Acadian-Cajun Genealogy & History
Encyclopedia of Acadian Life:
Farming in Acadia
    The land along Dauphin River was marshy at many places.  When the great tides of the Bay of Fundy came in, it would submerge much of the area along the river.  Some of the settlers evidentally were experienced in this type of situation.  Several areas in Europe, first in the Netherlands and then in France, were in the same situation.  Reclaiming tidal lands had occurred under Louis XIII (1610-1643) at La Rochelle and Saintonge, with Dutch engineers showing them how. [Clark, p. 103] 
     The average farm eventually contained 5 to 10 arpents of reclaimed salt marsh.   By the time they were exiled, they had reclaimed over 13,000 acres of salt marsh, while clearing only 500 acres of wooded land.  (The Founding of New Acadia, Brasseaux, p. 125-6) 
     Levees (dykes) were built along the tidal front.  A valve system was placed in the levee so that the sea water could drain out, but not into the fields. 
     The Acadians were the only farmers in America to use this system of drained salt marshes for cropland.    Pascal Poirier says that they got the idea from the French ... like the saulniers at Saintonge. [Poirier, Glossaire acadian, Moncton, 1953, p. 14]  In France (and the Netherlands before), the purpose was to obtain salt.  The Acadians also probably used the salt to preserve their meat.
Workers by Chez SuretteWorkers by Chez Surette
     There has been a lot written on the exact origin of the word, aboiteau.  As for its definition, some say it is the dykes themselves.  But it more properly applies to the draining apparatus. [Clark, p. 459-61]
    Diereville, who visited Acadia in 1699-1700, wrote "They lay 5 or 6 rows of big trees whole in the places where the sea comes into the marshes and lay other trees all along, one on top of the other, and fill in the gaps so well with tamped clay that the water can no longer come through.  In the middle of these banks, they make an opening so that at low tide the water in the marshes can flow out and the sea water cannot enter." The opening is a wooden box with a one-way valve (clapet) at one end. [Clark, p. 462]
     Some criticized this method.  It appeared lazy that they didn't want to clear the upland.  De Brouillan, writing about 1701, said that the land around Port Royal would produce more if the Acadians weren't so lazy.  They didn't want to, and only cultivated small plots, because clearing the uplands was hard work.  The English also commented that the Acadians didn't like to go into the wooded country; "they divide up their land along the edge of the sea and keep their children near them ..."  The English were unfamiliar with this method, but took advantage of it once they settled in Acadia.  The marsh, which was a smelly bog infested with mosquitoes, was a potential cropland for the Acadians. [Clark, p. 464]
     Another visitor in 1710 wrote the following. "They stopped the current of the sea by creating large dykes, which they called aboideaux. The method was to plant five or six large trees in the places where the sea enters the marshes, and between each row to lay down other trees lengthways on top of each other, and fill the vacant places with mud so well beaten down that the tide could not pass through it. In the middle they adjusted a flood-gate in such a way as to allow the water from the marsh to flow out at low water without permitting the water from the sea to flow in at high tide." [The Chignecto Isthmus And Its First Settlers, Trueman]
     The levees were made of marsh clay.  Sometimes a crib needed to be places at the base for support.  Sod was put on top to prevent erosion.  The sides were sloped to allow water to run off.  They'd build the levees, then cut canals for the water to flow out.  Then they'd patch up the levee, putting the valve system (aboiteau) in places.  The rectangular box, 12+ inches wide, may have been 20 feet long.  The valve, which opened and closed with the tides, was places at one end.  The box was places on a bed (of wood?) so that it wouldn't shift.  The box was made of boards or tamarack planks (up to 4 inches thick) and connected with pegs or treenails. A crib was placed at the end to prevent the ground underneath from eroding.  The whole operation had to be planned out:  where to build the levees, where to put the canals, how big to make it, do you use one or two aboiteau.  The apparatus was sometimes damaged by ice.  Ice also sometimes caused holes in the levees.  Seaweeds were also a problem, sometimes clogging up the box so it was stopped up or the valve wouldn't work.  Muskrats, which the Acadians called petite bete maudite (cursed little beast) used to dig holes in the levees.  The system needed constant attention ... to clean out the canals and aboiteau, to repair holes, etc. [Clark, p. 465-70]

     It appears that the first efforts at dyking the fields occurred about 1636.  The earliest (pre 1632) settlers were more interested in the quick money of trading and fishing.  It seems that the leaders of Acadia actually started out bringing people to dyke the marshes to get salt to preserve the fish.  The use of the land for farming soon overcame it's use for salt production.  
     Razilly's group, from 1632 to 1635, was at La Have ... which didn't have the salt marshes. One of the reasons d'Aulnay moved to Port Royal after Razilly's death was because of its alluvial soil.  Once a field had been dyked, the land was left for about two to three years to allow the salt to leach out.  Then the land was ready to be planted.  This required much less work than clearing forests. D’Aulnay gave the settlers their own piece of land to farm at Port Royal.  He also had two areas for himself that were worked by engages.  He may have rebuilt Poutrincourt’s old mill on the Allain River. 
     Seeds were obtained from France.  Fruit trees were also grown, apple being the most common.  By the mid 1650s, many of the settlers were harvesting crops on reclaimed marshland.

EARLY ACADIA by Claude Picard
EARLY ACADIA by Claude Picard
     Flax was grown (often by women) to make linen.  They scutched the flax near a stream.  The men made looms and spinning wheels for them.   [Clark, p. 452]
    The main crops were grains, such as wheat, barley, oats, and rye.  Since plows were rarely found until the 1700s, the furrows were usually shallow ... 2-3 inches deep.  Seed was planted by broadcasting. 
     Besides the larger crops, a smaller family garden was usually found.  Vegetables for the household were grown here.  Common examples were turnips, field peas, and cabbages.
     In spring, men fixed fences, plowed and planted.  They harvested in August, September, and October.  In November and December they threshed the grain with flails.  Oxen were used instead of horses.  [Clark, p. 448]

     Cabbages were kept under snow-covered fields until needed.  Turnips, apples, and spruce sprouts were harvested and stored in their cellars.   Some of the apples were used to make cider, though the Acadians preferred a beer made of spruce sprouts ... “a noted Canadian antiscorbutic.”  (The Founding of New Acadia, Brasseaux, p. 133)

     As it came time for Acadians to settle other areas (due to crowding, freedom from governmental control, etc.), they tended to find other areas with salt marshes.  It may not be surprising to find that both the Minas Basin area and the Beaubassin area were rich in salt marshes.  So the location of these marshes were the major factor in Acadian settlement locations. 

LINKS
The Aboiteau - How it Works
MARITIME DYKELANDS The 350 Year Struggle
Early Acadia
West Pubnico Aboiteau Project
- The Excavation 
- Description 

- Conservation 
- Conclusions
Dykelands
Acadian farming
     It contains images of a couple of paintings by Azor Vienneau done for a film on early Acadians. 


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Acadia: 1632-1653 * 1654-1670 * 1671-1689 * 1690-1709 * 1710-1729 * 1730-1748 * 1749-1758
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