|Madawaska Historical Society
History of the Madawaska Territory
Part 6. Life and Customs
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Madawaskans were called ‘breyons’ by the Quebecois because they felt that they were ‘breyer’ (breaking) the French language.
In fact, the Madawaska Acadians dwelled in relative isolation to the extent that much of their language are old French
expressions, not a broken patois. For example, the Acadians use the word ‘icit’ for ‘here’ rather than the current and common
‘ici’. The word ‘icit’ is found in such ancient French works of literature as the “Strasbourg Oath” and “le Cantilene de Sainte
Euladie”. The Valley French is kind of the equivalent of older English, with its ‘Thee” and “Thou”.
When a girl dropped her current boyfriend: “Elle lui faisant manger de l’avoine.” Literally: “She made him eat his oats”.
The Acadians called the American War for Independence “la guerre folle”, because they said “les Anglais se battent contre les
Anglais”! They made little distinction between an Englishman and someone from New England.
If someone was not known for keeping their word they were called “de deux paroles”, meaning, they speak two words.
If someone was intelligent or had a great ability: “Il avait de la jarnigoine.” Literally: “he has the heavens”. Interestingly,
“jarnigoine” is a take on the French expression of surprise or awe- “jarni”-meaning “by heavens!”; which itself is a dialectic
corruption of the saying “je renie Dieu”- “I deny God”.
The expression for someone who acted sleepily, or for people who were lovers: “avoir les yeux a la gadel.” Literally: “has
Someone who was slow was called “un bretteux.” Literally: “A stone”
The Acadians would call animals that had more than one color ‘matache’, the Maliseet word for tattoo.
To speak of the cold the Acadian will say ‘frette’ instead of ‘froid’.
If you ‘ran around’ it was said you “courir la galipote.” Literally: “run around pitching resin.”
A floor is often called ‘la place’- ‘laver la place”.
“Chavirer” means to lose one’s mind.
“Le Large” used to mean to the Acadian the sea or the ocean, now it is used to refer to sections of farmland that bordered the
woods. Interestingly, the seas surrounding Acadia were also the far point of the old Acadian farmer’s dyked salt marsh fields.
The French say “tirer” for ‘pull’, the Acadian says “haler”.
The town of Madawaska hired as their first police officer Fedime Morin, who also served the longest number of years as Chief
of Police. It was not uncommon for parents to tell children who were misbehaving-“J’va appelle Fedime!”
If Acadians were doing housework thEy would say “faire le beurda”. If one’s house was not kept well or was in disorder one
would say of it “berdi-berda”.
To go bury someone: “Aller porter en terre”
When twilight came people would say “Entre chien et loup” (“Here come the dogs and wolves”)
The Acadians would often disguise swear words, so as not to swear in their anger: “satan-diable” and “jesu-crive”. Even when
the English introduced them to “goddamn” the Acadians changed it to “Gadelle”.
If someone was easily angered- “prime comme de l’etoupe”. When they were actually angry- “Il mord dans le fer”.
Boyfriends were called “un cavalier”. Girlfriends were “une blonde” (no relation to hair color, most Acadian girls are brunettes).
Acadian Customs, Beliefs and Peculiarities:
The weeping willow is the Acadian national tree. Beside being chosen for its weeping branches and leaves, symbol of the many
tears shed by the Acadian people, it was adopted because ‘the more you cut it back the more it flourishes.’
Ever present on the Acadian dinner table was the ‘Ploye’- a buckwheat pancake made only of buckwheat flour and water, and
cooked on one side.
Madawaskans took care of any elderly who had no family and were destitute by having the Priest “auction” them off to the
lowest bidder, whereupon the Parish paid the family the stipend to take care of the individual.
Acadians carried on a strange prudery involving kissing- or the lack of it. No Acadian would kiss in public or in the presence of
others. Mothers also would no longer kiss their children once they reached puberty.
At Baptism every child received the name of a patron saint.
There were relatively few names in use in the Acadian family, and neighbors would often have many children with the exact
same names. As a result, children were often identified through their fathers, such as : ‘Joseph a Baptiste’ or ‘Pierre a Simon’.
Acadians loved (and still do) the idea of giving each another nicknames. Many people had the same birth names, and
nicknames were used to distinguish people from one another. Nicknames often indicated if you were a junior (le Jeune) or
where you lived. Or they were labels that poked fun at some part of your behavior, a family characteristic, favorite foods, or
even health problems. Once given the name, it usually stuck, no matter the opinion of the person being named.
The English were known to the Frenchman as ‘Tete Caurree’ or ‘Square Heads”.
In retaliation for the actions of the English to their forebearers, Acadian and Franco farmers would give their animals English
names, such as Jim, Jesse, or Eli. So when angered at them they could then hurl invectives at the animals and bring down the
wrath of heaven on les Anglais.
Early Madawaskans had no use for money. They worked in a barter system, each type of good having a value vis a vie another
traded good. Early trading posts had mocassins and molasses in return for firewood, Buckwheat, and cedar shingles. Shingles
especially were traded like dollar bills.
Every spring and fall, the ladies of a house would scrub from top to bottom, in a ritual known as “Le grande menage”- “the big
A recollection of some of the first Acadians was of the Maliseet building earthen domes in early spring that they would heat to
as high a temperature as they could endure. They would then enter and stay until covered with sweat after which they would
run out and roll in the snow or jump in the river. This was done to ‘purify’ their systems after a long winter.
Among Madawaskans are a few unfortunate persons known as the ‘jumping frenchmen”, so called because of a nervous
disposition marked by quick and overblown reactions. What are the symptoms of this strange affliction? Its victims often
throw themselves off a tractor at the unexpected sound of an automobile horn. They will strike, kick or repeat in a yell what you
say if you grab them under the arms or give an unexpected push. They have been known to jump into rivers or fires because of
the thoughtlessness of some joker.
In Acadian families authority of the mother and father was absolute. Neither did younger brothers and sisters argue with their
It was believed that a child born under a full moon would be stronger than one not.
The seventh son of a seventh son would be sure to have special powers, especially of curing illness. While it sounds pagan, the
belief was endorsed by the local churches. Priests would give the special child a benediction to enlighten him in the use of his
curative abilities. One of the healing powers was the ability to stop bleeding. As such, the individual was not allowed around
the barn or abbatoir at slaughtering time.
Bad luck was on the way if you dropped your knife and it stuck in the floor.
People in the Valley often made their own coffins and stored them in their attic until they were needed, “quand mon hour va
No white horses were allowed in funeral processions.
A coffin was carried in or out of the house or church feet first. Funeral processions were also not supposed to stop on its way
because someone from the home it stopped in front of would die within the year.
The Acadian chased away les lutins- mischievous fairies- by tracing on his barn a big white cross of lime.
“Le trois fait le mois”; the third day of the month indicated the type of weather for the whole month.
A toothache could be cured by rubbing it with ‘du bois de tonnerre’- wood of a tree felled by lightning.
A little boy went to his mother for comfort and reassurance, while a little girl would go to her father.
It was taught by the Maliseets that anyone who drank the waters of the Allagash river would die with their shoes off.
The country store, as in most rural landscapes, was the center of the community. People gathered there not only to purchase
what they needed, but for the social atmosphere as well.
Most all Acadians found pleasure in ‘visit” among family members especially, and no one thought of looking for recreation
The most important holiday was not Christmas, but New Year’s day. The folk would prepare on New Year’s Eve, attend a
midnight mass , after which there were reveillons in people’s homes. Guests were fed wine, candy, crouton and bread or
ployes, and the ever famous beignes. In each home on New Year’s Day the father would trace a cross on the forehead of each
member of his family and invoke a blessing on them. There was then the opening of presents and cards, and then feasting with
friends and relatives.
Acadians liked to play a game called Main Chaud- “hot hands”, where each would have a turn to slap the others outstretched
hands as hard as possible. Turns were switched when one missed. The matches often lasted until one participant could no
longer take the pain.
If a young couple were about to marry yet had no household, the groom’s father would call for members of the community to
raise a house. When the structure’s frame was complete, one of the young men would climb to the top and fasten a spruce
tree top onto the gable, after which it was shot down amidst loud rejoicing. The women cooked all day, and a feast and dance
naturally followed the raising. All who participated also received invitations to the wedding.
Family members tried to marry in order of birth. Those who were unmarried when a younger sibling wed were made to dance
in a hog trough at the wedding, much to the delight of everyone.
A wife in mourning was required to wear complete black, with a veil (“une pleureuse”), from the front of her hat to the hem of
her dress for two years; then remain in “half mourning” for at least another year.
For a year after a close relative’s death, family members would not attend public meetings, weddings, parties, card games, or
any other festivities.
The first settlers wore pants “a panneau”, that buttoned down the sides. Their shoes they made out of the leg skins of moose
of beef, with the knee of the animal forming the heel.
Madawaska Acadians substituted what they could not purchase- tea was made from the branches of Larch or tamarack,
steeped in hot water. Coffee was made from barley, roasted until brown. Beer was concocted from fir tops, soaked in a barrel
with yeast and molasses for a few days until it fermented and a clear liquor formed on top.
Before the arrival of American municipal government, the Madawaska Acadians often allowed the local priest, aided by one or
two of the area’s notables, to be the arbiter in any disputes. Each side would plead their case, and the Priest would announce
his decisions on the church steps after the following Sunday’s mass. The decision was final and without appeal, and the
parties shook hands in front of the congregation. If the award was rejected, the issue was settled privately.
Planting during the waxing of the moon supposedly caused prolific growth; therefore flax and grain, which should be long, and
potatoes and peas, which should be prolific, were planted then. During the waning of the moon there would be short growth,
therefore tobacco and garden plants that should not go to stalk would be planted at this time.
On Candlemas day (February 2) the farmer would go out and check his stores. If he had used more than half of his woodpile
and half of his hay, he would run out before spring.
A poor run of maple sap meant poor crops for the year.
When one could hear the trickling of water under the snow in March and the tops of the trees had begun to turn pink, it was
time to begin maple sugaring.
To cure whooping cough, the Acadians took garlic and honey internally. They also mixed poplar buds, sanddragon, pine gum
and camphor and rubbed the chest with the preparation.
On food related issues the lumber camp cook always prevailed; even the “gros boule”- the big boss- deferred to him because
to lose the cook was to lose the camp.
A bad cook was called “une maudit (pronounced ‘moedzit’) Boiliuer”, a damn boiler- someone who boiled all the food.
The Maliseet taught the Acadians to remove rotting flesh from an open wound by applying green moss.
Firewood in order of excellence was: Maple, Yellow Birch, Beech, and White Birch.
When the Northern Lights appeared it meant a change in weather within three days.
Acadians were always lovers of "un petit coup". It was perfectly acceptable to carry around your spirits- "l'eau de vie" or "lait
des viellards" in a bag of loup marin.
"ON Y VA! (Here we go!)