Every year thousands of tourists visit St. Martinville, Louisiana, not far from Lafayette. They come in to steep in Cajun culture, to hear French spoken on the street, and to visit the town’s several museums, but most of all they come to visit the places associated with Evangeline. There is an Evangeline state park, there the Evangeline Oak, and, in the town’s graveyard next to the Catholic church, there is Evangeline’s tomb, topped with a bronze metal statue of her likeness.
Evangeline first captured the attention of the nation in 1847, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow told her tale in his epic poem. The story starts in 1755, in Acadia, or modern-day Nova Scotia. Longfellow describes Evangeline as “a maiden of seventeen summers, black were her eyes as the berry that grows on the thorn by the way-side. Black, yet how softly they gleamed beneath the brown shade of her tresses.” She is also modest and kind. Her true love and fiancé is Gabriel, son of blacksmith. The couple are separated during “Le Grand Derangement”, when British authorities expelled thousands of French speaking Catholic citizens in one of North America’s lesser known acts of ethnic cleansing.
At first, the Acadians resettled in small numbers in cities across the Eastern seaboard, and Evangeline searches each for her love. She eventually gives up, settles in Philadelphia, becomes a nun and works at a hospital. After many years, she finally encounters Gabriel once again—now a sick old man. He dies in her arms, she soon follows him to the grave. This fact is noted on a brass plaque mounted to the Walnut Street building that still stands today in Philadelphia–the same kind of plaque that gives information about the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Longfellow’s poem was a smash hit, well known in the 19th century, and as much a fixture on school children’s required reading lists as Romeo and Juliet is today. More than that, his poem brought national attention to the plight of the Acadians, most of whom settled in Louisiana in much diminished circumstances, and became known as Cajuns, says Carl Brasseaux, director of the Center of Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette.
Now, Longfellow’s poem had nothing to do with Louisiana, in fact, he never set foot in the state. So how did Evangeline’s remains come to rest in Louisiana? Was there some sort of exhumation, a movement of her remains from Philadelphia to her people’s new backyard by the bayou?
Not exactly. In 1907, Judge Felix Voorheis, a St. Martinville resident, committed to the page stories told to him by his grandmother. Grandmere Voorheis said that she was the adoptive mother of a girl named Emmeline Labiche –whose story that Longfellow heard, and who renamed her Evangeline, presumably for creative effect. In his version, the lovers reunite not in Philadelphia but in St. Martinville, under a Live Oak tree that stretches its branches towards the chocolate brown waters of the Bayou Teche. They embrace passionately and all was well until Gabriel (actual name: Louis) suddenly remembered that he had remarried in the years that passed. Evangeline later goes insane and dies.
Voorheis’ book, entitled Acadian Reminiscences: The True Story of Evangeline, was a huge hit in Southern Louisiana, says Brasseaux.
At that time, Cajuns were decidedly second-class citizens, the word “Cajun” itself was considered an insult, and their unique culture was disparaged. When Voorheis connected the immensely sympathetic Evangeline’s story with local Louisiana soil, her determination and good womanly behavior, was a rallying point of pride for Cajuns as a group. A folk heroine was born. “Evangeline provided the first outside validation of Cajun culture and became an important icon,” says Brasseaux. (This is true even though her story didn’t end well. Her story functioned in much the same way that the Diary of Anne Frank functioned for Holocaust survivors.)
Evangeline became and remains a common girl’s name in the area, her story became and remains a popular trope in local art and music, and her name is affixed on everything from a state parish, to a particular blend of local coffee, to expressways, to dozens of car repair shops throughout Southern Louisiana.
The oak tree where Emmeline and Louis reunited still stands today, and is called The Evangeline Oak. It is the most visited spot in St. Martinville. Both versions of the story, Voorheis’ and Longfellow’s, are recounted on the sign near the oak, and both are retold dramatically by the tour guide who operates out of a nearby museum.
So which story is really true, a visitor asks? The tour guide shrugs and smiles and says no one knows for sure.
Surely, then, the grave would provide some evidence that the Voorheis version was correct? (The grave bears both the name Evangeline and Emmeline Labiche.) Who exactly is buried next to the church?
As it turns out, no one is. The grave is empty. The model for the statue that sits atop the empty grave was Dolores Del Rio, a Mexican movie star, who played Evangeline in the silent movie that was made from Longfellow’s poem. The statue, a gift from cast and crew to the people of St. Martinville after filming on the movie wrapped.
The Live Oak, the site of their meeting, is actually the third such oak designated in Louisiana, and when I visited in 2006, the oak was scheduled to be retired because the parking lot around it is killing its roots. A new oak was to be designated, with full historical pedigree, as The Evangeline Oak.
Carl Brasseaux, who has exhaustively researched the history of Evangeline and has concluded that despite the naming of historical monuments and oak trees and brass plaques from Louisiana, to Philadelphia, to Nova Scotia, neither Evangeline nor Emmeline nor anyone else with a name that started with an E ever existed. Evangeline, the core cultural folk heroine of the Cajuns, was a composite character.
Many Southern Louisiana locals, including the former mayor of St. Martinville, passionately disagree. They believe that Longfellow, who never set foot in Louisiana, heard the true story of Emmeline Labiche and Louis Arceneaux and fictionalized it for his poem.
I don’t want to wade into waters as muddy as the Bayou Teche, but it seems to me that these arguments aren’t mutually exclusive.