The Acadians were expelled from the Atlantic Coast of Canada in 1755 by a British provincial government that envied their fertile farmlands and herds of cattle. Once free to leave their ports of exile on the East Coast, England and France, they searched for new homes, acceptance and stability. From these circumstances emerge the tragically beautiful stories of Evangeline.
By the late 19th century, Evangeline became America's best known literary character and the essence of legend. Sometime between 1895 and 1902, St. Martinville established a small park, known today as Evangeline Oak Park, and designated one of its trees as the 'Evangeline Oak". The Evangeline Oak, world famous and named for the heroine of the epic poem, stands on the banks of the Bayou Teche in St. Martinville. The oak came to be promoted as a "sacred relic" of Longfellow's poem and the Acadian exile.
Since its release in 1847, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem Evangeline has shaped the international image of the Acadians. The world-renowned poem also had a tremendous impact on St. Martinville as it gave rise to local literary and oral traditions. Similar in theme to Evangeline but set in St. Martinville, these regional tales feature Acadian couples like Evangeline and Gabriel who meet or are reunited in this area. The South Louisiana focus of these adaptations makes them particularly meaningful to local Creoles and Cajuns, thereby firmly embedding them in the region's oral tradition.
Longfellow's Evangeline - The Epic Poem The origin of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Evangeline has been a topic of debate for over a century. Research shows that Longfellow was inspired to write Evangeline after conversations with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Reverend H. L. Connolly, a friend of Hawthome's. Connolly told Longfellow the tale heard from a parishioner of a betrothed couple separated by the exile. Connolly also told Longfellow that he had been trying unsuccessfully to convince Hawthorne to write something based on the story. Longfellow saw promise in Connolly's story and went on to compose the epic poem Evangeline, his most popular work. After Evangeline's publication, Connolly identified his parishioner as Mrs. George Mordaunt Haliburton, a French-Canadian woman who told the tale from Acadian oral tradition. This source for the poem is documented in the diaries and correspondence of Longfellow, Hawthorne and Connolly.
In Evangeline, a betrothed Acadian couple, Evangeline and Gabriel, are separated when forced out of their homeland. Evangeline's long and meandering search for Gabriel brings her to the Atchafalaya Basin, where at one point, the lovers' boats unwittingly glide past one another. Arriving in the Poste des Attakapas, or the area of present-day St. Martinville, Evangeline is reunited with Gabriel's father, only to be "irrevocably barred from this pastoral paradise" when she learns of Gabriel's recent departure. She leaves the Attakapas in pursuit of her lover, who, ever faithful, "seeks the oblivion of self sorrow afforded by the western wilds". After following his trail for many years, Evangeline finally despairs of ever finding her fiancé. She enters a convent and devotes the rest of her life to charitable service. In a Philadelphia hospital, she unexpectedly meets Gabriel on his deathbed, and ends her quest of many years with thanks to God for having seen him one last time.