Ordinary Women – Jeanne Dugas of Acadie

Stephanie Pettigrew

[This essay first appeared at UnwrittenHistories on September 25, 2018, and is re-posted here through collaboration with editors Andrea Eidinger and Stephanie Pettigrew.]

The summer before I started my PhD, there was a massive reunion of my grandmother’s side of the family in my hometown of Cheticamp. It’s the type of thing that used to happen on a fairly regular basis when I was a kid, but has started becoming a rare event now that my grandmother’s generation has largely passed. My cousin put together a family tree, dating back to the founding families of Cheticamp, and I didn’t really think much of it until a few years later when I was back in the village for a visit with my sister. One of our ancestors, Jeanne Dugas, was getting a lot of attention that year; a novel had been written about her, the federal government had recognized her as a “Person of Historical Significance”, and one of my dissertation advisors, Dr. Elizabeth Mancke, had recently brought home a sheaf of deportation-era documents from the UK that included Jeanne and her family. While juggling the demands of dissertation and digital history projects, I would sometimes find the time to dig into our Jeanne’s history. Although I had been largely unaware of her prior to that family reunion, other than as one of the names on the list of the “quatorze vieux” who had founded our village, I became more fascinated with her the more I learned about her.

This blog post is a direct development of my growing obsession with Jeanne – her life, her experience of a defining moment in Acadian history, and how an ordinary woman kept her family together through years of constant displacement and war.

The most accessible source on Jeanne Dugas’ life was written by Anne Marie Lane Jonah, and can be found on Acadiensis. It’s part of an article that compares the life of Jeanne and Marie-Marguerite Rose, a freed slave in Louisbourg, and how public history can better tell and acknowledge their stories. I highly recommend it. (So does Andrea, as proven by this Best New Articles post from 2016!) One of the items mentioned by Jonah is the fact that the Dugas family were slave owners. I want to highlight that here; Acadians rarely think of themselves as being descendants of slave owners. That’s something for southern Americans to worry about. Our public history, and public education, does a terrible job talking about the history of slavery in Canada. Almost every Acadian family in Cape Breton has a common ancestor with the Dugas. Think about the implications. (I await the furious messages from my family with fervour – at least I know they’re reading!)[1]

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Figure 1: Reconstruction of the house of Joseph Dugas, Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. (Photo Credit Dean Cain, Parks Canada 2018.)

Jeanne was born in Louisbourg in 1731, the daughter of a merchant, who moved to Ile Royale (or Cape Breton, as it’s known today) from Port Royale after Acadie was ceded to the British by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The Dugas family first tried settling in Port Toulouse, as Louisbourg wasn’t really an option until the 1720s.[2] Her family was fairly well off; her father Joseph had started out as a carpenter, but was a merchant-fisherman in Louisbourg with several boats to his name, and was married to Marguerite Richard. Together, they had six servants, nine children, and a comfortable living. The family suffered a temporary set back in 1732 when Jeanne’s father, three of her siblings, and their household slave all died in a smallpox epidemic. But the family quickly rebounded, thanks to Marguerite taking over the family business. In 1736, she married the Sieur Philippe-Charles de Saint-Étienne de La Tour, great-grandson of the infamous Charles de La Tour, and together with Jeanne, relocated to Grand Pré. As Jeanne grew into adulthood, she came to embody the experience of Acadian women of her era – constant displacement, survival through the toughest situations, before finally finding a place to settle down and live in peace, all while maintaining family bonds.

While Jeanne’s family likely left Louisbourg to escape upcoming conflict with the English – just like they left Port Royale to escape constant conflict with the English there – the timing could not have been worse. They arrived in Grand Pré just as plans were being developed for the establishment of Halifax, a new British colony which would not only displace both Acadians and Mi’kmaq who were already living in the area, but would be the new local military foothold for the British. If you know anything about Acadian history, you likely know what comes next. As early as 1750, the government of Halifax started to rumble about the presence of the Acadians. Governor Charles Lawrence was furiously corresponding with colonial officials in London about removing the “French Neutrals” if they refused to take an unconditional oath.[3] Though permission never came, Governor Lawrence went ahead and began to deport Acadians from Grand-Pré in 1755, on the philosophy that it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Once again, Jeanne barely managed to escape upcoming conflict, this time by returning to Port-Toulouse with her  brother in 1752.  Around this time, Jeanne married  Pierre Bois. Bois was a “caboteur” from Port Toulouse, basically a fisherman or small boat operator. The documentary history loses all trace of the Dugas/Bois until they appear in Restigouche eight years later, in 1760.[4] While we are not entirely certain why this dangerous trip was undertaken through a war zone, we do know that during this time, the English began their deportation of Acadians from the Nova Scotia mainland. Acadians who escaped the initial deportation were fleeing north, towards present-day New Brunswick, Ile-St-Jean (Prince Edward Island), and Ile-Royale (Cape Breton), which at that point was still under the control of the French. Word of the Grand Dérangement spread like wildfire. When Louisbourg fell again the second time in 1758, it was completely razed to prevent it from being given back to the French like it was in 1745, and the Acadians who had been taking refuge on Ile Royale were left without protection.

Jeanne and her family were likely among the many displaced Acadians who camped along the Miramichi River on their way to temporary settlements in New Brunswick.[5] These displaced Acadians were not content to just survive; they began to cause trouble. Jonathan Belcher, who took over the governorship of Halifax after the death of Charles Lawrence, wrote in April of 1761, “The Acadians have at all times shewn a readiness to attempt any thing against the present establishment of this province.”[6] The problem in this case? Pirates. Acadian pirates. Acadians were using the Restigouche river as a base from which to attack English ships headed up the St Lawrence towards Quebec. Writing in response to Belcher, Amherst wrote, “The success that the pirates at Ristigouche have heretofore had, may tempt them to venture out a vessel or two.”[7] And who was living in Restigouche with the pirates? Why, the Dugas/Bois family. Jeanne’s brother, Joseph, was listed as one of the pirates, and his sloop was seized and destroyed. (I actually laughed when I found out I had pirates in my ancestry.)

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Figure 2: A map showing the locations of the Dugas/Bois family’s peregrinations from 1740 to 1785.)

Once war ended in the rest of New France and Québec was ceded to the British,  the British turned their attention to Restigouche. Murray ordered troops to settle the troublesome pirates in October of 1760. The Major in charge of the expedition, Elliot, wrote an excellent account of the taking of Restigouche in January 1761. Here is where the Dugas/Bois family rejoined the archival record, on a list of the town’s residents. Pierre Bois is near the top of the list with his family of seven, and his brother-in-law Joseph is a little ways below him, along with another brother of Jeanne’s, Charles.[8]

The picture painted for us of Restigouche by Elliot is one of a hastily built village of unexpected size, about thirteen hundred people living together and sharing resources. But what’s truly significant about Restigouche is it paints a portrait that is completely different from the one Acadians are normally given of their own history: that of Evangéline and Gabriel, quietly submitting to their own fate. The Acadians of Restigouche fought back. They not only avoided being deported, they did everything they could to take control of their own fate. They did far more than just survive the deportation, they fought back. While they had lived peacefully next to the English for decades, the déclenchement of the deportation had assured that they would take up arms not for the British, but against them. While Charles Lawrence’s greatest fear had been allowing traitors to reside in his backyard, he had essentially created enemies through his own actions. Jeanne, and the other women of the Restigouche community, were an important part of this resistance. Elliot’s account of 1,300 people included a note of 700 of whom “could bear arms”; meaning approximately half of the encampment was comprised of women, children, and elderly. As easy as it is to dismiss women’s work as unessential gendered work, that is not how the eighteenth century French household operated. As Olwen Huften points out in her essay “Women and the Family Economy in Eighteenth-century France,” “The Natural economy of the working classes was a family economy dependent upon the efforts of each individual member and one in which the role of both partners was equally crucial.”[9] While not much is said about the women of Restigouche, their role would have been essential in maintaining the community, and preventing its collapse.

Elliot describes the log cabins the residents lived in, and his troops catalogued the provisions found in the camp. They include “327 barrels of black powder, coarse brown cloth, flour, pork, wine, rum, and brandy, the particular quantity could not be ascertained, there being a great deal more than the three schooners I had with me could bring on board.” All this to share among one thousand and three hundred inhabitants. Hardly a rich community, but not exactly starving, either. We know they were also doing a considerable amount of hunting and fishing, enough that they were disrupting the local Mi’kmaq tribe’s access to their own hunting and fishing – a colonial incursion which would ultimately bring about the community’s demise at the hands of the Restigouche tribe’s chief, Joseph Claude. Elliot included an account of approximately one hundred Mi’kmaq living among the Acadians; the small tribe was completely overwhelmed by the 1,200 fleeing Acadians who surged into their home. Combined with the barrels of provisions stolen from English schooners, the Acadians of Restigouche were fairly well off for what basically amounted to a refugee camp.[10] Major Elliot did not have the resources to do much about a population of twelve hundred people; he couldn’t even seize their goods, let alone the people themselves. The Restigouche population wouldn’t be dealt with until November, 1761, when most of them, including Jeanne and her family, would be imprisoned in Fort Cumberland (formerly Fort Beauséjour).[11]

Once freed, Jeanne and her husband relocated again, this time to Cascapédia in Gaspésie, with their entire family, before finally settling down in Cape Breton as one of the founding families of Cheticamp.[12] She ended her days as the village midwife, caring for the families of the fishermen who would come to settle in Cheticamp under the employment of Robin, Jones and Whitman Inc. A privileged woman from a privileged family, she was born into a household that was rich enough to own slaves. She endured the singular event that would bring the entire Acadian community to its knees for generations, and come to define us as a people. The Grand Dérangement would displace thousands of Acadians throughout the Maritimes, and in their attempt to survive, the Restigouche encampment would themselves displace the Mi’kmaq tribe that inhabited the area. She did extraordinary things in her life, managed to overcome extreme circumstances, yet herself was complicit in colonialism. She survived constant relocation with small children, kept her extended family together in a pop-up refugee camp that also served as the base for guerilla sea warfare, managed to sustain her children through imprisonment, and in the end lived a quiet life as a small-town midwife. But the greater narrative of her life illustrates perfectly both the colonialism of her era, and how generations who have come after have gone out of their way to ignore it. Even those who are oppressed can be oppressors. This is exactly why her story should be brought to greater prominence; we are still entrenched in the idea of Canada being free of slavery, of being “the good guys” who helped free slaves via the underground railroad, of the French and the Acadians being “friends” with the indigenous tribes of Canada. These myths need to be rooted out, and it can start with our own family histories. Rather than telling the story of the deportation through the lens of the constant, fictional woman who searched for her lover just to give him a final kiss on his death bed, let’s tell the stories of real women, like Jeanne.

Stephanie Pettigrew is a PhD Candidate at the University of New Brunswick. Her dissertation focuses on witchcraft, blasphemy, and heretics in seventeenth century Montreal. She’s also the editorial assistant of Unwritten Histories, and the Project Manager of the British North America Legislative Database Project (bnald.lib.unb.ca). You can find her on twitter at @steph_pettigrew


[1] For more information on the history of slavery on New France, you can consult a number of sources, such as Ken Donovan, “Slavery and Freedom in Atlantic Canada’s Diaspora,” Acadiensis 43:1 Winter/Spring 2014; Afua Cooper, The Hanging of Angelique (Harper Perennial: 2008); Marcel Trudel & Micheline d’Allaire, Deux siècles d’esclavage au Québec (Québec: Collection Cahiers du Québec, 2004).

[2] Anne Marie Lane Jonah, “Everywoman’s Biography: The Stories of Marie Marguerite Rose and Jeanne Dugas at Louisbourg,” Acadiensis 45:1 (2016) Louisbourg wasn’t built until the 1720s, which is likely why they first tried to establish themselves in Port Toulouse.

[3] Just to be clear: the condition placed on the oath by the Acadians was to not be forced to fight on behalf of the British in case of war with the French. They had excellent reasons for demanding that condition, considering how many times Acadia had exchanged hands between the French and the British since 1604 – there was no reason to think that Acadie wouldn’t be handed over by an imperial treaty once again, and that the French wouldn’t label the Acadians as traitors if they had fought for the British. Various letters between Lawrence and Amherst, 1750. National Archives, UK.

[4] Stephen White, “Le périple de Jeanne Dugas”, Contact-Acadie, no 18 (décembre 1991), p. 22-26.

[5] Ronnie-Gilles Leblanc, “Les réfugiés acadiens au camp d’Espérance de la Miramichi en 1756-1761: un épisode méconnu du Grand Dérangement” Acadiensis 41:1 (2012)

[6] Belcher to General Amherst, April 1761. National Archives UK.

[7]  General Amherst to Belcher, April 1761. National Archives UK.

[8] List of deportees from Restigouche, November 1761. National Archives UK.

[9] Olwen Hufton, “Women and the Family Economy in Eigtheenth-Century France,” French Historical Studies 9:1 (1975) p. 1-22.

[10] It’s possible the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet were not entirely pleased at the Acadian presence in Restigouche. A letter written by Joseph Claude, Chief of the Restigouche Mi’kmaq, not only made made overtures for peace to the British, but gave away critical information on the Acadian encampment. The Acadians were encroaching on their territory, preventing the Restigouche tribe from hunting and fishing on their own land. Major Elliot’s account to General Murray, January 1761. National Archives UK; Letter to Joseph Claude, Chief of the Restigouche Micmac, Roderick Mackenzie, 1761. National Archives UK.

[11] List of deportees from Restigouche, November 1761. National Archives UK.

[12] Stephen White, “Le périple de Jeanne Dugas”, Contact-Acadie, no 18 (décembre 1991), p. 22-26.

Featured Image: Grand-Pré, UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo Credit Claire Campbell.

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