I’m probably showing my age when I ask how many remember Longfellow’s poem that begins,” This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlock.” If you guessed “Evangeline,” you’re correct. Reaching back to my 8th grade English class, I remember being upset at the treatment of Evangeline and her neighbors, but I don’t recall learning anything of the history that led up to the destruction of her village and the dispersal of her neighbors. While Longfellow created a fictional village and characters, he wrote the poem in part to highlight the treatment of actual Acadian inhabitants in the 1700’s.
The wars that we here in America refer to as the French and Indian Wars were in truth a succession of wars pitting England and France against each other in both the old world and the new. New France’s (Canada) military and their alliance with the Wabanaki Confederacy stood in the way of the New England colonies, primarily Massachusetts, from expanding north. France claimed that the southern border of their territory was the Kennebec River. Massachusetts’ charter included today’s Maine and settlers wanted to expand beyond the Kennebec.
The border between the two countries fluctuated back and forth depending on the success and failure of battles. Acadia, the present maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Maine, were home to many villages where people had farmed for generations. While over the course of the wars, some Acadians had helped with French military operations and also sent supplies during the siege of Louisburg, many more were neutral and wanted only to tend their land and raise their families.
When the British forces had control of the area, they began at least three different expulsions of the residents. During some of these, British ships would arrive, and entire communities would be loaded onto ships, often separating husbands from wives and mothers from their children. During transport, many Acadians died of disease and drowning, as many shipwrecks occurred.
I’m sure that about now, you are wondering what this has to do with Rochester’s history and Bowen’s Lane. According to Mary Hall Leonard’s book on the history of old Rochester, Massachusetts troops, which almost certainly included Rochester men, took part in one of the Acadian expulsions. In 1755, General Winslow of Marshfield was ordered to remove the inhabitants of Acadia, Nova Scotia. The General went on record as saying that the order to remove these people was, ” disagreeable to his natural make and temper and that his principles of implicit obedience” were put to a severe test. He did follow his orders and brought 1000 French Acadians to Massachusetts. While these exiles fared better than many, they were still in a strange land with only the possessions that they were wearing or could carry and whose language they couldn’t understand. Massachusetts divided up the group and sent them to different towns, including Rochester. For quite a few years, they were a ” public charge” and town records include bills for “cloath for the French”. More than one petition was sent to the General Court asking for “relief on account of the “natural French.”
While some of the Acadians never adjusted to their fate and ended up in almshouses like the ones once on Bowen’s Lane, others assimilated into their new community, and it’s believed that some of the French surnames in the area can be traced back to Acadia. Once again, the echoes of history resonate into the present.
By Connie Eshbach