In a fictional love story, Evangeline and her young lover Gabriel are separated on their wedding day as thousands of Acadians are exiled from Nova Scotia. Longfellow's epic poem describes a lifetime of searching. They reunite in old age, at the moment of Gabrielle's death. He wrote, "Side by side, in their nameless graves, the lovers are sleeping. Under the humble walls of the little catholic churchyard."
A statue of Evangeline stands in the small graveyard of the St. Martin of Tours Church, the mother church of the Acadians in St. Martinville. It is the face of actress Delores del Rio, who played the role of Evangeline in a 1929 movie and donated the statue. A block away from the church stands the Evangeline oak, immortalized in another fictional story as the place where the lovers are reunited in Louisiana.
These popular stories exposed the tragic tale of the Acadians.
"The true story is a lot more heroic than Evangeline," says park manager Reinaldo Barnes. "The real story of how brave, and these people were, just got together. They were sent back to England and France, POW camps, and they all got back over here and made this part of Louisiana their home. It's kind of a better story I think, the reality."
Reinaldo Barnes manages the Longfellow-Evangeline state historic site at St. Martinville. It is the oldest state park in Louisiana. And it's on the grounds of a Creole plantation that dates from the late 1700's.
The Creole plantation and an Acadian farm represent two very different groups of French settlers.
"Creole specifically in this area means that you're the first-born person in the New World," says Barnes. "Your parents came from Spain or France and you were born in the New World. So it means you were an aristocrat… whereas the Acadians, when they came, they were kind of like destitute."
Mary Fournet Girourard is a descendant of both Acadian and Creole families. She gives tours at this historic site.
"People love coming here because they feel it's one of the few places in the U.S. that still has a strong unique culture," says Girourard.
"This old farmhouse is the heart and soul of the area," says Carl Blanchard, another interpretive ranger at the site. "This is how our families began their lives here in Louisiana."
Blanchard has three family members who were among the first Acadians to arrive in this area. He recreates their self-sufficient lifestyle, showing park visitors how the early Acadians lived off the land.
"I'd like them to walk away with an understanding of how, through adversity, one can still thrive and flourish," says Blanchard.
It's a culture that has survived more than two centuries, in the language, the stories, the food and music and the hearts of Creoles and Acadians.
During a 20-year period beginning in 1765, more than 3,000 Acadians settled in the St. Martinville area.
For more information, go online to http://www.crt.state.la.us/parks/ilongfell.aspx.