Canadian Genealogy | Chronicles of Canada


Canadian Research


British Columbia


New Brunswick


Northern Territories

Nova Scotia



Prince Edward Island




Canadian Indian Tribes

Chronicles of Canada


Free Genealogy Forms
Family Tree Chart
Research Calendar
Research Extract
Free Census Forms
Correspondence Record
Family Group Chart
Source Summary


New Genealogy Data
Family Tree Search

Genealogy Books For Sale

Indian Mythology

US Genealogy


Other Websites
British Isles Genealogy
Australian Genealogy


FREE Web Site Hosting at
Canadian Genealogy





Louisbourg was no mere isolated stronghold which could be lost or won without affecting the wider issues of oversea dominion. On the contrary, it was a necessary link in the chain of waterside posts which connected France with America by way of the Atlantic, the St Lawrence, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi. But since the chain itself and all its other links, and even the peculiar relation of Louisbourg to the Acadians and the Conquest, have been fully described elsewhere in the Chronicles of Canada, the present volume only tries to tell the purely individual tale. Strange to say, this tale seems never to have been told before; at least, not as one continuous whole. Of course, each siege has been described, over and over again, in many special monographs as well as in countless books about Canadian history. But nobody seems to have written any separate work on Louisbourg showing causes, crises, and results, all together, in the light of the complete naval and military proof. So perhaps the following short account may really be the first attempt to tell the tale of Louisbourg from the foundation to the fall.

W. W.
59 Grande Allee, Quebec, 2nd January 1915.

The Last Sea Link With France 1720-1744

The fortress of Louisbourg arose not from victory but from defeat; not from military strength but from naval weakness; not from a new, adventurous spirit of attack, but from a half-despairing hope of keeping one last foothold by the sea. It was not begun till after the fortunes of Louis XIV had reached their lowest ebb at the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. It lived a precarious life of only forty years, from 1720 to 1760. And nothing but bare ruins were left to mark its grave when it finally passed, unheeded and unnamed, into the vast dominions of the conquering British at the Peace of Paris in 1763.

The Treaty of Utrecht narrowed the whole French sea-coast of America down to the single island of Cape Breton. Here, after seven years of official hesitation and maritime exhaustion, Louisbourg was founded to guard the only harbor the French thought they had a chance of holding. A medal was struck to celebrate this last attempt to keep the one remaining seaway open between Old France and New. Its legend ran thus: Ludovicoburgum Fundatum et Munitum, M.DCC.XX ('Louisbourg Founded and Fortified, 1720'). Its obverse bore the profile of the young Louis XV, whose statesmen hoped they had now established a French Gibraltar in America, where French fleets and forts would command the straits leading into the St Lawrence and threaten the coast of New England, in much the same way as British fleets and forts commanded the entrance to the Mediterranean and threatened the coasts of France and Spain. This hope seemed flattering enough in time of peace; but it vanished at each recurrent shock of war, because the Atlantic then became a hostile desert for the French, while it still remained a friendly highway for the British.

The first French settlers in Louisbourg came over from Newfoundland, which had been given up to the British by the treaty. The fishermen of various nations had frequented different ports all round these shores for centuries; and, by the irony of fate, the new French capital of Cape Breton was founded at the entrance to the bay which had long been known as English Harbor. Everything that rechristening could do, however, was done to make Cape Breton French. Not only was English Harbor now called Louisbourg, but St Peter's became Port Toulouse, St Anne's became Port Dauphin, and the whole island itself was solemnly christened Ile Royale.

The shores of the St Lawrence up to Quebec and Montreal were as entirely French as the islands in the Gulf. But Acadia, which used to form the connection by land between Cape Breton and Canada, had now become a British possession inhabited by the so-called 'neutral French.' These Acadians, few in numbers and quite unorganized, were drawn in opposite directions, on the one hand by their French proclivities, on the other by their rooted affection for their own farms. Unlike the French Newfoundlanders, who came in a body from Plaisance (now Placentia), the Acadians preferred to stay at home. In 1717 an effort was made to bring some of them into Louisbourg. But it only succeeded in attracting the merest handful. On the whole, the French authorities preferred leaving the Acadians as they were, in case a change in the fortunes of war might bring them once more under the fleurs-de-lis, when the connection by land between Quebec and the sea would again be complete. A plan for promoting the immigration of the Irish Roman Catholics living near Cape Breton never got beyond the stage of official memoranda. Thus the population of the new capital consisted only of government employees, French fishermen from Newfoundland and other neighboring places, waifs and strays from points farther off, bounty-fed engages from France, and a swarm of camp-following traders. The regular garrison was always somewhat of a class apart.

The French in Cape Breton needed all the artificial aid they could get from guns and forts. Even in Canada there was only a handful of French, all told, at the time of the Treaty of Utrecht--twenty-five thousand; while the British colonists in North America numbered fifteen times as many. The respective populations had trebled by the time of the Cession of Canada to the British fifty years later, but with a tendency for the vast British preponderance to increase still more. Canada naturally had neither men nor money to spare for Louisbourg; so the whole cost of building the fortress, thirty million livres, came direct from France. This sum was then the equivalent, in purchasing power, of at least as many dollars now, though the old French livre was only rated at the contemporary value of twenty cents. But the original plans were never carried out; moreover, not half the money that actually was spent ever reached the military chest at all. There were too many thievish fingers by the way.

The French were not a colonizing people, their governing officials hated a tour of duty oversea, and Louisbourg was the most unpopular of all the stations in the service. Those Frenchmen who did care for outlandish places went east to India or west to Canada. Nobody wanted to go to a small, dull, out-of-the-way garrison town like Louisbourg, where there was no social life whatever--nothing but fishermen, smugglers, petty traders, a discontented garrison, generally half composed of foreigners, and a band of dishonest, second-rate officials, whose one idea was how to get rich and get home. The inspectors who were sent out either failed in their duty and joined the official gang of thieves, or else resigned in disgust. Worse still, because this taint was at the very source, the royal government in France was already beset with that entanglement of weakness and corruption which lasted throughout the whole century between the decline of Louis XIV and the meteoric rise of Napoleon.

The founders of Louisbourg took their time to build it. It was so very profitable to spin the work out as long as possible. The plan of the fortress was good. It was modeled after the plans of Vauban, who had been the greatest engineer in the greatest European army of the previous generation. But the actual execution was hampered, at every turn, by want of firmness at headquarters and want of honest labor on the spot. Sea sand was plentiful, worthless, and cheap. So it was used for the mortar, with most disastrous results. The stone was hewn from a quarry of porphyritic trap near by and used for the walls in the rough. Cut stone and good bricks were brought out from France as ballast by the fishing fleet. Some of these finer materials were built into the governor's and the intendant's quarters. Others were sold to New England traders and replaced by inferior substitutes.

Of course, direct trade between the opposing colonies was strictly forbidden by both the French and British navigation acts. But the Louisbourg officials winked at anything that would enrich them quickly, while the New Englanders pushed in eagerly wherever a profit could be made by any means at all. Louisbourg was intended to be the general rendezvous of the transatlantic French fishing vessels; a great port of call between France, Canada, and the French West Indies; and a harbor of refuge in peace and war. But the New England shipping was doing the best trade at Louisbourg, and doing it in double contraband, within five years of the foundation. Cod caught by Frenchmen from Louisbourg itself, French wines and brandy brought out from France, tobacco and sugar brought north from the French West Indies, all offered excellent chances to enterprising Yankees, who came in with foodstuffs and building materials of their own. One vessel sailed for New York with a cargo of claret and brandy that netted her owners a profit of a hundred per cent, even after paying the usual charges demanded by the French custom-house officials for what really was a smuggler's license.

Fishing, smuggling, and theft were the three great industries of Louisbourg. The traders shared the profits of the smuggling. But the intendant and his officials kept most of the choice thieving for themselves.

The genuine settlers--and a starveling crew they were--wrested their debt-laden livelihood from the local fishing. This was by no means bad in itself. But, like other fishermen before and since, they were in perpetual bondage to the traders, who took good care not to let accounts get evened up. A happier class of fishermen made up the engages, who were paid by government to 'play settler' for a term of years, during which they helped to swell the official census of uncongenial Louisbourg. The regular French fishing fleet of course returned to France at the end of every season, and thus enjoyed a full spell of French delights on shore.

The Acadians supplied Louisbourg with meat and vegetables. These were brought in by sea; for there were no roads worth mentioning; nor, in the contemporary state of Cape Breton, was there any need for roads. The farmers were few, widely scattered, and mostly very poor. The only prosperous settlement within a long day's march was situated on the beautiful Mira river. James Gibson, a Boston merchant and militiaman, who served against Louisbourg in 1745, was much taken by the appearance of an establishment 'at the mouth of a large salmon fishery,' by one 'very handsome house, with two large barns, two large gardens, and fine fields of corn,' and by another with 'six rooms on a floor and well furnished.' He adds that 'in one of the barns were fifteen loads of hay, and room sufficient for sixty horses and cattle.' In 1753 the intendant sent home a report about a proposed 'German' settlement near the 'Grand Lake of Mira.' A new experiment was then being tried, the importation of settlers from Alsace-Lorraine. But five years afterwards Cape Breton had been lost to France for ever.

The fact is that the French never really colonized Cape Breton at large, and Louisbourg least of all. They knew the magnificent possibilities of Sydney harbor, but its mere extent prevented their attempting to make use of it. They saw that the whole island was a maritime paradise, with seaports in its very heart as well as round its shores. But they were a race of gallant, industrious landsmen at home, with neither the wish nor the aptitude for a nautical life abroad. They could not have failed to see that there was plenty of timber in some parts of the island, and that the soil was fit to bear good crops of grain in others. A little prospecting would also have shown them iron, coal, and gypsum. But their official parasites did not want to see smuggling and peculation replaced by industry and trade. Nothing, indeed, better proves how little they thought of making Ile Royale a genuine colony than their utter failure to exploit any one of its teeming natural resources in forest, field, or mine.

What the French did with extraneous resources and artificial aids in the town of Louisbourg is more to the purpose in hand. The problem of their position, and of its strength and weakness in the coming clash of arms, depended on six naval, military, and governmental factors, each one of which must be considered before the whole can be appreciated. These six factors were--the government, the garrison, the militia, the Indians, the navy, and the fortress.

Get rich and go home. The English-speaking peoples, whose ancestors once went to England as oversea emigrants, and two-thirds of whom are now themselves the scions of successive migrations across the Seven Seas, cannot understand how intensely the general run of French officials detested colonial service, especially in a place like Louisbourg, which was everything the average Frenchman hated most. This British failure to understand a national trait, which is still as strongly marked as ever, accounts for a good deal of the exaggerated belief in the strength of the French position in America. The British Americans who tried to think out plans of conquest were wont to under-estimate their own unorganized resources and to over-estimate the organized resources of the French, especially when they set their minds on Louisbourg.

The British also entertained the erroneous idea that 'the whole country was under one command.' This was the very thing it was not. The French system was the autocratic one without the local autocrat; for the functions of the governor and the intendant overlapped each other, and all disputes had to be referred to Quebec, where the functions of another governor and another intendant also overlapped each other. If no decision could be reached at Quebec, and the question at issue was one of sufficient importance, the now double imbroglio would be referred to the Supreme Council in France, which would write back to Quebec, whence the decision would be forwarded to Louisbourg, where it would arrive months after many other troubles had grown out of the original dispute.

The system was false from the start, because the overlapping was intentional. The idea was to prevent any one man from becoming too strong and too independent. The result was to keep governors and intendants at perpetual loggerheads and to divide every station into opposing parties. Did the governor want money and material for the fortifications? Then the intendant was sure the military chest, which was in his own charge, could not afford it. The governor might sometimes gain his ends by giving a definite emergency order under his hand and seal. But, if the emergency could not be proved, this laid him open to great risks from the intendant's subsequent recriminations before the Superior Council in Quebec or the Supreme Council in France. The only way such a system could be worked at all was either by corrupt collusion or by superhuman co-operation between the two conflicting parties, or by appointing a man of genius who could make every other official discharge his proper duties and no more. Corrupt collusion was not very common, because the governors were mostly naval or military men, and the naval and military men were generally honest. Co-operation was impossible between two merely average men; and no genius was ever sent to such a place as Louisbourg. The ablest man in either of the principal posts was the notorious intendant Bigot, who began here on a small scale the consummate schemes that proved so disastrously successful at Quebec. Get rich and go home.

The minor governmental life of Louisbourg was of a piece with the major. There were four or five lesser members of the Superior Council, which also had jurisdiction over Ile St Jean, as Prince Edward Island was then called. The lucrative chances of the custom-house were at the mercy of four under-paid officials grandiloquently called a Court of Admiralty. An inferior court known as the bailiwick tried ordinary civil suits and breaches of the peace. This bailiwick also offered what might be euphemistically called 'business opportunities' to enterprising members. True, there was no police to execute its decrees; and at one time a punctilious resident complained that 'there was not even a common hangman, nor a jail, nor even a tormentor to rack the criminals or inflict other appropriate tortures.' But appeals took a long time and cost much money; so even the officials of the bailiwick could pick up a living by threats of the law's delay, on the one hand, and promises of perverted local justice, on the other. That there was money to be made, in spite of the meager salaries, is proved by the fact that the best journeyman wig-maker in Louisbourg 'grew extremely rich in different branches of commerce, especially in the contraband,' after filling the dual position of judge of the admiralty and judge of the bailiwick, both to the apparent satisfaction of his friend the intendant.

The next factor was the garrison of regulars. This was under the direct command of the king's lieutenant, who took his orders from the governor. The troops liked Louisbourg no better than the officials did. True, there were taverns in plenty: even before Louisbourg was officially founded they had become such a thriving nuisance that orders for their better control had been sent out from France. But there was no other place for the ordinary soldier to go to in his spare time. The officers felt the want of a larger outlook even more than the men did; and neither man nor officer ever went to Louisbourg if he could help it. When Montcalm, the greatest Frenchman the New World ever saw, came out to Canada, there was eager competition among the troops at home to join his army in the field. Officers paid large sums for the honor of exchanging into any one of the battalions ordered to the front; and when volunteers were called for from the ranks every single man stepped forward. But no Montcalm came out to Louisbourg, and nothing but bounties could get a volunteer. There were only between five and six hundred regulars in the whole garrison during the first siege, twenty-five years after the foundation, and nearly half of these were foreigners, mostly 'pay-fighting Swiss.'

The third factor was the militia. Every able-bodied man, not specially exempt for other duties, was liable for service in time of war; and the whole island could be drawn upon for any great emergency at Louisbourg. Between thirteen and fourteen hundred men were got under arms for the siege of 1745. Those who lived in Louisbourg had the advantage of a little slack discipline and a little slack drill. Those in the country had some practice in the handling of firearms. But, taken all round, it would be an exaggeration to call them even quarter-trained soldiers.

The fourth factor was the Indians. They belonged to the Micmac tribe of the great Algonquin family, and probably numbered no more than about four thousand throughout the whole French sphere of influence in what are now the Maritime Provinces. A few hundred braves might have been ready to take the war-path in the wilds of Cape Breton; but sieges were not at all in their line, except when they could hang round the besiegers' inland flanks, on the chance of lifting scalps from careless stragglers or ambushing an occasional small party gone astray. As in Canada, so in Cape Breton, the Indians naturally sided with the French, who disturbed them less and treated them better than the British did. The British, who enjoyed the inestimable advantage of superior sea-power, had more goods to exchange. But in every other respect the French were very much preferred. The handful of French sent out an astonishingly great number of heroic and sympathetic missionaries to the natives. The many British sent out astonishingly few. The Puritan clergy did shamefully little compared with the wonderful Jesuits. Moreover, while the French in general made the Indian feel he was at all events a fellow human being, the average British colonist simply looked on him as so much vermin, to be destroyed together with the obstructive wilds that harbored him.

The fifth factor, the navy, brings us into contact with world-wide problems of sea-power which are too far-reaching for discussion here1 Suffice it to say that, while Louisbourg was an occasional convenience, it had also peculiar dangers for a squadron from the weaker of two hostile navies, as squadrons from France were likely to be. The British could make for a dozen different harbors on the coast. The French could make for only this one. Therefore the British had only to guard against this one stronghold if the French were in superior force; they could the more easily blockade it if the French were in equal force; and they could the more easily annihilate it if it was defended by an inferior force.

The last factor was the fortress itself. This so-called 'Gibraltar of the West,' this 'Quebec by the sea,' this 'Dunkirk of New France,' was certainly first of its kind. But it was first only in a class of one; while the class itself was far from being a first among classes. The natural position was vastly inferior to that of Quebec or Gibraltar; while the fortifications were not to be compared with those of Dunkirk, which, in one sense, they were meant to replace. Dunkirk had been sold by Charles II to Louis XIV, who made it a formidable naval base commanding the straits of Dover. When the Treaty of Utrecht compelled its demolition, the French tried to redress the balance a little by building similar works in America on a very much smaller scale, with a much more purely defensive purpose, and as an altogether subsidiary undertaking. Dunkirk was 'a pistol held at England's head' because it was an integral part of France, which was the greatest military country in the world and second to England alone on the sea. Louisbourg was no American Dunkirk because it was much weaker in itself, because it was more purely defensive, because the odds of population and general resources as between the two colonies were fifteen to one in favor of the British, and because the preponderance of British sea-power was even greater in America than it was in Europe.

The harbor of Louisbourg ran about two miles north-east and south-west, with a clear average width of half a mile. The two little peninsulas on either side of the entrance were nearly a mile apart. But the actual fairway of the entrance was narrowed to little more than a clear quarter of a mile by the reefs and islands running out from the south-western peninsula, on which the fortress stood. This low, nubbly tongue of land was roughly triangular. It measured about three-quarters of a mile on its longest side, facing the harbor, over half a mile on the land side, facing the enemy's army, and a good deal under half a mile on the side facing the sea. It had little to fear from naval bombardment so long as the enemy's fleet remained outside, because fogs and storms made it a very dangerous lee shore, and because, then as now, ships would not pit themselves against forts unless there was no rival fleet to fight, and unless other circumstances were unusually propitious.

The entrance was defended by the Island Battery, which flanked the approach with thirty-nine guns, and the Royal Battery, which directly faced it with thirty guns. Some temporary lines with a few more guns were prepared in time of danger to prevent the enemy from landing in Gabarus Bay, which ran for miles south-west of Louisbourg. But the garrison, even with the militia, was never strong enough to keep the enemy at arm's length from any one of these positions. Moreover, the north-east peninsula, where the lighthouse stood, commanded the Island Battery; and the land side of Louisbourg itself was commanded by a range of low hillocks less than half a mile away.

It was this land side, containing the citadel and other works, which so impressed outsiders with the idea of impregnable strength. The glacis was perfect--not an inch of cover wherever you looked; and the approach was mostly across a slimy bog. The ditch was eighty feet wide. The walls rose over thirty feet above the ditch. There were embrasures for one hundred and forty-eight guns all round; though not more than ninety were ever actually mounted. On the seaward face Louisbourg was not so strongly fortified; but in the centre of this face there were a deep ditch and high wall, with bastions on each immediate flank, and lighter defenses connecting these with the landward face. A dozen streets were laid out, so as to divide the whole town into conveniently square little blocks. The area of the town itself was not much more than a hundred acres altogether--rather close quarters for several thousand men, women, and children during a siege.

If reports and memoranda could defend a fortress, then Louisbourg ought indeed to have been impregnable. Of course every official trust entails endless correspondence. But, quite apart from the stated returns that go through 'the usual channel of communication,' reams and reams of paper were filled with special reports, inspections, complaints, and good advice. The governor wrote home, most elaborately, in 1724, about the progress of the works. Ten years later he announced the official inauguration of the lighthouse on the 1st of April. In 1736 the chief item was the engineer's report on the walls. Next year the great anxiety was about a dangerous famine, with all its attendant distress for the many and its shameless profits for the few. On November 23, 1744, reinforcements and provisions were asked for, because intelligence had been received that the New Englanders were going to blockade Louisbourg the following summer. At the same time, the discontent of the garrison had come to a head, and a mutiny had broken out because the extra working pay had not been forthcoming. After this the discipline became, not sterner, but slacker than ever, especially among the hireling Swiss. On February 8, 1745, within three months of the first siege, a memorandum was sent in to explain what was still required to finish the works begun twenty-five years before.

But, after all, it was not so much the defective works that really mattered as the defective garrison behind them. English-speaking civilians who have written about Louisbourg have sometimes taken partial account of the ordinary Frenchman's repugnance to oversea duty in time of peace and of the little worth of hireling foreigners in time of war. But they have always ignored that steady drip, drip, drip of deterioration which reduces the efficiency of every garrison condemned to service in remote and thoroughly uncongenial countries. Louisbourg was remote, weeks away from exchanges with Quebec, months from exchanges with any part of France or Switzerland. And what other foreign station could have been more thoroughly uncongenial, except, perhaps, a convict station in the tropics? Bad quarters were endurable in Paris or even in the provinces, where five minutes' walk would take one into something pleasanter. Bad fortifications would inspire less apprehension anywhere in France, where there was at least an army always ready to take the field. But cold, cramped quarters in foggy little Louisbourg, between the estranging sea and an uncouth land of rock, bog, sand, and scrubby vegetation, made all the world of difference in the soldier's eyes. Add to this his want of faith in works which he saw being scamped by rascally contractors, and we can begin to understand why the general attitude of town and garrison alike was one of 'Here to-day and gone to-morrow.'

1 See in this Series The Winning of Canada and The Passing of New France, where they are discussed.]

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, The Great Fortress, A Chronicle of Louisbourg 1720-1760, 1915


Chronicles of Canada

Add/Correct a Link

Comments/Submit Data

Copyright 2002-2024 by Canadian Genealogy
The WebPages may be linked to but shall not be reproduced on another site without written permission.