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Archivist Regis Brun discovered the misfiled document among the personal files of a French diplomat. (Marc Genuist/CBC)

Acadian researchers at l'Université de Moncton have discovered a list of 289 names of Acadians who were living on Prince Edward Island in 1763, but they're still trying to reach a consensus about what exactly the rare list was for.

Regis Brun, an archivist at the university's centre d'etudes acadiennes, believes it's a list of Acadians held prisoner by the British at Fort Amherst, now a historic site on the shores of Charlottetown Harbour.

"It's a one-of-a-kind document," said Brun, who has been working as an archivist for 50 years.

"In that same year, we had the list of Acadian prisoners at Fort Beausejour, at Saint John, New Brunswick, at Halifax...They were known, they've been published, but there's one at Fort Amherst, it had disappeared in thin air."

Brun found the list among papers sent to him last week by an American in the Boston area who wanted to trace his Acadian roots. It had been misfiled in a French archive in Paris among the personal papers of a French diplomat, the governor of Santo Domingo, from the 18th century, he said.

It's a missing link in the paper trail of people the British wanted to keep an eye on, and of who needed to be fed, said Brun.

"It's all the Acadian family names — the Boudreau, to the Leblanc, Cormier, the Arsenault, the Doucet, Chiasson are all there," he said.

May be petition to French king

However, Stephen White, a geneaologist at the centre, thinks the list could be a petition to the French king.

At the end of the so-called Seven Years War, the French were inviting Acadians who had been deported to settle in French colonies, mainly in the Caribbean, Santo Domingo and Haiti, said White.

"These people were aware of that, but they hadn't been invited, but they believed they were qualified. And the cover letter says 'We're the same as these others and you invited them so we want to be invited to move to French territory as well because we've always been French loyal subjects in French territory' because they lived in Isle St. Jean," he said.

"The document lists the different places where they live - St. Pierre, St. Peters today; Baie Fortune, which is Rouleau Bay, or that area, and Le Moulin a Vent, which is Savage Harbour; Tracadie, which is still Tracadie and Rustico, which is spelled a little different today. And there's a whole bunch of people, 17 households from the Magdalen Islands."

Similar letters have been found from Acadians in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Halifax, South Carolina, Boston, and New York, said White.

Helps trace ancestry

Regardless of its origin, the document is valuable because, unlike most of the other lists of the day, it gives the names of the husbands and the wives, as well as the number of children they had, he said.

With so few Acadian family names, being able to cross reference the wives' maiden names makes it a lot easier to trace ancestries, he explained.

Brun agrees. It allows researchers to pinpoint the presence of certain families on the Island, he said.

"In history, you make hypothesis, but hypothesis is nothing like the real smoking gun, as Nixon would say.

"You have the document, there's Charles Arsenault and the name of his wife, Jeanne Chiasson. There's the name and he's there in July 1763."

Many of the names can be traced directly to people in the region, including New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, said Brun.

"This one, the Poirier family, who lives in Shediac and Grand Digue still. And the Arsenault, Robert Arsenault, who works with Radio Canada, his ancestor is there. I believe it's Joseph Arsenault, of Francois. You see Francois and Boudreault? So he's descendant from those. And then if you go through the list, the Richard family, the Doucet," he said, trailing off.

Brun can also compare the list with other lists to determine how people were being transferred around from the beginning of the deportation to the end of the year, or how they escaped, he said, noting the case of one woman who had a particularly difficult time.

"Twelve times in the space of 10 years she moved, her and her husband ahead of the British soldiers. Twelve times in 10 years, this was the history of most of these families in prison."