Lousiana's Evangeline country has interesting history
Q: My sisters and I are going to St. Martinville, La., for a week or so (open-ended). Our ancestors were French-Canadian so we are interested in Acadian history. Some of our relatives settled in the Kankakee area; others settled in the St. Martinville area. We are also especially interested in the story of Evangeline as it relates to the poem. Can you point us in the right direction? Many thanks.
A: This area of Louisiana is called Evangeline country and it's loaded with Acadian history. Residents here, whose ancestors were driven from Nova Scotia by the British in the 18th century, have maintained their heritage and customs, often giving the traveler the feeling of being aboard.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, smitten by the story of the Acadians' flight from Nova Scotia, wrote his epic "Evangeline" and described this Cajun country as "They who dwell there have named it the Eden of Louisiana."
St. Martinville is in Iberia Parish, which stretches along the famous Bayou Teche where the first French settler came in 1765. Be sure to visit New Iberia, queen city of Bayou Teche, where its phrase "Laissez les bon temps rouler," or "Let the good times roll," is practiced every day.
My favorite sites in St. Martinville relate to the story of Evangeline, Longfellow's tragic Acadian heroine. Evangeline was Emmeline Labiche who lived in Acadia in French Canada. An orphan, she became engaged to Louis Arceneaux when she was 16. The day before the wedding, the English forced the exodus of the Acadians and Emmeline and her love were separated, vowing to reunite in their new location - St. Martinville.
Once there she searched and one day saw a man seated under a huge live oak tree in the park. It was Arceneaux. As she ran to meet him, he mumbled something about being pledged to another and he walked away.
Emmeline, so the story goes, wandered daily along the banks of the Teche, picking wildflowers and dreaming. Some say she lost her mind. Eventually her health waned and she died. Nathaniel Hawthorne, the novelist, heard the tragic story from a minister and repeated it to his friend, Longfellow. Thus the poet's epic was born.
Today when in St. Martinville the traveler can visit the Evangeline oak where she waited for her lover and the small graveyard of St. Martin de Tours Church where a monument, given by old-time movie star Delores Del Rio, protects the grave of Emmeline Labiche.
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