Your heart just breaks for this girl.
In the epic poem, “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed the story of an Acadian woman (Evangeline) uprooted from her home in Nova Scotia by the British and separated from her intended on the day of their wedding. Evangeline searches for her Gabriel while traveling through Louisiana, but it’s not until many years later that she, now a nun, finds him ill in an East Coast hospital, only for him to die in her arms.
The poem was published in 1847 and instantly became a hit. In 1929, actress Delores del Rio arrived in St. Martinville to shoot a film version of the poem, and while in South Louisiana, she posed for the statue of Emmeline Labiche, a St. Martinville woman some say was the source of Longfellow’s story. See it outside of St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church.
Whether Labiche existed or was the inspiration for Longfellow is debated. But visitors to this quaint Cajun town on the banks of Bayou Teche revel in its romantic story of a people torn apart by politics and delivered to a new world to start anew.
In the early days of the Louisiana colony, Europeans moved into the area to raise cattle, bringing African slaves with them. In 1765, following “le grand dérangement,” or the great upheaval, from Nova Scotia, Acadians — or Cajuns as they are now known in Louisiana — arrived and settled along the Teche. The largest group of Acadians arrived in 1785, followed by French immigrants and all forms of nationalities after American statehood.
At one time, St. Martinville was known as “le Petit Paris” for its many Creole aristocrats. But Martinville’s Acadian and African-American roots remained. When St. Martin de Tours was established, the first baptism in the church was Marie of Senegal, a 16-year-old slave, according to Elaine Clement, St. Martinville director of tourism.
Visitors can learn more about this history at the African-American Museum and the Museum of the Acadian Memorial side by side in the Cultural Heritage Center, located in the center of town on South New Market Street. Both museums tell the city’s history from the personal stories of both groups of people.
Acadian history and the Evangeline legend are two different things, although the poem has become part of the bigger story.
“It’s not an accurate history,” Clement said, adding that the poem describes a defeated people and doesn’t include the heroes who fought the British over a 30-year conflict. “I don’t want to destroy the myth, but I want to empower the rest. I’m trying to tell more of the story.”
The Acadian Memorial consists of a wall of names of those who were expelled from the Canadian Maritimes and arrived in Louisiana. On the opposite wall is a mural of the Acadians’ arrival to St. Martinville created by Lafayette artist Robert Dafford. In the rear of the museum is an eternal flame and a replica of the Deportation Cross of Grand Pré, Nova Scotia, where thousands of Acadians were sent into exile by the British.
The African-American Museum next door not only relates Louisiana slavery, but the many residents who became free people of color, including Monroe Baker, the city’s first black mayor.