By Valerie Casbourn
Nova Scotia Heritage Day 2022 celebrates the Landscape of Grand-Pré UNESCO World Heritage Site. Acadian settlers to Grand-Pré built a system of dykes to transform the tidal marshland into farmland, creating an Acadian agricultural settlement that flourished from 1682 to 1755. The Grand-Pré landscape is rich in agricultural tradition and an important place of memory for Acadians. A variety of archival and published records related to Grand-Pré may be found in Library and Archives Canada’s collections.
Acadian roots in Nova Scotia
France first established a settlement in Mi’kma’ki, the lands of the Mi’kmaw people, in 1604. The French called the region Acadie (Acadia in English). The Mi’kmaq greeted and helped the early settlers. The Mi’kmaq and the French traded with each other and established an alliance that was renewed annually.
In 1682, Acadians moved from Port Royal, near the Bay of Fundy, to the shores of the Minas Basin, an area known as “Les Mines.” Grand-Pré, which means big meadow in French, was established there and became a thriving settlement. The Acadians built wooden dykes with sluices, called “aboiteaux,” and transformed the tidal marshland into rich agricultural land. They grew crops, planted orchards and raised livestock. The Sieur de Dièreville travelled in Acadia in 1699 and published his observations.
It is necessary, in order to raise grains, to drain the marshes, which the sea at high tide overflows with its waters; and which they the (Acadians) call the lowlands. […] It is not easy to stay the course of the sea; the Acadians, nevertheless, accomplish the task by means of strong dykes, which they call aboteaux; and this is how they make them: They set up five or six rows of large trees, quite entire, at the places by which the sea enters the marshes, and between the rows they lay other trees lengthwise, one upon another, and they fill all the empty spaces so well with soft clay, well packed, that the water can no longer pass through. They fit in the middle of these works a flood-gate (un esseau) in such a manner that it allows, at low tide, the marsh-water to flow out by its own pressure, and prevents the water of the sea from entering. (Account by the Sieur de Dièreville, translated in John Frederic Herbin, The History of Grand-Pré, OCLC number 1016223920, 1911, p. 32)
In 1713, France ceded Acadia to the British under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht. The British called the region the colony of Nova Scotia. There was no treaty or agreement between the British and the Mi’kmaq at that time. In 1755, the colonial administration of Nova Scotia demanded the Acadians swear an unconditional oath of allegiance to the British Crown. The Acadians refused because they wished to maintain a policy of neutrality. The British authorities then ordered the deportation of Acadians, beginning the Grand Dérangement (Great Upheaval).
The British expelled over 2,000 Acadians from their homes in the Grand-Pré region and sent them to other English colonies. Many did not survive the poor conditions on board the ships. Some Acadians escaped the deportations and were supported and sheltered by the Mi’kmaq. After the deportation, a group known as the New England Planters settled in the fertile lands at Grand-Pré. They learned to maintain the dykes and farm the land, along with later immigrants to the area. Some Acadians eventually returned and settled in other parts of what are now the Maritime provinces and Quebec.
Acadian archival records
Library and Archives Canada holds records about Acadia in the Fonds des Colonies (MG1), which has copies and transcriptions of selected records from the French colonial period. “Série C11D. Correspondance générale; Acadie” (MG1-C11D) (Series C11D. General correspondence; Acadia) contains copies of correspondence, instructions and other records related to Acadia.
Our Acadian genealogy and family history web page describes various records that are useful for those seeking information about Acadian ancestors. Parish records are particularly helpful; the 18th-century Grand-Pré parish church was Saint-Charles-des-Mines. The Fonds de la paroisse catholique Saint-Charles-des-Mines (MG9-B8-12) (Catholic parish of Saint-Charles-des-Mines fonds) has transcriptions of baptism, marriage and burial records dated between 1707 and 1749. You can access digitized copies on the Héritage Canadiana website (microfilm reel C-1869).
Finding Aid 300: Other census and related documents (1640 to 1945) is a comprehensive guide to early censuses and related records. The section for Acadia (1671 to 1763) has a list of census returns for different areas, with links to digitized copies of many of the records.
Memory and commemoration
Grand-Pré remained an important place in the memory of Acadians. In the early 1900s, John Frederic Herbin published several books and poems about Acadian history and culture, with a focus on Grand-Pré. In 1907, Herbin bought the land where the original Saint-Charles-des-Mines church had stood and established Grand-Pré Park as a memorial to Acadians. The Dominion Atlantic Railway purchased the land in 1917 and took over the park’s maintenance. The Société mutuelle de l’Assomption took official title to the church site in 1921 and built the Memorial Church there the following year.
Grand-Pré was designated a National Historic Site in 1955. In 1957, the Government of Canada acquired Grand-Pré Memorial Park with the understanding “that the park and the chapel were held by the government in perpetuity and that their historic character was maintained.” (Cabinet Conclusion “National Historic parks; acquisition of Grand Pre Memorial Park” 1957-01-14, RG2 volume 1892)
The Canadian Parks Service fonds (RG84) includes records about Grand-Pré. To consult file descriptions, try a search for keywords like “RG84 Grand-Pré” and select “Collections and Fonds (Archives Search)” in the LAC Collection Search tool. To access digitized copies of these files, note the microfilm reel number in the file description (e.g. T-11310) and then search for that reel number on Héritage Canadiana.
In 1995, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada added a second designation to commemorate the national significance of the Grand-Pré Rural Historic District. The significance of this cultural landscape was further recognized in 2012 when the Landscape of Grand-Pré became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Grand-Pré continues to be at the heart of Acadian cultural memory.
Valerie Casbourn is an archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Halifax office of Library and Archives Canada.