Aerial Photography at Beaubassin and Beauséjour

This is my last post on Acadia with its fascinating evolution and sad, tragic end. I have not tried to give a precise account of its history but rather explored, with pleasure, various aspects of its origins, its growing population of ingenious French settlers who soon took on the name of the colony in which they found themselves. I talked, in previous posts, about the nature of the topography of the Isthmus of Chignecto, which is the part of Acadia that most interests me because I lived there for fourteen years and had first-hand contact with the countryside and its features.

For those wishing to have more specific historical information I provided links to good internet articles on various key topics, pdf files of articles and books basic to an understanding of the period, and a resource list at the end of each post, that contained the various books in my library that I have consulted over the years in my ongoing studies of the subject. Now it is time to conclude this contemplative period of exploration with one last glance at Beaubassin and Fort Beauséjour, but from the air, before I turn my attention to Ile Saint-Jean, my original reason for starting this blog over a year ago!

To my knowledge John Clarence Webster was the first to publish an aerial photograph of Fort Beauséjour and the land surrounding it, with a key so that the stranger to this landscape might be enlightened about its significant spots. Here is that photograph, taken from his 1930 book, The Forts of Chignecto.

The photo was taken by the Royal Canadian Air Force in the late 1920s. It looks inland, from Cumberland Basin at the head of the Bay of Fundy, across the ridge that heads toward Northumberland Strait.

When I first came across this photograph, I felt an urgent need to go up and see for myself what the landscape looked like forty years later in 1975. This is what I saw. Instead of a large format camera that the RCAF would have used I had two 35 mm SLR cameras loaded with black and white and colour film.

I don’t know why in the colour run I did not try to reproduce Webster’s angle. Perhaps it was the excitement of being buffeted about in a small plan driven by one of my school students, an air cadet with a flying license. This is what I produced.

The original was a colour slide taken with Kodachrome 64 which was fine-grained film capable of capturing all sorts of subtleties in a landscape. What you see here is a digital scan of that slide which has been enhanced for contrast so that insignificant spots on the landscape turn into potential sites of archaeological interest. Unfortunately, my slide could not be cleaned any better and so some of those “sites” may just be spots of dust!

I also wanted to show the Fort and the Missaguash River that separates Nova Scotia from New Brunswick and also the context of the approach to land in the Eighteenth Century when Chignecto prospered. Those tides are 40 feet high and when they go out your ship careens on the sloping mudflats and you have to somehow make it to land in a thick,  clinging sediment-filled mud that sticks to you like glue.

Robert Hale, in his 1731 journal of a visit to Beaubassin and Beausejour describes this vividly:

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 mils 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.

I reproduce all the details of his visit to the area in an earlier post, but for your convenience I append the pdf of the Journal – with all its Eighteenth Century grammatical and vocabulary peculiarities – here for those of you who want to consult it.

Hale – Journal of a Voyage to Nova Scotia … 1731



When I urgently, in two separate flights from Moncton airport in 1975, went out to photograph the landscape of Chignecto I had already for some time been passionately interested in aerial archaeology. It all came about when my teacher and mentor at Loyola College, Elizabeth Cran, lent me a book that she had bought in 1964. In 1970, to feed my aerial archaeological frenzy she gave it to me, and it formed the basis of what would become a small but respectable collection of books on the subject. It was written in 1957 by John Bradford who was University Demonstrator and Lecturer at the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford. It was based on lectures he had begun to give after World War II when he had been heavily involved in analysing aerial photographs of enemy lines. It was during this period that he realised, among others, that besides the trenches there were perfect plans of Roman villas appearing as differently coloured marks in the fields, and in the Near East, whole ancient cities yet to be discovered.

This book became my bible and I discovered all sorts of things about the meaning of marks and features on the ground that represented ancient or prehistoric activity. Although the book deals mostly with sites from ancient times all the way from Mesopotamia to the Atlantic coast, it would not take long before interest began to focus on Roman Britain, and for those of you who have watched episodes of the British TV series Time Team, you may have seen vast villa complexes as perfectly aligned marks in agricultural land. These lines are called crop marks because they appear in various ways when stone walls hidden by the sod do not permit the absorption of water and so the crop growth is impeded, causing revealing shadows in oblique light. This same water shortage may produce parch marks at another time of year when there is not enough nourishment above the hidden stone foundations to feed the plants growing above.

Dark areas in the crop marks may suggest an abundance of sub-soil water where a foundation of some depth holds an extra supply of water. This detail from a vertical colour photoshoot across the Isthmus of Chignecto, tracing the route of another archaeological wonder, the Chignecto Marine Transport Railway, a massive industrial project from the 1890s that proposed to lift ships out of the water at Beaubassin, place them on double railway beds, pull them across the Isthmus and lower them into the water at Bay Verte, has other information to be gleaned from it.

It shows the site of Beaubassin on the Fort Lawrence Ridge and a number of ploughed fields – all connected with Beaubassin and its destruction and replacement by Fort Lawrence in the years before 1755 when an English presence was made manifest. I have labelled the photo detail. In the ploughed fields you can see some very clear crop marks, mostly dark, suggesting underground spaces or ditches, or maybe accumulations of ash from past conflagrations.

Bradford points out, with example after example, how not only regular geometric Roman ruins can be spotted on film and in prehistoric times in Europe people built mounds as graves and fortifications and these are called tumuli. They circled these with ditches, and even in a comparatively populated area like Britain there are still vast acres where modern development has not destroyed the substrate and all these features show clearly – whole patterns of villages from the time of the Barbarian invasions.


Further Developments in Aerial Photography

Bradford’s book was highly influential in raising interest in the possibilities of aerial archaeology. Since the end of World War II countries in Europe and North America intensified their efforts, at intervals based on mapping and development issues, to produce complete stereoscopic sets of vertical aerial photographs. Even in remote Prince Edward Island an almost complete set of aerial photographs was taken of the Island in 1935. They are available for study and a revelation of a very old landscape untouched by the very deep furrows of modern ploughing. To my knowledge they have only occasionally been consulted by archaeologists since the 1980s. I will speak further about this in a future post.

After Bradford’s book appeared in 1957 there was a rush to explore the history of aerial archaeology and the ways it could be employed by archaeologists, and so a considerable number of books were written right up into the 1980s. I list below those I have in my collection and which have inspired me in my explorations of the subject.


Infrared Photography

The colours of the spectrum that we see in a rainbow appear as they do because of the length of the rays they emit. These rays are measured by scientists by a unit of length called the nanometre (or nanometer), equal to one billionth of a metre. On our spectrum these measurements range from about 400 nm at the violet end to about 70 nm at the red end. This chart, taken from the Kodak Applied Infrared Photography booklet, gives you an idea of the spread of wavelengths in the colours visible to the eye and what is not visible but is there, nevertheless.

The black and white and colour films that we all used in the days of film photography were sensitive to wavelengths that covered the visible spectrum – 400 – 700 nanometres.

Infrared photography made its appearance surprisingly early when in 1910 Robert W. Wood discovered peculiar effects recorded on a new kind of photographic plate he developed and published in the 1910 edition of The Century Magazine and The Journal of the Royal Photographic Society. This story, and subsequent developments in infrared photography is beautifully summarised in this Wikipedia article.


The great value of infrared photography, which developed rapidly in the 1930s and the War years was that it could “see” and record things in the landscape, or even in the sky, that were invisible to ordinary photography or the naked eye. Although its post-War use was largely directed at evaluating agricultural crops, it caught the attention of archaeologists because it could detect buried features in the ground that no other photographic system could detect and record. This famous photograph, scanned from the Kodak booklet, shows a surprising and highly controversial view of a site near the Missouri River that some claimed provided evidence for Viking military enclosures with bastions.

The Canadian Government obviously was deeply interested in the development and use of infrared film (See Thomson 1975) and it comes as a pleasure, but no surprise, that in 1956 the Photogrammetry Division of the Nova Scotia Research Foundation had the site of Beaubassin/Fort Lawrence photographed, with a view to discovering whether infrared film could penetrate farmland on the edge of the marsh and Cumberland basin to discover whether any traces of the Acadian settlement and later British occupation could be discovered. It was known that infrared could detect features destroyed for ordinary photography by modern deep ploughing. Here is the cartouche of the map they drew from their infrared photographs.

To their great surprise they found ordered arrangements of what appeared to be cellar pits that they identified as possibly the main street of Beaubassin. All this was transcribed onto paper and coloured by hand. A number of copies must have been made because in the 1970s the late Josephine Trenholm, author of a fascinating book on the long history of the area, allowed me to study and photograph her copy. Years later I see that parks Canada, in some of their internet publications, also use the same map derived from the infrared results and coloured in similar fashion.

If you look closely at this drawing you can see the outline of Fort Lawrence in what became the Trenholm farm cornfield behind the house, and a little beyond, on the slope towards the marsh leading down to the Missaguash River, the houses of the village of Beaubassin flanking a road that let from the tidal shore to the top of the ridge where presumably a church had once stood before it was burned down by the Abbé Le Loutre.


My Infrared Project

When I saw this map, I became determined to go up in a plane and photograph the landscape of Beaubassin and Beauséjour with infrared film. I had never lost my connections in Montreal and the wonderful NDG Photo Supply store on Sherbrooke Street, with its goddess of all things photographic, a German woman called Kitty Halbroth, was ready to assist me. I went to Montreal to discuss my ambitions with Kitty and she had all the answers, not only supplying the most realistic Ektachrome slide film that would meet my needs but providing very detailed instructions on camera lens adjustments and materials such as filters to be able to complete my Beaubassin project.

I returned to Sackville full of enthusiasm and discovered that a small airplane suddenly became available in the person of one of my students (of whom I will have more to say shortly), an air cadet student in high school who had obtained his qualifications to fly and allow a passenger to tag along.

I had already begun to take aerial photographs of historic Lot 1 in Prince Edward Island, locating and photographing the site and cemetery of the original 1799 village of what would in time be called Tignish, the present site of the village with its 1860 church and the mysterious area of North Cape with its lighthouse and reef described by Jacques Cartier and the nearby great floating bog, called the Black Marsh, that was believed to be haunted and the repository of Captain Kidd’s treasure – or one of them. The plane available did not make photography easy because it was low wing and you had to get the pilot to do contortions in order to get a good oblique shot of the land below. I never had the pleasure of doing aerial photography with a high wing plane where fewer contortions were required.

Here is a selection of the best infrared photographs I was able to take of Beaubassin and Beausejour. They reveal all sorts of startling features on the ground which experts might care to investigate. Sadly, no one, except my students at Tantramar Regional High School, to whom I was teaching a course in the History of Archaeology, due to the brilliant encouragement of the principal, Richard Moreau, ever showed interest in my work. In the defense of these invisible colleagues, it must be said that, dashing from one project to another, I never pursued archaeologists from either Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. They might have made something of my work or been inspired to go up and see for themselves what they could find.

This was my ordinary Kodachrome 64 colour slide of the area shown in the map shown above. It shows the whole area of the site of Beaubassin. Fort Lawrence was built in the cornfield just beyond the large Trenholm farm in the lower foreground.

When I went on another flying trip with infrared film in my camera, the results were not as dramatic as I had hoped because of the height of the crops. It was summer.

The sun was beginning to slant and there were long shadows. The shadows revealed the height of the crops and even infrared could not penetrate the depth of the vegetation but reveals contours beautifully.

This photo, taken with cloud interference gives you another impression of this landscape in harvest time.

This experiment, to my inexperienced eye, was not a great success, but when I crossed the Missaguash River into New Brunswick and turned my attention to Fort Beauséjour, the effect was quite different!

Here, in 1975 the grass had been kept cut over a large area and restoration of the forts – both Beauséjour and Cumberland – was in progress and nearing completion. You can see a huge spoil heap at the left of the picture that would be carted away.

As you can see, if you are willing to enlarge this and study it quite intensely, with the help of colleagues, you might discover features that relate to the battles of 1755 and 1776 that took place in that location. On the other hand, work done since the 1930s in creating the Fort historic site may have almost completely altered the original surfaces of the entire area, making remote sensing like infrared photography virtually useless. Perhaps in the surrounding fields, in areas away from the focus of the fort, it might be possible to find features of the village and church of Beausejour that might have survived.

I want to conclude this post by celebrating the perception and skill of one of my students at Tantramar Regional High School who was a member of my class in the History of Archaeology. He was an Air Cadet and had just qualified to fly a small aeroplane. This is his school graduation portrait.

His name was Kendall Wheaton and he lived with his family just up the street from me on King Street in Sackville. Each of the students taking my course had to prepare a major paper on some aspect of the history of archaeology. Obviously, Ancient Egypt and Greece were popular, but I had managed to get some interested in Meso-America. I badly wanted somebody to do essays on local archaeological sites to tie up the present with the past in one continuum. Kendall decided to do his paper on Fort Beausejour.

Now I had been talking about all the different ways, times and seasons, in which aerial archaeology could be employed to locate hidden sites. One of the subjects I went on about was the moment of the first snowfall when, softly drifted or blown into intimate features on the ground, the result, if photographed from the air, could provide information more vividly that what the slanting sun could reveal in summer.

On an early December day Kendall rushed into my office on morning, glowing with excitement. We had just had a perfect snowfall, and this was the moment to photograph Fort Beausejour and the land around it. This is a story of how a first-class school can make something truly special happen. We went down to see the Principal, Mr. Moreau, and in less than half an hour Kendall was on his way to Moncton with my camera filled with colour film and money to rent a plane for an hour. All alone, he flew to Beausejour, and while manoeuvring the plane, with one hand, took about a dozen astonishing photographs, the finest of their kind that I have ever seen in my life, of the fort.

The crème de la crème was this one, looking out to Cumberland Basin, and revealing not only the details of the fort and its articulation in the tradition of Vauban, but also features in the slope going down to the Missaguash where Acadians, and those who came after, had disturbed the ground with their projects and constructions.

All is there to be seen through the eyes of a teenage boy who applied his private interests in flying to the research he was conducting in school.

Thus, I finish what I have to say about my time in Acadia, and proudly dedicate this post to an extraordinary student – Kendall Wheaton. Bravo!



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Chevrier, Emile D. and Aitkens, D.F.W., Topographic Map and Air Photo Interpretation, The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, Toronto, 1970.

Deuel, Leo, Flights into Yesterday: The Story of Aerial Archaeology, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1969.

Eastman Kodak Company, Applied Infrared Photography, Kodak Publication No. M-28, Rochester, N. Y., 1968, 1970, 1972.

Gagnon, Hugues, La Photo Aérienne: son Interprétation dans les Etudes de l’Environnement et de l’Aménagement du Territoire, Les Editions HRW Ltée., Montreal, 1974.

Gerster, Georg, The Past from Above: Aerial Photographs of Archaeological Sites, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2005.

Johnston, A.J.B., “Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban: Reflections on His Fame, His Fortifications, and His Influence,” French Colonial History, Vol. 3, Michigan State University press, 2003.

Johnston – Vauban 2003

Lerici, Carlo Maurilio, I Nuovi Metodi di Prospezione Archeologica: Alla Scoperta delle Civiltà Sepolte, Milano, 1960.

McCouat, Philip, “The adventures of Nadar: photography, ballooning, invention and the impressionists”, Journal of Art in Society,, 2016.–the-impressionists.html

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Thomson, Don W., Skyview Canada: A Story of Aerial Photography in Canada, Energy, Mines and Resources Canada, Ottawa, 1975.

Van Zandt, Lieutenant J. Parker, “Looking Down on Europe,” pp. 261-326, The National Geographic Magazine, Vol. XLVII, No. 3, The National Geographic Society, Washington, D. C., March 1925.

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.

Werle, Dirk, “Historical Air Photo Missions in the Maritimes during the Early 1920s: Coverage, Thematic Scope, And Utility 100 Years Later,” Proceedings of The Nova Scotian Institute of Science, Volume 51 Part 1, pp. 145-167, 2021.