The Value of Historical Maps: Solving At Least Part of the Mystery of the Origins of the Acadians

By Gregory Kennedy

One of the principal challenges of Acadian history is that we do not have conclusive proof of the origins of the first permanent colonists.  The passenger lists, parish registers, tax records, or censuses that genealogists use for other groups and regions have not been found and may not exist.  There are a few exceptions, and as early as 1959, some experts suggested that the Loudunais, a region of western France between Poitou and Touraine, was the likely origin of the twenty or so families recruited by Charles de Menou during the 1640s.  This hypothesis was hotly contested at the time and remains the subject of debate.  I have summarized this debate elsewhere[1], but I am personally convinced that the Loudunais was the most probable place of origin of this founding group (though certainly not all of the Acadians) for a variety of reasons.  Historical maps played a crucial role in convincing me of this. 

The Acadians are perhaps best known for their extensive use of marshland farming and I have shown how they adapted techniques from Poitou to the particular environmental challenges of the Bay of Fundy.[2]  Indeed, many experts have wondered if their origins might be found in or around the vast Poitevin marsh (in Poitou, but also Aunis and Saintonge), where many people used marshes to raise livestock or produce salt.  The trouble with this is that the Loudunais was far away from the Poitevin Marsh.  It was a region of flat plains cultivated extensively for wheat and wine.  If this founding group of Acadian families came from the Loudunais, where did they learn how to dyke and drain marshes? Early colonial leaders Isaac de Rasilly and Charles de Menou hired a group of salt-making experts in 1635, but this does not explain why virtually all of the colonists chose to pursue and expand marshland farming around the Bay of Fundy.  It was in many ways a strange choice.  It took years to drain and desalinate the marshland, and the fields were perpetually vulnerable to breaches in the dykes caused by storms or raiders.  It also required technical expertise as well as careful planning and regular upkeep.  Surely the colonists must have had some previous knowledge of marshland farming?

None of the books that I consulted mentioned marshes in the Loudunais, nor were they indicated in the standard maps that I found.  One day, while working at the archives, I stumbled across a beautiful colour map of the Loudunais from the early seventeenth century.  This map was very useful in determining the woods that were still present during this time period and in understanding the flow of the grain trade north along the rivers to Touraine.  Furthermore, a large marsh (marais) was clearly indicated in the heart of the area that I was studying, the parishes of Aulnay, La Chaussée, and Martaizé.

Map 1 - A. Guiljelmum et I. Blaeu, “Carte du Loudunais et du Mirebalais,” 1635, L 192, Série FI, Archives départementales de la Vienne (Poitiers)

Map 1 – A. Guiljelmum et I. Blaeu, “Carte du Loudunais et du Mirebalais,” 1635, L 192, Série FI, Archives départementales de la Vienne (Poitiers)

Of course, this map does not show whether the marsh was dyked or otherwise used by the inhabitants.  However, knowing that the marsh was present, I could look for it in other places.  For example, I had already decided to consult the cadastre – a detailed survey map of France from the early nineteenth century – in order to better understand the layout of the fields and villages in the Loudunais.  I soon determined that the marsh had very much been incorporated into the rural economy through an intricate system of drainage canals.

Map 2 – Detail of Cadastre, Martaizé, 1828-29, 4P 999-1005, Archives départementales de la Vienne

Map 2 – Detail of Cadastre, Martaizé, 1828-29, 4P 999-1005, Archives départementales de la Vienne

Canals were clearly indicated in blue to distinguish them from roads and other linear features.  Dykes were also named, in this case, Ste Catherine’s Dyke protected an area of meadow and arable called La Pointe because it was where two major canals came together and formed a triangle.  There is another revealing clue in this image.  In the Poitevin Marsh, a dyke was typically called a “bot” and names were normally reserved for the largest drainage canals – the Canal of the Five Abbots, the Canal of Clain, etc.  However, in Acadia, dykes were usually referred to as “levées” and large communal dykes might receive names.  Thus, the naming of this dyke as the “Levée de Sainte Catherine” had much more in common with Acadian practices than with those of the Poitevin Marsh.

I further realized that drained marshland was deemed particularly valuable in the Loudunais, just as it came to be in Acadia.  Local lords developed large, centralized farms (métairies) on these properties and then leased them out to wealthier peasants called ploughmen (laboureurs).  These farms included houses, barns, pasture, and fields.  In comparison, the much larger plain had been subdivided into hundreds of tiny rectangular plots.  Most farmers had to work many of these plots across several different fields to make ends meet.   The following image of one of these marshland farms, called the Burnt Cabin (la cabane brulée), also indicates a ford (gué) where a road crosses a canal of significant depth and width.

Map 3 – Detail of Cadastre, Martaizé, 1828-29, 4P 999-1005, Archives départementales de la Vienne

Map 3 – Detail of Cadastre, Martaizé, 1828-29, 4P 999-1005, Archives départementales de la Vienne

With the help of these maps, I knew that there was a large marsh in the part of the Loudunais hypothesized to be the origin of several Acadian families.  I also knew that by the early nineteenth century, this marshland had been drained and brought under cultivation using methods similar to those used in Acadia.  The last step was to prove that this drainage and cultivation had existed during the early seventeenth century, since the colonists were recruited by Charles de Menou in 1642-43.[3]

The documentary record helped fill the gap.  First, notary records revealed leases and other transactions concerning these marshland farms during the first half of the eighteenth century.  Then, in the papers of the parish of Martaizé, I found reference to a long-standing legal dispute during the seventeenth century.  Specifically, the priest had sued the leaseholders of the marshland farms for not paying the tithe.  The case was only decided in 1680, and extended back to at least the 1630s.  Thus, whether or not the colonists had built dykes themselves, they probably knew someone that had, and were certainly aware that marshland farming was a new and potentially profitable endeavour being pursued by local landowners.

Examining historical maps provided key clues that helped me to establish a link between the Loudunais and Acadia.  There is, of course, still more work to do.  In general, maps can provide a wealth of information, a unique point of view to visualize a place, and also help determine what to look for in the documentary record.  They are a great place to start or to continue a research project.  Sometimes pictures really are worth a thousand words!

Gregory Kennedy is an Assistant Professor of History at the Université de Moncton.


[1] Gregory Kennedy, “Le Loudunais, terre d’origine de quelques familles acadiennes,” Encyclopédie du patrimoine culturel de l’Amérique française (2012) http://www.ameriquefrancaise.org/fr/article-672/Le_Loudunais,_terre_d%E2%80%99origine_de_quelques_familles_acadiennes.html#.Um-50kaNTcs.

[2] Gregory Kennedy, “Marshland Colonization in Acadia and Poitou during the Seventeenth Century,” Acadiensis XLII, No. 1 (Winter/Spring 2013): 37-66.

[3] Gregory Kennedy, « À la recherche de sa propre voie : Charles de Menou, sa famille et sa carrière en Acadie, » Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, numéro spécial portant sur l’Acadie, forthcoming 2014.

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