Longfellow’s popular poem Evangeline still has people searching for the tombs of the Acadian heroine and her lost lover Gabriel in Philadelphia – even though they’re fictional characters!
Until recently, I only vaguely knew about the Acadians or “Cajuns” who came from the Nova Scotia region of Canada and ended up in Louisiana.
Since then, I’ve learned that about 11,500 Acadians were brutally displaced by the British in 1755. Some 453 of these unfortunates ended up living in Philadelphia on the north side of Pine Street between Fifth and Sixth, some for many years.
Bad timing: When the Acadians arrived here on three sloops on November 18, 1755, they were not welcomed with open arms.
Why? They were French-speaking in a British colony. They were “Papists,” so government officials feared they would collude with Irish Catholics to betray Pennsylvania to the French. And it was a time when Philadelphians greatly feared French and Indian attacks from the west.
At first the Acadians were confined under guard to their ships.
Fearing that such close quarters would quicken the spread of disease (which eventually did kill about half of them), Governor Robert Morris ordered the Acadians moved to Province Island – near where the airport is today.
Aided by Anthony Benezet, a Philadelphia Quaker who was born in France, the Acadians received desperately needed clothing and food from him and other members of the Society of Friends. Benezet also helped the deportees get lodging in one-story wooden houses on Pine Street.
Despite the British province’s best efforts to indenture the children as apprentices or send the families out to the surrounding areas, the deportees remained in Philadelphia.
And these proud Acadians, who considered themselves prisoners of war, steadfastly refused to work for any support they received from Pennsylvania.
In all, Pennsylvania paid out some 10,000 pounds over 20 years to support the Acadians. But their living conditions were often miserable.
Evangeline resurrects a culture
The Acadians’ expulsion was largely forgotten history – until Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published Evangeline in 1847.
This remarkably popular, 1400–plus-line epic poem catapulted the Acadians into the public eye some 92 years after their expulsion from Canada.
For the full poem, go to:
3 things you may not know about the Acadians
- Many of the Philadelphia Acadians who died are buried in Washington Square.
- A Canadian Royal Proclamation in 2003 acknowledged the expulsion of the Acadians, but did not apologize for it.
- Even though Evangeline is a fictional character, a statue of her stands in the courtyard of a French church in Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia. Another one was donated to the town of Martinville, Louisiana by the cast and crew of the film, Evangeline.
Where in the world is Evangeline? Believe it or not, people still are searching for her and Gabriel.
Longfellow himself said, “in my rambles through Philadelphia, I passed the almshouse of the Friends (then at 312 Walnut Street), and was deeply impressed by its quiet and seclusion.”
“When I wrote the poem the image of this place came back to me, and I selected it for the closing scene. The story was not connected with it by any tradition.”
But people believe what they want. And many think the churchyard that inspired Longfellow is at Holy Trinity Church, 615 Spruce.
Who knows? After all, it’s only one block from where many of the Acadians lived.
Evangeline: Published in 1847
Longfellow’s Immense Popularity: National parades with marching children were held on his birthday … A fireside copy of Evangeline was a fixture in many homes … he is the only American poet commemorated with a bust in Britain’s renowned Poet’s Corner
Claim to Fame: Evangeline went through six printings in six months and within 10 years was translated into a dozen languages
Song: Acadian Driftwood by The Band (YouTube video with visuals)
Jim Murphy, a freelance direct-response copywriter, has run his own marketing consulting business since 2004. He’s also a certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides.
This article appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of the Society Hill Reporter, and is reprinted with permission.