Ben Farmer’s novel Evangeline is a fiction book, based on a fiction poem, based on real events. American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow created the character of Evangeline in a poem published in 1847.
Evangeline lived in a place called Acadia, an area that now includes Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, in southeastern Canada. Acadia was a rocky, wild place with a long Atlantic coastline. For years, the British and French fought over Acadia because of its strategic location with easy-to-reach ports.
In 1755, during the French and Indian War, the British evicted Acadians from their homes. The local, English-speaking leaders were not sure they could trust the French-speaking Acadians because many of them refused to take sides when the war started.
In his poem, Longfellow brings to life a young woman so beautiful, faithful, and kind that it is hard for readers not to personally feel her forceful removal from her home.
Inspired by the poem and the journey of the Acadian people, Farmer wrote a book using many of Longfellow’s characters. Evangeline uses these characters to tell the story of real Acadians resettled as prisoners of war throughout the American colonies. Families and friends were separated, and many people never saw one another again.
After the expulsion of the Acadians, Evangeline and her husband-to-be, Gabriel, are more than 965 kilometers (600 miles) apart, with no idea where the other is. Evangeline is resettled in Baltimore, Maryland, while Gabriel is taken to Charleston, South Carolina. Eventually, Gabriel resettles in New Orleans, Louisiana. Both the poem and the book follow Evangeline’s and Gabriel’s lives—and how they eventually find each other again.
Forced Migration to America
Romance was not Farmer’s motive in sending the lovebirds so far apart. Instead, he was intrigued by how geography and gender can shape lives.
Farmer says the English shipped the Acadians they considered least dangerous to the closest colonies. They sent the strongest people—those most likely to try to return and fight for their homes—to the farthest colonies. Evangeline was not seen as a threat—she was a young woman and in the care of a priest named Father Felician. So she was sent to Baltimore, several hundred kilometers south of her home in Grand Pré, Nova Scotia. Gabriel was strong, young, a good hunter, and had no wife or children to take care of. The British would have been suspicious of someone like Gabriel, so Farmer placed him much farther south, in Charleston.
When Evangeline and the other Acadians arrived in Maryland, they, like the real Acadians, owned little more than the clothes they were wearing. Many died in the cramped conditions on the ship from Grand Pré. Others were ill and near starvation.
They desperately needed help, but the people of Baltimore had very little to give them. The city had been established just 26 years earlier, and food and jobs were scarce.
“When the [Acadian] refugees arrived, there were more refugees than buildings in Baltimore,” says Farmer, who lives in Maryland.
There was a hospital, however, and that made Baltimore a good place for Longfellow’s pious, beautiful, and devoted heroine. “I wanted to emphasize Evangeline’s healing and medical charity to show her faithfulness,” Farmer says.
Farmer chose to send Evangeline and Gabriel to coastal areas because they were “cradles of civilization.” Though Evangeline was sent to a city, Gabriel was sent to an island close to Charleston that was more like a “military settlement” than a town.
It does not take Gabriel, his father, and friends long to plot a way to escape the isolated and disease-ridden island. Farmer has them head to New Orleans, the closest non-English settlement.
Eventually, Evangeline, Father Felician, and their friends learn that Gabriel is in New Orleans. They, too, set off for Louisiana.
Two Migrations to Louisiana
Farmer used historical tidbits to plot the routes of the two groups of Acadians. Both groups traveled mainly by land, going as far north as what is now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Farmer was inspired after discovering a historical record of 11 Acadians showing up in Fort Duquesne, the site of modern-day Pittsburgh.
“They were going across country at a time when the land had emptied out because of war. They would have been able to travel through enemy territory without anyone being concerned,” Farmer says.
In New Orleans, Gabriel’s group settled into a life of labor, occasionally crossing paths with other Acadians and hearing news of Evangeline.
Evangeline also heard news of Gabriel. After 10 years in Baltimore, she and her friends struck out to find him. On their journey west, they traveled along the real-life first road in America. British Gen. Edward Braddock made the dirt road as part of the war effort. Traces of it remain today in western Maryland.
After walking Braddock's Road, Evangeline’s party traveled south by river. The Ohio River was near the western edge of civilization. Cities and permanent ports did not exist in this wild, unsettled territory. Despite this, Farmer explains, the Mississippi River Basin "had all been traversed . . . There was a European presence on those major waterways and on the Ohio [River]."
One of Evangeline’s traveling companions was a trapper, Bernard. Despite being an Acadian from the Canadian southeast, he had some experience traveling the backwoods and rivers farther south. Bernard’s familiarity with the Ohio River proves invaluable to Evangeline and Father Felician.
Evangeline and Gabriel’s forced migration from Acadia and long journey to find each other made Longfellow’s sentimental poem one of the most popular publications of the 19th century. The character of Evangeline has come to represent the tragic struggle and endurance of the Acadian people. Statues of her stand in both the Grand-Pré National Historic Site in Nova Scotia and Evangeline Oak Park in St. Martinville, Louisiana.