#71 - THE ESCAPE OF THE ACADIANS FROM FORT LAWRENCE AT THE TIME OF THE EXPULSION
Yarmouth Vanguard, Tuesday, May 8, 1990
At the time of the Expulsion of the Acadians, there have been two escapes from two forts located each side of the Missaguash River, which makes the boundary between nova Scotia and New Brunswick. One was from Fort Lawrence, located in Nova Scotia, on route 104 or the Trans Canada Highway, four kilometers west of the limit of the town of Amherst. The other was from Fort Beausejour (which was called later Fort Cumberland), in New Brunswick, just south of the Trans Canada Highway, two kilometers from the border. The escape from Fort Lawrence took place during the night between the 1st and 2nd of October, 1755, while that from Fort Beausejour took place during the night between the 26th and the 27th of February, 1756.
The account of the escape from Fort Lawrence comes mainly from one of the grandsons of one of the prisoners, who heard it from his grandfather.
July 23 1755, Charles Lawrence, governor of Nova Scotia, sent secretly a message to all the military posts in the Province that it had been decided to do away with the Acadians by embarking them in vessels and sending them abroad, mainly on the coast of what is now the United States.
A couple of weeks later, all the men living in the vicinity of Amherst were summoned to gather at Fort Beausejour, to discuss matters relating to the Oath of Allegiance to the Sovereign of England. On the 11 of August, 250 Acadians arrived at the fort, all men, and were immediately incarcerated. As they were too numerous to be held in one fort, the majority were sent the same day to Fort Lawrence. The following weeks, other Acadians were apprehended, and it kept on up to the month of October. This is, in fact, what we read in Dr. John Thomas' diary, which he kept at the time. On August 11, he writes: "Colonel Muncton got 250 of the inhabitants into Fort Cumberland and confined them Major Bourn with 150 men guarding the greater part of them to Fort Lawrence where they are confined."
After much debate, the wives and relatives of the captives were allowed in groups to visit them, now and then. In doing so, they were able to conceal different objects which they thought would be useful to the prisoners. Tradition tells us that some brought women clothes so that some of the prisoners, under a feminine disguise, would be able to walk out of prison with them. And sure enough, some were able to deceive the guards and make their escape. But it happened that one of these escapees was limping. The guard who had let the women in, recalling that none of the women who had gone in were limping, became suspicious; the trickery was easily discovered. From then on, nobody was allowed to visit the prisoners.
If the officers of the fort were frustrated for having been duped by this strategem, they were to be much more baffled by what was to take place a short time later. One morning, one of the guards making his rounds, went down to the cellar where the prisoners were kept, and what was his surprise when he found the cellar completely empty. How could all those prisoners, 86 of them, escape without being noticed by the sentry? It was, for a while, a complete mystery. Finally, a hole was discovered in the ground which ran under the walls of the fort. It was figured that the prisoners were there hiding in it. The officers sent one of their men in the hole to investigate. He entered the hole with great difficulty, as it was narrow. He could only go a few feet, when he felt that he was caught, no doubt still wearing his heavy uniform surrounded and squeezed by dirt. The story goes that, even though those who stood by did what they could to pull him out, he suffocated and died.
What really happened is this. A woman or several of them, while visiting their husbands, hid small instruments, like knives and spoons, in the loaves of bread that they were bringing them. With these small rudimental "implements," the prisoners started to dig a hole in the ground. They kept on unceasingly, no doubt day and night, each taking his turn, being notified by others when the guard was approaching to make his rounds, till finally after weeks, no doubt, they reached the ground outside the walls of the fort. The dirt that they dug out was concealed under their beds.
When all the work had been completed, they chose a very stormy night to make their escape; it was the night between the 1st and 2nd of October. Dr. John Thomas wrote in his diary October First: "Stormy dark night eighty six French prisoners dugg under ye wall att Foart Lawrence and got clear undiscovered by ye Centry..."
The smaller ones of the crowd went first through the tunnel, each of them rubbing off some of the dirt and making the passage a little larger. It must have taken most of the night for everyone to get out. According to tradition, the last one to leave the cellar or prison was an Acadian named Réné Richard. He told the story to his grandson, Joseph L. LeBlanc, of Memramcook, many times. This story, that I read in Placide Gaudet's papers, the eminent Acadian genealogist, Gaudet got it directly from this grandson.
No doubt that these poor Acadians ran to hide themselves in the woods. But finally, they were to be caught again; some even, in despair, rendered themselves to the English authorities, so not to die of hunger or freeze to death. We have the names of most of these prisoners and we know where they settled after the Expulsion, most of them in New Brunswick.
Next week, I will tell you about the escape from Fort Beausejour.