My Time in Acadia – Part 1: the Landscape

I had the pleasure of living in one of the most historically concentrated areas of the nebulous region of Acadia for fourteen years! From September 1967 until the end of December 1981 when I moved to Charlottetown, I lived in Sackville, and finally in Point de Bute. That period was the most stimulating time of my life in the areas of personal development, academic achievement, my birth as a good teacher and the skills I acquired as an historical topographer. Once again, this blog post will slide in the autobiographical mode as my way of life at that time merged work and pleasure into a seemingly endless series of exciting adventures. Soon it will be time to devote all my attention to the Island – its colonising, maps, archaeology, landscape and architecture.


My Years Before Acadia

From the fall of 1958 to the fall of 1966 I lived in Montreal where I completed my high school, attended Loyola College for three academically unproductive years. Although I received a superb informal education at Loyola, I bombed out academically because I only attended those classes that interested me. After that, I got various jobs, the longest being almost a year teaching Latin and English in a high school. It was there, in spite of my disciplinary nightmares, that I discovered a passion for teaching.

During the summer of 1967 while I worked on the Tignish Arts Foundation programmes with my friend and greatest-teacher-ever, Elizabeth Cran, she convinced me to apply to Mount Allison University, in spite of my previous academic disasters, to finish my degree. I was accepted and enrolled in the Classics faculty to take a degree in Classical Civilisation. My years of work in Tignish convinced them that I might be ready for another go at academia. I moved to Sackville that September and rented accommodations off campus. Mount A has Fine Arts and Music departments and soon I had a group of the most wonderful, charming, talented and inspiring friends anybody could wish for. We would meet for evenings of talk, food and drink, and it was just like something I had read about in novels about English university life.

In the centre is Ted Colyer, now a senior Canadian artist who would specialise in the Japanese woodblock print technique. Together we spent days exploring the landscape and historic sites of Acadia and Nova Scotia where he did sensitive and perfectly composed watercolours of the landscape. Another friend was Ted’s girlfriend at that time, Ann Forman, who taught me how to cook rice properly. She too studied Fine Arts. The fellow holding my big white cat is Clifford Lusby. He loved the landscape of the Isthmus of Chignecto and we spent days exploring and photographing it on his motorcycle. I was terrified as we roared along the back roads and trails.

As my growing number of Mount A friends and I travelled about more and more we all became aware that the landscape that so delighted us was once a part of Old Acadia. We explored the great Tantramar Marshes first created by the Acadians who lived just a few minutes away at the now dead villages of Beaubassin and Beausejour. Sackville, originally an Acadian settlement on the edge of the marsh, was surrounded by it. You can see its micro position in relation to the macro world around it in this photo I took around 1975.

You had only to cross the Trans Canada Highway to go and explore in the actively farmed marshland that occupied thousands of acres.

And when you penetrated ever deeper into this Acadian-created massive landscape – their greatest accomplishment – it was difficult, in all this rich agriculture, to imagine all this as a vast mudflat, flooded regularly by the high tides of the Bay of Fundy. It was even more difficult to understand that all this was the result of human labour without the help of any mechanical aid except the pick, shovel, mattock, plough and harrow.

The barns are now mostly gone, as is the complicated drainage trench system introduced by the Yorkshire settlers and others who took over after the Expulsion of 1755, but when I took this photo in the mid-1970s, it was all there.

One of the great joys of crossing the Tantramar Marsh was gaining access to it via one of the covered bridges that took you across a river that was still invaded by the high Fundy tides. Friends of mine would visit it at night for eerie hashish-generated visions of ancient Acadians and would call out to the foxes that inhabited the landscape.

Once across you could make your way on the High Marsh Road to the uplands of the Beausejour (now called Etter) Ridge and the once Acadian settlement of Point de Bute (Pont à Buot), where in the early Eighteenth Century there had been a bridge built by a man called Buot across the Missaguash River to permit land travel to the village of Beaubassin. Interestingly, descendants of that Buot family in time would make their way to Tignish, my home town, where Gilbert and François Buote, father and son, would publish a bilingual newspaper called L’Impartial which was never for a moment impartial.

All these explorations took me again and again to Fort Beausejour which was being completely excavated and reconstructed by Parks Canada. You weren’t allowed in those early years to go and explore inside the fort because it was a construction site, but there was a fine museum built there in the 1930s which had fascinating displays, many artefacts, and, once they got to know you, a large collection of books, photographs and documents to which I was given free access until the whole collection was given to Mount Allison, where I continued to have even fuller access to it.

Little by little, directed by one of the guides at Fort Beausejour, I began to delve into the literature of the Tantramar. The name Tantramar comes from the French one, Tintamarre, which is said to be an onomatopoeic expression of the discordant sounds made by the vast numbers of migrating birds that were attracted to the area.


William Francis Ganong

One of the first works I read on the Tantramar Marshes was a series of four articles published in the Botanical Gazette in the fall of 1903 by W. F. Ganong. They were called “The Vegetation of the Bay of Fundy Salt and Diked Marshes: An Ecological Study”. They are so important that I give you the pdfs I found with difficulty and downloaded off the internet.

Ganong – 1 of 4

Ganong – 2 of 4

Ganong – 3 of 4

Ganong – 4 of 4

Here is a good biographical sketch of Ganong.

Ganong was a Canadian biologist who was also an historian and cartographer. He led a very colourful life and gained an intimate knowledge of the topography of the Isthmus of Chignecto – that narrow boggy neck that joins New Brunswick to Nova Scotia. Here is a map from the internet of the area today so you can insert yourself into my story.

Here is a detail of the area as a Google satellite photograph. You can see how little of the land is habitable. Lumbering operations have now begun to dry out some of the boggy areas.

Ganong’s articles were botanical in nature and required specialist knowledge that I did not possess, but there was so much history and geography scattered through these articles that it sparked in me an intense interest in the historical topography of the Cumberland Basin at the head of the Bay of Fundy. Thus began my serious exploration of the area. On one occasion, at low tide, I waded out into the deep greasy mud of the Basin to examine the stumps of the prehistoric trees that could still be seen protruding from the mud. My boots got stuck and I fell as I tried to extricate myself. There was a moment of panic as I finally emerged looking like a large chocolate Easter bunny.

Ganong loved to draw maps based on what he observed on the ground. The map he published in his first article (Vol. 36, No. 3) is inserted here to show you what it looks like, and below it, a pdf of the map on a much larger scale so that you can see all his astonishing details of human intervention in that vast landscape from the French Regime to industrial projects of great magnitude in his own time, such as the Chignecto Ship Railway.

Here is a pdf of the map so you can study it magnified.

Ganong – Map of Isthmus of Chignecto


John Clarence Webster

The next author I was introduced to was John Clarence Webster, whose book, The Forts of Chignecto: A study of the Eighteenth Century conflict between France and Great Britain in Acadia, was, and still is, an urbane and detailed account of the topography of the Isthmus of Chignecto, the settlement and marshland reclamation that took place there. It is also the story of the fall of Fort Beausejour in 1755 that was the beginning of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63).

This splendid chalk portrait of him used to hang in the Fort Beausejour Museum, his museum, in the days when I first visited it. Webster (1863-1950) was a native of Shediac who studied at Mount Allison University. He pioneered in obstetrics and gynaecology and studied in Edinburg, Leipzig and Berlin. He returned to Edinburg to practice and later returned to Canada where he became Lecturer in Gynaecology at McGill and practised at the Royal Vic Hospital. He later moved to Chicago where he was very successful.

Webster retired in 1919 and returned home to Shediac where he devoted the rest of his life to the study of the history of New Brunswick. He was particularly interested in Acadia and the events on the isthmus of Chignecto that led to the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), France’s loss of its possessions in the New World and the British conquest formalised by the Treaty of Paris in 1763. He was very busy in many areas of historical interest and while on the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada had lovely monuments – cairns with bronze plaques – set up all over the Maritimes. You can read more about him in this Wiki biographical sketch.

In an aside, I have always loved this picture of Webster at work in his study in Shediac. Its in the New Brunswick Museum collection. It depicts the kind of environment that I was trying to create for myself during my time in Acadia – at the very time I discovered Webster!

Did I capture the mood of quiet rural contemplation? This was my study in a very old house (now demolished) I rented in Sackville during part of my time in Acadia.

When he published his book on the wars of the forts in Chignecto he got his great friend Ganong to draw a map for him that detailed every place of significance in the settlement, roads and projects of the French and Acadians. As you can see it’s a “cleaned-up” version of Ganong’s 1900 map.

Of course, you can’t see anything at this scale, and even in his book where the map folds out, you need a magnifying glass. But its worth the effort. To assist those of you who are interested I have scanned the map from my own damaged copy, that I cleaned and repaired somewhat, and reproduced it at quite large size where you can see everything clearly. I attach it below as a pdf file that you could have printed in large format if you become as driven as I in the study of the Eighteenth Century history of Chignecto.

Ganong for Webster – Isthmus of Chignecto

In my next post I will briefly examine the sites of the villages of Beaubassin and Beausejour, the forts that were built there and introduce you to the study of aerial photography in archaeological reconnaissance.

To lead you into that landscape I must insert this photo of me exploring the Tantramar Marsh with my horse, Willie’s Choice (he had been born on Shakespeare’s birthday). For years the two of us spent countless hours on the roads and in the vast fields, soaking up the spiritual emanations from the past.



Reference Material

Butzer, Karl W., “French Wetland Agriculture in Atlantic Canada and Its European Roots: Different Avenues to Historical Diffusion,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 451-470, 2002.

Clark, Andrew Hill, Acadia – The Geography of Early Nova Scotia to 1760, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1968.

Ganong, W. F., “The Vegetation of the Bay of Fundy Salt and Diked Marshes: An Ecological Study,” Botanical Gazette, Vol. 36, No. 3-6, 1903.

Kennedy, Gregory, “Marshland Colonization in Acadia and Poitou during the 17th Century,” Acadiensis, Vol. 42, No. 1, 2013.

Webster, John Clarence, The Forts of Chignecto: A study of the Eighteenth Century conflict between France and Great Britain in Acadia [With Plates, Including Portraits, and Maps], Privately Published, 1930.

Webster, John Clarence, Joseph Frederick Wallet Desbarres and the Atlantic Neptune, Royal Society of Canada, Ottawa, 1927.

Webster, John Clarence, The Life of Joseph Frederick Wallet Desbarres, privately printed, Shediac, N.B., 1933.

Webster, John Clarence, The Career of the Abbe Le Loutre with his translated autobiography, privately printed, Shediac, N.B., 1933.

Webster, John Clarence, Acadia at the End of the Seventeenth Century: Letters Journals and Memoirs of Joseph Robineau de Villebon, Commandant in Acadia, 1690–1700 and Other Contemporary Documents, Saint John: Monographic Series No. I, The New Brunswick Museum, 1934.

Webster, John Clarence, translated by Alice Webster, The Siege of Beausejour in 1755: A Journal of the Attack on Beausejour written by Jacau De Fiedmont, Artillery Officer and Acting Engineer at the Fort, Historical Studies No. 1, Publications of the New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, 1936.

Webster, John Clarence, Editor, Journals of Beausejour: Diary of John Thomas (Apr. 1755 to Dec 1755) and Journal of Louis de Courville (1755), Public Archives of Nova Scotia, Halifax, 1937.

Webster, John Clarence, The Life of Thomas Pichon, “The Spy of Beausejour,” PANS, Halifax, 1937.

Wynn, Graeme, “W.F. Ganong, A.H. Clark and the Historical Geography of Maritime Canada, ” Acadiensis, Vol. 10, N0. 2, pp. 5-28, 1981.