Each year, thousands of tourists visit St. Martinville, Louisiana, in search of the roots of Cajun culture—to experience the food, music, and to visit the places associated with the story of Evangeline. The Evangeline oak is undoubtedly the most famous oak in Louisiana, though oddly it’s not a very old or exceptionally large tree. And according to some sources, it’s the third oak in the St. Martinville area that has been designated as the “oak under which the Cajun lovers Emmeline and Louis were reunited” after their long separation when the Acadians were exiled from Canada. (Emmeline and Louis are reported to be the real-life characters upon which Longfellow’s fictitious Evangeline and Gabriel were modeled.)
The Evangeline Oak is located on the edge of Bayou Teche at the foot of East Port St., next to the Old Castillo Bed and Breakfast (which I can personally state is very haunted—but that’s another story!).
The Gabriel Oak, a lesser known and larger tree, is located in the Longfellow Evangeline State Historic Site, a wonderful historic park well worth visiting, just a mile or so north of St. Martinville on Hwy. 31. The park showcases several historic buildings and gives a broader realistic view of the historic period of the Cajun settlement of Louisiana.
In the St. Martinville graveyard next to the Catholic Church of St. Martin de Tours, you can find a tomb for Evangeline, topped with a bronze metal statue. The grave bears both the name Evangeline and Emmeline Labiche, but in actuality, the tomb is empty. The statue is modeled after Dolores Del Rio, the Hispanic movie star, who played Evangeline in the 1929 silent movie adapted from Longfellow’s poem. The statue was a gift from the movie cast and crew to the people of St. Martinville after filming was completed.
So what’s true and what’s fiction about the Evangeline story?
The details of this “folk tale” of Evangeline are extracted from two sources—the epic poem by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published in 1847, and a subsequent story written in 1907 by Judge Felix Voorheis. The judge, a St. Martinville resident, recounts a story by his grandmother in which she claimed to be the adoptive mother of a girl named Emmeline Labiche. Voorheis claims that it was Emmeline’s life story that Longfellow had heard and reshaped into the poem of Evangeline.
Longfellow’s poem, published under the title, Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, describes the betrothal of the fictional Cajun girl named Evangeline Bellefontaine and her beloved Gabriel Lajeunesse. The poem recounts their separation when the British forcibly removed the Acadian people from the present-day Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and part of the state of Maine—an area also known as Acadie or Acadia.
In Longfellow’s poem, the Acadians were resettled in small numbers in cities across the Eastern seaboard, and Evangeline searches from city to city for her Gabriel. She eventually gives up, settles in Philadelphia, becomes a nun and works at a hospital. Years later, she finally encounters Gabriel again—though he’s now a sick old man. In the poem, he dies in her arms and within a short time, she follows him to the afterlife. In the mid-1800s it was the perfect Romeo and Juliet tale and was hugely popular.
In Judge Voorheis’ account of Emmeline Labiche, the separated lovers reunite not in Philadelphia but in St. Martinville, under a live oak tree whose branches stretched over the dark waters of Bayou Teche. The reunited lovers embrace passionately but then Gabriel (whose actual name was Louis) remembers that he is already married. Eventually, Emmeline (Evangeline) goes insane and dies.
The “Great Expulsion” or Le Grand Derangement (1755–1764) as it was known historically, occurred during the French and Indian War as part of the British military campaign against New France. The British deported approximately 11,500 French Acadians to weaken the resistance to their rule. In the first wave, Acadians were deported to the British colonies (the original 13 colonies of the U.S.). During the second wave, they were deported to Britain and France, from where many migrated to Louisiana. (source: Wikipedia)
A good reference for a more factual history of this area and its settlement by the Acadians can be found at the St. Martinville website.