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Fort Port Royal

The history of the first fort raised by the French in Acadia illustrates the difficulties which the pioneers of France on this continent had to contend against from the very outset of their perilous experiment of colonization When the adventurers came to Acadia with De Monts the feudal lord of half a contment by virtue of Henry's royal charter there was not a single European settlement from the frozen Pole to the ancient Spanish town of St. Augustine, among the swamps of Florida. When the rock-girt islet of the St. Croix was found altogether unsuitable for their first settlement, the French with one accord sought the lovely basin, surrounded with well-wooded hills and a fertile country abounding with game, which is now known as the basin of the Annapolis, one of the inlets of the Bay of Fundy, so noted for its "tides" and "bores." Two hundred and seventy years ago, the first timbers of the fort were raised on the banks of the Equille, now the Annapolis River, by the command of Baron de Poutrincourt, who was the first seigneur of that domain. The French were enchanted with the scenery and their new settlement. "It was unto us a thing marvelous," says the first historian of America, "to see the fair distance and the largeness of it, and the mountains and hills that environed it, and I wondered how so fair a place did remain desert, being all filled with woods. At the very beginning we were desirous to see the country up the river, where we found meadows almost continually above twelve leagues of ground, among which brooks do run without number, coming from the hills and mountains adjoining. The woods are very thick on the shores of the water."

A chequered history was that of Port Royal from the d: of its foundation. Men who have borne a prominent part in the colonization of this continent were among the first inhabitants. Champlain, the founder of Quebec; De Poutrincourt, the chivalrous, zealous chief of Acadian colonization ; L'Escarbot, the genial, chatty historian, are among the men who throw a bright halo around the history of the first fort. L'Escarbot has left us a pleasing description of the trials and successes of the pioneers, in which we see illustrated all the versatility and vivacity of the French character. When we read his account of the doings of the colonists, we must regret that there has not always been a L'Escarbot in aftertimes to describe the varied incidents of the career of the fort, until the fleur-de-lis was lowered for ever on its bastions. Let us briefly describe three scenes which show the varied features of Acadian the more than two hundred and fifty years ago.

Let us go back, in Imagination, to a winter day in the beginning of the seventeenth century. The hills and valleys of the surrounding country are covered with snow, but the pines and spruce are green as ever. The water is frozen around the shore, but the tides still rush in and out of the spacious basin, and keep it comparatively free from the icy bonds which fetter the rivers and lakes of the interior. On an elevated point of land, near the head of the basin and by the side of a river, we see a small pile of wooden buildings, from whose chimneys rise light columns of smoke in the pure atmosphere, to speak of bounteous cheer and grateful warmth, but a very unpretentious pile of buildings to hold the fortunes of ambitious France on a wilderness continent! A quadrangle of rudely constructed buildings surrounds a courtyard, and comprises the stores, magazines and dwellings of the French. The defenses are palisades, on which several cannon are mounted. Stumps peep up amidst the pure snow, and a log hut here and there tells us of some habitant more adventurous than the others. Above one of the loftiest roofs floats the banner of France.

When we think that these rude works are almost alone in the American wilderness, we can have some conception of the ambition and courage of the French pioneers. If we enter the spacious dining-hall, which is situated in one of the principal buildings of the quadrangle, we find a pleasant and novel scene. A huge fire of maple logs blazes on the large, hospitable hearth, and as the bell gives the summons for the noon-day dinner, we see a procession of some fifteen or six-teen gentlemen march gaily into the hall, and lay a goodly array of platters on the table. At the head is probably Champlain, the steward of the day, according to the rules of "L' Ordre de Bon Temps" with his staff of office in his hand, and the collar of his office around his neck. Each guest bears a dish, perhaps venison, or fish or fowl, which has been provided by the caterer for the day. The faithful Acadian Sachems, old Memberton, and other chiefs and braves, sit squatted before the fire, and nod approvingly as they see this performance repeated day after day. A bounteous feast is enjoyed, and many witty jokes, songs and stories go around the board, for the company numbers men of courtly nurture, heroic daring and scholarly culture, who know well how to console themselves during their banishment to this Acadian wilderness.

The next scene is one often witnessed in the early times of French colonization. Wherever the French adventurer found him-self, he never failed to show his Christian zeal. One of the first acts of Baron de Poutrincourt, after he had established himself at Port Royal, was to have old Memberton and the other Indians admitted within the pale of the Roman Catholic Church. On a fine June day the converts, to the number of twenty-one, assemble on the shore in front of Port Royal, and then follow the religious ceremonies under the directions of Priest La Fleche. The "gentlemen adventurers," the soldiers, the habitans, appear in all their finery. The rites are performed with all the pomp of that Church which, above all others, understands so well how to appeal to the senses of the masses. A Te Deum is sung, and the cannon send forth a volley in honor of the first baptism of the savages of Acadia. The Indians receive the names of the first nobility in France, and are rewarded by presents from the zealous Frenchmen, who were mightily pleased with their religious triumph. Similar scenes were often enacted in later times, at Hochelaga, on the Ottawa, by the western lakes and rivers, and on the border of the Gulf of Mexico.

The next episode is one of gloom and misfortune. On a bright summer's day, in 1613, a ship sailed up the basin, to the astonishment of the habitans who were busy in the fields. Was it the long expected ship from France? Had their friends beyond the seas at last recollected the struggling colony, and sent soldiers and supplies to its assistance? No! The Red Cross of England floated from the masthead of the stranger. The farmers fled to the forest, to warn the Commandant and his soldiers, who were absent on some expedition ; and the fort became an easy prey to Captain Samuel Argall, a rough sea-captain, authorized to destroy the French settlement by Sir Thomas Dale, the Governor of Virginia, then rising into importance as the first English plantation on this continent.

When Argall destroyed Port Royal, both France and England were fairly entering upon the contest for supremacy in the New World. Port Royal again rose from its ashes, but its history thenceforth affords few episodes of interest except sieges; for a L'Escarbot never again lived within its wails, to enliven its inmates and hand down to future times the story of its adventurous career. The fleur-de-lis or the Red Cross floated from the fort, according as the French or the English were the victors in the long struggle that ensued for the possession of Acadia. In 1710 the English colonies, which had suffered much from the depredations of the French, sent an expedition against Port Royal, under the command of Francis Nicholson, who had been Governor of several of the Provinces. The French Governor, M. Subercase, endeavored to defend the fort, but his garrison was in a very pitiable condition, and unable to with-stand the attacks of the besiegers for any length of time; consequently he capitulated towards the latter part of October. The fort had been considerably strengthened, and was on a much larger scale than the one erected by De Poutrincourt, but, nevertheless, Port Royal was only an insignificant port compared with Quebec or Louisbourg. Considerable settlements, during the past century, had grown up in the vicinity of the fort, and throughout the rich country watered by the streams that flow into the Bay of Fundy. The details of the surrender prove the neglect with which the French Government treated Port Royal in common with all other posts in America. Not only was the fort in a dilapidated state, but the garrison, some 250 men, were delabr'es, all in rags and tatters, and emaciated from hunger. From that day Port Royal remained in the possession of the English, and Acadia may be said to have passed away forever from the French, who had so long gallantly struggled to retain it. The name of Port Royal was changed to that of Annapolis, in honour of the Queen of England. For many years it was the Seat of the Government of Nova Scotia, until Halifax was founded towards the middle of the eighteenth century. Then the oldest town in America excepting of course St. Augustine was consigned to obscurity, and was only remembered by the historical antiquary. It is needless to say the people of Annapolis are proud of two facts that they have an historical past, and that General Williams, of Kars, was born within their quiet precincts. Railways now run into the town, but still the verdure of antiquity clings to the place, and the old folks will rather take you to some relic of the past than talk of the locomotive which snorts and puffs as if in derision of old times. Relics of the French occupation have more than once been dug up by the plough during the past quarter of a century in the vicinity of the town. The "Old Mortality" of the settlement will tell you of a large stone, marked in deep rude Arabic figures, 1604, and also showing; masonic emblems roughly chiselled. Like-other interesting memorials picked up in Nova Scotia, this stone disappeared, and its whereabouts is not now known. None or the old French buildings remain standing in Annapolis, but we can still see the evidences of French occupation in the remains of the fort, which was long occupied as a barrack for the British troops. The tourist, who has antiquarian tastes and is a true lover of nature, will find himself well rewarded by a trip from Windsor through the fertile valleys of Kings and Annapolis. Here he will see gardens, and meadows, and orchards not surpassed by the Niagara district or the most fertile portion of Ontario. Here is the country first reclaimed from the sea by the old Acadian farmers, and yielding a most productive crop from year to year. In the Township of Clare, and other parts of the western counties, we meet with the descendants of the Acadians, a sleepy, thrifty, and religious people, clinging obstinately to old customs, but nevertheless rapidly merging with the more energetic Saxon element, which presses upon them from all directions, and forces them out of their isolation. 

Additional Reading


The Old Forts of Acadia, By J. G. Bourinot, The Canadian Monthly, and National Review, Vol. 5, May 1874


Old Forts of Acadia

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