish the constitution, and the mixture of Parisian radicalism, foreign military threats, and wild rhetoric that would produce the Terror was beginning to boil.

With such challenges in the air, Louis-Marie de la Réveillière-Lepeaux, head of the Constituent Assembly’s committee on pensions, rose to give a report. His topic, he bellowed, was the tragic plight of certain “citizens that the old régime repaid for their tender attachment to the mother country by treating them with the utmost barbarity.” However well argued Réveillière-Lepeaux’s case was, the financial strains and ideological currents confronting the Constituent Assembly seemed to preclude giving anyone much help. With its economy still reeling from political upheaval and bad harvests, France was on the cusp of an expensive war with Austria and Great Britain. Moreover, the revolutionaries had taken up Turgot’s war on privilege with abandon, rolling back the tax exemptions and cherished rights of the nobility while abolishing tariffs and trade barriers in the provinces; in June 1791 they would go on to outlaw guilds and other privileged labor associations. A new era of equality and patriotic productivity had dawned. “Each man,” wrote the revolutionary jurist Guy-Jean Target, “must … renounce all corporative spirit, belong only to the greater society and be a child of the fatherland.”18

But Acadians, Réveillière-Lepeaux claimed, constituted an exception. Their history showed as much. A “people worthy of praise for the simplicity of their manners,” the refugees were, like the revolutionaries themselves, “victims of quarrels among kings.” Convinced that “even if the French government abandoned them, it still had no right to give up their country and their lives like a mere tenant farm and its herds,” Acadians had fought in Nova Scotia to remain good subjects of Louis XV. After refusing to “submit themselves to the laws of a foreign nation,” they had endured the hardships of the expulsion in 1755. Many then had come to France, Réveillière-Lepeaux reported, where they received the solde in recognition of their poverty and faithfulness. Then, in 1773, the marquis de Pérusse, who may or may not have been present for this particular speech, had schemed to settle hundreds of Acadians on “the most unforgiving, sterile lands” of Poitou. Pérusse’s “barbarous enterprise,” Réveillière-Lepeaux claimed, caused most of the colonists to “perish of hunger and exhaustion.” In the wake of the disaster, the Acadians’ solde had been slashed by the odious Necker, leaving survivors in dire straits. They now had nothing, save for their treasury of “all of the domestic virtues, the unique basis of all public morality and the happiness of nations.”

To deal with the “bothersome” refugees who remained, Réveillière-Lepeaux continued, the old régime had taken “the easy way out.” “The Acadians who did not die in Poitou were transported to Louisiana,” he roared, “and there, at last, almost all reached the end of their misery: death!” After 1785, Acadians in France were left to fend for themselves, save for some royal assistance “of excessive modesty” during the frigid winter of 1789. Even then, “only those who called themselves nobles” received help, while “the people got nothing.” The whole affair had whipped Réveillière-Lepeaux into an anti-monarchical frenzy. “Can one look upon this unparalleled plunderer without the saddest indignation?” he wondered of Louis XVI, amazed at the king’s capacity to “turn away wretches whose only crime was to have loved their country too much, even as he lavished the blood of the people upon whom? You know the answer—perverse men, fallen women!”19

Réveillière-Lepeaux’s rant produced results. The Constituent Assembly passed a decree reviving the solde (8 sols per day for Acadians sixty years of age and older, 6 sols for parents, widows, and widowers, and 4 sols for children and orphans “until the age of 20”) and promising to make payments retroactive to January 1, 1790. Having received letters from Acadians in Cherbourg and Le Havre, the legislators immediately set aside money for refugees in those towns. Nastazie-Rose Gaudet, who in 1764 was hunted through Cherbourg’s streets by local officials for reneging on her promise to migrate to Guiana, received 54 livres.20 But the specter of the undeserving impostor taking the Acadians’ solde haunted the revolutionaries. The Constituent Assembly ordered a new census, requiring those who “claim to have rights to this relief” to present themselves to their town leaders, who would in turn prepare a report for officials at the département level, who would “verify the facts” and send still another report to Paris. Once again, it paid to be an Acadian.

Word spread, and Acadians emerged all over northern France. Not fast enough, however, for the Constituent Assembly. In November 1791, one member of Réveillière-Lepeaux’s committee lamented delays in the payment of the solde. How, he asked, could the nation abandon a people that “loves us in spite of our forgetfulness and ingratitude, when we have paid Frenchmen who hate us for so long?” Another demanded to know if “the negligence of the executive power” was to blame for the foot-dragging, castigating his fellow legislators for leaving important business up to a corrupt king. A final speaker then took the podium. “I am myself an Acadian,” he said, “and although I receive no solde, I am concerned with the fate of my compatriots.” Having helped many refugees with the “formalities” of the new census, the speaker (whose identity remains a mystery) knew that few had received any help. He proposed that the Constituent Assembly demand an accounting from the minister of the interior within twenty-four hours.21 To press for answers in one day struck even the toughest members of the Constituent Assembly as aggressive. Still, they passed a motion pressing for quick action on behalf of “this precious class of individuals turned Frenchmen.”22

The culprit, however, was the complexity of Acadian genealogy, not the king or his ministers. Officials in Nantes, for example, counted 91 “true Acadians who had not intermarried with the French,” but they also found 137 people “only linked to the Acadians by marriage.” Among them were French people who, under the old régime, had “received the solde as if they had been Acadians.”23 In the push to marry humane rule and revolutionary justice, the burden of proof fell on the refugees. Ruffin Pot de Vin (whose family name translates to “Wine Jug,” a slang term for a bribe) produced his baptismal certificate from Ile Saint-Jean, a document signed by officials in Rochefort confirming that he had received the solde up until 1768, and records of his marriage to a French woman in Nantes and the births of his two children. Pot de Vin made it onto the list of “true Acadians,” but his children, officials ruled, could not “enjoy the assistance of the nation.”24 In Rouen, Marie-Joseph Baron convinced census takers to include her by presenting “papers and information” demonstrating her Acadian ancestry.25 Gervais Gautreau, the grandfather of Achille Gotrot, whose suicide off the coast of New Zealand opened this book, did likewise in Boulogne-sur-Mer. Together with his friend and fellow Acadian mariner Firmin Aucoin, Gervais regaled authorities with tales of Guiana and the Poitou colony, obtaining his 6 sols per day without incident.26

Just as they had during the 1760s and 1770s, Acadians did not resist power, but rather sought connection to it. In the month of Frimaire, year II of the French Republic (late 1793, well after Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette had been guillotined), Acadians wrote to revolutionary leaders in Nantes, then engaged in a vicious war against royalist insurgents, describing themselves as fellow “victims of despotism and tyranny.”27 The radicalism of the Terror proved temporary, but the allure of privileges and rights granted to “true Acadians” endured. On June 30, 1814, just under three months after Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated the imperial throne, a group of Acadians wrote to representatives of the restored Bourbon monarchy. Mainly from La Rochelle and Rochefort, they wanted the soldepromised them by Louis XV in 1762. The Constituent Assembly, they claimed, had indeed paid them for a short time. But when the assignat, the paper money of the revolutionary government, had suddenly plunged in value, they had “no bread, and that for many years.”28 As late as 1822, the mayor of La Rochelle received petitions from dozens of Acadians, some of whom had been in France for years, some of whom were more recent arrivals from Saint-Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland.29

The Acadians who clung to the underside of the rapidly sinking old régime, and who later begged for mercy at the feet of Jacobins, Corsican despots, and reinstated kings, might be dismissed as weaklings. Given the choice between a new start alongside old compatriots in Louisiana and continued servility in France, they had chosen the latter. But in many ways, these refugees demonstrated real strength. Resisting the coercive pressure applied by men such as Jean-Jacques Leblanc while rejecting the uncertainty of fresh settlements (which they knew well from Guiana, Saint-Domingue, the Falklands, Belle-Ile, and Poitou), they took a course of action that appeared most likely to ensure their survival.

If the Acadian community of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century France retained any sense of coherence, it did so in pursuit of privileges and benefits rooted in the old régime’s involvement in the world of Atlantic empires. Given the story behind the 1785 Acadian migration back to the New World, however, the same might be said of those who planted themselves in Louisiana. True, the prospect of togetherness mattered. But that togetherness could exist only within a framework forged by the political realities of an imperial age. That, as much as resilience during trials or unity among compatriots, may well be the hard, central truth of the Acadian diaspora.

This book opened with the story of a lone man dying. Geographically, culturally, and emotionally, Achille Gotrot was far removed from the main currents of the grand dérangement, having followed the course of empire to New Zealand and to his suicide in the hull of the Jean Bart. It seems fitting to end on a similar note.

The backdrop for this final act is hardly so exotic as the Bay of Islands, with its Maori headhunters and drunken whalers. The cause of the protagonist’s death is far less dramatic than a pistol shot. Unlike Achille Gotrot, the doomed Acadian in this story was not implicated in the more interesting destinations of the grand dérangement. Neither he nor his immediate family had been sent to the Kourou River, Môle Saint-Nicolas, Port Saint-Louis, Belle-Ile-en-Mer, or Poitou. With one important exception, his adult life seems to have been spent in the narrow corridor joining southeastern Pennsylvania and Maryland. But by August 1816, when sixty-eight-year-old Charles White died of lung failure in the spare bedroom of Benjamin and Elizabeth Cross, noise from the bustling corner of Fifth and Spruce in Philadelphia ringing in his ears, he knew as well as anyone that the sinews of empire and the bonds of Acadian community were often one and the same.

As some of Philadelphia’s most prominent lawyers and judges would discover, White was a tough man to figure out. In October 1755, seven-year-old Charles and his family had been captured near their homes in Pisiquid, Nova Scotia, “stowed in bulk” below the deck of the sloop Three Friends, and shipped south toward Pennsylvania.30 A few weeks later, as the refugees huddled on Province Island in the Delaware River awaiting permission to disembark at Philadelphia, the boy’s mother, Marguerite Vincent, died of smallpox. By late 1756, Charles was living with his older brother, François, and his father, also named Charles, in a rented room near Saint Joseph’s Chapel in Philadelphia, one of the only Catholic churches in all of British North America. The chapel’s Jesuits ministered to dozens of Acadians who managed to stay in the city, avoiding the province’s push to transport all of the new arrivals to outlying towns. Charles, however, spent much of his time at the “French Houses,” the tenement near Sixth and Pine that became an informal religious school for the city’s Acadian children.31

School at the French Houses was a welcome distraction, for Charles’s father, a brash former “deputy” to the British government in Nova Scotia, was soon in trouble. With his Pisiquid neighbor Jean-Baptiste Galerne and the Quaker Anthony Benezet, the elder Charles Leblanc presented several increasingly shrill petitions to the Pennsylvania Assembly, finally demanding that the Acadians be “Transported to our own Country.”32 In response, John Campbell, fourth Earl of Loudoun, then serving as commander in chief of Britain’s military in North America, declared the Acadians “entirely French subjects.” Having “found among these neutrals one who has been a spy,” Loudoun gleaned the names of “five principal leading men” bent on fostering Acadian collusion with French-allied Indians and hampering all efforts to “put their children … out to work.” Charles Leblanc’s father was among them. Loudoun clapped the five men in the Walnut Street Jail early in 1757; a few weeks later, he transferred the shackled Leblanc aboard the Sutherland, flagship of the upcoming British expedition against Louisbourg. After the ship sailed, one witness later recalled, Leblanc was “never heard from again.” 33

Not yet ten, Charles had become an orphan. For the next several years, he and François were raised in Philadelphia by their aunt. For his part, young Charles spent much of his time near the wharf on Walnut Street, where he worked as a “shoe boy at a Quaker gentleman’s store.” He stayed on the payroll, reported an Acadian who knew him, “until he was a good big boy.”34 François, however, was pulled from the orbit of Quaker commerce toward the resurgent French Empire. After the Seven Years’ War ended, he took his rudimentary training in carpentry and headed for Saint-Domingue. Bypassing Môle Saint-Nicolas, François went instead to the administrative center of Port-au-Prince “to follow his trade.” The town had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1751, and with Louis XV’s postwar ambitions fueling a boom in construction, François soon “collected some property” in Saint-Domingue. But after only a few years, François “died at Port-au-Prince unmarried and without issue.” Although his experience as an adult traveler consisted of “attending a traveling gentleman as his waiter” in Annapolis, Charles boarded a ship sometime in the late 1760s or early 1770s, sailing to the Caribbean “to receive the property his brother had left.” After “succeeding in this object,” remembered one contemporary, “he returned to the United States.”35

Honed during long hours on the Philadelphia docks, Charles’s commercial sense ensured that François’s money paid dividends. Sometime before 1777, Charles opened a store “in Water-Street, two doors below Market-Street.” He had by now taken to calling himself Charles White, the simplest Anglicization of his French family name. On September 2, 1777, only weeks before the British army occupied Philadelphia, White advertised “French RUM in hogsheads and tierces, claret in hogsheads, brandy in pipes or quarter casks, geneva, whisky, pepper, loaf sugar, indigo of the best quality, &c. &c.”36 By 1790, White had begun a second career as a landlord, offering “the House the Post-Office is now kept in” and urging interested parties to “apply to Charles White, in Water-Street, below the said house.”37 His French connections also proved valuable. Tapping into Philadelphia’s prodigious demand for coffee, White imported beans from Saint-Domingue beginning in February 1793, when the Constituent Assembly in Paris opened ports in the French Caribbean to American merchants.38 By December 1794, the Philadelphia Gazette and Daily Universal Advertiser bellowed that “50,000 wt. of Green COFFEE, of the first quality, just arrived in the schooner Neptune, from Jeremie, will be landed on Monday at Market Street wharf” and sold by Charles White.39

By 1816, White was rich. His holdings in cash, stock, and real estate, including his own brick house at Fourth and Spruce, totaled $20,000.40 He never married, but Philadelphians often saw White about town with three women. The oldest was his cousin Margaret Montgomery (née Marguerite Blanchard), a child exile who had sailed from Nova Scotia aboard the Three Friends. The others were Montgomery’s two married daughters, Elizabeth Cross (from Margaret’s first marriage to an Irish migrant named Thomas Betagh) and Elizabeth Baker (from Margaret’s second, current marriage to Philadelphia businessman Charles Montgomery). Of the two Elizabeths, White was especially fond of Cross. Her husband, Benjamin, directed the choir at Saint Augustine’s Catholic Church, where White attended mass but never took communion.41 Early in 1816, the Cross family moved into White’s neighborhood, possibly renting his “brick house and land” on Fifth and Spruce.42 Neighbors later reported that White made a habit of peering “into the house of said Mrs. Cross,” calling on her “almost every day.”43


Charles White’s neighborhood. William Birch, View in Third Street, from Spruce Street. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Those neighbors had no love for White. Banker Benjamin Norris disparaged him as “very miserly and saving of money,” while Thomas Bradford called him a “dumpy round faced man.”44 White was apparently a bad landlord to boot: Ursula LaZèle, who rented a room in White’s house at 6 South Water Street, complained that he “would not keep it in repairs.”45 His tightfistedness seemed to spring from a desire to leave plenty of money to his relatives. Peter Stephen du Ponceau, a French polymath who became the early republic’s foremost expert in international law, rented part of White’s house on Front Street. Upon learning of White’s final illness in the summer of 1816, du Ponceau went to his landlord’s bedside and blurted out a proposition. “I asked him,” du Ponceau explained, “to give me the house in which I lived as he had no relations to leave it to.” Once “portly” but now gaunt and “panting for want of breath,” White refused: “He said he had plenty of relations and they were all poor.”46 Others angling for White’s fortune met with similar results. Reverend Michael Hurley from Saint Augustine’s tried with no success to talk him into funding an “orphan house,” while former tenant Elizabeth Biddle hinted that she wanted a valuable piece of property. “O that will be more than your share,” White replied, reminding her that “Mrs. Betagh [Margaret Montgomery] and her children … must have some.”47

And yet for all his concern over the financial well-being of his “relations,” White refused to make out a will. His stubbornness on this score struck everyone who knew him as strange. A few days before his death, the ever-persistent Elizabeth Biddle asked White “if he did not think of making a will.” He changed the subject in a huff.48 William McDonough, who lived on the corner of Fourth and Spruce opposite White’s home, saw him that same week: “Said I, Mr White, you seem to be very bad, asked him if he would make a will; he said no; he would make no will.”49 Now resigned to White’s unwillingness to pay for an orphanage, Reverend Hurley admonished him to make a will. White, however, “paid no attention to it, asked what [Hurley] meant, said there was no need of it.”50 For a man with $20,000 to his name, who rented a house to Philadelphia’s most prominent lawyer, who had himself once benefited from an inheritance, and whose relations with nearby family members seemed healthy, this was odd behavior.

And then, in the early fall of 1816, Charles White died at Fifth and Spruce in the care of Elizabeth Cross. Margaret Montgomery and her daughters quickly laid claim to his entire fortune, having “never heard nor understood that the Said Chas. White … had any other relations.” As word of White’s death made its way along the Atlantic coast, however, an unexpected challenge emerged. Catherine Boudreau, one of the “nuns” who had catechized White at Sixth and Pine back in the 1760s, had since moved to Baltimore. Upon hearing the details of Montgomery’s case, she hired an attorney to pursue her claim, as White’s first cousin, to at least some of his money. Others soon joined her. They included Hypolite Boudreau of Louisiana; Elizabeth Huet de Lachelle, “a subject of his most Christian Majesty the king of France”; Alexandre de Valcourt, “a gentleman coming from Baltimore”; and several Acadians from Philadelphia. Together they filed a suit accusing Montgomery and her daughters of “combining and confederating with each other … to sell and waste” White’s estate before all of his heirs could get to it.51

Eventually the dispute went to the courts. Perhaps looking to make up via legal fees for his failure to acquire White’s Front Street house, Peter Stephen du Ponceau took the case. He and his associates conducted a small-scale tour of the grand dérangement, ranging from Pennsylvania to Louisiana to Canada to interview Acadians and others who had known either Charles White or Charles Leblanc. There were many of them. “I came to this country in the same vessel with [Charles White] and his parents,” testified seventy-seven-year-old Anne-Joseph Landry, recalling their “forty days’ passage” from Grand Pré to Philadelphia in November 1755.52 Others recalled White’s father as a “strong handsome good looking man,” while Catherine Baugis testified that she “used to go to church” with White and his brother in Nova Scotia. But on his relationship to the parties in the suit there was no consensus.53 Reverend Hurley, who knew Catherine Boudreau from her time in Philadelphia, “never understood from her or from any one that she was related to C.W.”54 Marie Trépagnier, on the other hand, had attended catechism at Sixth and Pine with White, and reported that he and Boudreau “used to behave to one another as if they were cousins.”55

Finally, du Ponceau found Marie-Josèphe Dupuis in Assumption Parish. After regaling the visiting attorneys with her take on the grand dérangement, Dupuis made an oracular pronouncement. She revealed that the parish registers of Saint-Charles des Mines, the church nearest Charles White’s boyhood home in Pisiquid, “were all brought away” during the expulsion: “They are at present deposited in the Church of St. Gabriel in Iberville [Louisiana].”56 The lawyers hurried to Iberville and determined, finally, that Catherine Boudreau had been right all along. Margaret Montgomery and Elizabeth Cross tried to bog the case down in legal technicalities, but they could do little more than delay the inevitable.57 In 1828, the U.S. Circuit Court for the Third District ordered the liquidation of White’s estate, which had appreciated to over $35,000, and its distribution to more than one hundred members of the Leblanc family.58 A few, including the disappointed Montgomery, got more than $2,000. Most, like White’s distant cousin Betsy Jenkins, received something like “1/4 of 1/4 of 1/16” of the total estate. Factoring in du Ponceau’s fees, she collected just under $140.59

But why had Charles White not simply made out a will? Was he just a greedy, avaricious old man? Perhaps we can never really know. But the most reasonable answer to that question suggests that the exiles themselves appreciated how much the strands of Acadian family and community had become entangled in the coarse fabric of imperial history.

White had always known that he had uncles, aunts, and cousins who survived the grand dérangement’s darkest hours. He cared for them, too, as his doting attention to Margaret Montgomery and the two Elizabeths demonstrates. But he had no idea how many such relatives there were, or where they might be. The French, after all, had begun to instigate Acadian migrations from villages near Pisiquid early in the 1750s. Members of the extended Leblanc family had doubtless been drawn west of the Missaguash River or to Ile Saint-Jean, and from there to the southern colonies, England, or France by the close of the decade. White knew that after 1763, Acadians such as his brother François had washed across the French Caribbean, the South Atlantic, and finally Louisiana. Given the scale of the diaspora, the reconstitution of his family beyond Margaret Montgomery and her daughters was a thorny problem. White seems to have devised a counterintuitive solution: dying intestate. With so many Acadians simply lost and others hidden in plain sight like himself, consigning his fortune to the Acadian grapevine and the American courts may well have been the only way to ensure that his “poor relations” received any money. In effect, White hoped that his family would transcend the disorder of the grand dérangement —but he counted on greed to energize those old relationships.

What would Henry Wadsworth Longfellow have thought? Centered on the corner of Fourth and Spruce, Charles White’s world and the Philadelphia of Evangeline’s last days (“Where the streets still re-echo the names of the trees of the forest”) were awfully similar. But there was one significant difference. For Evangeline, time had stopped in 1755. Indeed, within Longfellow’s fictional grand dérangement, time “was not.” Like the unbroken Acadian community he represented, Gabriel Lajeunesse existed “within [Evangeline’s] heart…/… Clothed in the beauty of love and youth, as last she beheld him / Only more beautiful made by his deathlike silence and absence.”60

But the real Acadian diaspora had thrust Charles White and thousands like him into time’s most treacherous crosscurrents. Acadian exiles had been pulled toward the classical past by Bougainville’s obsession with terra australis incognita and the old régime’s demographic insecurity. They had been pushed forward into an ultramodern future of free white labor in the Caribbean and productive colonies dotting the French countryside. Acadians witnessed the rise and fall of a new imperial era, all as their own lives flowed inexorably away. Their response was not an uncomplicated turn inward to the memory of their Bay of Fundy villages dismantled in 1755. When refugees such as White did look to the past, it was a garbled mess. So they rebuilt in the ever-changing present, using the materials at hand. The results, like their destinations, were nothing if not diverse.

Now to a final image, drawn from Peter Stephen du Ponceau’s voluminous notes on the case of Charles White’s estate. A few years before his death, White’s neighbor William McDonough gave him a mysterious message from a Baltimore woman named Anne Fisher. The daughter of White’s uncle Jean Leblanc, Fisher had struck up a chance conversation with McDonough in Maryland. After learning of the woman’s unusual background, McDonough described the peculiar Acadian who lived at Fourth and Spruce. Suspecting that Charles White was in fact her cousin Charles Leblanc, Fisher asked McDonough to arrange a meeting during her next visit to Philadelphia. He did so, and recorded what happened next:

I told Mr. White his cousin Mrs. Fisher was in Town & wanted to see him very bad; He asked me to go to the house with him; I went, he took her by the hand, & asked Cousin, Cousin, how do you do? Happy to see her. It was cousin here and cousin there between them. They began to talk about old times; how happy they had been together in their young days, & I left them together.

Speaking in French, White asked Fisher “what circumstances she was in,” eager to know if she “did not want for anything.” Whenever he saw McDonough thereafter, White “enquired after his cousin.”61

The expulsion that drove these two Acadian cousins apart was indeed a tragedy. The imperial experiments that scattered men and women like them across the Atlantic world were indeed outlandish and often cruel. That many Acadians reversed the effects of thegrand dérangement and lived together again was indeed a triumph—although one tinged with coercion and pain. But the reunion of two Acadians named Charles White and Anne Fisher, clutching each other and prattling cheerfully amid the bustle of early national Philadelphia, speaks to the many constraints imposed and possibilities created by the Acadian diaspora. Although the powers of heaven and earth had, it seemed, recorded the days against them, White and Fisher had endeavored, as the scripture says, to “choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.”

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