The forefather of all Acadian Arsenaults and Cajun Arceneauxs is Pierre Arsonneau.
The forefather of all Acadian Arsenaults and Cajun Arceneauxs is Pierre Arsonneau. Where he came from and who his parents were is not certain. On theory holds that he was born in 1646 near Migré, France in the Charente Maritime region on the Atlantic coast,1 and that his parents were Pierre Arsonneau and Jeanne Goizin.
The name Arceneaux has had a number of spellings over the centuries. What started out as Arsonneau (perhaps even Orsonneau), evolved in Canada and the northeastern U.S. into Arsenault and in Louisiana into Arceneaux. Personal preferences, language differences and transcription mistakes produced variations on those spellings, such as Arcenot, Arseno and Arcenaud, all of which end with the long “o” sound. In 1820, a Louisiana census official decided the long “o” in so many Acadian’s names would be spelled “aux”2 and so Arceneaux became the standard there.
Origin of the Family Name
The origin of the family name will never be certain, but historians have their theories. In French, the word “arsenal” (plural, “arceneaux”) refers to a military shipyard. The word also refers to an armory, where munitions are kept. However, because the name was not generally spelled as “Arceneaux” until the 1800s in Louisiana, the connection to military shipyards seems tenuous. Another theory holds that the name comes from the town of Arcins, which is in the same region as Migré. The town developed on land owned by a man named Arcinius centuries ago.3
According to a more convincing theory, the name originated with the primary trade of the Arsonneaus. Documents from the early 1600s indicate most Arsonneau men were laboureur à boeuf (ox ploughman), including Pierre’s own father.4 Their trade was clearing undeveloped land with oxen to make way for agriculture. According to a mayor of Pierre’s hometown, ploughmen were usually “prosperous peasants” who owned their animals and equipment and were hired by feudal landowners, les seigneurs.5 In medieval France, landowners cleared forested land by chopping down the trees and removing the stumps and roots by fire. The word for “a burning” in Old French is “arsion.” In thirteenth-century Anglo-French, the word is “arsoun.” As the theory goes, men in the trade of clearing land with fire became arsonneau, and eventually oxen replaced fire as the tools of the trade.
Pierre Leaves for L’Acadie
But instead of clearing land for a living, Pierre became a coastal pilot, carrying goods and people by boat up and down France’s west coast. It is most likely that he piloted boats supplying the ships in the nearby major port city of La Rochelle and that these ship were involved in commerce with l’Acadie.
Around 1671, Pierre boarded one of these ships for l’Acadie and began an ocean voyage lasting two to three months.6 What motivated Pierre to leave his family and undertake a dangerous ocean voyage for the hard life of a settler in a largely undeveloped wilderness? Life in l’Acadie presented Pierre with new economic opportunities. As an experienced coastal pilot, Pierre had a unique skill to offer, one that was probably in demand. It stands to reason he would have been recruited by the man who became his boss, Jacques Bourgeois, who was at the center of trade among the French colonists to the north, the English colonists to the south and the natives nearby.7
For the next several years, Pierre lived in Port Royal, the colony’s sole settlement. About 400 people lived in l’Acadie then.8 They were mainly fur trappers, Indian traders, fishermen and farmers.
Pierre was not the only Arsonneau in the New World. France was also colonizing mainland Canada, where Francois Arsonneau settled just prior to Pierre’s arrival. One of his descendants moved to New Orleans prior to the Acadians being deported from l’Acadie, so there are some Arceneauxs in Louisiana who did not descend from Acadians. However, some of his descendants married into Acadian/Cajun Arceneaux families.9
L’Acadie and New France
L’Acadie was the name of the French colony established in 1604 by the merchant and explorer Pierre du Gua de Monts. It was just one of France’s colonies in North America. The other colonies included neighboring Canada and la Louisiane, which extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. Collectively, they were known as New France. Since the early 1500s, French explorers had visited the shores of l’Acadie and Canada seeking passage to the Pacific, to fish for cod, and to trap beaver and sea otter for their furs. They also attempted settlement, but starvation, disease, mutiny and vacillating royal support caused their efforts to fail. De Mont’s 1604 settlement nearly suffered the same fate. Half of the 79 men died the first winter, and most of the others were barely alive the following spring.10
With the help of Mi’kmaq natives, the little colony survived its infancy. Mi’kmaqs were the inhabitants of Acadie long before Europeans arrived. They quickly became the Acadians’ close and constant allies.11
L’Acadie’s early years were marked by the same hardships and troubles experienced in previous settlement attempts, but with the addition of intrigue, betrayal and murder among l’Acadie’s investors and leaders. Far worse, however, were attacks on l’Acadie’s settlement by English colonists from New England. Not only did England denounce France’s claims in North America, France and England seemed to be at perpetual war. War between colonial powers usually means war between their colonies, so time and again, English raids launched from Boston against feeble l’Acadie devastated the Acadians and their livelihoods. The English and their Indian allies, mainly the Iroquois, slaughtered Acadian men, women and children, looted and burned homes and churches, and killed their livestock. Many times, they also destroyed painstakingly built dykes, flooding fields the Acadians had drained and conditioned over several years. The French could be brutal, too. But the English were more ferocious, more often, at least in the context of the New World.
Against the backdrop of European wars and treaty-making, control over l’Acadie traded hands between the French and English several times, with the Dutch and Scots taking turns, too. Despite these trials, the tiny colony survived.12
Living in Port Royal, Pierre worked for Jacques Bourgeois, who had arrived in the colony a few decades earlier.13 In 1672, under Bourgeois’ leadership, Pierre helped settle the village of Beaubassin by recruiting and ferrying settlers there from Port Royal. Pierre was also a farmer, like nearly every other Acadian, and is recorded as having owned several acres (arpents, actually) and many livestock in Beaubassin.14
In 1675, Pierre married 18-year-old Acadian Marguerite Dugas. Marguerite’s father was a representative of King Louis XIV in l’Acadie and a local gunsmith.15 Pierre and Marguerite had two sons – Pierre and Abraham. Marguerite died in her late twenties sometime before 1686. In 1687, at 41, Pierre remarried. His new wife was 24-year-old Marie Guerin, and they had seven more children – Charles, Jacques, François, Anne, Claude Ambroise, Augustin and Abraham, le jeune. In total, Pierre had one daughter and eight sons.16
Over the years, Pierre piloted boats loaded with goods bought and sold throughout the maritime region and down to Massachusetts. On these trading trips, Pierre was often joined by Abraham Boudreau or his boss’s son, Germain Bourgeois, who was also his brother-in-law (both married Dugas girls). In 1683, on one of his trips to Boston with Abraham, “American pirates” (English colonists were called Americans even before the Revolution) boarded his sloop, Saint Charles. According to Pierre’s statement to a Massachusetts court, the pirates beat them and stole their furs, lumber and other cargo. In the end, though, the court found for the Americans.17
Pierre’s name turns up again on a June 1696 transaction statement. Pierre, now about 50, and Germain are recorded as piloting his vessel, Le Bretonne, to Boston to deliver beaver and wolf pelts, marble, rags and silver dollars to Boston. Before embarking on the return home, Pierre was asked by Massachusetts authorities to deliver a message to the commander and governor of l’Acadie, Robinau de Villebon.18
1. Chris Arseneault, Gerald Arseneault (2013). Genforum, Arsenault Family Genealogy Forum.
2. Carl Brasseaux (1999), cited by Chris Segura (August 5, 1999), American Press (via http://www.acadian-cajun.com/cmanew5e.html).
3. Mariola Korsak Jean-Marie Cassagne (2001). Origine des Nom de Villes et villages de la Gironde.
4. Chris Arseneault, Gerald Arseneault (2013). Genforum, Arsenault Family Genealogy Forum.
5. Gerald Arseneault (2014). Personal e-mail.
6. Chris Arseneault, Gerald Arseneault (2013). Genforum, Arsenault Family Genealogy Forum.
7. Paul Arsenault (2013). The True Story of Ancestor Pierre Arsenault in Acadia.
8. Port Royal Census of 1671, http://www.acadian-home.org/census1671.html
9. Bona Arcenault (1966). History of the Acadians.
10. Paul Arsenault (2013). The True Story of Ancestor Pierre Arsenault in Acadia.
13. Paul Arsenault (2013). The True Story of Ancestor Pierre Arsenault in Acadia.
15. Steven A. Cormier (2013). Appendices: Dugas, http://www.acadiansingray.com
16. Denis J. Savard (2000). Dictionnaire généalogique des familles Arsenault.
17. Paul Arsenault (2013). The True Story of Ancestor Pierre Arsenault in Acadia.