Cajuns Seek Remains of Guerrilla Leader
NEW ORLEANS - For Louisiana's Cajuns, Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil was their Che Guevara, their Thomas Jefferson, their Moses. But the gravesite of the 18th-century guerrilla fighter has long been a mystery. Now, historians and archaeologists — some of them descendants of the Acadian leader — are hoping to find his bones.
The search is part of an Acadian renaissance movement that has sprung up since the 1960s to honor the music, art, language and customs of Louisiana's Cajun people, the Acadians' direct descendants. It also coincides with the 250th anniversary of the Acadians' expulsion from Canada during the French and Indian War.
The Acadians were French-speaking Catholics who lived in Nova Scotia and the Maritime Provinces of Canada. In the 1750s, during hostilities between Britain and France over territory in the New World, the British crown decided to expel them by force.
Yale University historian John Mack Faragher estimates 10,000 Acadians died during the Great Upheaval, as descendants call the bloody fighting that followed between Acadians and the Yankee troops sent to carry out the British orders.
Faragher, the author of a new book, "A Great and Noble Scheme," which chronicles the expulsion, said it amounted to ethnic cleansing. "Puritan ministers preached to the soldiers that they were on a holy mission to eradicate the papists, the Roman Catholics, who were the minions of the anti-Christ," he said.
Broussard emerged as an Acadian leader during the Great Upheaval, organizing bands of men armed with homemade weapons and farm tools. When it became clear that the British and American troops would prevail, he led a large group of refugees to Louisiana.
The 230 refugees arrived in New Orleans in 1765 and then headed into southern Louisiana's cypress swamps and prairies. Shortly after their arrival, many were struck by disease. A priest named Father Jean Francois accompanied the settlers, and during the next year he recorded performing 46 ceremonies — 42 of them burials.
Over time, the French-speaking Acadians gave rise to today's vibrant Cajun culture, known for its rollicking music and spicy food. Broussard's turbulent life has been the subject of poems, songs and paintings, many of which refer to him simply as Beausoleil. Monuments have been erected in his honor.
The search for his burial site is being led by a group of archaeologists and researchers. They believe the grave can be found somewhere between St. Martinville and New Iberia. But finding the spot will not be easy.
"There were no maps and much of this area is being developed," said Mark Rees, a University of Louisiana-Lafayette anthropologist and archaeologist who traces his ancestry to the Broussards. And even if burial sites are found, Rees said, it could be difficult to identify the remains.
The money for the undertaking has not yet been secured, said Warren Perrin, who heads an organization seeking to preserve French language and customs in Louisiana. But background research is under way, and field work may start next summer, Rees said.
"It's like we have a big jigsaw," said Donald Arceneaux, an amateur historian and Broussard descendant. "We're getting the pieces together."