Ethnic cleansing in my family tree

By Jordan Bailey | Aug 21, 2014

As this paper goes to print, the 2014 Acadian World Congress is still under way in northern Maine and Quebec, 259 years after Acadians were deported from the area that is now Nova Scotia.

Ten thousand people visited the small town of Madawaska Aug. 15 to celebrate World Acadia Day and participate in the tintamarre, a traditional parade in which pots and pans are used as noisemakers to remind the surrounding culture of the presence of Acadians.

I visited Madawaska the night before, Aug. 14, to attend the Cyr family reunion. I was hoping to fill in some of the gaps in my family tree and find out which part of Acadia my ancestors were from.

With the help of my aunt, I had traced my line back to my fourth-great-grandfather Amable Cyr, of St. Mathias, near Montreal. According to a pixilated image of a birth record from 1815, it looked like his father was Alexis Cyr and his mother was Josephite Depuis dite Mont-(illegible).

Though Cyrs are everywhere, I figured the farther back you go, more and more branches of the Cyr family trees converge, especially as it is said that all Cyrs in the United States can trace their lineage to the French immigrant Pierre Cyr, who arrived at Port Royal in Acadia in 1668.

I had become interested in this line of my tree when I discovered after moving to Belfast that I was related to Mayor Walter Ash, my first cousin twice removed, who I thought at the time was my only living Maine relative. I followed the line back through the DuFresnes (some of whose names were changed from the French to the English form, Ash) and then Cyrs.

When I got to Madawaska, after a five-hour drive, my hunch that the reunion wouldn't be anything like a genealogy convention proved correct.

The event took place in the Madawaska Multi-Purpose Center, a building whose multiple purposes seemed to include airport hangar, body shop for tanks and, with the addition of bleachers, indoor baseball stadium.

In the middle of the vast space was a small cluster of folding tables and chairs, around which separate groups of people were sitting, eating hamburgers and poutine and drinking beer — but no one was talking. Heavily amplified musical acts were preventing that.

I also started to realize that people there probably all had the last name Cyr, not a third great-grandmother with the last name Cyr, as I had. Still, I was undeterred. This was family, after all.

I pulled out my family tree — a taped-together printout of my Cyr line from Ancestry.com, rolled up like a scroll. After asking several people if they recognized any of the names on it — none did — I walked to a random table where a cluster of middle-aged men were seated.

"Hi!," I shouted over a cover of "Breakfast at Tiffany's." "Do you know anything about Cyr genealogy?"

Then I unrolled my scroll. One of the men said he was interested in this subject and took a look at it, but then shook his head and said with a French accent, "No, my Cyrs are from the Quebec City area."

He did tell me he thought my ancestors were probably among a group of deportees who made their way north from the states on foot by following the Hudson River. But because the music was so loud and he couldn't hear me, he gave me his card and told me he'd look into it further if I sent him the information.

Others around the table each pointed to "Jean-Baptise Cyr," but then, looking at the wife's name and others around it, also shook their heads and shrugged.

I stayed a little longer, then moved on to explore Madawaska a bit, visiting a few museums and watching a group from Louisiana perform traditional Acadian songs and dances.

On the drive back home, I listened to "The Great and Noble Scheme," by John Mack Faragher. In the synthesized voice of my Kindle's text-to-voice feature, similar to the one on NOAA's weather radio, that never paused for breath, I heard the whole horrible story of the cold and calculated expulsion of the Acadians from their homeland.

These people, who had settled in the early 1600s on the shifting border between French and English colonies, had found a way to live peacefully for 150 years, trading with the Mikmaq Indians and maintaining neutrality with alternating French and English rulers. It was a delicate balance, but they managed it with strong skills of negotiation.

In that time they developed a deep understanding of the land, and constructed dikes to drain salt marshes where they planted corn and other crops. Their fertility and life expectancy were high for the time, which has been attributed to the variety and quality of their diets. They were able to produce all this with relatively little work, leaving much time to spend with family.

After the British gained control of the region through the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, they put pressure on the Acadians to swear an oath of allegiance to the British crown that would commit them to fight in its defense.

As doing so would put them in conflict with the Mikmaq and the surrounding French, the Acadians knew they would not survive if they broke their neutrality. They continued to negotiate to be exempt from that oath, swearing an oath of fidelity instead, ensuring that they would not take up arms against the British.

The British attempted through various methods to gain control of the land and lessen the perceived threat of the French Catholic Acadians on their new land. One of these tactics was to send Protestants from New England to settle among them and demand that the Acadians give them land and provisions.

Eventually, Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts and Nova Scotian Governor Charles Lawrence devised a scheme to rid the region of the Acadians, who at that point numbered roughly 18,500 people. They carried out the deed in the fall of 1755 without explicit instruction from the British council, but neither did it forbid the plan.

The process was "a thoroughly Yankee operation," as Faragher put it, with New England players coordinating, justifying, planning and carrying out the deportation.

First all weapons were confiscated. Then the men and boys were called to a meeting and imprisoned to separate them from the women. Finally they were all loaded onto multiple ships, with their cargo areas designed after slave ships, and sent to different colonies so that they wouldn't be able to regather and return to reclaim their lands.

The deported Acadians suffered tremendously after the expulsion, facing poverty, prejudice, epidemics, homelessness and death of approximately 10,000 of them over the period from 1755-1763.

It made me think about how some of our current attitudes toward people whose plights are in many ways caused by our past ethnically based atrocities parallel the prejudice Acadians faced when trying to make their way in colonies that didn't want them.

Faragher argued that this was a case of "ethnic cleansing" before the term had ever been used. He wrote that while the British government officially apologized for the tragedy in 2003, the United States has not yet done so.

Others point out that the deportation was the end of an alternate history of North America, when another culture based on trade and negotiation, not colonization and war, was snuffed out.

I wonder what life would be like if it hadn't been.

Since I returned from my trip, my aunt has figured out that the "dite" that was confusing us in Amable's mother's name refers to a nickname, so our line most likely continues back to Jean-Baptiste Jr., born in 1741, then to his father Jean Baptiste, his father Louis Joseph, his father Guillaume, all of Beubassin, Acadia, and his father Pierre, of France.

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