Cajuns travel to France to trace roots

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Karen Pitre Gautreau has traced her Cajun roots back to Nova Scotia, and even found the plot of land there where her ancestor, Jean Pitre, settled before he and other Acadians were expelled from the country.

Now she’s continuing the journey further, back to France, visiting places where her forefathers landed before they made the move to Louisiana.

“We read the books about the expulsion. It was so sad,” said Gautreau, of Baton Rouge, who began tracing her genealogy about 10 years ago. “I wanted to walk the ground where my ancestors were deported.”

Gautreau is among 50 people of Acadian descent from Louisiana, Texas and Canada on a pilgrimage to retrace the steps of their ancestors in France. They left Sept. 5 for Europe.

Of those, 28 Louisiana residents are on the trip, including residents from Lafayette, Maurice, New Iberia, Morse, Crowley, Baton Rouge, Prairieville and Lake Charles.

Joining them for a rendezvous in Paris are nine travelers from Texas, six from the Massachusetts and one from South Carolina, said Richard Laurin, tour organizer from Novacadie Tours in Nova Scotia.

Rounding out the group are about five Acadians from Canada.

It’s an odyssey that began in the 1600s, when the French began to settle Canada. Generations were born and died there, never having set foot in France itself. Living in what is now Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, they eventually formed their own identity as Acadians.

In 1713, the mainland of Acadia was surrendered to the British. The Acadians agreed to remain neutral, but as the area became more important strategically, the British wanted an oath of allegiance. After the Acadians refused, the British began mass expulsions in 1755. Some were sent to England, some to the east coast and some to France.

Some of the expelled Acadians eventually returned to Canada. In 1785, about 1,600 Acadians who had been deported to France boarded ships sponsored by the Spanish government and made the three-month trip to Louisiana, where the Spanish government gave them land and supplies. They came to be known as les Acadiens, which was eventually shortened to Cajuns.

Others expelled from Canada remained in France. Their surnames — Granger, Melancon, LeBlanc, Daigle, Richard and Pitre — are still found in places like Belle-Ile-en-Mer, which the travelers will visit in coming weeks.

The tour group will visit a number of historic places that had been home to the Cajuns who departed for Louisiana and to those who stayed behind in France.

Among those historic places they’ll visit is St. Malo, which served as the port of entry for many Acadians expelled from Canada and the departure point for some as they headed to Louisiana.

The group also will visit the old Acadian district of Nantes, which is home to a mural by Louisiana native artist Robert Dafford. The mural depicts Acadians leaving the port of Nantes in 1785 bound for Louisiana. Its twin, also painted by Dafford, is at the Acadian Memorial in St. Martinville and depicts the Acadians’ arrival in Louisiana.

Wilson Trahan, 80, of Maurice, is making the trip with his wife, daughter and sister.

“My reason for taking that trip is I hope and pray that I can go to a cemetery and find a Trahan,” he said. “We are going to a little church, which is going to make me kneel where my forefathers knelt. We’re going to walk in their footsteps. That will be a great thing for me at 80 years old.”

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Information from: The Advertiser, http://www.theadvertiser.com