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The Founders of Acadia

The name Acadia,1 which we now associate with a great tragedy of history and song, was first used by the French to distinguish the eastern or maritime part of New France from the western part, which began with the St Lawrence valley and was called Canada. Just where Acadia ended and Canada began the French never clearly defined--in course of time, as will be seen, this question became a cause of war with the English--but we shall not be much at fault if we take a line from the mouth of the river Penobscot, due north to the St Lawrence, to mark the western frontier of the Acadia of the French. Thus, as the map shows, Acadia lay in that great peninsula which is flanked by two large islands, and is washed on the north and east by the river and gulf of St Lawrence, and on the south by the Atlantic Ocean; and it comprised what are to-day parts of Quebec and Maine, as well as the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. When the French came, and for long after, this country was the hunting ground of tribes of the Algonquin race--Micmac, Malecite, and Abnaki or Abenaki.

By right of the discoveries of Jean Verrazano (1524) and Jacques Cartier (1534-42) the French crown laid claim to all America north of the sphere of Spanish influence. Colonial enterprise, however, did not thrive during the religious wars which rent Europe in the sixteenth century; and it was not until after the Edict of Nantes in 1598 that France could follow up the discoveries of her seamen by an effort to colonize either Acadia or Canada. Abortive attempts had indeed been made by the Marquis de la Roche, but these had resulted only in the marooning of fifty unfortunate convicts on Sable Island. The first real colonizing venture of the French in the New World was that of the Sieur de Monts, the patron and associate of Champlain.2 The site of this first colony was in Acadia. Armed with viceregal powers and a trading monopoly for ten years, De Monts gathered his colonists, equipped two ships, and set out from Havre de Grace in April 1604. The company numbered about a hundred and fifty Frenchmen of various ranks and conditions, from the lowest to the highest--convicts taken from the prisons, laborers and artisans, Huguenot ministers and Catholic priests, some gentlemen of noble birth, among them Jean de Biencourt, Baron de Poutrincourt, and the already famous explorer Champlain.

The vessels reached Cape La Heve on the south coast of Nova Scotia in May. They rounded Cape Sable, sailed up the Bay of Fundy, and entered the Annapolis Basin, which Champlain named Port Royal. The scene here so stirred the admiration of the Baron de Poutrincourt that he coveted the place as an estate for his family, and begged De Monts, who by his patent was lord of the entire country, to grant him the adjoining lands. De Monts consented; the estate was conveyed; and Poutrincourt became the seigneur of Port Royal.

The adventurers crossed to the New Brunswick shore, turned their vessel westward, passed the mouth of the river St John, which they named, and finally dropped anchor in Passamaquoddy Bay. Here, on a small island near the mouth of the river St Croix, now on the boundary-line between New Brunswick and Maine, De Monts landed his colonists. They cleared the ground; and, within an enclosure known as the Habitation de l'Isle Saincte-Croix, erected a few buildings--'one made with very fair and artificial carpentry work' for De Monts, while others, less ornamental, were for 'Monsieur d'Orville, Monsieur Champlein, Monsieur Champdore, and other men of high standing.'

Then as the season waned the vessels, which linked them to the world they had left, unfurled their sails and set out for France. Seventy-nine men remained at St Croix, among them De Monts and Champlain. In the vast solitude of forest they settled down for the winter, which was destined to be full of horrors. By spring thirty-five of the company had died of scurvy and twenty more were at the point of death. Evidently St Croix was not a good place for a colony. The soil was sandy and there was no fresh water. So, in June, after the arrival of a vessel bringing supplies from France, De Monts and Champlain set out to explore the coasts in search of a better site. But, finding none which they deemed suitable, they decided to tempt fortune at Poutrincourt's domain of Port Royal. Thither, then, in August the colonists moved, carrying their implements and stores across the Bay of Fundy, and landing on the north side of the Annapolis Basin, opposite Goat Island, where the village of Lower Granville now stands.

The colony thus formed at Port Royal in the summer of 1605--the first agricultural settlement of Europeans on soil which is now Canadian--had a broken existence of eight years. Owing to intrigues at the French court, De Monts lost his charter in 1607 and the colony was temporarily abandoned; but it was re-established in 1610 by Poutrincourt and his son Charles de Biencourt. The episode of Port Royal, one of the most lively in Canadian history, introduces to us some striking characters. Besides the leaders in the enterprise, already mentioned --De Monts, Champlain, Poutrincourt, and Biencourt--we meet here Lescarbot,3 lawyer, merry philosopher, historian, and farmer; likewise, Louis Hebert, planting vines and sowing wheat--the same Louis Hebert who afterwards became the first tiller of the soil at Quebec. Here, also, is Membertou, sagamore of the Micmac, 'a man of a hundred summers' and 'the most formidable savage within the memory of man.' Hither, too, in 1611, came the Jesuits Biard and Masse, the first of the black-robed followers of Loyola to set foot in New France. But the colony was to perish in an event which foreshadowed the struggle in America between France and England. In 1613 the English Captain Argall from new-founded Virginia sailed up the coasts of Acadia looking for Frenchmen. The Jesuits had just begun on Mount Desert Island the mission of St Sauveur. This Argall raided and destroyed. He then went on and ravaged Port Royal. And its occupants, young Biencourt and a handful of companions, were forced to take to a wandering life among the Indians.

Twenty years passed before the French made another organized effort to colonize Acadia. The interval, however, was not without events which had a bearing on the later fortunes of the colony. Missionaries from Quebec, both Recollets and Jesuits, took up their abode among the Indians, on the river St John and at Nipisiguit on Chaleur Bay. Trading companies exploited the fur fields and the fisheries, and French vessels visited the coasts every summer. It was during this period that the English Puritans landed at Plymouth (1620), at Salem (1628), and at Boston (1630), and made a lodgment there on the south-west flank of Acadia. The period, too, saw Sir William Alexander's Scots in Nova Scotia and saw the English Kirkes raiding the settlements of New France.4

The Baron de Poutrincourt died in 1615, leaving his estate to his son Biencourt. And after Biencourt's own death in 1623, it was found that he had bequeathed a considerable fortune, including all his property and rights in Acadia, to his friend and companion, that interesting and resourceful adventurer, Charles de la Tour. This man, when a lad of fourteen, and his father, Claude de la Tour, had come out to Acadia in the service of Poutrincourt. After the destruction of Port Royal, Charles de la Tour had followed young Biencourt into the forest, and had lived with him the nomadic life of the Indians. Later, the elder La Tour established himself for trade at the mouth of the Penobscot, but he was driven away from this post by a party from the English colony at Plymouth. The younger La Tour, after coming into Biencourt's property, built Fort Lomeron, afterwards named St Louis, at the place now known as Port Latour, near Cape Sable. This made him in fact, if not in name, the French ruler of Acadia, for his Fort St Louis was the only place of any strength in the whole country.

By 1627 the survivors of Biencourt's wandering companions had settled down, some of them in their old quarters at Port Royal, but most of them with La Tour at Cape Sable. Then came to Acadia seventy Scottish settlers, sent hither by Sir William Alexander, who took up their quarters at Port Royal and named it Scots Fort. The French described these settlers as 'all kinds of vagabonds, barbarians, and savages from Scotland'; and the elder La Tour went to France to procure stores and ammunition, and to petition the king to grant his son a commission to hold Acadia against the intruders. But the elder La Tour was not to come back in the role of a loyal subject of France. He was returning in 1628 with the ships of the newly formed Company of One Hundred Associates, under Roquemont, when, off the Gaspe coast, appeared the hostile sail of the Kirkes; and La Tour was taken prisoner to England. There he entered into an alliance with the English, accepted grants of land from Sir William Alexander, had himself and his son made Baronets of Nova Scotia, and promised to bring his son over to the English side. Young La Tour, when his father returned, accepted the gift, and by some means procured also, in 1631, a commission from the French king as lieutenant-general of Acadia. Later, as we shall see, his dual allegiance proved convenient.

The restoration of Acadia to France in 1632, by the Treaty of St Germain-en-Laye, was to Cardinal Richelieu the signal for a renewal of the great colonizing project which he had set on foot five years earlier and which had been interrupted by the hostile activities of the Kirkes.5 Richelieu appointed lieutenant-general of Acadia Isaac de Razilly, one of the Company of One Hundred Associates and commander of the Order of Malta, with authority to take over Acadia from the Scots. Razilly brought out with him three hundred settlers, recruited mainly from the districts of Touraine and Brittany--the first considerable body of colonists to come to the country. He was a man of more than ordinary ability, of keen insight and affable manners. 'The commander,' wrote Champlain, 'possessed all the qualities of a good, a perfect sea-captain; prudent, wise, industrious; urged by the saintly motive of increasing the glory of God and of exercising his energy in New France in order to erect the cross of Christ and plant the lilies of France therein.' He planned for Acadia on a large scale. He endeavored to persuade Louis XIII to maintain a fleet of twelve vessels for the service of the colony, and promised to bring out good settlers from year to year. Unfortunately, his death occurred in 1635 before his dreams could be realized. He had been given the power to name his successor; and on his death-bed he appointed his cousin and companion, Charles de Menou, Sieur d'Aulnay Charnisay, adjuring him 'not to abandon the country, but to pursue a task so gloriously begun.'

Years of strife and confusion followed. Razilly had made La Heve his headquarters; but Charnisay took up his at Port Royal.6 This brought him into conflict with Charles de la Tour, who had now established himself at the mouth of the river St John, and whose commission from the king, giving him jurisdiction over the whole of Acadia, had, apparently, never been rescinded. The king, to whom the dispute was referred, instructed that an imaginary line should be drawn through the Bay of Fundy to divide the territory of Charnisay from that of La Tour. But this arrangement did not prevent the rivalry between the two feudal chiefs from developing into open warfare. In the struggle the honors rested with Charnisay. Having first undermined La Tour's influence at court, he attacked and captured La Tour's Fort St John. This happened in 1645. La Tour himself was absent; but his wife, a woman of heroic mould, made a most determined resistance.7 La Tour was impoverished and driven into exile; his remarkable wife died soon afterwards; and Charnisay remained lord of all he surveyed. But Charnisay was not long to enjoy his dominion. In May 1650 he was thrown by accident from his canoe into the Annapolis river and died in consequence of the exposure.

In the year following Charnisay's death Charles de la Tour reappeared on the scene. Armed with a new patent from the French king, making him governor and lieutenant-general of Acadia, he took possession of his fort at the mouth of the St John, and further strengthened his position by marrying the widow of his old rival Charnisay. Three years later (1654), when the country fell again into the hands of the English, La Tour turned to good account his previous relations with them. He was permitted to retain his post, and lived happily with his wife8 at Fort St John, so far as history records, until his death in 1666.

By the Treaty of Breda in 1667 Acadia was restored to France, and a period ensued of unbroken French rule. The history of the forty-three years from the Treaty of Breda until the English finally took possession is first a history of slow but peaceful development, and latterly of raids and bloody strife in which French and English and Indians were involved. In 1671 the population, according to a census of that year, numbered less than four hundred and fifty. This was presently increased by sixty new colonists from France. By 1685 this population had more than doubled and the tiny settlements appeared to be thriving. But after 1690 war again racked the land.

During this period Acadia was under the government of Quebec, but there was always a local governor. The first of these, Hubert de Grandfontaine, came out in 1670. He and some of his successors were men of force and ability; but others, such as Brouillan, who issued card money without authority and applied torture to an unconvicted soldier, and Perrot, who sold liquor by the pint and the half-pint in his own house, were unworthy representatives of the crown.

By 1710 the population of Acadia had grown to about twenty-one hundred souls, distributed chiefly in the districts of Port Royal, Minas, and Chignecto. Most of these were descended from the settlers brought over by Razilly and Charnisay between 1633 and 1638. On the whole, they were a strong, healthy, virtuous people, sincerely attached to their religion and their traditions. The most notable singularity of their race was stubbornness, although they could be led by kindness where they could not be driven by force. Though inclined to litigation, they were not unwilling to arbitrate their differences. They 'had none who were bred mechanics; every farmer was his own architect and every man of property a farmer.' 'The term Mister was unknown among them.' They took pride in their appearance and wore most attractive costumes, in which black and red colors predominated. Content with the product of their labor and having few wants, they lived in perfect equality and with extreme frugality. In an age when learning was confined to the few, they were not more illiterate than the corresponding class in other countries. 'In the summer the men were continually employed in husbandry.' They cultivated chiefly the rich marsh-lands by the rivers and the sea, building dikes along the banks and shores to shut out the tides; and made little effort to clear the woodlands. 'In the winter they were engaged in cutting timber and wood for fuel and fencing, and in hunting; the women in carding, spinning, and weaving wool, flax, and hemp, of which their country furnished abundance; these, with furs from bears, beavers, foxes, otters, and martens, gave them not only comfortable, but in some cases handsome clothing.' Although they had large herds of cattle, 'they never made any merchantable butter, being used to set their milk in small noggins which were kept in such order as to turn it thick and sour in a short time, of which they ate voraciously.'9

The lands which the Acadians reclaimed from the sea and cultivated were fertile in the extreme. A description has come down to us of what was doubtless a typical Acadian garden. In it were quantities of 'very fine well-headed cabbages and of all other sorts of pot herbs and vegetables.' Apple and pear trees brought from France flourished. The peas were 'so covered with pods that it could only be believed by seeing.' The wheat was particularly good. We read of one piece of land where 'each grain had produced six or eight stems, and the smallest ear was half a foot in length, filled with grain.' The streams and rivers, too, teemed with fish. The noise of salmon sporting in the rivers sounded like the rush of a turbulent rapid, and a catch such as 'ten men could not haul to land' was often made in a night. Pigeons were a plague, alighting in vast flocks in the newly planted gardens. If the economic progress of the country had been slow, the reason had lain, not in any poverty of natural resources, but in the scantiness of the population, the neglect of the home government, the incessant turmoil within, and the devastating raids of English enemies.


1 The origin of the name is uncertain. By some authorities it is supposed to be derived from the Micmac algaty, signifying a camp or settlement. Others have traced it to the Micmac akade, meaning a place where something abounds. Thus, Sunakade (Shunacadie, C. B.), the cranberry place; Seguboon-akade (Shubenacadie), the place of the potato, etc. The earliest map marking the country, that of Ruscelli (1561), gives the name Lacardie. Andre Thivet, a French writer, mentions the country in 1575 as Arcadia; and many modern writers believe Acadia to be merely a corruption of that classic name.
2 See The founder of New France in this Series, chap. ii.
3 Lescarbot was the historian of the colony. His History of New France, reprinted by the Champlain Society (Toronto, 1911), with an English translation, notes, and appendices by W. L. Grant, is a delightful and instructive work.
4 See The Jesuit Missions in this Series, chap. iv.
5 See The founder of New France, chap. v, and The Jesuit Missions, chap. iv.
6 Charnisay built his fort about six miles farther up than the original Port Royal, and on the opposite side of the river, at the place thenceforth known as Port Royal until 1710, and since then as Annapolis Royal or Annapolis.
7 This follows the story as told by Denys (see p. 18 note), which has been generally accepted by historians. But Charnisay in an elaborate memoir (Memoire Instructif) gives a very different version of this affair.
8 They had five children, who married and settled in Acadia. Many of their descendants may be counted among the Acadian families living at the present time in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
9 Public Archives, Canada, Brown Collection, M 651a, 171.
 


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Chronicles of Canada, The Acadian Exiles, A Chronicle of the Land of Evangeline, 1915

 

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