Saturday, August 01, 2009

One thousand Acadians lost at sea in 1758

The topic for the 77th Carnival of Genealogy is "Disasters". This Carnival is hosted by Miriam Robbins Midkiff at AnceStories For my family there was nothing in our history more devastating that the attempted ethnic cleansing of our ancestors from 1755 to 1763. It finally ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The following is one of many disastrous events that took place.

In 1755, Governor Charles Lawrence decided he would deport the Acadians (also called French Neutrals by the British). The Acadians had left their homeland of France in 1636 to pioneer this new land that would later be named Nova Scotia.

Approximately 15,000 Acadians were removed from their homes and scattered to winds in exile. Others would be imprisoned. Most would live in squalor along the seaboard of the Colonies from Massachusetts to Virginia; many would die of epidemics unknown to them; many children would be separated from their families and indentured; some children were never reunited with their parents again.

The deportation of whole families began at Beaubassin. Then would follow the deportation of the Acadians from Grand-Pré and all other villages and communities where the Acadians lived. As the ships slid by they saw their homes, barns and all that they owned burning to the ground. At that time, the British forgot that there were Acadians who had removed to Ile St-Jean, known to us today as Prince Edward Island.

In 1758, now recalling that quite a few families had moved to the Island with all of their belongings, including animals, etc., it was decided to deport those Acadian families as well. In December of 1758 their removal
into exile began. Three ships known to us went down at sea after taking on water for a couple of days.

On one of my research trips in Philadelphia, I went to the American Philosophical Society, having made an appointment to do research before my arrival in the area.

The American Philosophical Society, founded in 1743 in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin, is the oldest scholarly society in the United States. Among the Society’s holdings is Franklin’s newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, which he founded in 1728. Published until 1800, the Gazette is regarded as The New York Times of the 18th century.

During that visit to the Society, we had the opportunity to search for references to the Acadians in the Gazette. In an issue dated April 19, 1759, we found the following letter from "A.B." as an introduction to the extract he sent to the Gazette by William Nicholls, captain of the Duke William. It is his account the sinking of the Duke William, which at the time of its loss was carrying 500l of the Acadians being deported from Ile St-Jean/Prince Edward Island to France in 1758. I have been told that its inclusion in the Gazette may be its earliest publication in North America.

Note: A.B. was Anthony Benezet. Mr. Benezet was a French Huguenot who became a Quaker once settled in Philadelphia. Anthony Benezet was instrumental in helping the exiled Acadians from the moment of their arrival. Deploring what had happened to them and perhaps aligning himself with them since he too originated from France, he found them housing and clothing. He petitioned the Council for funds to take care of them. I have visited Pine Street where the "Acadian Huts" as they were called once stood. Thanks to Mr. Benezet, the Acadians in Philadelphia were better off than many others.

April 19, 1759

To the Printers of the PENNSYLVANIA GAZETTE
You will very much oblige some of your Reader, in giving a place in your Gazette to the inclosed Letter, wrote by the Master of the Duke William Transport, which it is hoped may have a Tendency to lessen, if not remove, the strong prejudices which prevail in the Minds of many with respect to those distressed People, known amongst us under the Name of French Neutrals; as they are in a great Measure the same Sort of People with those mentioned in this Letter; many of the Inhabitants of the Island of St. John having retired from Nova Scotia, especially at the breaking up of their Settlement, to that Island. And by Letters which our Neutrals lately received from Liverpool, they have an Account, that several of their Children and Relations perished on board the Duke William. It must be acknowledged, that the imprudent and self willed disposition which those unhappy People have repeatedly shewn amongst us, has justly rendered them obnoxious to those of this Province: Nevertheless, if, in a Spirit of Christian Charity, we will take the Pains to look into their Case, and fully consider it; especially the easy and plentiful Situation they formerly lived in, and the Straits and Difficulties to which they are now reduced, whereof the frequent Want of Health, so as often to disqualify them from Labour, is not the least; such will certainly be led to sympathise with them in their Distress; especially when it is considered, that what appears to us in them Imprudence and Self will, with respect to binding out their Children, arrises chiefly from a Want of Knowledge of Mankind, the Prejudices of Education, and their inviolable Attachment to their religious Persuasion; out of which they are taught to believe that there is not Salvation. In other Respects they are, especially the Old and Middle aged, generally a virtuous People; and that which appears Obstinacy in them, arises rather from a Stedfastness of Heart, which no worldly consideration will induce to forsake what they apprehend to be Truth; a Principle, which, tho' it requires Pity when, by the Force of Education, or Prejudice, it is fixed on the wrong Object, yet as it is noble in itself, so it strongly calls for Forbearance and Charity from every considerate Mind; And indeed, the Patience and Resignation to the Dispensations of Providence, which has appeared, in the Close of Life, in most all the grown Persons, who have died amongst us, is a plain Indication of their Fortitude of Mind, and of that Divine Support which the Almighty has favoured them with, in that most trying Hour. I remain, A. B.
Extract of a Letter from Capt. William Nicholls, of the Duke William Transport, Pensanze, (a Market Town of Cornwall, sit 8 Miles East of the Land's end, and 65 m. S.W. of Launceston) Dec. 16.
UNDER the greatest Affliction, I acquaint you. I have been obliged to leave the Duke William, with 300 French inhabitants on board, from the Island of St. John's, North America, to sink about 35 Leagues from the Land's end, Wednesday the 13th inst. about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and believe she could not keep above water till eight at night. We sailed from St. John's on the 5th of November, and on the 29th out ship sprung a leak, and in a short time had five feet of water in the hold, but having two spare pumps on board, and a great many hands to bail, in about 24 hours gained on her, and kept her in this situation about eight days. On the 9th, being more moderate, hoisted out the boats, and soddered the ship, by which means the leak stopped, so that we could keep her with one pump continually going, having hove everything off the decks, and out of the hold, we possibly could, to ease her, but on Monday the 11th, the leak broke out again, and notwithstanding the four pumps, and such a number of hands bailing from every hatchway, they could not keep her, so that by Wednesday morning about five o'clock her hold was full of water, and left off pumping, and hoisted out the boats with great difficulty, that in case any ships came in sight, we might save our lives: At nine in the morning we saw two ships steering towards us, which gave us great hoopes; we hoisted the signal of distress, and fired a great many guns, but they hoisted their ensigns, and kept away from us; we then cut away our mainmast, to shew them ore perfectly our distress, but they took no notice of us, going clear away. At eleven a Snow passed by, viewing our unhappy situation, and hearing our guns as plain as we could see their men on the decks, but he behaved as the other had done before, by running away from us. The French then gave over all hopes, and said, God had foresaken them, and they were resigned to death. As in the term of the Voyage under our misfortunes, they had behaved with the greatest intrepidity, so in their last moments they behaved with the greatest fortitude; for seein our attempts were frustrated, they came and embraced me saying, they were truly sensible that I, with all mh people, had done all in our power to save the ship, and their lives, but as I could be of no farther service to the, begged I would save my own life and my men. Taking their priest with me, whom I put into the boat before I went myself over the stern, there being so much sea the boats could not lie along side her, after we were in, the boats laid off the s hip about half an hour, when their cries, and waving us to be gone, almost broke our hearts. We then left them about four o'clock in the afternoon, being ourselves in a most unhappy situation, being persons in number, upwards of thirty leagues from the Land's End by our reckoning, and our whole provisions amounting to about either or nine pounds of bread, our provisions in the gun room being all expended, and the hold full of water, our mainmast cut away, could get nothing from thence. In this melancholy situation it pleased God to conudct us safe to this place.
On Tuesday captain Sugget, in the Violet, with 500 French on board, hoisted a signal of distress, his fore yard was gone in the sling, and his mizen mast cut away; I spoke to him the night before, he told me he could not keep her with his pumps, so I'm afraid he suffered likewise.
All I have to comfort myself under this misfortune is being sensible I did all in my power to save the s hip and lives, which the poor unhappy sufferers were truly sensible of, and which made themm so willing to let us go; if they had not, so great a superiority as 300 to 34, might easily have hindered us.

The Ruby Lost at Sea

[A third transport deporting the Acadians from Ile St-Jean also went down with 200 Acadians lost.]

March 29, 1759
The Pennsylvania Gazette


The same Day Capt. Wright arrived here from Fyal, and brought Advice, that the Ruby Transport, William Kelly, Master, bound to St. Maloes, with 310 of the Inhabitants of the Island of St. John [Ile St-Jean] on board, sprung a Leak in a Gale of Wind, and being in great Distress, the Captain made the best of his Way for the Western Islands, and thought to have got to Fyal; but the Wind shifting, they were obliged to stand for the Island of Pico, where the Ship struck on the Rocks, and soon went to Pieces, when 200 of the French perished. They had no Advice at Fyal of Commodore Keppel putting into Madeira, nor of his receiving any Damage at Sea.

The retelling of my Acadian history is always very emotional. Among the one thousand Acadians lost at sea in December of 1758 were some of my Uncles, Aunts and many cousins. Entire families went down that fateful day - this is known as none of those families were ever heard from or of again. This is one of the many disasters to have befallen my ancestors.


Lori E said...

Oh Lucie, how riveting and sad.
I don't believe for one minute that the Acadians on that ship thought it was okay that the captain left with his men while they were left to die. They were probably armed and ready to shoot whomever tried to stop them from leaving.

Lucie LeBlanc Consentino said...

Hi Lori,

Nor do I believe that the Acadians remaining on the sinking ship did so with joy. Now that is a tall tale he told. He and his whole crew plus the priest onboard escaped (sigh)

Thank you for your comment. It is appreciated! ;o)

Unknown said...

Hi Lucie

I am so proud to have been with you when this Gazette article was discovered. I am now wondering if more investigating into Mr Benezet's personal papers would turn up anything else on the Acadians? Of course I'll do anything to convince you to come to Philadelphia again for another foray into the dusty volumes. And while we are at it, Harrisburg would be fun to!

Thanks for your hard work

Fran Wilcox

Lucie LeBlanc Consentino said...

Hi Fran.. It does not look like I'll be going to PA in the near future. Now that our daughter and family are back in Massachusetts, and though they do go to visit her husband's family, they already are putting up their own family members so I don't want to impose.

It would have been nice to make it to Harrisburg.

As for Antoine Benezet: he did lots to help the Acadians and I did find other bits and pieces on other trips I made to Philly. Sadly, his relationship with the Acadians did not end well.

ellen t said...

Ms. Consentino,
What do you mean when you say that Benezet's relationship with the Acadians didn't end well? I'm a Louisiana ex-pat living in Philadelphia...I only recently discovered that Acadians actually ended up here. I had no idea! I'd love to know more of what became of them. I'm also interested in finding out why there is no tribute to them in Washington Square Park (I read that many of them are buried beneath). Thanks for your work!

Lucie LeBlanc Consentino said...

Hi Ellen.. for all that Antoine Benezet did to help the Acadians at some point - and for reasons we will never know - they mistrusted him. Perhaps the fear of all they had been through etc.

As for Washington Park: it was once a Potter's Field - there is a monument, though without a name, that an Acadian is buried there.

If you go to the Pennsylvania Historical Society there is quite a bit of information there. You can check their holdings online before you go so that you can look up the documents you want.

Old St. Joseph's Church was not called "OLD" when the Acadians lived on Pine Street. The workshipped there, were married there and their children were baptized there. The Archdiocesen archives has those parish records.

There is so very much information for the Acadian who were deported to Philadelphia I wish I had had more opportunity to do more digging.

Thanks for contacting me. If you want to send me a private message you can write to