The Evangeline Oak
Based on the famous epic poem Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, this ancient oak commemorates the Acadian exile from Nova Scotia in 1755, and the legend of Evangeline and Gabriel. Due to the Acadian's Catholic beliefs and unwillingness to convert to the Protestant religion, the British forced them to leave their home of Nova Scotia. In the wake of their deportation, many Acadians settled in the Attakapas Post, now known as Saint Martinville. Following this event, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published Evangeline in which he told the story of two Acadian lovers separated by the exile. Many believe that Evangeline was a real person, and waited under this tree for her husband, Gabriel. The backstory behind this famous oak has settled into the hearts of many Acadian descendants, and has left a mark on Cajun culture.
Backstory and Context
In 1744, the disputes between Great Britain and France grew to an uncontrollable size because France built forts in the Ohio River Valley Territory. This deceitful act, from the British perspective, started the French and Indian War in 1754. During the war, British forces took control of Fort Beauséjour in the Chignecto area. After Britain’s capture of the fort, the governor of Acadia cleared the Acadians from the settlement because of his concerns regarding their refusals of British loyalty and their belief in Roman Catholicism.1
The expulsion of the Acadians began in the fall of 1755 and lasted until 1778. Many were deported around the world, including France, the American colonies, and Quebec. A large number of Acadians emigrated to Louisiana, finding refuge in its numerous settlements. One settlement, in particular, that was established by Acadians and Creoles was the village of St. Martinville, which became one of the earliest towns in Louisiana. By the orders of Acadia’s governor, Charles Lawrence, one hundred ninety-three Acadians were sent to establish and develop the village.2 The village of St. Martinville became the focus of many great literary works, films, and art.
Ninety-two years after the Acadian exile in 1847, Longfellow finished his famous epic poem, Evangeline. The origin of Evangeline’s story was presented to Longfellow during a dinner party in the early 1840s. Before Longfellow used the basis of the Acadian story for his own, he believed Nathaniel Hawthorne would use the narrative himself.3 After realizing the story’s potential literary success, Longfellow took the idea. Longfellow’s poem told the story of two betrothed Acadians, Evangeline and Gabriel, who were deported on their wedding day due to the expulsion during the French and Indian War. Evangeline traveled to the town of St. Martin where she waited for her fiancé, Gabriel. After years of waiting and searching, Evangeline finally found Gabriel on his death bed. The poem concludes with Gabriel dying in Evangeline’s arms.4 The publication of Evangeline won national attention due to its Acadian tragedy of heroism and romance. Thus, the town of St. Martinville became the heart of Acadian culture and legend.
The story of Evangeline prompted many people to become interested in Acadian history; however, there was not a particular monument or place that told the story of the Acadians. In 1907, Felix Voorhies wrote Acadian Reminiscences: The True Story of Evangeline, in which he explained the relationship between Emmeline Labiche and Louis Arceneaux, the “real” Evangeline and Gabriel.5 Voorhies told a story that bore an uncanny resemblance to Longfellow’s, but ended with the lovers reuniting under an oak tree in St. Martinville. The citizens of St. Martinville took Voorhies’ book as evidence for the existence of Evangeline, and the symbol of their Acadian roots. In a way to honor the city’s ties to its historic background, the town established the Evangeline Oak.
This ancient live oak that lies along the Bayou Teche tells not just the legend of Evangeline, but the beginnings of one of the oldest towns in Louisiana. The Evangeline Oak welcomes thousands of people a year, and it is a local favorite. Visitors to the great oak range from native residents to French and Canadian tourists, but they all leave with a sense of history regarding the Acadian exile, and the lives of those that it affected.
2. “St. Martinville, Louisiana: Once Known as Petit Paris.” St. Martin Parish. Accessed on February 18, 2019.
3. Naomi Griffiths. “Longfellow’s Evangeline: The Birth and Acceptance of a Legend.” Acadiensis: Journal of the History of the Atlantic Region. pp. 28. Spring, 1982. Accessed on February 18, 2019. https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/Acadiensis/article/viewFile/11571/12320.
4. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie.1847. Accessed on February 18, 2019. https://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=297.
5. Bill Guion. “The Evangeline and Gabriel Oaks.” 100 Oak Projects, May 24th, 2014. Accessed on February 18, 2019. https://100oaks.wordpress.com/2014/05/24/the-evangeline-and-gabriel-oaks/.