The History of the Acadians

Descended from the original French and Metis settlers of New France, the Acadians lived along what is now Canada’s east coast.

European fisherman, mainly Basques, but also English, French and Portuguese had been fishing in Canadian waters since the late 1490s. In 1524, the King of France sent Italian explorer Giovanni Verrazzano to explore the east coast of North America for a route to Asia. Verrazzano was the first European to see the entrance to New York Harbour.

The First Acadian Settlements

Between 1534 and 1543, Jacques Cartier led three expeditions to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. However, his inability to find a route to Asia, coupled with the failure of his colony meant that his expeditions were ultimately considered to be failures.

In 1603, the King of France granted exclusive colonization rights to Pierre Dugua for all of North America between 40 and 60 degrees north latitude. Dugua was given a monopoly on the Canadian fur trade, and made Lieutenant Governor of New France and Acadia.

Dugua arrived with 79 settlers, including Samuel de Champlain, and chose a site off the coast of the Bay of Fundy for Canada’s first colony.

Dugua’s location, Saint Croix Island, proved to be a poor choice. Fresh water had to be rowed in from the mainland and the climate was not suitable for farming. During the winter, dangerous ice floes prevented the colonists from restocking their stores of firewood and other supplies. Subsequently, many colonists died of cold, hunger and scurvy.

When the ice melted, the colonists traded iron tools with the First Nations, in exchange for food. Following this, the colonists crossed the Bay of Fundy and established another colony, at what is now Annapolis-Royal in Nova Scotia.

In 1607, Annapolis-Royal was abandoned due to a sudden shift in French court politics. In 1610, the site was deemed to be unnecessary following the establishment of a French colony at what is now Quebec City.

In June, 1610, Jean de Biencourt arrived in Acadia with another group of settlers, including his 19 year old son, Charles. The party included a number of Hugenots and a Catholic priest, who began trying to convert the natives to Christianity.

After arriving in Acadia, the ship returned to France under the command of Charles de Biencourt, on August 21. Biencourt’s return was delayed by Jesuit Father Biard, now part owner of Biencourt’s ship, and its cargo. Father Biard wanted to see Acadia; however, the transportation of a Catholic priest was a deeply unpopular prospect among the expedition’s French Protestant backers. Consequently the crisis took several months to resolve, delaying Charles’ return to Acadia until 1611.

In the summer of 1613, the colony was attacked by English Privateers operating out of Jamestown, Virginia. Several Acadians were killed and the fort was burned to the ground. The English attackers took most of the colony’s food. Returning to Acadia in 1614, Biencourt found the Acadians starving and took the survivors back to France.

Acadian Conflicts

Meanwhile the growing colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts began to covet the land controlled by the Acadians and started raiding French settlements around the Bay of Fundy. By 1621, the Acadians were hemmed in on both sides. England’s King James I had granted large tracts of land along Canada’s east coast to the Earl of Stirling, which were to be developed as New Scotland, or Nova Scotia. However, the colony was deemed a failure and dismantled in 1629. In response to this, 300 peasants from Northwest France were brought to Acadia to counter the flood of English settlers.

By 1654, colonial tensions boiled over into war. An English fleet from Boston captured the French colony at Annapolis-Royal. During the English occupation of Acadia, Jean Baptiste Colbert, the Minister of Marine to Louis XIV barred the Acadians from returning to France. Thus, no French settlement occurred in Acadia between 1654 and 1670.

In August, 1674, the Dutch captured the French forts at Pentagoet and Jemben, claiming Acadia for New Holland. The English attacked Acadia in response and captured the Dutch administrator, John Rhoades. Control of Acadia was quickly returned to France, but the Dutch continued to claim control of Acadia until 1678, when they eventually gave up all claims to Acadia in the Treaty of Nijnegen.

In 1713, France formally surrendered control of Acadia in the Treaty of Utrecht. With the loss of Acadia and Newfoundland to the British, the French built Fortress Louisburg on Cape Breton Island in an effort to protect the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The British remained distrustful of their new Acadian subjects. Demanding that they take an oath of allegiance to the British crown, many Acadians refused to denounce their Catholic faith.

By 1755, tensions between the English and French had increased and the British again demanded that the Acadians take a loyalty oath. The Acadians refused and were forcibly relocated, in an event that their descendants have come to call The Great Upheaval.


Griffiths, Naomi Elizabeth Saundaus (1992), The Contexts of Acadian History: 1686–1784, McGill-Queen’s Press,

Plank, Geoffrey (2003), An Unsettled Conquest: The British Campaign Against the Peoples of Acadia, University of Pennsylvania Press,

Reid, John G. (1981), Acadia, Maine, and New Scotland: Marginal Colonies in the Seventeenth Century, University of Toronto Press,

Reid, John G. (2004), The “conquest” of Acadia, 1710: Imperial, Colonial, and Aboriginal Constructions, University of Toronto Press.


About this entry