Not so long ago Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Evangeline” was an inescapable part of every schoolchild’s education. The poem’s opening line, “This is the forest primeval,” was etched in their minds, as was its sad tale of the expulsion in 1755 of the French Catholic Acadians from the British-ruled Canadian Maritime Provinces, as the British and the French fought for supremacy in North America.
Yet even as they dutifully memorized parts of the epic poem that follows Evangeline’s search for her lost love after the mass deportation, most were probably unaware of the small part Southampton played in the Acadian drama.
Among those who, like Evangeline and her beloved, were “scattered like dust and leaves …” were two sisters, Margaret and Mary LeBar. James Truslow Adams’ 1918 history of Southampton tells their story in a paragraph, while Charles A. Jaggar treats the subject at greater length in the Spring 1913 edition of his Southampton Magazine. Neither is able to provide much information about the sisters’ life prior to exile, though both assume they were orphans. Adams claims they were “of the better class” while Jaggar describes Margaret as “a sturdy French peasant girl.”
What seems puzzling at first is the sympathetic reception the two received when they reached Southampton which, after all, had been settled by Englishmen with a history of hostility to the French and a Puritan bias against the Catholic faith. In fact, Adams relates that in many places the exiles — “scattered throughout the colonies, a few being placed in each town” — were indeed received “with little cordiality as there was much likelihood of their becoming town charges.”
Of course, as town records illustrate, the Southampton colonists had their own gripes against British authority. Moreover, though Longfellow preferred to put the entire blame for the expulsion on the British, 20th-century scholarship has confirmed that New Englanders were complicit and feelings of guilt for the many Acadian lives lost through warfare, exposure and starvation (an estimated 10,000) may have had a part in weakening latent hostilities.
Nothing, however, need lessen our admiration for the helping hand extended to the LeBar sisters when they arrived destitute and friendless in Southampton. The town trustees, whose responsibility it was to look after the poor in those days, built a small house for the sisters on the hill just south of the current site of the — the rise that Jaggar notes in 1912 “was known until very recently as ‘Margaret’s Hill.’” Captain James H. Pierson, who lived nearby, provided milk, vegetables and other supplies from his farm and other kind-hearted neighbors pitched in, though the sisters did not depend entirely on charity.
Margaret, the more robust of the two, did farm work while Mary was hired for housework until her marriage to a man by the name of Rowley. The trail cools here but presumably the Rowleys stayed in Southampton. It is known that they had at least one daughter who married an Englishman, John Green, whose five sons, Henry, Barney, Aaron, William and James all became captains of whaleships. Of their several daughters, one married Captain Mercator Cooper and one married Captain Royce.
Margaret, who never married, stayed on in the little house, which after her death was used for storage. For years it stood next to a sand pit from which any village resident was free to help himself. Then one night, when the edge of the pit had crept temptingly close to the old house, some mischievous boys pushed it over the edge.
Sources from the archives of the : “History of the Town of Southampton” by Henry Truslow Adams; The Southampton Magazine, Spring 1913, “Two Waifs from the Land of Evangeline” by Charles A. Jaggar.