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Pont Breaux’s Acadian/Cajun1 Heroine

January 26, 2017

For the past 20 years a bronze statue takes pride of place in the middle of a park in Breaux Bridge, a small Louisiana town on the banks of Bayou Teche in the heart of Cajun country. It commemorates Scholastique Picou Breaux, the Acadian woman who, in 1829, drew up the first plan for the Village of Breaux Bridge (Plan de la Ville Du Pont des Breaux) on her property and sold lots to the settlers. In so doing, she founded the city of Breaux Bridge. Scholastique was 33. Already the mother of five children, she had been widowed the previous year.

Photo :
The bronze statue of Scholastique Picou Breaux, Town of Breaux Bridge

The striking feature of this statue, commissioned by a diverse group of women from across the city, is the powerful symbolism it portrays. Scholastique Picou Breaux, founder of the city, does not embody the suffering of the Acadians in exile, but the unwavering determination and indomitable courage of the Acadians of Louisiana. However the omnipresence of her Acadian roots displayed here tends to downplay the cultural mix from which the Cajuns sprang.

And yet Scholastique also epitomizes all the inherently multicultural elements of French-speaking Louisiana. French Creole on her father's side, Acadian on her mother's and by allegiance, she conveys wonderfully the troubled collective memory of the first settlers of Louisiana. This is why:

We begin with Scholastique's father’s family. Originally from Brest (Brittany), they took advantage of the one wave of migration to Louisiana during the French regime of 1717-1720. The Compagnie des Indes (originally the Mississippi Company), set up by Scottish financier John Law, had exclusive trading privileges in the colony and turned Louisiana into a colony of settlers and slave plantations. Extensive colonisation took place on the banks of the Mississippi around New Orleans, with most further expansion taking place upriver in the Mississippi valley. Everything should have gone according to plan, but in reality, because of the company's incompetence and lack of foresight, this period of migration was a tragic  one.

It is estimated that, of the 6,000 civilians who left as emigrants, only 40% survived the transatlantic journey, and in particular, the deplorable conditions awaiting them on the desolate and barren coast of the Gulf of Mexico. In June 1720, Scholastique's paternal great-grandfather, then aged 13, embarked with his family at La Rochelle. They were more fortunate here than many others. But then he had to have a strong constitution to adapt to the climate and a new diet, and to fight off both endemic diseases and hostile Indians. Aboard this same ship was Jacques Cantrelle, a 23 year old French immigrant born in Picardy, who was later closely related to the Picou family. If this man is of such interest here it is because later on, he was behind the merger of the two branches of Scholastique's family. Above all however, he was the benefactor of the first Acadians in Louisiana, when French authorities were still in charge of the colony.

In 1764, Jacques Cantrelle was already an established planter and most importantly, an administrator on the New Orleans Superior Council. He was charged with helping the very first Acadian refugees to return from captivity to settle, close to land he was in the process of acquiring His plantation, named "Cabanocée" (after the Indian name for a nearby creek), lay on the west bank of the Mississippi River, upstream from already colonized river lots (today’s St. James Parish). Two years later, Acadian settlers were so numerous in this region that it began to be called the "Acadian Coast". Among them were Scholastique's maternal grandparents, but they had first to go through an unfortunate period, one of the longest in the long wandering of the Acadians in exile.

Photo :
Historical Markers Louisiana, St. James Parish

In early 1765, the first large group of Acadian refugees (over 200) arrived in Louisiana. Their leader was Joseph Broussard, the hero of the Acadian resistance. They came from detention camps in Halifax (Nova Scotia) and had stayed for a short time on the island of Saint-Domingue (today's Haiti). They were given permission to settle along Bayou Teche in Fausse Pointe (currently Iberia Parish). A few months later, an epidemic (yellow fever or malaria) forced most of them to leave. One group elected to join the community of Cabanocée, where Scholastique's maternal grandparents were living, while others chose to settle at other sites in the region.

Photo :
Lake Fausse Pointe State Park

What was the Picou family doing during this time? It was not until the 1780s that Scholastique's father also joined the Cabanocée community, at that time under the administration of the Spanish authorities. Was he trying to join his sister, who was married to one of Cantrelle's sons, who was himself a brother of the district commander? How did this Acadian enclave of subsistence farmers know how to manage their coexistence with the Creole planter families? And in particular, how were they able to demonstrate their cultural flexibility (ability to interact with different types of people)? There is no question that at her birth in July 1796 Scholastique Picou already carried within her the mingled culture of Cabanocée, Cajun culture.

Scholastique married very young and lived along Bayou Teche, on the site of the present-day city of Breaux Bridge (St. Martin Parish). The lucky man was Agricole Breaux. The son of an Acadian, he was a landowner and a former companion of Joseph Broussard. Agricole had inherited the property where in 1799 his father had built a suspension footbridge to cross the bayou. People already referred to it as the Breaux Bridge. In 1817, he replaced the footbridge with the first vehicular bridge. Agricole died in 1828, leaving his widow to her fate.

Photo :
Bayou Teche

Scholastique Picou Breaux is an iconic figure in Cajun culture. She embodies the collective memory of her Creole and Acadian ancestors who knew how to withstand such difficult living conditions while cherishing the dream of a new life. She was able to resolve her personal financial troubles by undertaking with determination and courage an ambitious communal project. Be sure to look carefully in the small park located on the Main Highway, not far from the last Breaux Bridge, built in 1950.There you'll find the bronze statue of this true heroine of Cajun country.

Jean-Marc Agator

Background material:

  • Scholastique Picou Breaux, founder, Breaux Bridge, History & Culture.
  • Articles in La Francophonie nord-américaine, Atlas historique du Québec, Cécile Vidal (La colonie du Mississippi), Etienne Rivard (Migrations et ethnicité en Louisiane), Sara Le Menestrel et Jacques Henry (Les stratégies identitaires franco-louisianaises), Presses de l’Université Laval, Québec, 2012.
  • Passenger List for French vessel "Le Profond" under the command of Le Germeur, 10 June, 1720, Library and Archives Canada.
  • Dictionary of Louisiana Biography, Louisiana Historical Association.
  • WikiTree (genealogy website).
  • Acadian Communities in Louisiana (website: Acadians in Gray).

1The terms Acadian, Cajun and Creole are often misconstrued. Their meaning is dependent not only on the speaker, but also on place and historical period. Briefly:
Acadian = descendant of the original French settlers of Acadia (today’s Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and part of Maine).
Cajun = descendant of exiled Acadians who settled Acadiana (southern Louisiana). The majority are Catholic and speak/understand Cajun French
Creole = native-born descendant of Louisiana’s original settlers.

About the author

Jean-Marc Agator is a French public research engineer in the field of new energy technologies. He is passionate about the history of Canada and of francophone communities throughout North America in all of their cultural diversity. He is the author of the website Chemins de la francophonie where he shares his passion through articles destined to a large francophone audience.

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