Unearthing a New Acadia

Hilary Doda

This post begins an occasional series on Material Histories. Using artifacts as a lens, frameworks from archaeology and other fields of material history can be extremely helpful for historians seeking to incorporate different, often non-literate, voices into their understanding of past societies. ~ Editors

A small green glass jewel in a plated metal setting emerged from an archaeological dig at the former Acadian settlement of Beaubassin eight years ago. The paste stone was less than a centimeter across, barely 11 mm once you include the deep metal setting. A curled metal wire looped through a hole in the back, the delicate wire no longer attached to the object that belonged at the other end. The green glass gemstone has a remarkable depth of colour and was shaped to resemble an emerald. Decorated around the edges with molded details, and remnants of a silver-coloured plating still evident in spots on the setting, this small piece of finery found at a 270-year-old settlement has a story to tell.

Material culture studies is one of those new interdisciplinary fields that straddles the boundaries of anthropology, history, cultural geography, science, and technology. A dozen different fields all come together in this discipline, which focuses on the exploration of objects as conveyers of cultural and historical meaning. Dress studies, a major subset of material culture studies, focuses specifically on those objects and processes which adorn, change, and delineate the boundaries of the human body. We look at the things that go on, in, through and over the body, and explore the ways in which those things can give us insight into life in different time periods, places, and systems.

One of my recent research projects has been exactly that, using artifacts discovered at a series of pre-Deportation Acadian sites to gain a clearer understanding of how Acadians dressed during their early settlement period, and what that can tell us about how they saw themselves. When juxtaposed against the writings of external observers such as Nicolas Denys, the Sieur de Dièreville, or Englishman Robert Hale — among others — a new picture emerges of Acadian identity in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.[1]

Sleeve button, green paste jewel in plated setting. 7B17N2.01, from Beaubassin. Photo by author, with thanks to Parks Canada.


Colonial fashion was by its very nature different from high style in European power centres, for a variety of reasons. Some of the differences were due to climate, and others to travel time for things like fashion plates, examples for tailors and dressmakers to copy, and the most up-to-the-minute textiles. Further complicating factors included differing regulations. Bans on the import of cottons from India to many European countries between 1686-1721 lead in some cases to riots and assaults on women wearing Indian calicoes in the streets.[2]  The laws placed no such prohibitions on North American colonies, however, as the trade duties on cotton were a useful revenue stream.[3] Indian cottons were an important link between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, their appearance in North America part of expanding global networks of trade.[4]

Calicoes and indiennes entered European markets as luxury textiles, in the same fashion category as silks and tinsels.[5] They soon descended across socioeconomic barriers, as locally made replicas and inferior imports became more affordable.[6] Ranging between about 2£ 8s—3£ 10s per aune, striped siamoises sold by Acadian merchant Marie Le Borgne de Belleisle in Louisbourg in the mid-eighteenth century were in the same price range as indiennes or even simple wool calimanco, and only twice the price of basic checked and striped ginghams.[7] Those were sold in other Acadian settlements through Le Borgne’s networks, as well as by late seventeenth-century consignment traders like Abraham Boudrot, a native of Port Royal.[8] Trace evidence of lacing rings and lightweight buttons along with probate inventory descriptions suggest these airy fabrics became robes de chambre and vibrant waistcoats for Acadian women.[9]

Beyond imported cottons and calicoes fashions in Acadia drew inspiration from local sources, incorporating seal skin leather, regional flora as dye materials, and the ubiquitous wooden sabots designed to protect the feet from muddy marshland soil. Documentation and descriptions give us all of this—so what more can we uncover from the materials left behind? We can extrapolate the styles of dress that these textiles and leathers were cut into by looking at the types of tools and accessories which survived burial in the unfriendly-to-organics soil of Nova Scotia. Fine imported pins found at Beaubassin were too delicate to be used for functional sewing applications, but perfect to pin delicate linen fichus and cravats.[10] Molded decorative embroidery snips found at all the Acadian domestic sites—one set at Beaubassin even plated with a silvered metal—speak to time dedicated to fancy sewing work, enough to warrant beautiful prestige tools for the task.[11]

One of my favourite finds, one that speaks a great deal about the aspirations and self-image of the unknown owner, is that jewelled sleeve-button from Beaubassin with which we opened this article. The enclosed, plated setting has been fitted with a green paste gemstone designed to resemble an “old single cut” emerald, a square cut with faceted corners popular in the late seventeenth century.[12] The brass wire twist attached at the back indicates that this would have been worn as part of a set of early cufflinks—two buttons connected with a wire that closed sleeve cuffs and collars in the early modern period. The setting is plated, possibly with tin or silver, making it a striking piece of personal jewellery. Similar sleeve buttons were worn in New England, as similar finds have been made at the Ephraim Sprague house in Connecticut (1705 – 1750 occupancy) and another from the Lake George region of New York.[13] Though small, the sleeve button speaks to a refinement of dress—something that might not be the first image which comes to mind when we fall into old archetypes and picture Beaubassin as a distant, borderland settlement.

Contemporary descriptions like this one from Abbe Reynal don’t speak about linen shirts and coordinating jewels. Rather he sets us on a path of imagining the Acadians as rustic and self-sufficient, unconcerned with the marketplace or high fashion: “Their usual clothing was in general the produce of their own flax, or the fleeces of their own sheep ; with these they made common linens and coarse cloths.”[14] Villebon seems to have agreed, noting in 1699 that “Flax and hemp, also, grow extremely well, and some of the settlers of that region use only the linen, made by themselves, for domestic purposes,” and elsewhere described local Acadian linen as merely “serviceable.”[15]

While other styles of button were used on a variety of garments, sleeve buttons were only ever worn with European-style linen shirts. They were flashy without being exuberant, a way to display awareness of the requirements of elite manners and the importance of clean, white linens, which themselves were a strong signifier of gentility.[16] Donning a linen shirt and fastening the edges closed with sleeve buttons was a reaffirmation for the wearer that he was engaging with familiar, urban, and distinctly European forms of masculinity and status. But what sort of linen was the original owner likely to have been wearing with his fancy jewelled sleeve buttons?

Traders such as Henri Brunet who brought goods through Plaisance and Acadia in the 1680s, at the early end of our time frame for the sleeve button, were the suppliers of fine linen to the rapidly-expanding Acadian settlements. In 1673, Brunet delivered “une piesse de toille Blanche de 22 aune, deux ollonne” —approximately sixteen yards of Holland cloth, or enough for three or four shirts—to a customer near Fort Pentagouet, and more to Plaisance: “Plus Cinq piesse de toille de lin apartenant a m- depont par mesprisse pour 140 au[nes] a 20 s.”[17] He traded with Charles Melanson in Acadia, bringing his fine fabrics to the Melanson family’s new settlement near the French fort.[18] Later that same year Brunet made a request to his sister to have more fabric shipped to him by the first available vessel: “memoire que ma soer aura soing De macheter et envoyer par les premiers navire qui viendroit a plaisance.”[19] Germany, Holland, Flanders, and France were the major exporters of linen in that period, Dutch Holland linen in particular known for high quality.[20]

The faux-emerald piece was not the only sleeve button discovered at Acadian sites. A hand-etched pewter sleeve button was also found at Beaubassin, a simpler style than the green set, but like that one, also of a style seen on wealthy New England merchants at the time. A pair of copper-alloy sleeve buttons emerged at the Melanson site, a dome-shaped style with a broken link found in the yard area of one of the homes. Before they broke and were lost these would also have been worn with fine white linen shirts, tucked through hand-worked buttonholes, and adding a gleaming spot of decoration to the owner’s wrists.

Pair of sleeve buttons, hollow cast brass with connecting link. 17B7C4.1, from the Bourg/Melanson house (Feature 8) at the Melanson site. Photo by author, with thanks to Parks Canada.


What these pairs of sleeve buttons tell us is that the descriptive evidence from primary documentary sources needs re-evaluation. Some of the rustic, humble farmers from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century descriptions wore more elaborate and higher-status clothing than the texts indicate, throwing the questions of intention and audience into relief. There is proof in these buttons of interest in, and attention paid to, luxury goods in different ways across the settlements. And not only that, but of leisure activities that continued the process of blurring social boundaries and the distinctions between elite and non-elite families. The material culture brought to the surface by archaeologists and that has survived in family collections is an exceptional source of information, that can help scholars draw tighter connections in places where documentation can be scattered, and first-person accounts minimal or nonexistent.

Hilary Doda is a postdoctoral fellow at the Gorsebrook Institute of Atlantic Canada Studies at SMU, and teaches the history of fashion at the Fountain School of Performing Arts. Her research interests focus on dress as a system of symbolic communication, and the intersections of dress and political culture in the historical North Atlantic. You can find her on Twitter @HilaryDoda.

[1] Contemporary descriptions of Acadians and their lifestyles appeared in a number of manuscripts during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many of those portraying Acadian settlements as subsistence-level and self-sufficient, eking out a living from the marshes and pastures of Acadia. This perception of Acadia has been deeply formative, inspiring texts like Evangeline, which placed Acadian life far away from the intricacies and politics of early modern empire. Some examples include Antoine Laumet de Lamothe Cadillac, Extracts from a Memoir of M. de La Mothe Cadillac, 1692, Concerning Acadia and New England, from the Archives of Paris., trans. James Robb, vol. 6, Collections of the Maine Historical Society (Boston, MA: n/a, 1859); Robert Hale, “Journal of a Voyage to Nova Scotia Made in 1731 : By Robert Hale of Beverly,” The Essex Institute Historical Collections XLII (July 1906): 217–33; Sieur de Dièreville, Relation du voyage du Port Royal de l’Acadie, ou de la Nouvelle France… (A Amsterdam : Chez Pierre Humbert, 1710); Jacques de Meulles, “Mémoire Concernant Beaubassin Ou Chignectou et La Baie-Verte” (1686), Série C11D. Correspondance générale; Acadie. Vol. 8, f. 49, Library and Archives Canada; Charles Morris, “Breif Survey of Nova Scotia [Sic.]” (1748), MG 18 vol. F.4- F.10, Library and Archives Canada; and John Clarence Webster and Joseph Robineau Villebon, Acadia at the End of the Seventeenth Century; Letters, Journals and Memoirs of Joseph Robineau de Villebon, Commandant in Acadia, 1690-1700,  and Other Contemporary Documents, Monographic Series, No. 1 (Saint John, N.B.: The New Brunswick Museum, 1934).

[2] Lemire, Cotton, 51–56; Riello, Cotton, 119, Crosby, 2–3.

[3] Riello, Cotton, 145.

[4] Peck et al., Interwoven Globe, 107.

[5] Crosby, “First Impressions,” 27.

[6] Crosby, 29.

[7] Riello, Cotton, 127, 129.

[8] Notariat de l’Ile Royale, “Inventaire Des Biens Meubles Appartenant à Jacques Philipe Urbin Rondeau”; Notariat de l’Ile Royale (Greffe de Bacquerisse), “Inventaire Des Biens Meubles Appartenant à Marie Josephe Le Borgne de Belisle.” “Invoice of Merchandise from Abraham Boudrot to André Taneuil.”

[9] Notariat de l’Ile Royale (Greffe de Bacquerisse), “Inventaire Des Biens Meubles Appartenant à Marie Josephe Le Borgne de Belisle,”; “Inventaire Après Décès de Dame Anne Levron, à La Requête de Son Mari, Pierre Benoît, Enseigne d’une Compagnie de La Marine.” Also see Parks Canada artifact collections from Beaubassin and Melanson.

[10] Many thanks to Brandon Boucher at UNB for the element testing of the Beaubassin pins. The high zinc content indicates that they were made outside of Acadia through the regular industry, rather than on-site from local copper. Also see https://www.copper.org/publications/newsletters/innovations/2000/01/history_brass.html.

[11] See my upcoming article in Acadiensis, Spring 2021, volume 50

[12] White, 366.

[13] Harper, Clouette, and Harper, Highways to History. A copper sleeve button almost identical to the Beaubassin button with a dark blue paste gem was found there and is now in a private collection in Cooperstown, New York.

[14] Cozzens, Acadia, or, A Month with the Blue Noses, 295.

[15] Webster and Villebon, Acadia at the End of the Seventeenth Century; Letters, Journals and Memoirs of Joseph Robineau de Villebon, Commandant in Acadia, 1690-1700,  and Other Contemporary Documents, 128, 132.

[16] See Loren, “Social Skins”; Brown, Foul Bodies : Cleanliness in Early America; White, “‘To Ensure That He Not Give Himself Over to the Indians.’”

[17] Or approximately 100 yards. Brunet, “Voyages of Henri Brunet,” 82, 149.

[18] Dunn, “History of the Melanson Settlement,” 8. The goods he brought included corsetry, hats, and shoes.

[19] Brunet, “Voyages of Henri Brunet,” 188.

[20] Dolan, “The Fabric of Life,” 24, 26.

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