(WVUE) - What many people around the world know about Cajuns and how they were exiled from Canada likely comes from the famous poem "Evangeline." And although the love story is fiction, it may have done more than anything to save the Acadian culture.
If you visit St. Martinville, you will find the Evangeline oak and a statue of Evangeline in the cemetery of the old Catholic church. And if you follow the Acadians' story to their homeland in Grand Pre, Nova Scotia, you find another statue of Evangeline.
"She's always been an albatross around our neck for good and bad," said Warren Perrin.
Evangeline's story comes from the classic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow written in 1847. You will also find his likeness in both St. Martinville and Grand Pre. Longfellow's poem is based on the true story of the Acadian exile from Canada at the hands of the British in the 1750s. Against the tragedy of the forced deportations, Longfellow creates a classic love story.
"We have these lovers, Gabrielle and Evangeline, who are separated on the eve of their wedding," Perrin said. "And they spend the rest of their lives struggling, going all over this young America to try to find each other, and finally, she finds him and he dies in her arms."
In the 1920s, the Dominion Atlantic Railway began promoting the story of Evangeline to lure tourists to Grand Pre.
"If it wasn't for Longfellow, I would not be here today because this might not exist," said Francois Gaudet.
Gaudet works at the Grand Pre historic site.
"Millions of people read it, so Americans would want to come and visit Evangeline's hometown, so to speak, her village," said Gaudet. "So they would come by train, so then they would get off the train and the first thing they would see was the statue of Evangeline."
Longfellow's epic poem stirred worldwide interest in the Acadian story.
"It's the people that were supposed to disappear, to be assimilated, but this poem kind of made of them proud of their heritage and brought them back to the forefront and didn't let us forget," Gaudet said. "So this fictitious character Evangeline - one of the most famous characters that never lived."
"Most of the world was unaware that the Acadians had been deported," Perrin said. "It would have probably remained a footnote in history had Longfellow not written 'Evangeline.'"
While today's Cajuns may be more focused on uncovering the true history of their Acadian roots, it's hard to ignore the influence of a great love story, and how this make-believe character has helped save culture.
Longfellow's epic poem had hundreds of editions and translations. And according to the American Poetry Foundation, it was the most celebrated poem of the 19th Century.