In a quest to find what some may consider a perpetually lost settlement, one professor and two graduate students have embarked on an archaeological escapade to unearth the original homestead and burial sites of Joseph “Beausoleil” Broussard and his followers.
Mark Rees, Ph.D., an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said researchers know a lot about the original Acadians – the reason behind their escape from the Nova Scotian island and their trek to the swampy lands of what is now Acadiana – but their history isn’t complete or concrete until the first settlement has been discovered, which he said he considers “hollow.”
Through Projet Nouvelle-Acadie, Rees and a group made up of graduate students and volunteers have been looking for the site since last May.
The New Acadia Project is considered “a grassroots initiative involving multidisciplinary archaeological, historical, and ethnographic research to find and investigate the 1765 settlement of New Acadia,” according to the group’s blog.
“There is a lot of pride and parading of the culture around here, but without the knowledge of where exactly the first Acadians settled, doesn’t that seem a bit hollow to you?” Rees said.
“There is an obvious reason to want to know where these places are in a region that claims to be Acadiana,” he continued. “We wouldn’t be called Acadiana if it weren’t for the Acadians who had come here, so to not know that the original home sites of the Acadians was in Acadiana seems a bit odd to me.”
Since the summer, the project has collected more than $60,000, bringing their total collections to about $170,000. About $130,000 is strictly for research at the university, with funds primarily coming from Iberia Parish and the McIlhenney Family Foundation, as well as smaller contributions from other donors.
However, Christian Sheumaker, one of the lead graduate students involved with the project, said the money won’t get the project very far if more can’t be raised.
“With the funding we have now, it will probably get us through another two years with the same timeline we are currently working with,” Sheumaker said.
Rees and his students are out in the field for only 12 weeks a year — eight during the summer months and four during winter break — due to the limited funding. The majority of their time is spent in the lab, recording the artifacts and other discoveries.
“We need to keep raising money because two years will be over soon,” Sheumaker continued. “This is a multi-year project, and there is no way we would be finished by the time the money we currently have is spent.”
Rees explained that if the project had the monetary backing to support full-time workers, the original home and burial sites could possibly be exposed within three to five years.
“Searching for something like this is like searching for a needle in a haystack or a button in a cane field,” he said.
In 2003, an archaeology research project found the homesite of Amand Broussard, a nephew of “Beausoleil.” Rees and his students discovered Acadian artifacts dating from the 1780s near Loreauville. Since that discovery, Sheumaker said the current excavation sites and the site where Broussard’s home was found span the distance of Loreauville.
Since the start of the current search, Sheumaker said they’ve only covered about a mile’s worth of the Bayou Teche.
Stories have surfaced, from St. Martinville to New Iberia along the Teche, in which locals claimed knowledge of the original camping and burial sites of the almost 200 travelers who braved the unusually hot and humid climate to find a land of their own.
In 1765, Joseph “Beausoleil” Broussard and his group of 193 people traveled almost 3,000 miles from an island near present-day Maine that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean to the Crescent City. From there, the Acadians, who will eventually evolve into present-day Cajuns, were directed towards the Attakapas Indians’ territory. However, in a matter of months, dozens of those travelers, including Broussard, died from illnesses, including yellow fever.
Rees explains below how the Acadians traveled from Nova Scotia to New Orleans.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote an epic poem set during the time of the Acadians’ expulsion from Nova Scotia called, “Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie,” that follows a fictional Acadian girl named Evangeline as she searches for her lost love, Gabrielle. The story has enthralled readers since its creation in 1847, posing as an inspiration for various movies, paintings and landmarks, including the Disney animated film, “Princess and the Frog.”
Despite being labeled as fiction, some have used Evangeline’s story as a guide to the supposed settlement, believing the Acadians marked their territory beneath the Evangeline Oak that stands on the banks of the Teche in St. Martinville.
Rees denied the claim. “There are hundreds of stories of people believing they know where the original home sites are. There are some people who have said they know of burial sites that could possibly date back to the 1700s, but it all boils down to the evidence and if there is any,” he said.
Finding the actual location is all about “a little bit of luck, a little bit of faith and a lot of hard work,” Sheumaker said.
If you are interested in supporting Rees and the Projet Nouvelle-Acadie can donate here.