Researchers seek to unravel mystery of early Acadiana settlers

Cajun folk hero Joseph “Beausoleil” Broussard, who led one of the earliest groups of Acadians to Louisiana, settled along the Bayou Teche some 250 years ago.

Historians are fairly certain of that.

Precisely where that settlement was — and where Beausoleil and many of the other settlers are buried — is a mystery that a group of University of Louisiana at Lafayette researchers hope to begin unraveling this summer.

It could take years of searching, and there is no guarantee of success.

The long road of discovery began last week with field workers poking around overgrown cemeteries near Loreauville in Iberia Parish.

There are no marked graves in the area from the 1760s, when church records indicate Beausoleil died, but the old community burial sites might hold long-forgotten remains, said Mark Rees, a UL-Lafayette archaeologist and anthropologist leading the New Acadia Project.

“Are there older, unmarked burials at those abandoned cemeteries?” Rees asked.

Beausoleil is a cultural icon, a man who fought British efforts to expel French Acadians from what is now Nova Scotia and later led a group of 192 exiles to Louisiana, first to New Orleans and then to land along the Bayou Teche.

But Beausoleil and more than 30 of his fellow settlers are believed to have died of disease within their first few months in south Louisiana. No tangible evidence has been discovered yet of where they lived or died.

Rees said finding an early grave site could lead to the location of an early settlement, because the Acadians might have buried their dead nearby.

“Where do you begin? It seems like cemeteries are a reasonable place,” Rees said. “It’s a thread to follow. It’s by no means a sure thing.”

Much of the early field work involves the use of a magnetometer, a high-end metal detector that not only can sense metal deep underground but also disturbances in the soil, such as a grave site, Rees said.

Rees and his two student workers are also trying to identify other sites that, based on the historical record and local lore, could be related to early settlements.

The researchers plan to dig several shallow holes at the most promising sites in search of bits of pottery or other artifacts from the 1700s.

Rees said some locals might have already found old artifacts from that era and may not realize the significance.

“We will talk with local landowners and ask what they have found in their garden,” Rees said.

Rees said the work this summer is the first serious archaeological effort to locate the early Acadian settlements.

The only similar project was an excavation Rees did about 10 years ago at the site where of one of Beausoleil’s sons, Amand Broussard, once had a home near Loreauville.

The team found old bottles, cookware, building materials and other objects dating from the late 1700s and early 1800s, but nothing directly linked to the early settlers.

Finding the early settlements would not just fill a gap in the historical record but could be a boon for tourism in the area, offering an attraction for locals as well as Canadian and French tourists seeking culturally significant sites, said Loreauville Mayor Al Broussard, a Beausoleil descendant and chairman of the board overseeing the New Acadia Project.

“If we can prove that, it would be a great cultural tourism calling card,” he said. “There are a lot of people interested in the genealogy and history of the Cajuns.”

Funding is a challenge.

The New Acadia Project has raised about $90,000, with $50,000 of that pledged by the Iberia Parish Council last month, Broussard said. That’s enough to get started but not enough for sustained research, he said.

Rees said the bare-bones budget is apparent in his crew’s field vehicle — a 1998 Toyota Corolla.

“You can put a shovel in it, but you have to roll the window down,” he said.

For more information on the project and to donate to the work, visit www.AcadianMuseum.com/New_Acadia_ Project.html

To follow a blog on the project, visit newacadiaproject.blogspot.com.