Heart of Louisiana: History of Cajun culture

Published: Jul. 17, 2014 at 3:04 AM CDT
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(WVUE) - Acadians have been a large part of south Louisiana for more than two centuries. But some of their earliest history in the Bayou State has never been written.

Now, a team of researchers is trying to uncover the mystery and find the birthplace of Cajun culture.

Around 250 years ago, the very first Acadians to reach Louisiana made their way up Bayou Teche, a slow-moving waterway that snakes through southwest Louisiana. The 193 French-speaking Acadians were expelled from their homes in Nova Scotia by the British.

"We want to know how they survived, what they lived in. When they first got here, there was absolutely nothing that we know of," said Al Broussard.

Broussard is the mayor of the small village of Loreauville, located on Bayou Teche. He has traced his ancestry directly to those very first settlers. He is a 9th generation descendant of leader Joseph Beausoleil Broussard and his brother Alexandre Broussard. But shortly after their arrival, 34 of the settlers, including Beausoleil, died of disease.

"You know, it would be so nice to know that my grandfather's remains are somewhere on this property near the bayou and go there and kneel and pray and thank him for preserving us and letting us be who we are," said Broussard.

But where those settlers lived, died and were buried is a mystery.

Researchers are confident that Joseph Beausoleil Broussard and his group of Acadians settled in the general area near the present-day town of Loreauville. But pinpointing the exact site of their homes and their graves is quite the challenge.

Students Maegan smith and Christian Sheumaker of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette are searching along the edges of sugarcane fields and cemeteries within a stone's throw of Bayou Teche.

"That can be kind of difficult, especially around the Teche where there's a lot, a lot of stuff," explained Smith. "Not necessarily what we're looking for, not the specific time period."

Clues can come in the tiny form of a piece of pottery.

Mark Rees, an archeological anthropologist at ULL, is leading the search.

"The very idea that they are buried in unmarked graves along the Teche somewhere at the first locations, the first settlements and that these places are still unmarked strikes a lot of people who are the descendants as sad, and as something that needs to be corrected," explained Rees.

Rees believes that the popular Longfellow poem 'Evangeline' satisfied some people's need to know where they came from. For generations, people have visited the Evangeline statue and oak tree in St. Martinville, which are linked to a fictional story of the Acadians' arrival. Now, the focus is on artifacts and history.

"The priest who traveled with them in 1765 recorded at least 34, maybe as many as 44, burials of the Acadians who arrived here. He recorded the dates, and interestingly, the places and he named these places, the different camps," said Rees.

The 'camps' and burials are believed to be within a four mile radius of Loreauville. Old burial plots are being scrutinized.

"This is, of course, called a Broussard cemetery of which there are many," said Christian Sheumaker. "But the property owners do have information and paperwork declaring that there are up to six or seven children buried here."

No one expects a quick discovery.

"I think this is at very minimum a 3-5 year effort to do a survey of this scope and to find the sites," said Rees.

With each dig, sites are eliminated. Researchers hope each step moves them closer to finding the very spot where Cajun history began.

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