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Charmed Life

French Connection

By Charles Cohen | Posted 2/25/1998

Every year around this time chain restaurants, local bars, and theme-party hosts hitch a ride on the Mardi Gras bandwagon, but no one disputes that Fat Tuesday really belongs to New Orleans. Even Marylanders who make the bayou pilgrimage to get crazy and beg for beads are merely dabbling in someone else's culture.

Had our forebears been a little more welcoming back in the mid-18th century, however, the Mambo King might have ruled on Charles Street as well as Bourbon Street. But the more than 900 Acadians who arrived in Maryland in the 1750s didn't stay long enough to establish a tradition of Ash Wednesday hangovers here.

The new arrivals were among some several thousand Acadians expelled from Nova Scotia because they refused to swear allegiance to Protestant Britain, which had gained control of the colony in 1713 and was concerned about the loyalty of its Catholic, French-speaking subjects. The Acadians had insisted on remaining neutral in ongoing disputes between France and Britain over Canadian territory.

After four decades of uneasy coexistence, thousands of Acadians were herded up in 1755 by Maj. Charles Lawrence, Nova Scotia's hard-line British governor, and sent packing. Their property and livestock were confiscated to pay their traveling expenses. Some were sent to England, others dispersed among its colonies to the south. The English hoped to assimilate the Acadians by breaking them up into small groups and immersing them in a Protestant, English-speaking society.

A large chunk of the exiles -- 913 people from the Nova Scotia settlements of Grand Pré and Pisiquid -- landed in Annapolis in November 1755. Maryland and Pennsylvania, which had reputations for religious tolerance, "should have proved the most hospitable [of the English colonies] to the homeless French Neutrals," Carl A. Brasseaux writes in his book The Founding of New Acadia. But Maryland in the mid-1750s was not in so welcoming a mood: The colony faced a security threat from French settlements in the Ohio River Valley, on its western border.

By the time the Acadians landed -- in overcrowded ships that were virtually barren of supplies -- Marylanders had already been whipped into a Francophobic frenzy by the Annapolis-based Maryland Gazette newspaper, which characterized the Acadians as having a "proclivity for looting, homicide, arson, and rape." The colonial government wasn't keen on caring for the exiles; it passed a law requiring that Acadians work or be jailed, it restricted their travel, and basically issued a shoot-to-kill order for any trying to make their way into the French territories. to the west. Groups of Acadians were carted off to various Chesapeake settlements, including Baltimore.

Maryland's treatment of the exiles might seem cold-hearted today, but Gregory Wood, a Wheaton schoolteacher and author of the book A Guide to the Acadians in Maryland in the 18th and 19th Century, notes that in Colonial times, having 900 strangers show up at your doorstep must have been quite a shock.

"Imagine when they came in 1755," Wood says. "Annapolis only had 1,000 people. What if a population about the size of your town was out in the Severn River wanting to land? You can bet people were scared."

For years the Maryland Acadians languished, dying of pneumonia, smallpox, and malnutrition, and receiving charity only from a few people. "Forced to make their own way," Brasseaux writes, many "grudgingly accepted low-paying and often degrading jobs offered by their reluctant hosts and gradually improved their lot, though never rising above poverty level." The Baltimore Acadians fared somewhat better than the rest, using their maritime experience to find work as sailors and longshoremen while their compatriots in Oxford, Snow Hill, and Port Tobacco toiled as plantation laborers.

Carl Lindahl, a University of Houston folklorist who has studied the medieval festival tradition (and who lectured on Mardi Gras last month at the American Visionary Arts Museum), says that while he assumes the Acadians carried on their French carnival tradition when they lived in Canada, it would have been difficult for them to do so in the face of the hostility and deprivation they faced in Maryland.

"I don't know how well they had a chance to settle," he says. "I do know in recent history -- although it's risky to make comparisons in history -- when there was big trauma [such as the Civil War or World War II] they suspended Mardi Gras."

The Maryland Acadians continued to hope the French would eventually run the English out of Canada, but their hopes were dashed by the Seven Years' War. They turned their attention toward Louisiana, where other Acadians had begun settling in earnest in the 1760s. Maryland and neighboring states were more than happy to help their Acadians leave. Between 1766 and 1770, according to Brasseaux, some 90 percent of the Maryland and Pennsylvania Acadians took boats bound for Louisiana. There, settling back into French-speaking communities, they established what became Cajun culture (the name is a bastardization of "Acadian"), and eventually the Mardi Gras party-down tradition took root.

The Acadians who remained up here settled mostly around Charles and Lombard streets in an area that became known as Frenchtown, Wood says. They became merchants and seamen, and a few fought in the Revolutionary War. Some married into prominent families; some contributed to the local Catholic Church. But by the 1830s this Acadian presence had largely disappeared, and so had Frenchtown.

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