by Georges Arsenault
Joseph Arsenault, known as Joe League and Half, and sometimes as Joe Liguenoff, was born on April 15, 1744, in the Acadian village of Malpeque on the western shore of Malpeque Bay. He is the direct ancestor of such notable individuals as Aubin E. Arsenault, a former premier of Prince Edward Island, Stanislaus F. Perry, the first Acadian elected to the P.E.I. Legislative Assembly and the House of Commons, Sister Antoinette Desroches, the first director of the Acadian Museum, and the popular singer Angèle Arsenault. Joe League and Half became a legendary figure in the post-Deportation Acadian community of Prince Edward.
The English nicknamed him “Joe League and Half” when he was their guide in his youth. They were always asking him how far away they were from such and a place. He always gave them the same answer, “a league and half”. Joe didn’t speak much English, but at least he knew what a league was, that is about 4.5 km.
Joe died in Egmont Bay in 1833 and was one of the first Acadians whose obituary appeared in an Island newspaper. On December 10th, 1833, a few weeks after his death, The Royal Gazette published the following notice: On the 21st. ult. [November], at St. Joseph’s, Egmont Bay, at the advanced age of 90, Joseph Arseneaux, one of the oldest native Acadians of this Colony. At the capture of this Island from the French, in 1758, he acquired, and has ever since retained, the sobriquet of League and half, his knowledge of the English language being confined to these three words, and which formed the only answer he could give to all the questions which were put to him by the British Officers, whom he was frequently in the habit of meeting in the neighbourhood of St. Peter’s Bay, where he then resided. He was much esteemed by all who knew him, and his character was that of an honest, hospitable and charitable Christian.
On December 25th the same death notice appeared in the Halifax newspaper, the Novascotian and was even published in French in the Montreal paper La Minerve on January 13th, 1834. Who was Joseph Arsenault nicknamed Joe League and Half? He was a grandson of Pierre Arsenault, the male ancestor of the Acadian Arsenault line in North America. Joe’s father was Pierre’s youngest son named Abraham Arsenault, known as “Petit Abram,” and his mother was Marie Josèphe Savoie. In 1741, three years before Joe was born, the family moved to Malpeque from Beaubassin (near Amherst, Nova Scotia). Joe was only 13 years old when the British took over the Island in 1758 and deported most of the Acadians to France. He was among the Islanders who managed to escape deportation by fleeing to the mainland. By that time, he was probably an orphan since his parents are thought to have died the previous year during a smallpox epidemic in Malpeque. In all likelihood, Joe was taken in by one of his older married sisters who ended up in a refugee camp on the Restigouche River at the head of Chaleur Bay. They only stayed there for a few years before returning to the Island to settle in St. Peters Harbour. His sisters Nathalie and Josèphe, married respectively to Joseph Bernard and François Bourque, are on a 1763 list of the inhabitants of St. Peters Harbour. Although Joe is not on that list, he was probably living there with one of his sisters because his name appears on the list of the inhabitants made in 1765 by Captain Joseph Williams. That year, Joe was 21 years old and still a bachelor. Based on a 1768 document we know that he was cutting down trees and assisting with the laying out of streets in the burgeoning Charlottetown. P.E.I. Genealogical Society, Inc. Newsletter 5 February 2020 Around 1770, when he was presumably still living in St. Peter’s Harbour, Joe League and half married Marie Richard, daughter of Paul Richard and Marie-Renée Boudrot. Her father had died around 1760. A few years later her mother was living in the Magdalen Islands where she married Alexandre Arsenault, Joe’s first cousin. Joe and Marie raised a family of nine children, three boys and six girls. They left St. Peters Harbour and moved to the east side of Malpeque Bay in the vicinity of Darnley Bassin and then in 1775 to the head of the bay in what is now known as North St. Eleanors where they became tenants of the proprietor of Lot 17. By the age of fifty Joe was obviously a respected and trusted community leader. In 1794, Edmund Fanning, lieutenant-governor and commander in chief of the Island, appointed him lieutenant in Captain Campbell’s Company in the Regiment of Militia in Prince County. His duty was to exercise both the inferior officers and soldiers of the company. Ten years later he was named second captain in an independent Volunteer Company of the Militia in Prince County commanded by lieutenant colonel Harry Compton. The latter had acquired part of Lot 17 in 1803 and moved to the Island from England. The following year, Joe League and Half was probably the first Acadian tenant to sign a lease with Compton. The lease for a 125- acre property was for a duration of 2000 years! However, in 1807, Joe appears to have terminated his lease in order to participate in a collective agreement by which 21 Acadians signed a common lease with Compton. Relations between the Acadians and Compton and some of the English settlers in Lot 17 became so unpleasant that by 1814 most of the Acadian tenants had left and moved to Lot 15 (Egmont and MontCarmel). Others joined friends and families who had already relocated to Lots 1 (Tignish) and 5 (Cascumpec). It seems that Joe League and Half, now in his late sixties, was determined not to abandon his farm and move out of the community even if his children had done so. They had left for Egmont Bay, Tignish, Miscouche, and Cascumpec. However, Joe was soon threatened by some of his English neighbours as reported by Rev. John C. Macmillan in his book The Early History of the Catholic Church in Prince Edward Island, 1721-1835 (p. 174): A tradition still lingering among the Acadians relates how one of the original tenants of Colonel Compton, named Joseph Arsenault, on returning home from his work on a certain evening, found a notice posted on his barn-door, threatening him with violence if he did not immediately vacate the premises. The notice was stuck through with the tines of a hay fork and set forth that the owner of the barn would be in danger of similar treatment should he delay his departure. According to Macmillan, Joe League and a Half was a tenacious man, consequently his English neighbours had to take strong measures to intimidate him enough that he would abandon his property and move away: Mr. Arsenault was a man of considerable influence in the community. He was in a certain sense a leader amongst his countrymen. Fearless in upholding their rights and outspoken in condemning their wrongs, he stood in the way of English aggression and obstructed these covetous newcomers P.E.I. Genealogical Society, Inc. Newsletter 6 February 2020 in their efforts to obtain possession of the fertile farms of the Acadians. It was necessary therefore that they get him out of the way, and he was accordingly singled out for the above display of hostility. (p. 175) After his life was threatened, he reluctantly left North Saint Eleanors for La Roche (Egmont Bay) where four of his ten children were living. In a long ballad recounting why they had left Lot 17 to settle in La Roche, his youngest daughter, Julitte states they it was the family members living in Egmont Bay who took the initiative to retrieve their father from the dangerous position in which he found himself: Ses chers enfants ayant appris cela, Sans regarder aucun embarras, Leur très cher père ils ont été retirer De la fureur de ces loups enragés. Translation : When his dear children discovered that, They did rescue their dear father Without fear From the fury of those rabid wolves. Joe League and Half therefore settled among his four children who were all married to children of another Joseph Arsenault, his first cousin, known as Joe Magitte. It is not surprising, therefore, that the settlement was first called the Village des Jos (Village of the Joes), Joe League Village and Saint-Joseph. Around 1850, the community was renamed Saint-Chrysostome. However, in the 1880 Meacham Atlas of PEI, the community is identified as both “St. Chrysostom” and “Jo League Village.” A few years after settling in La Roche, Joe League and Half met John McGregor, from Brackley Point. He was an influential Island merchant, landowner, civil servant, and politician. Coming home from a trip to the Chaleur Bay, McGregor landed on the shores of Egmont Bay. He related his visit to the Acadian settlement in his book British America (Vol. 1, pp. 492-493) published in 1832 and gave an interesting description of an old man who had greeted him. He does not identify the man by name, but in all probability, it was Joe League and Half. At the time, he would have been in his late seventies, but McGregor thought that he was close to one hundred years old! Coming down the Gulf of St. Lawrence, from the Bay de Chaleur, in a large whale boat, we were driven into this bay, but could not approach within a quarter of a mile of the shore, in consequence of its being lined by a succession of narrow sand bars, with channels about four feet deep between them. An Acadian, nearly one hundred years old, came out to us on horseback, and carried us, one at a time, behind him on the horse to the shore. We met with great hospitality among the simple Acadians. I stopped in the old patriarch’s house; and the bed in which the priest, who visited the village twice a year, slept, was allotted to me. There were none except the venerable Acadian and his wife living in the house. He laboured daily in the fields; and she not only frequently assisted him, but cooked, washed, and made and mended his clothes. He gave me such information about the early condition of the island, as he P.E.I. Genealogical Society, Inc. Newsletter 7 February 2020 was born on it, and was present when it surrendered to the English, in 1758. Talking of himself, he said: “I am the father of every family” (twenty-four at that time) “in the village; for there is not one of those houses in which I have not either a son, daughter, grandson, or grand-daughter married; and I have also several great-grand-children. Look at my old wife and me,” said he, “now living alone, as we were when first married. We need not work, it is true, for our children would willingly provide us plenty, even if we had not money laid by. But we know that, if we did not work, we would soon die. Besides, we are in good health and strong, and therefore it would be a great sin to be idle. Neither of us were scarcely ever sick. I never had a headache, and I never took physic in my life.” Joe League and Half’s good health allowed him to reach his 89th birthday. More precisely he was 89 years, 7 months and 7 days old when he passed away. The ballad composed by his daughter, in which his flight from North St. Eleanors is told, was transmitted orally over several generations keeping alive the sad event. In fact, I recorded the song in 1971 in AbramVillage from Mrs. Madeleine Gallant (née Bernard) who was a native of Saint-Chrysostome and whose stepmother was a great-granddaughter of Joe’s daughter who composed the song. As mentioned above, this remarkable Prince Edward Island Acadian has a great many descendants on the Island and indeed across North America. Most of his descendants know nothing about him and don’t even know that he is part of their family tree. I would like to be able to say that he is one of my forefathers, but unfortunately,he is not. However, I descend from his brother Jean-Baptiste Arsenault, married to Madeleine Gallant, who, with their children were the first settlers of my native village of Abram-Village, first called “Village des Abram” (Village of the Abrams). The Abram (Abraham) referred to is “Petit Abram Arsenault,” father of Jean-Baptiste and Joe League and Half! Family of Joseph Arsenault (Joe League and Half) and Marie Richard Jean Baptiste: married circa 1796 Anne (Nanette) Arsenault. Settled in Saint-Chrysostome. Jacques: married circa 1800 Anne (Nanette) Cormier. Settled in Cascumpec. Marie: married circa 1799 Fidèle Chiasson. Settled in Tignish. Madeleine: married circa 1800 Charles Doucet. Settled in Tignish. Gertrude: married circa 1795 Raphaël Gaudet. Settled in Miscouche. Agnès: married circa 1800 François Gaudet. Settled in Miscouche. Dominique: married circa 1805 Barbe Arsenault. Settled in Saint-Chrysostome. Bibianne: married circa 1804 Joseph Arsenault. Settled in Saint-Chrysostome. Domithilde: married circa 1812 Sosime Poirier (Perry), Settled in Tignish. Julitte: married around 1811 Placide Arsenault. Settled in Saint-Chrysostome. Sources