Chapter 3

La vie en Acadie / Life in Acadia

With all that I’ve learned about Acadia so far, I began to wonder what life was like for the people that called themselves Acadian. Mémère said that Acadia was a border land between New France and New England, that the Acadians were isolated from their home country, and were largely self-sufficient in making a life in the New World. That basically means they did their own thing and didn’t count on help from anyone else. It sounded lonely to me. I mean, I live in a small town, and everyone around here complains that there’s nothing to do. But I can always watch TV, or pick up a book and read. A lot of Acadians couldn’t even read or write!   And in winter, when everything was frozen, what did the Acadians do? What did they do with their families, with other families? Were they happy?

I caught my Pépère Comeau one afternoon, settling in his chair, picking up his newspaper. “Pépère, what was life like for the Acadians?”

“Ah, oui,” he said, putting the newspaper back on the side table and motioning for me to sit in the chair beside him, “it was a lot different than the life we lead today. There were no TVs, videos or computers to keep people busy. People had a lot of work to do, especially À la ferme.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Alors, do you remember I told you before about building la levée, the dyke?”

“Oui, but what is it?”

“A dyke is a wall that keeps water out. Comme j’ai dit avant, rather than clearing land by cutting down trees and cultivating the land where the trees had been, the Acadians chose to farm on the rich soil of the salt marsh next to the sea. The problem was that la marée, the tide, flooded this land when it came in, so it was too salty to plant in. But some of the settlers from Saintonge, where my family came from, had used dykes in France and saw the potential with the land in Acadia,” Pépère explained.

“Mais, how does a dyke work?” I still didn’t understand.

“Bon, c’est comme ça. At the end of the marsh, there is a little lift of land before it reaches the sea. Naturellement, the water from the sea goes over this lift of land at high tide. In order to use it for farm land, the Acadians built up this lift of land, making it high enough so that the tide could not go over it.” Pépère used his hands to show me what he meant.

“How did they do that?”

“There are deux façons. One way was to pound rows of logs into the ground, lay other logs on top to fill in between each row, and then to fill in the spaces between the logs with clay and soil from the marsh itself. The other way is to keep piling on layers of marsh soil over mounds of earth. Either way, they had to make sure it was tight and compact enough to keep the tide out. Astheur, even if they keep the tide out, the soil in the salt marsh is still salty, n’est-ce pas?” Pépère demanded. He raised his eyebrows and waited for me to respond.

“Oui!” I replied. “So how could they grow crops in it?”

“Et bien, this is where the Acadians were really intelligent. They built drainage ditches and an aboîteau, which is a one-way gate in the center of the dyke. The one-way door of the aboîteau shuts when the tide is coming in, so no ocean water flows over the marsh. When it rained or snowed, fresh water would soak into the marsh, and drain out to sea through the door at low tide. This “cleaned” the marshes. In about two to four years, enough salt was cleaned from the land and it could be used for planting.” Pépère pounded his knee for emphasis.

“Cool!” I exclaimed. “Was it hard work?”

“Alors, it was a lot of work to build the dykes and to maintain them.  The fermiers had to make sure the aboîteau didn’t get clogged, and that the dykes didn’t become cracked after the winter thaw, or from animals.  The dykes had to be repaired and built back up from time to time, but everyone worked together, which helped the Acadians to build a sense of community. Because they were self-sufficient, they needed the farmland to grow food to live. Mais tu sais, people in other settlements cleared trees to create farmland and the Acadian way was new and different, something they had not seen before.” Pépère sighed. “They called the Acadians défricheurs d’eau, clearers or reclaimers of water. However, by clearing the salt from the land by the sea, Acadians were able to plant crops in very rich soil,” Pépère stated.

“Tell me more about their lives, Pépère,” I pleaded.

“Bon, at the end of the dyked fields for planting, they built their homes. They usually kept a vegetable garden enclosed in la bouchure,* or fence, near the house. They also had cattle and sheep who grazed at the pastureland in the back. Then, après the pasture, there was a woodlot, leading to the forest. Some families also kept pigs, which they let roam freely in the forest. You can see the same kind of self-sufficiency and complete use of the land in the Saint John Valley aujourd’hui.” Pépère pointed to a picture he had on the wall of les Angou at their ferme in the valley.

I got up to get a closer look. Monsieur et Madame Angou were standing basically in front of their house. Behind the house was a small pasture for the animals with a barn to the right of the house. Then there was a vegetable garden that stretched up the hill behind the house. Then there seemed to be woods. I remembered that behind the woodlot was a potato patch. Each piece of their land was used for a purpose.

“Mais Pépère, were all the Acadians farmers?” I wondered aloud.

“Non, ma cherie. There was a mélange of settlers in Acadia. Everyone was equal and had his/her own role to play so the communities thrived,” Pépère replied. “C’est simplement que farming is our heritage, so I know more about it.” He continued, “En générale, the men worked in the dyked fields, planting and harvesting their crops of wheat, oats, barley, rye, peas, corn, flax or hemp. The women sometimes helped in the fields, cutting the salt-marsh hay. The hay was used to make la couverture,* or roof, of the house, to create mattresses for their beds, and to feed the cattle. D’habitude, the women tended the vegetable garden. Bien sûr, they used the wood from the forest, beaucoup de prusse,* to build and to heat their homes. Living next to the sea, most families fished, too.”

“The houses of the early Acadian settlers were what we would consider small, built on stone foundations with a stone fireplace for cooking and for heat. The walls were made of thick, planed wooden planks which were jointed at the end to fit together without nails. The walls were covered with a kind of plaster made from clay mixed with marsh hay. There were two floors, le rez-de-chaussée, the ground floor, et le grenier, the attic, and each was one large room. Access to le grenier was limited at first by the use of une échelle,* a ladder, later replaced by a stairway.

La maison had a covered porch, and even though les vitres,* the windows, were quite small, they seem to have let in enough light that together with the white plaster walls, la maison was quite plaisante. The furniture inside was often made by the people themselves. The longer people stayed and the bigger their family grew, additions to the house may have been built. And with trade, more manufactured goods and furniture were brought into the home.”

“Women were usually working in the home, weaving straw, carding and spinning wool, making lace and sewing quilts, sheets and clothing. Et bien sûr, cooking! But you’ll have to ask Mémère about that. That is not my area of expertise!” Pépère grinned.

“Pépère, with all this work, did the people in Acadia ever have anything fun to do?” I still wasn’t sure this sounded like such a good life.

“Mais oui! There were many social events celebrating religious holidays and family events, such as big parties for weddings and baptisms.  Weddings brought whole villages together to celebrate, and often they would build the new couple a house,” Pépère raved enthusiastically.

“But Pépère, what about for kids?” I said, exasperated. “What was there for kids to do?”

“Je suppose fishing, hunting and sewing, aside from regular chores. Oh, and of course, everyone played the music, especially fiddles and the jaw harp. There was always singing, dancing and telling jokes and stories.   It was a good life!” Pépère cried. I still wasn’t convinced…