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Rotting Fields of Wheat

Excerpt from Acadian Driftwood

 

In history, individual stories are often bogged down under the weight of statistics. Finding lives behind the numbers, Tyler LeBlanc tells the history of the Great Expulsion through the unique experience of his ancestors in his book Acadian Driftwood. Recently, Tyler took this personal exploration of history one step further by visiting some of the very sites mentioned in the book.

As you may have seen on our Instagram story, Tyler visited Fort Edward and the Deportation Cross at Horton Landing. In Grand Pré, he wandered over the grounds of the memorial church, a replica of the church wherein the deportation order was read and the gathered men detained. Among those men was Bénoni LeBlanc.

In this excerpt from Acadian Driftwood, Tyler shares Bénoni’s experience of the day he entered the original church and had his life change forever.

 


 

In Grand Pré, François’s son Bénoni and his wife, Marguerite, lived as farmers, like most in their community. But when the sun rose above their home on September 5, 1755, no one headed to the fields to harvest, even though the wheat had yellowed and the rye was ready to come in. The day before, British soldiers had told all the men and boys over age ten to meet at the church of Saint-Charles-des-Mines at three o’clock sharp to hear Charles Lawrence’s message. Bénoni must have known something was going to happen: two weeks earlier a British colonel had arrived by ship with a regiment of soldiers. They had built a palisade around the church, the site of so many important community events; later, they had built another around the cemetery. The colonel was John Winslow, and he had come from New England to carry out Lawrence’s order.

Bénoni probably started his morning leaning on the south side of the house, smoking rough shredded leaves from a clay pipe. Like most men of the era, Bénoni enjoyed tobacco brought from New England by the traders who frequented the Minas Basin. The low morning sun turned whites a soft shade of pink and darkened the turnip greens in the garden. It was a wasted day of harvest, to go to the church and listen to an Englishman spout the king’s decree. But he would go. Passing the ripe fields of wheat and reddening apple trees, he made the familiar trip to the church of Saint-Charles-des-Mines, the centre of the parish.

Most of the other men and boys from around the area made the same journey from their homes on the low hillsides to the west and east and along the riversides and deltas of the south and north. They didn’t know that the year’s apple crop would fall unpicked to rot, that their wheat would spoil and wilt, or that they’d never again sleep in their own beds. The tide pulled away from the muddy banks of Grand Pré that day and came back to a world turned upside down.

The church of Saint-Charles-des-Mines was small and humble. It sat beneath a low hill, one side facing the water. Fruit trees and several young willows adorned the churchyard. Their leaves were not yet drained of their summer colour. Over four hundred men and boys gathered, waiting to learn why John Winslow had summoned them. Most of Bénoni’s family was among them: his brother Jean Baptiste; brothers-in-law Charles Landry, Germain Landry, and Amand Breau; uncles and cousins. Left at home, the wives and mothers probably thought this would be like the other times when their men had left home to answer to an Englishman. They had signed oaths before, promising this king or that governor that they wouldn’t fight if war came.

The soldiers stationed at the church, their temporary barracks, felt the same sun on their heavy coats and a keen sense of fear and anticipation. The men and boys assembled outnumbered them by more than double, and many more “French neutrals” (as they were often referred to by the British) were at home. The Acadians were not likely to receive the message well.

Bénoni entered the church early, but the small room filled up quickly. It didn’t look at all the same as the last time he was here. Winslow had forced the priest to strip the holy place of its meaning and sacrament. Soldiers flanked all the walls, standing at attention in their austere military dress. One plain wooden desk sat in the centre of the room. Once all 418 men and boys had arranged themselves inside the building, the soldiers barred the doors. Winslow stood at the table and commanded the Acadians’ full attention. At his side stood an interpreter, possibly Father Landry, the bilingual priest of Saint-Charles- des-Mines, or one of several bilingual Huguenots working with the British at Fort Edward in nearby Pisiguit. The air inside the church was hot. The thick-paned glass in the windows and the heat of nearly five hundred bodies amplified the day-long sun.

John Winslow had the look of a bureaucrat. A plump chin rounded the bottom of his face. A tight starched collar turned his neck into a series of creases. His hair was limp and receding. As a great-grandson of the pilgrim Edward Winslow, an original settler of the Plymouth colony in what would become Massachusetts, he was destined to serve the Crown and follow a life of duty and orders. He rose through the ranks of the British military, and at fifty-two he was chosen to carry out Charles Lawrence’s plan for the Acadian people.

“Gentlemen,” Winslow began. Then he paused for a moment or two. “You are convened together to hear His Majesty’s final resolution to the French inhabitants of this, his province of Nova Scotia.” The wooden floor creaked beneath shuffling feet. Winslow held his scroll and waited while his words were interpreted. He continued. “Your lands and tenements, cattle of all kinds, and livestock of all sorts, are forfeited to the Crown with all other of your effects, save your money and household goods.” He paused again while the interpreter repeated his words in French. The faces before him grew long. “You yourselves are to be removed from this, his province,” he concluded.

Excerpted from Acadian Driftwood: One Family and the Great Expulsion. Copyright © 2020 by Tyler LeBlanc.

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