Beaubassin: On the Edge of Empires

Early Settlement and Society

Early Settlement

     The Bourgeois family were in many ways a typical Beaubassin family of farmers and merchants. In 1672, Jacques Bourgeois and his family migrated from Port Royal, the capital of Acadia, to the future settlement of Beaubassin. Many Acadian families moved to Beaubassin with the hopes of gaining additional freedom and independence from French colonial control. Between 1671 and 1755, the population of Beaubassin multiplied by nearly thirty times. What began as a small and tight-knit community with only a few leading families, expanded into a decentralized community which caused the power of these leading families to be diluted. 

     Despite being heavily influenced by their position between the French and British Empires, the Acadians demonstrated their independence by establishing their own trade relations with the Mi’kmaq. Some trading goods that may have been of interest to the Bourgeois family, and other Acadians, included construction materials that were not available in the area, such as glass and metal materials, weapons, tools, clothing, furs, and dried foods. In return, they may have traded agricultural surplus, alcohol, and wood. French officials often forbade Acadians from trading furs with the Mi’kmaq, but many Acadians disobeyed these orders and continued to trade, as it was vital to their livelihood.

     In addition to trade bringing the community of Beaubassin together, Catholicism also shaped the everyday lives of Acadians. The Bourgeois family may have assisted other members of the community in building the first modest church in Beaubassin, as this was a communal effort. This church remained a focal point of Beaubassin. Many Acadians attended regular services in addition to services for weddings, baptisms, and funerals. The wife of Jacques Bourgeois, Jeanne, like many other Acadian women, was the Godmother to a number of children. However, over time, the Bourgeois family participated in fewer baptisms which would have decreased their status in Beaubassin.

Early Interactions with Mi'kmaq

     Even though parish records are not complete, the strong relationship between the Mi’kmaq and Acadians, that stemmed from fur trade interactions, continued for decades and extended into Acadian and Mi’kmaq social and political life. Thus, the Mi’kmaq often participated in religious ceremonies alongside the Acadians. Religious interactions helped the Acadians to further cement peaceful relations with the Mi'kmaq through shared temporary spaces which blended Catholic religious elements with Mi’kmaq spiritual elements. These close interactions allowed Catholicism to serve as a common bond between the Acadians and Mi’kmaq.

     While these trade and religious interactions with French settlers and Acadians were beneficial to the Mi’kmaq, it caused them to be exposed to deadly European diseases, such as smallpox and measles, which they lacked immunity to. These diseases caused a large population loss and threatened the survival of the Mi’kmaq and other Indigenous groups. Despite this, the Mi’kmaq were able to retain their relationship with the French settlers and Acadians to ensure that they experienced the benefits of these interactions, specifically the exchange of trade goods.

     Indigenous peoples were well-established prior to European arrival which was not only demonstrated by their spiritual and cultural traditions, but also through their familiarity with climatic patterns, growing seasons, and the ability to adapt to the changing and unpredictable climate. Arriving in the middle of the Little Ice Age [1300-1850], French settlers faced numerous challenges and struggled to survive. These Acadians no doubt benefitted from the experience of Maliseet farmers whose careful use of microclimates enabled them to continue farming even under these unusually extreme conditions. For settlers, the long winter seasons were especially difficult which caused them to rely on Indigenous agriculture techniques and trade in order to survive. Settlers also familiarized themselves with indigenous technologies such as the use of snowshoes and building wooden houses instead of stone to stay warmer.

Acadian Identity

     By incorporating their European-based agricultural knowledge with Mi’kmaq teachings, the Acadians adapted to the challenging environment and became self-sufficient farmers. Much of their success stemmed from the massive dykelands they created, and the use of aboiteaux to drain the saltmarshes. In fact, Acadians have often been referred to as “master craftsmen” because of their impressive methods of dykeland management and agricultural techniques. Through the construction of high dyke walls, Acadians were able to convert flooded marshland into rich farmland. These walls prevented salt-water from spilling onto their farms which would therefore ruin the soil and crops. The knowledge, time, and communal effort required to build these dykes should not be overlooked, as these large incoming tides averaged 8ft/hr for 6 hrs. The Bourgeois family were active farmers and would have implemented these agricultural strategies in hopes of providing enough food to support their growing family and community. The agricultural skills and dykeland management practiced by the Acadians, however, were frequently overlooked by other settlers. Specifically, British commentators frowned upon the Acadians farming ability because of their inability to farm the uplands which were not suited for farming to begin with. Agriculture formed a key part of the Acadian’s identity and was one factor that set them apart from other settlers.

    Acadian women played a key role in trade relations and farming which did not align with the common expectations put upon European women in the 18th century. In other parts of Acadia, women worked in the legal and illegal trade networks and ran their own fishery concessions and taverns. It is likely that Jeanne Bourgeois had friends within those networks who served as her main point of contact for trade. Jeanne would have travelled to fishery concessions, such as Madame Bertrand’s concession on the northeast coast of Ile Royale, to trade for dried and fresh fish. Women in Beaubassin participated in similar business ventures. Whether they owned a small tavern or ran a trade operation, they were a vital part of the settlement's existence and survival. 

     In addition to being active in trade, Acadian women fulfilled their role as mothers, wives and homemakers and had an average of seven children each. This high number of children allowed the population of Acadian settlements, such as Beaubassin, to grow naturally over time and increased the presence of Acadians on Mi’kmaq territory. The labour that Acadian children provided on their family farms and in the trade business was key to their families survival. Jeanne Bourgeois had ten children, seven girls and three boys, to support their growing family business. 


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