There was no end to my desire to study the topography of Chignecto in which I lived from 1967 to 1981. I drove in my car, rode my horse and walked on foot over many kilometers of ground much travelled by the Mi’kmaq, the French, the Acadians and the English in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
The Isthmus of Chignecto, joining New Brunswick to mainland Nova Scotia has witnessed the presence of human beings for over 12,000 years. When the French arrived there in the Seventeenth Century the Mi’kmaq had been there for over 2,000 years.
… Sikniktuk (or Chignecto) is located in Siknikt, one of the seven districts of Mi’kma’ki which extend over all the present-day Maritime Provinces and into Gaspé in Quebec. A Mi’kmaw community was already on the isthmus when Acadians came in the 1670s to trade and farm. In time, a prosperous Acadian village called Beaubassin arose, with a mission to the Mi’kmaw and a Catholic Church. Beaubassin was at the heart of a vast travel and trade network that encompassed Île-Royale (now Cape Breton Island), Canada, Nova Scotia, and New England. From Beaubassin, Acadians traded European goods with the Mi’kmaw, shipped livestock and grain to Boston and Louisbourg, and received goods from throughout the Atlantic world.
For the purposes of this post I want to focus on the settlements of Beaubassin and Beauséjour located at the very depths of the Bay of Fundy where the reaches of its silt-bearing tides end in beautiful Cumberland Basin.
There, rising over the marshy landscape and rising, like two long fingers to point toward the water, are two great ridges which the French called Beaubassin (an obvious name, given its location) and Beauséjour – an expression of hope for a happy existence.
It is important to understand this topography as, ultimately, the fate of France in Acadia depended upon it. Nearby were the vast Tantramar Marshes, today consisting of 20,230 hectares or about 50,000 acres. This vast potential for agricultural wealth caught the interests of the French around 1671 and Acadian farmers, who were also skilled as land engineers in reclaiming salt marshes, began to settle the area.
All this activity happened during the time when France was nominally in charge of the territory. After 1713 ownership of Acadia, or modern day Nova Scotia, passed to the British. This did not in any way prevent the French administration and their Acadian farmers from exploiting the vast marshlands found all around the Bay of Fundy shores. Indeed, right up until the late 1740s, when boundary issues became really tense, this was for the French and Acadians a golden age of agricultural wealth and foreign trade with its focus at Beaubassin. For a while Beaubassin became a seigneury with Michel Leneuf de la Vallière as its lord. Governor Frontenac in Quebec gave him 100 square leagues of land and he built his seigneury on a small hill in the marsh between the two great ridges. It was named, as you might expect, Île de la Vallière, and remains unexcavated, as a potential Seventeenth Century archaeological treasure, on the renamed Tonge’s Island, which was acquired by a British office of that name at the time of the conquest in 1755.
Beaubassin was always under French administration even though it was on the Nova Scotia side of the border which then, as now, is the small tidal creek called the Misaguash River. Beauséjour Ridge, just across the stream, was considered to be French territory. Here is a good summary of the history of this area until the conquest of 1755.
For a time Beaubassin grew into a very prosperous village. In 1686 it became a parish and a church was built. In time another church was built on Beauséjour Ridge and a substantial village began to grow in that area which was contingent to the great Tantramar Marsh.
It seemed that during the time of the French Regime the whole area was known officially as Beaubassin, although the much older name of Chignecto, which derives from the Mi’kmaq name Siknikt, meaning “drainage place,” and pronounced “Chignecto,” would be the one used by the English.
You can visit the site of Beaubassin today, and fly over it as I did back in the 1970s when I first became fascinated by its story, and maybe even walk through the whole area connected with it, as I was allowed to do on a number of occasions. This is what it looked back in 1975.
Here is a hand-coloured plan of the village based on an infra red photograph taken by the RCAF in 1954. Infra red film, which I would experiment with at the same time as I took this colour slide of the site, is used by archaeologists because it is so sensitive to heat emanating from the ground that sometimes archaeological features, like cellars, show up clearly. Using the RCAF photo Nova Scotia archaeologists were able to identify many building sites arranged around what appeared to be the logical place for the main street of Beaubassin.
My friend Josephine Trenholm, whose family then owned the land on which Beaubassin was located, allowed me to photograph this plan and I was able to use it try and locate the site of the village. A change in ploughing technology used by farmers resulted in much deeper furrows that obliterated features that were left intact by the old horse-drawn ploughs. Still though, I felt sure that I had walked along the main street of Beaubassin.
The Geography of Chignecto in 1755
There are a number of manuscript maps by French and English cartographers in various collections and they nearly all date from the time of the conquest of 1755. These plans are detailed enough to allow you today to place yourself in that landscape and walk – or row – about from place to place and visit all the sites that featured in the evolution of the various settlements and which featured in their fall. This manuscript plan dated June 1755, at the very time of the fall of Fort Beauséjour that would lead to the deportation of the population that did not escape into the woods, is a particular delight to study. All the buildings and the lines of the dykes are shown as well as the various landing places on the treacherous muddy banks. Here is a detail of the top half, but the map is so important that I include all of it in a big scale in a pdf file.
An Extraordinary Visitor and an Amazing Description of Beaubassin
By great good fortune we have a detailed eye-witness account of a 1731 visit to Beaubassin by a doctor from Beverly, Massachusetts called Robert Hale. He was a fascinating man of many interests and careers and at that time he came up on the schooner Cupid to deal with business interests in Annapolis Royal and Beaubassin. His journal of that voyage was published by the Essex Institute in 1906 and I managed to obtain a photocopy of the original. Because it is so deeply informative in the most vivid way I have transcribed for you the pages (230-234) which deal with his visit to what he called “Checnecto.” (For those of you who want to read the whole journal I made a pdf file of it from a photocopy of the original. It is available below.) For those of you not familiar with Eighteenth Century spelling – which was pretty loose and inconsistent – and typographical conventions such as using the letter “f” called the tall s for “s” you may have difficulties at first entering into the narrative. That will pass and soon he will have you in his spell.
… There is abundance of Muskettoes here so that in a Calm hot day, tis almost impofsible to live especially among the Trees. There is no fuch thing as an Oak, Walnut, or Chestnut Tree in thefe parts, & the Land so poor, that no other Trees grow to be above a foot or foot and half over & very few so large. Spruce & Birch is the chief of ye Wood, which the Land is covered with & wr there are no Marshes, the people don’t pretend to fettle. All the whole Bay above Cape Checnecto is called by yt name, & the little Villages of 3 or 4 or half a Score Families have other Denominations. This Bay feems to mee to be as Subject to Strong winds as (Near Annapolis) it is to Calms, for befides that the Shores are washed higher, & that the people build all their Houfes low, with large Timber & fharp Roofs (not one houfe being 10 feet to the Eves) you fee in abundance of Places, fpots of Land of phaps 2 or 3 Acres in a Spot, which have not a Tree Standing, only perhaps here & there a trunk of a large tree, 10, 15 or 20 feet high, but the Ground all covered with trees blown up by the Roots & multitudes of young trees 10 or 15 feet high all of near an heighth. I cou’d not find yt ye Water flows at Checnecto above 8 or 10 fathom at most, wc is about 50 or 60 feet.
1 P. M. I took my Boat with 2 hands designing to go about 2 Leagues up the River to the nearest French Houfes (my Pilott being an Interpreter) but as I had got about ye middle of ye Bay the Fogg came in very thick, & wee row’d an hour and a half before wee faw Land, & then wee discover’d it on the oppofite shore about 3 Leagues above our Vefsel. Soon after wee got on, the Fogg clear’d up & wee faw near our Boat an Indian Wigwam on the Beach, & at about 2 Miles diftance a Small Village of 3 or 4 French Houfes called Worfhcock & lyes up Tantamar River, to which wee went, & the French entertain’d us with much Civility & Courtefy & when we came away one man would needs accompany us to our Boat, & conduct a nearer way over the Marfhes than that by which wee came.
8 P. M. When wee came to our Boat (which wee left at highwater, wee found her aground near 1/4 of a Mile, but as the Shore was all descending, Muddy & very Soft & Slippery with our Guide’s Help wee made a Shift to Launch her, and it being by thif Time young Flood wee put away , for Meshequesh, a Small Village about 2 Leagues farther up the River, tho’ indeed it is the largest in this Bay but as it was now dark wee were obliged to keep in with the- Shore lest wee shou’d mifs the Crick, up which wee wore to go about 3/4 of a Mile to the Town; but the wind blowing very hard & right on upon the Shore, wee were put to much difficulty, & once got upon a Rocky flat a confiderable diftance from the Shore where wee had like to have Stove our Boat to pieces, but at length wee espied the Creek & thrust our Boat in & soon had Smooth Water, & about 11 P. M. wee got up to the Town, to the Houfe of one William Sears the Tavern Keeper, who let us in & gott water to wash our Legs & feet (bedaubed with Clay in coming ashore) & other Refrefhments.
Mond. 28. 5 A. M. I rose & after Breakfast walk’d about to fee the place & divert myself. There are but about 15 or 20 Houses in this Village, tho’ it be the largest in the Bay, besides 2 Mafs Houfes or Churches, on one of which they hang out a Flagg Morning & Evening for Prayers, to the other the Priest goes once a day only, Habited like a Fool in Petticoats, with a Man after him with a Bell in one Hand ringing at every door, & a lighted Candle & Lanthorn in the other.
3 P. M. Wee had design’d now to go down to our Vefsel, but the wind blowing very hard at S. W. wee were Oblig’d to quit our purpofe till next Highwater for ’tis impofsible to go againft the Tide. I went to fee an Indian Trader named Pierre Asneau, who lately came from St John’s in Canada River, with Furs & Seal Skins; they go up this River till they come to a Carrying place of about 10 miles over & then they are in that River, so that tis not half so far to N. found land that way as to go all by water. When I came to enquire into the Price of things, I found their Manner is to give no more (or Scarce so much) for our Goods as they cost in Boston, so that all the Advance our Traders can make is upon their Goods. All this Province are oblig’d by Proclamation of Gen. Phillips to take Mafsachufetts Bills in Payment, except where it is otherwife agreed between Buyer & Seller. But tis no Profit to our Traders nor theirs to take any Money except Just for Change, & Money is the worst Commodity a Man can have here, for as our Traders fell as cheap or cheaper than they Buy, it will be but lofs to take money to bring away, & the pple here don’t care to take it, becaufe in ye 1st place our Traders will not take it of them for ye aforewrited reafon; 2d the Indians with whom they Trade will not take, for all the Furs &ca which they get will fcarce pay for what Cloathing they want, & that they take up when they deliver their Furrs. 3. They have no Taxes to pay & 4th They trade but little amongst themfelves, every one raifing himielf wt he wants, except what they have in Exchange from ye Traders, & as a proof that they are govern’d by this Maxim, I need only say, that when I came to pay my Reckoning at ye Tavern, ye Landlord had but 5d in Money, tho’ he is one of ye wealthiest in the place. I can’t understand that there are more than 400 Families in the Govermt of Nova Scotia (Exempt of Georgia) who live all either at Annapolis, Menis & Checnecto, except a few Families at St. John’s & some other places. This Night wee lodg’d at Sears’s again & at supper were regaled with Bonyclabber, soop, Sallet, roast Shad, & Bread & Butter, & to day wee din’d with Mr Asneau at his Brother’s upon roast Mutton, & for Sauce a Sallet, mix’d with Bonyclabber Sweetned with Molasses. Just about Bed time wee were furpriz’d to fee fome of ye Family on their Knees paying yr Devotions to ye Almighty, & others near them talking, & Smoaking &ca. This they do all of them (mentally but not orally) every night & Morning, not altogether, but now one & then another, & fometimes 2 or 3 together, but not in Conjunction one with the other. The women here differ as much in yr Cloathing (besides wearing of wooden Shoes) from thofe in New Engld as they do in Features & Complexion, wc is dark eno’ by living in the Smoak in ye Summer to defend ymfelves against ye Muskettoes, & in ye winter against ye Cold. They have but one Room in yr Houfes besides a Cockloft, Cellar, & Sometimes a Closet. Their Bedrooms are made fomething after ye Manner of a Sailor’s Cabbin, but boarded all round about ye bignefs of ye Bed, except one little hole on the Fore-side, just big eno’ to crawl into, before which is a Curtain drawn & as a Step to get into it, there ftands a Chest. They have not above 2 or 3 chairs in a houfe, & those wooden ones, bottom & all. I saw but 2 Muggs among all ye French & ye lip of one of ym was broken down above 2 inches. When they treat you with ftrong drink they bring it in a large Bason & give you a Porringer to dip it with. The Gait of ye pple is very different from ye Engglish for the women Step (or rather straddle) further at a step than ye Men. The Women’s Cloaths are good eno’ but they look as if they were pitched on with pitchforks, & very often yr Stockings are down about their heels. Capt. Blin of Boston who has been a Trader to Nova Scotia this many years, died about a month ago at Mushquesh & lyes Buried on the plain below the Town not far from ye Pool, where he used to lay his Sloop.
June, Tues. 29. 3 1/2 A. M. Wee rose & went down to our Boat & made the Best off our way to our Vefsel, but the wind being against us it was past 8 aClock before wee got down, where when wee came wee found our Veffel loaded.
3 P. M . Wee endeavour’d to haul off our Vefsel intending to go out this Tide, in doing which wee ran aground 4 times fometimes on one fide of the Creek and fometimes on the other, however at last wee got her into the Road but the Wind blowing half a Storm right against us, wee dropp’d Anchor. The wind ftill increafed with Thunder, Rain & excefsive Lightning & blew most violently, so yt wee took in water over our Side. About 10 a Clock I saw wt the Sailors call a Corprisant on the head of our Foremast & before 12 the Storm was pretty well over.
You have now walked through Beaubassin with Dr. Hale and seen the priest, whom he ridicules, passing by to take Holy Communion to a sick person, hence the bell and candle. Tradition has it that the Beauséjour chalice has survived and is now in the Museum at the University of Moncton. I have been to see it. It is small but adequate, of solid coin silver, with little decoration.
To my eye, it looks Neoclassical and therefore at least Late Eighteenth Century. But tradition is strong, and it is a venerated relic among the Acadians.
Hale observed the houses in which the people lived and found them very dark because of the soot from the smoky fires which also helped repel the clouds of mosquitoes. The only pictures we have of the houses in the area of Beaubassin are those built across the river at Beauséjour. It is only because of the crucial military importance of that site officially not in Acadia that pictures of the settlement survive from 1755 when forts had been built and military topographers drew views of both settlements. This lovely sketch in the British Library by an English officer called John Hamilton gives you an exceptionally fine view of the village of Beauséjour with the marsh and Misaguash River in the foreground.
The Acadians built their houses close to the water and this is beautifully illustrated in this Eighteenth Century painting by the circle of Samuel Scott after John Henry Bastide of Annapolis Royal which was recently on sale at Christie’s. You see the fortress but on the edges are small houses that were Acadian homes.
In this detail from the right, taken from another version of this painting in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia you get a lively view of Acadians at their daily tasks.
Another thing that Hale observed in the houses he visited was a peculiar bed which he compared to a ship’s cabin. It was a built-in or large free-standing structure like a large closet with a bed into which the owners climbed. This is called a lit clos or box bed in French and was popular in Britany into the Twentieth Century. Its use also spread across the north of Europe into the Low Countries and its origins are found in the Middle Ages. Here is one from around 1640 from a picture on the net.
They could be quite fancy and would be an object of pride in the household as the place where the family was generated. As circumstances in Acadia permitted, they would have been carved with motifs brought from France.
This small 1658 painting by the Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch (1629-84) shows a simple interior where the lit clos is built in. It gives a fine feeling of atmosphere for the time. A mother is going through her child’s hair looking for lice.
By 1750 things had changed and the relaxed existence of the previous 75 years at Beaubassin was replaced by growing tension. Britain and France began to work very hard at determining precisely where the exact boundaries of Acadia were so that exploitation of this rich territory by the British could begin in earnest. Neither side had the resources for a full military event and a most interesting paper written in 2011 by Jeffers Lennox discusses this in considerable and convincing detail.
The maps of the time, some of them going back to the early Seventeenth Century, could not possibly give an accurate picture of New France because the ability to provide accurate surveys would not become widespread until new developments put into use after the Seven years War came into practice. Only then did a clear picture emerge, but England had won the war for North America. New maps would be put to new uses.
Here is a detail of an English map by Emanuel Bowen produced around 1749 and now in the New Brunswick Museum which not only shows the French and British settlements, but also the distribution of the aboriginal tribes who were very much in the picture with their traditional land claims at this time.
It’s fascinating and here is a pdf file in large scale of the whole map.
Another map from 1755 when negotiations about boundaries and territory were at their height provides even more information about the distribution of the aboriginal tribes and ignores Acadia entirely, calling the area by the name which it would soon take on for all time – Nova Scotia. Here and there are found settlements condescendingly described as “French” or “Acadian.”
After the siege of the fortress of Louisbourg began in 1745 and the city of Halifax was founded in 1749, the writing was on the wall. It was at this time that the Abbé le Loutre, a renegade priest used by French authorities for subversive activities, set fire to the village of Beaubassin and forced, with violence, its inhabitants to move to the “French side” at Beauséjour. The British immediately built a fort on top of the hill and called it Fort Lawrence after one of their officers. Very quickly buildings were erected for soldiers and those who provided for them and in no time at all a small village had grown up where once placid Beaubassin had stood. John Hamilton left us this fine sketch with every building identified.
The French retaliated by building Fort Beauséjour – far superior in design and materials than Fort Lawrence – which had only been meant to be temporary anyway. The stage was set for the tragedy that ensued in June.
The Geography of Tragedy
Since the fall of Fort Beauséjour marked the beginning of what would be called the Seven Years War by which England took North America from the French, there was great interest at home, in both England and France, for maps to study that illustrated the story taken home by the victors and the losers. The English mapmaker Thomas Jefferys (1719-71) produced this great engraved map called Large and Particular Plan of Shegnekto Bay, and the Circumjacent Country, with the Forts and Settlements of the French ’till dispofsefs’d by the English in June 1755. Drawn on the Spot by an Officer. Like the manuscript map above, it tells a similar story but with more specific details for a hungry audience. The French would copy this and distribute it among themselves. Below I attach a pdf file of the map full size. It has always been a most particular dream that I should one day obtain a copy of this print.
Studying this map is like flying over the Isthmus of Chignecto in a plane. In my last post on Acadia I will do just that and share with you some of the photographs I took in the mid-1970s along with astonishing views taken by Kendall Wheaton, one of my high school students, who was doing a history assignment for me on the subject of Aerial Archaeology.
Delany, Paul, “Chronologie de la déportation des Acadiens (1755-1816).” Les Cahiers de la Société Historique Acadienne, Vol. 36, n˚ 2 et 3, septembre 2005.
Hale, Robert, “Journal of a Voyage to Nova Scotia made in 1731 by Robert Hale of Beverly,” printed from the original manuscript now in possession of the American Antiquarian Society, Historical Collections of the Essex Institute, Vol. XLII, No. 3, July 1906.
Lennox, Jeffers, “Nova Scotia Lost and Found: The Acadian Boundary Negotiation and Imperial Envisioning, 1750-1755,” Acadiensis, XL, No. 2, pp. 3-31, 2011.
Smith, Jared R. C., Acadia’s Outpost: Beaubassin Before the Deportation, Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the Degree of Bachelor of Arts with Honours in History, Acadia University, April, 2014.
Trenholm, Gladys, Trenholm Josephine, Norden, Miep, A History of Fort Lawrence: Times Tides and Towns, Sherwood Printing Limited, Edmonton, Alberta, 1985. (My friend the late Josephine Trenholm grew up on the site of Beaubassin, and Fort Lawrence was once in the cornfield behind her home. With family and friends, she embarked upon the ambitious project of telling the story of her landscape from prehistory to its ultimate settlement by Yorkshire Methodists and American Baptists after the expulsion of the French and Acadians. It took years, and this was the result. It is now a very rare book and one to be savoured with pleasure over many winter nights. The facts are accurate and the story – now unfashionable in works on history – deeply moving.)
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, The Career of the Abbe Le Loutre with his translated autobiography, privately printed, Shediac, N.B., 1933.
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.