History of Acadia | The Canadian Encyclopedia


History of Acadia

Acadia’s history as a French-speaking colony stretches as far back as the early 17th century. The French settlers who colonized the land and coexisted alongside Indigenous peoples became called Acadians. Acadia was also the target of numerous wars between the French and the English. Ultimately, the colony fell under British rule. Many Acadians were subsequently deported away from Acadia. Over time, as a British colony and then as part of Canada, Acadians increasingly became a linguistic minority. Nonetheless, Acadians have strived to protect their language and identity throughout time.

Grand Pré
Port-Royal (Champlain's Drawing)
View of Louisbourg from a warship, as it would have appeared in 1744.
Louisbourg Wooden Buildings
Merchant ship
Antonine Maillet, writer
Acadian Memorial in Moncton, New Brunswick

History of the Name "Acadia"

Acadia has its origins in Giovanni da Verrazzano’s, an Italian explorer serving the king of France, travels to North America. In 1524 and 1525, he explored the Atlantic coast and gave the name "Archadia", or “Arcadia” in Italian, to a region near the present-day American state of Delaware. In 1566, the cartographer Bolongnino Zaltieri gave a similar name, "Larcadia," to an area far to the northeast of present-day Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Portuguese explorer Estêvão Gomes’ notes from 1524 also included Newfoundland as part of the area he called “Arcadie” (see also Acadia).

Acadia’s naming (Acadie) may also have had Indigenous roots. Perhaps from the Mi’kmaq word for camp, or “Algatig”. Alternatively, from the Indigenous term “Quoddy” which refers to a fertile land.

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French Presence (1534–1713)

The abundance of cod off the coast of Newfoundland was well-known long before Jacques Cartier’s arrival (see Norse voyages; Fisheries History). In 1534, during the first of three trips to Canada, Cartier made contact with Mi’kmaqs in Chaleur Bay.

The first French colonists did not arrive, however, until 1604 under the leadership of Pierre du Gua de Monts and Samuel de Champlain. De Monts settled the 80-odd colonists at Île Sainte-Croix on the St Croix River. The winter of 1604–05 was disastrous, scurvy killing at least 36 men.

The next year the colony looked for a new site and chose Port-Royal. When some French merchants challenged his commercial monopoly, de Monts took everyone back to France in 1607; French colonists did not return until 1610. At around this time, the French also formed alliances with the two main Aboriginal peoples of Acadia, the Mi’kmaqs and the Maliseet.

Other factors also stifled Acadia's development. In 1613, Samuel Argall, an adventurer from Virginia, seized Acadia and chased out most of its settlers. In 1621, the government renamed Acadia to Nova Scotia. In 1629, he also allowed the Scottish settlers of Sir William Alexander to move in. Alexander's project of Scottish expansion was cut short in 1632 by the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which allowed France to regain Acadia.

In 1631, France appointed Charles La Tour as lieutenant-general of Acadia. He built strongholds at Cape Sable and at the mouth of the Saint John River (Fort La Tour, later Saint John).

Renewed Presence and Settlement

Renewed settlement efforts took place under Governor Isaac de Razilly, who moved the capital from Port-Royal to La Hève (today LaHave) on the south shore of present-day Nova Scotia. He arrived in 1632 with "300 gentlemen of quality." A sailor by trade, Razilly was more interested in sea-borne trade than in agriculture and this influenced his decision where to establish settlements. French missionaries participated in the colonial venture as early as 1613. By the 1680s, a few wooden churches with resident priests were established.

Razilly died in 1635, leaving Charles de Menou D'Aulnay and La Tour to quarrel over his succession. D'Aulnay moved the capital back to Port-Royal, then proceeded to wage a civil war against La Tour, who was solidly established in the region. D'Aulnay was convinced that the colony's future lay in agricultural development which would provide a stable food supply and population. Before his death in 1650, D'Aulnay was responsible for the arrival of some 20 families. With the arrival of more families, agricultural production was stabilized while adequate food and clothing became available.

French-English enmity once again affected Acadia's fate, causing it to be conquered by the English in 1654. The region was, however, given back to France through the Treaty of Breda (1667). In 1690, the colony was taken by the New England adventurer Sir William Phips and once again returned to France again through the Treaty of Ryswick (1697).

Establishment of New Colonies

Starting in the 1670s, colonists left Port-Royal to found other settlements, the most important being Beaubassin (Amherst, Nova Scotia) and Grand-Pré (now Grand Pre, Nova Scotia). The first official census, held in 1671, registered an Acadian population of more than 400 people, 200 of which lived in Port-Royal. In 1701 there were about 1,400; in 1711, some 2,500; in 1750, over 10,000; and in 1755, over 13,000 (Louisbourg excluded).

These highly self-reliant Acadians farmed and raised livestock on marsh lands. The Acadians drained the marshes using a technique of tide-adaptable barriers called aboiteaux, thus making agriculture possible. They hunted, fished, and trapped. They even had commercial ties with the English colonists in America, despite French authorities’ objections. Acadians considered themselves "neutral" since Acadia had been transferred a few times between the French and the English. By not taking sides, they hoped to avoid military backlash.

Peninsular Acadia was not the only region with a French population along the Atlantic. In the 1660s, France established a fishing colony at Plaisance (now Placentia, Newfoundland). In both regions the French population appeared to enjoy a fairly high standard of living. Easy access to land and the absence of strict regulations allowed the Acadians to lead a relatively autonomous existence. A vital contribution to the survival of the Acadians was made by the Mi’kmaqs. At the end of the 17th century aboriginal peoples exerted considerable influence on the Acadians due to their knowledge of the woods and the land.

Under British Rule

Following the War of Spanish Succession (1701–13), Acadia fell under British rule for the final time. Through the Treaty of Utrecht, Plaisance was ceded along with the territory which consisted of "Acadia according to its ancient boundaries." However, France and England failed to agree on a definition of those boundaries. For the French, the territory only included the present peninsular Nova Scotia. The English, however, claimed what is today New Brunswick, Gaspé, and Maine.

Difficult Neighbours (1713–63)

Following the loss of "Ancient Acadia", France concentrated on developing Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island) and Île Royale (Cape Breton Island). These two regions had been until then largely ignored. On Île Royale, Louisbourg was chosen as the new capital. Louisbourg had three roles: a new fishing post to replace Plaisance; a strong military presence; and a centre for trade. Île St-Jean was more looked upon as the agricultural extension of Île Royale.

The Treaty of Utrecht theoretically allowed for the Acadians to move to other French colonies. The Acadians, however, showed little desire in doing so. Those other colonies lacked the marshes that were so vital to Acadians’ agricultural system. Moreover, the British authorities at Port-Royal (renamed Annapolis Royal) did not help with the Acadians’ relocation. Instead, they interfered in the process. The British were worried about emptying the colony of its population while increasing the population of Île Royale. Acadian farmers were also needed to provide subsistence for the garrison.

Except for the garrison at Port-Royal, the British made virtually no further attempt at colonization until 1749. The colony was also once again renamed to Nova Scotia. From 1713 to 1744, the small English presence and a long peace allowed the Acadian population to grow at a rapid pace. To some historians, it is considered Acadia's "Golden Age."

Britain demanded that its conquered subjects swear an oath of unconditional loyalty. The Acadians, however, agreed only to an oath of neutrality. Unable to impose the unconditional oath, Governor Richard Philipps gave his verbal agreement to this semi-allegiance in 1729–30.

In 1745, during the War of the Austrian Succession, Louisbourg fell to an English expeditionary force whose land army was largely composed of New England colonists. However, France regained the fortress through the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), to the great displeasure of the New England colonies. It was in this context that Britain decided to make the Nova Scotian territory "truly" British.


In 1749, the capital was moved from Annapolis Royal to Halifax. Intended to serve as both a military and a commercial counterweight to Louisbourg, Halifax was selected because it was a better seaport and was far from the Acadian population centres. Britain finally took steps to bring its own settlers into the colony. They came primarily from England and from German territories with British connections such as Hanover and Brunswick. From 1750 to 1760, an estimated 7,000 British colonists and 2,400 Germans arrived to settle in Nova Scotia. Moreover, in 1750, the British built Fort Lawrence to keep an eye on the French and their Mi’kmaq allies. The fort was also meant to protect potential English settlers and stop any possible land invasion from Canada.

The French authorities reacted by building Fort Beausejour in 1751 (near Sackville, New Brunswick) to prevent the British from crossing the Isthmus of Chignecto and attacking "new" Acadia. With Louisbourg and Canada in the north, Fort Beauséjour in the east, and an Acadian population viewed as a potential rebellious threat, the British authorities decided to settle the Acadian question once and for all. By refusing to pledge an unconditional oath of allegiance, the population would risk deportation. The British first captured Fort Beauséjour and then once again demanded an unconditional pledge of allegiance from the Acadians.

Caught between English threats and fears of French and Indigenous retaliation, Acadian representatives were summoned to appear before Governor Charles Lawrence. Taking the advice of Father Le Loutre, the representatives initially refused to make the pledge, but they ultimately decided to accept. Lawrence, dissatisfied with an oath pledged with reluctance, executed the plans for deportation in 1755.

The Socio-Political Context of the Deportation

The deportation occurred as a result of the contemporary geopolitical situation and was not an individual choice made by Lawrence. He knew that British troops under General Braddock had just been bitterly defeated by French forces in the Ohio Valley (see Fort Duquesne). Fears of a combined attack by Louisbourg and Canada against Nova Scotia, theoretically joined by the Acadians and the Mi’kmaq, explains, to a certain degree, the order for deportation.

The deportation process, once instigated, lasted from 1755 to 1762. The Acadians were put into ships and deported to English colonies along the eastern seaboard as far south as Georgia. Some eventually found their way to Louisiana and helped found “Cajun” culture. (See also French-speaking Louisiana and Canada). Others managed to flee to French territory or to hide in the woods. It is estimated that three-quarters of the Acadian population were deported; the rest avoided this fate by escaping. An unknown number of Acadians perished from hunger or disease. A few ships full of exiles sank on the high seas with their passengers onboard. (See also Acadian Expulsion).

In 1756, the Seven Years' War broke out between France and England. The two French colonies, Île Royale and Île Saint-Jean, fell in 1758. Being French subjects, their settlers were expelled and repatriated to France. More than 3,000 settlers were deported from Île Saint-Jean alone, half of them losing their lives by drowning or through disease. The Treaty of Treaty of Paris (1763) definitively put an end to the French colonial presence in the Maritimes and in most of New France.

Anglicization (1763–1880)

After 1763, the Maritimes took on a decidedly British face when New England planters settled on lands previously inhabited by the Acadians. English names replaced French or Mi’kmaq ones almost everywhere. The British at first reorganized the territory into a single province, Nova Scotia. In 1769, however, they detached the former Île Saint-Jean, which became a separate province under the name of Saint John's Island. The island received its present name of Prince Edward Island in 1799. In 1784, present-day New Brunswick was in turn separated from Nova Scotia, following the arrival of American Loyalists who demanded their own colonial administration.

As for the Acadians, they began the long and painful process of resettling themselves in their homeland. Britain gave them permission once they finally agreed to take the contentious oath of allegiance. Some returned from exile, but the resettlement was largely the work of fugitives who had escaped deportation and of the prisoners of Beauséjour, Pigiguit, Port-Royal, and Halifax who were finally set free.

These remaining Acadians headed for Cape Breton, where some established themselves along the coast by the Île Madame and on the island itself. Others settled on the southwest tip of the Nova Scotia peninsula and along St Mary's Bay while others went to northwestern New Brunswick (Madawaska). A small number also established themselves in Prince Edward Island, but the majority of Acadians went to the eastern parts of New Brunswick.

Economic Decline

British authorities preferred to see the Acadians spread out over the region. This policy suited the Acadians since it allowed them to avoid regions with a British majority. This in turn allowed British settlers to occupy the lands previously owned by the Acadians.

Most Acadians, except for those on Prince Edward Island and in Madawaska, found themselves on less fertile land. As such, these former farmers became fishermen or lumber workers, cultivating their land only for subsistence. As fishermen, they were exploited and reduced to poverty, especially by companies from the Isle of Jersey.

In 1746, British forces defeated a Scottish Catholic uprising in the Battle of Culloden during the Jacobite rebellion. In the wake of the rebellion, the British Crown stripped the Acadians of their civil and political rights because they too were Catholics. Acadians were denied the right to vote and could not be members of the legislature. From 1758 to 1763, they could not legally own land. It is only later, in 1789, that Nova Scotian Acadians gained the right to vote. Those in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island had to wait until 1810. After 1830, Acadians could sit in the legislatures of all three colonies following the enactment of the Roman Catholic Relief Act.

Seeds of a New Acadia

In general, Acadians at the start of the 19th century had virtually no institutions of their own. The Catholic Church was the only francophone institution in the Maritimes, but its clergy mostly came from Quebec or France. There were few Francophone schools and teachers, for the most part, were simple "travelling masters" who spread their knowledge from village to village. There was no French newspaper. Nor were there any lawyers or doctors. In fact, there was no Acadian middle class.

However, whether they were conscious of it or not, these Acadians’ continued survival sowed the seeds of a new Acadia. At the start of the 19th century, there were 4,000 Acadians in Nova Scotia, 700 in Prince Edward Island, and 3,800 in New Brunswick. Acadians’ population growth during that century was remarkable: they were around 87,000 at the time of Confederation and 140,000 at the turn of the 20th century.

Collective Awareness and Identity

The Acadians began to express themselves as a people during the 1830s. They elected their first legislative representatives in the three Maritime provinces in the 1840s and 1850s. The poem Evangeline (1847) by American author Henry W. Longfellow went through several French translations and was widely influential.

In Acadia itself, a pastor born in Quebec, François-Xavier Lafrance, opened in 1854 the first French-language institution of higher learning, the Séminaire Saint-Joseph in New Brunswick. It closed in 1862 but was reopened two years later by Quebec priests from the congregation of the Holy Cross under the name of Collège Saint-Joseph (later amalgamated into the Université de Moncton).

In 1867, the first French-language paper in the Maritimes, Le Moniteur Acadien, was established in Shédiac, New Brunswick. This paper was followed by L'Évangéline (1887–1982) in Digby, Nova Scotia, and in 1893 by L'Impartial in Tignish, Prince Edward Island.

Religious orders came to Acadia where they played a vital role in education and health care. The Sisters of the order of Notre Dame of Montréal opened boarding schools in Prince Edward Island at Miscouche (1864) and Tignish (1868). Also in 1868, the Sisters of Saint Joseph took charge of the maritime quarantine station at Tracadie (now Tracadie-Sheila), New Brunswick. They also established themselves in Saint-Basile, where their boarding school would eventually become Maillet College.

Just prior to Confederation, Acadians made themselves heard in a remarkable way in Maritime politics. In New Brunswick, a majority of Acadians voted against Confederation on two different occasions. Though a large number of politicians accused them of being reactionary, Acadians were not the only group to oppose Confederation.

The Nationalist Age (1881–1950)

As of the 1860s, an Acadian middle-class had begun to take shape. Though Saint-Joseph College and Sainte-Anne College (1890) in Church Point, Nova Scotia, definitely contributed to the emergence of an intellectual elite, there were at least four elite categories in Acadia. The two most conspicuous were the clergy and the members of the liberal professions such as doctors and lawyers. Meanwhile, Acadian farmers and tradesmen, who did not profit from the same financial resources as their English-speaking counterparts, nonetheless succeeded in distinguishing themselves.

Starting in 1881, Acadian national conventions became forums where Acadians could establish a consensus about important projects. These included the promotion of agricultural development, French education, and the Acadianization of the Catholic clergy. Assemblies were held intermittently in different Acadian localities until 1930.

Acadians founded the Société Nationale de l'Acadie whose purpose was to promote Acadian culture. National symbols were chosen: a flag (the French tricolour with a yellow star in the blue stripe), a national holiday (the Feast of the Assumption, celebrated on 15 August), a slogan ("L'union fait la force"), and a national anthem (Ave Maris Stella). A major victory was gained through Monseigneur Edouard le Blanc's appointment in 1912 as Acadia's first bishop.

Moreover, between 1881 and 1925, at least three Acadian female religious orders were formed. These orders’ convents greatly contributed to improving the education of Acadian women and enhancing the cultural life of the community. These orders also founded the first colleges for girls in Acadia, at Memramcook, New Brunswick (1913), Saint-Basile, New Brunswick (1949) and Shippagan, New Brunswick (1960).


Meanwhile, an important socioeconomic turning point was taking place. Namely with Acadians’ catching up to the pattern of industrialization and urbanization across Canada. Though the migration of Acadians to the cities was less pronounced than in other parts of Canada, a large number of them nevertheless moved to major cities. Popular destinations included Moncton, Yarmouth, and Amherst as well as the cities of New England to work in factories and mills.

Certain members of the Acadian elite considered this to be a dangerous development towards assimilation into the Anglo-Saxon majority. Attempts were made between 1880 and 1940 to reduce the numbers of people leaving to exile. There were also efforts to divert Acadians away from the largely foreign company-owned fisheries industry and to help families fight the harsh realities of the Great Depression. The Co-Operative Movement in the 1930s finally allowed fishermen, after generations of exploitation, to regain control of their livelihood. (See also Antigonish Movement).

Certain distinctive regional features also emerged. Because of their larger community size, the New Brunswick Acadians took the lead in speaking for Acadians as a whole.

Cultural Recognition

In the 1950s, Acadians started to make an impact at many levels on the economy, the politics, and the culture of the Maritime Provinces. By preserving their values and culture at home, they were able to develop a French education system (mainly in New Brunswick). The vigour and distinctiveness of their culture shielded them from the devastation of assimilation and helped them be recognized as a minority people within the Maritimes.

In terms of advantages, almost all Acadians have access to an education in French. St. Anne University in Nova Scotia and the Université de Moncton in New Brunswick provide francophones with the choice of two post-secondary educational institutions offering full programs in French. The Liberal government of Premier Louis J. Robichaud made New Brunswick officially bilingual in 1969 (which does not, however, guarantee municipal services in French).

All these victories are not a guarantee of survival. The 1960s saw a sovereignty movement in Quebec and an anti-bilingualism movement in the West take the stage at the national level. Ironically, as had happened in the 1750s, Acadians became caught in the middle. Nevertheless, they were able to make some gains to preserve their rights.

Further Reading