MICHEL BERNARD:  Louisiana Militia

 

By Yvonne Stewart, Cascade Chapter NSDAR, June 13, 2001

 

 

My patriot ancestor is named Michel Bernard, the son of Jean-Baptiste Bernard and his wife Cecile Gaudet.  If these names sound French to you, you’re right, they are.  Michel Bernard was born in 1734 in Beaubassin, Nova Scotia.  He was married in 1761 to Marie Guillebeau, daughter of Joseph Guillebeau and of Marie Michel of Port Royal, Nova Scotia.  When Michel Bernard left Nova Scotia, he settled in Attakapas District, a Spanish colony.  He spoke French all his life.  He never set foot in the thirteen colonies.  So what in the heck am I doing here? Can Michel Bernard be a patriot of the American Revolution?

 

The story begins in 1603, when the French established a permanent colony in America, a colony named Acadie, or in English, Acadia.  The colony was located in what is today the southeastern corner of Canada and a part of the state of Maine.  To place this colony in time perspective, the English colony of Jamestown was established in 1607, and the Pilgrims arrived in 1620.

 

Soon the French and English began a long struggle for possession of North America.  In 1713, as part of the peace treaty from Queen Anne’s War, Acadie with its French inhabitants was given to the British, who renamed Acadie Nova Scotia.  The French settlers or colonists that were “ceded” to the British were a continuing problem for the British, as they encouraged the Indians to attack British settlements.

 

It was into this British-controlled settlement of French Acadian colonists that Michel Bernard was born in 1734.

 

By about 1755, parts of North America were claimed by three European nations.  Spain owned Florida and Mexico (which included Texas and the present Southwest).  England owned the Atlantic seaboard from Nova Scotia through Georgia, but extending west only as far as the Appalachian Mountains.  France owned everything else on the continent, including Canada (called Quebec), and Louisiana, which extended from the present Florida/Alabama boundary westward and northward:  that is, all the land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi, as well as the later Louisiana Purchase territory west of the Mississippi.

 

Florida was simply an outpost of Spain.  Its function was to guard the Spanish Main shipping lanes.  Florida was not settled except for small forts, such as at St. Augustine, Florida.

 

Louisiana was a vast territory not colonized at all, except at the lower end of the Mississippi river, at Biloxi and Mobile Bay, and at a few settlements along the Illinois River.

 

The British colonies of the Atlantic seaboard were filling up, and the colonists sought land west of the Appalachian boundary, which is how the war called the French and Indian War started.

 

During this French and Indian War, beginning in 1755, the British insisted that the French Acadians take an oath of allegiance to the British king.  Acadians who refused to take the oath of allegiance to the British king were ordered to leave the country.  As a result of the order, about 6000 men, women and children were sent away in exile to colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia.  In 1761, Michel Bernard and his bride Marie became two of the exiled Acadians.

 

A number of the exiles made their way back to Acadia.  However, Michel Bernard and many others wandered westward to settle in Louisiana, which was a French colony.

 

When the French realized that they were going to lose the French and Indian War, and they did not want to have to give the French colony of Louisiana to Britain if they did lose the war, they ceded Louisiana to Spain by treaty, to keep it out of British hands.  So, the war ended in 1763, and France was the loser to Britain.  Britain and Spain divided North America between themselves.  The dividing line was the Mississippi River.  Britain took Canada and all French possessions east of the Mississippi River, and Spain took everything west of the Mississippi River, keeping control of Louisiana.  This division prevented war between Great Britain and Spain.

 

Now this division of North America gave Florida to Britain, as well as that part of Louisiana east of the Mississippi excepting the city of New Orleans.  New Orleans, although located on the east bank of the Mississippi River, remained under Spain.

 

Britain called Spanish Florida, which was basically the present state of Florida, East Florida.  The strip of land running along the Gulf coast of Alabama and Mississippi and across Louisiana to the Mississippi River was a separate territory the British called West Florida.  Britain established small forts at Baton Rouge, Mobile, and Pensacola.

 

Michel Bernard and his wife Marie had settled in the Spanish-territory village of St. Martinville, Louisiana, and became the parents of two sons, Francois and Michel, and a daughter, Felicitie.

 

Then the American Revolution broke out.  The Spanish governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Galvez (for whom Galveston, Texas is named) saw an opportunity to retake West Florida, as the British were thoroughly engaged with the American Revolution in the Atlantic colonies and had only token garrisons in West Florida.  Galvez assembled the Louisiana militia of those exiled Acadians, including Michel Bernard.  The area in which these French-speaking militiamen lived was called Attakapas District, and these troops were called the Attakapas Militia.  Galvez and the Attakapas Militia marched against the British fort at Baton Rouge. Then they marched to the British forts at Mobile and Pensacola and secured West Florida for Spain.  They also retook control of East Florida, which remained Spanish until 1819.  Galvez wrote in glowing terms about the bravery and effectiveness of his Attakapas Militia. 

 

This march of Galvez and the Attakapas Militia to capture British territory during the Revolution is patriotic service that aided in achieving American independence.  And that is how I, a descendant of Michel Bernard, qualified for membership as a DAR.

 

Michel Bernard died at the age of 75, in 1809, in St. Martinville, Louisiana, which was by that time owned by the United States.

 

As a brief epilogue, some of the Louisiana militia who fought with Galvez later had sons who fought the British again in the Battle of 1812.  Michel Bernard’s son Francois fought the British in the Battle of New Orleans. 

 

Many descendants of Acadian exiles still live in Louisiana and are today called either Acadians or Cajuns.