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.
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
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.