Today one can stand on the grassy slopes covering the ramparts of old Fort Ann, at Annapolis Royal, and look out beyond the mouth of the Annapolis River to a widening tidal basin. The Annapolis basin is in the shape of a stubby carrot thirteen miles long and four miles at its widest; and off from its northwestern shoulder, tides of sea water ebb and flow through a narrow two mile cut, Digby Gut, a portal through the North Mountain range to the Bay of Fundy, one of the largest bays of the Atlantic ocean. The North Mountain range forms a backbone on which, it seems, the larger peninsula of Nova Scotia hangs. The cold north winds meet this sweeping range and are veered up, sheltering the southeastern valley beyond. This ensconcing hump of land extends itself northeastward, covering the continuing valley below, until it dazzlingly drops itself off from the precipitous purple heads of Cape Blomidon, down, out of sight, through the jeweled shores of the Minas Channel. This capturing hollow, the Annapolis Valley, is filled with something not much of which is to be found in the rocky northeast coast of the Atlantic, sweet alluvial soil. Meandering along its hundred mile length, and splitting its ten mile width, are its two main rivers, the one flowing southwest, the other northeast: the Annapolis and the Cornwallis. Standing there today on the grassy slopes of the mouth of the Annapolis River, with the full length of the fertile valley behind, one can imagine a small wooden ship, having passed through the gateway of Digby Gut into the calm expanse of the Annapolis Basin. Let us go back to 1604 and see the sight: a small sailing vessel ghosting along this amphitheater of woody hills, to slowly come up to a spot, not far off, just west of the present day ramparts of Old Fort Ann; to a place back then which was but a head of land marking where the fresh water coming west intermingles with the salt water of the Atlantic. Here we see our intrepid French explorers, led by de Monts, looking over the rails of their small boat at, what appears to be, unoccupied land; here, they see a place much to their liking. A year later, there on the northern shore of the Annapolis Basin, tucked under the North Mountain range, this group of Frenchmen were to establish one of the first1 permanent European settlements in North America.
Given that there was a sufficient attraction to come to the general area, that present day area of eastern Canada, it is easy, for one with some climactic and geological knowledge of the area, to see why the site of Port Royal was specifically picked for the first settlement. The attraction for the French in 1604, one that has driven all people in every age, was commercial. By the beginning of the 1600s it was appreciated that America was quite separate from the spice lands to be found in the orient; only as the years unfolded did these European seamen come to realize how extensive a block America was to be. Only with a thorough acquaintance of the Americas would the western route to the orient be found. This increasing knowledge brought about a corresponding increase in the awareness of the richness of the Americas, as the Spanish demonstrated during the 16th century. In the south, it was gold and silver;2 in the north, it was to be food and clothing: fish from the northwestern Atlantic and the pelts of the northern fur bearing animals. The French, having established themselves at Port Royal, Samuel de Champlain among them, had a pretty good hunch that the St. John River, just across the Bay, would be a wilderness highway down which the Indians might come in the interests of trade with their canoes full of animal pelts.3
With the founding of Port Royal, the French had staked out their lands in Acadia by right of possession. The French were not the only European country attempting to colonized North America; the English were there too. It was, as we will see, a struggle for these new European arrivals; it was, for them, a strange land occupied in part by strange people; the elements were severe; and they were far from home. They brought with them their old habits, and, unfortunately, their old prejudices.
"The position of the wretched little colony [Port Royal] may well provoke reflection. Here lay the shaggy continent, from Florida to the Pole, outstretched in savage slumber along the sea, the stern domain of Nature, - or, to adopt the ready solution of the Jesuits, a realm of the powers of night, blasted beneath the sceptre of hell. On the banks of James River was a nest of woe-begone Englishmen, a handful of Dutch fur-traders at the mouth of the Hudson, and a few shivering Frenchmen among the snow-drifts of Acadian; while deep within the wild monotony of desolation, on the icy verge of the great northern river, the hand of Champlain upheld the fleur-de-lis on the rock of Quebec. These were the advance guard, the forlorn hope of civilization, messengers of promise to a desert continent. Yet, unconscious of their high function, not content with inevitable woes, they were rent by petty jealousies and miserable feuds; while each of these detached fragments of rival nationalities, scarcely able to maintain its own wretched existence on a new square miles, begrudged to the others the smallest share in a domain which all the nations of Europe could hardly have sufficed to fill." (Parkman, Champlain and his Associates, Ch. VI.)On December 18th, 1603, royal letters patent was received by Monsieur de Monts, whereby de Monts was given "rights" to territory between 40° (on a line which today sits Philadelphia) and 46° (on a line which is just north of peninsular Nova Scotia). On March 7th, 1604, de Monts sailed from Le Have, France, in "two vessels, one of 120 and the other of 150 tons"4; on board were 120 men. After a voyage of one month's duration5 these two ocean-going sailing vessels made landfall; the smaller of the two at Canso,6 and the other, with the leaders aboard, came to shore some 160 miles south of Canso at Cape Lahave. De Monts cautiously made his way down this foreign coast a further 40 miles or so, until they reached Port Mouton7 where their ocean-going sailing vessel was put at anchor. It seems that de Monts was very conscious of what it would mean if he and his explorers should be shipwrecked on this foreign shore, so, the vessel was to stay in the Port Mouton area for about a month while Champlain8 and Jean Ralluau9 (de Monts' secretary) were sent further down the coast with a view to locating an appropriate place at which the explorers might set up their quarters on land. They were concerned about the natives (though as things turned out they had nothing to be too much worried about, at least not of the natives of Nova Scotia); thus, they thought it necessary to find a position which might be easily defended.
Leaving de Monts, together with the larger part of the expedition behind, Champlain and Ralleau together with a crew of about ten, to man the longboat, set out westward. Eventually rounding the end of the large peninsula we know today as Nova Scotia, they came up around its back-end, northeast, and they were soon caught up in a bay, which they named Baie Sainte Marie (today, St. Mary's Bay). It would not appear that Champlain and Ralleau went much further, but rather, returned to the mother ship to report to de Monts.
Now, shortly after de Monts first arrived on the coast of Acadia, he discovered another French vessel on the coast illegally engaged in trading with the natives. This vessel was the Levrette, either owned or captained (could be both) by a Jean Rossignol. The Levrette and her cargo of pelts were seized by de Monts, and she and her crew were brought under the command of de Monts.10
Having received Champlain's report, de Mont determined to relocate. The de Monts' ship and the Levrette went in company to St. Mary's Bay, and both were put at anchor (I suspect at Weymouth). De Mont, leaving most all of his men behind,11 now joined Champlain in the long boat and explorations continued.12 They found their way out of St. Mary's Bay likely proceeding through the gut at Tiverton and into a much larger bay they called "Baie Francaise" (Bay of Fundy), whose limits were not determinable upon entry. They sailed northeast keeping the land to their right; when, after 30 miles or so, another gut made its presence known, a narrow entrance which can only be discovered when it is more or less directly abeam. Taking an abrupt turn to the right, this small group of Frenchman of about a dozen sailed through this narrow passage with its high ridges left and right and into a revealed and beautiful basin which opened to their left: they named the entire area, Port Royal.13 This was to be de Monts' first sight of the place at which eventually he was to settle; it was14 during the month of June, 1604: June, a time when freshness and beauty reigns in Acadia.
The beauty and safety of Port Royal -- to be called Annapolis Basin by the English many years later -- plainly registered on de Monts' mind. He did not, however, on this first visit, spend much time at the place as he was determined to continue with his explorations and wanted to do so before the good seasonal weather ended.15 Back out through the gut they went and into the broad expanse of the Bay of Fundy; or as they named it, Baie Francaise. They sailed up to the head of the bay and then south along the coast of present day New Brunswick arriving at the mouth of the St. John River on June 24th, 1604.
These dozen men were obviously more concerned about making winter quarters for themselves than to spend too much time on exploration. They quickly departed the mouth of the Saint John, dismissing it as a candidate, likely because its mouth can be treacherous when the tide is flowing. This little intrepid group of Frenchman in their little wooden sail boat carried on down the coast of present day New Brunswick; until they reached, on June 26th, Passamaquoddy Bay. It naturally drew them in, through the islands and up the St. Croix River until they reached a small island which we know today as Dochet Island; it was here they determined that they would fix their winter quarters. This island, which they named Ile Sainte Croix (the island of the Holy Cross) - now long deserted and sitting lonely in the middle of the St. Croix River - is situated not far up from the mouth of the river, a river which today forms part of the Canadian (New Brunswick) and American (Maine State) border.
Having made their decision, they dispatched the long boat to St. Mary's Bay with instructions to move the larger vessels, the men and the supplies to St. Croix. De Monts, Champlain and a couple of men were left behind to consider the defences of the chosen site. And so, the two larger vessels were soon riding in the river alongside St. Croix Island, and these brave Frenchmen turned to the necessary construction of their first home on the continent, and it was no mean establishment. There on St. Croix, they built an oven building, a blacksmith shop, as well a little chapel and a cemetery (which, by the spring, as it turned out, was to contain a number of them).16
"The snow first fell as early as the 6th of October and came in such profusion that it was from three to four feet deep as late as the end of April. On the 3d of December ice was floating in the river, and it later increased to such an extent that it became difficult and dangerous, and even at times impossible, to leave the island. The cold was extreme in its severity and duration, to such a degree that, as Champlain says, 'all our liquors froze, except the Spanish wine. Cider was dispensed by the pound.' ... The food was mostly salt and nourished them badly... As a result of such conditions some of the men fell ill, then others and yet others, until there developed among them that disease most dreaded of all by those wintering in cold countries, the scurvy, which soon got so far beyond control that of the seventy-nine men composing the company, fifty-nine were afflicted with the disease and thirty-four miserably perished." (Ganong, p. xviii.)17
After pointing out that around "our habitation there is at low tide a large number of shell fish, such as cockles, mussels, sea-urchins and sea-snails, which were a great boon to all"; Champlain continues to write of his impressions on his first winter in Acadia:
"As they crowded round their half-fed fires, shivering in the icy currents that pierced their rude tenements, many sank into a desperate apathy. ... Soon scurvy broke out, and raged with a fearful malignity. Of the seventy-nine, thirty-five died before spring, and many more were brought to the verge of death." (Parkman, Vol. 2, p. 257.)
"During the winter, many of our company were attached by a certain malady called the mal de la terre; otherwise scurvy, as I have since heard from learned men. There were produced in the mouths of those who had it, great pieces of superfluous and drivelling flesh (causing extensive putrefaction), which got the upper hand to such an extent that scarcely anything but liquid could be taken. Their teeth became very loose, and could be pulled out with the fingers without its causing them pain. The superfluous flesh was often cut out, which caused them to eject much blood through the mouth. Afterwards a violent pain seized their arms and legs, which remained swollen and very hard, all spotted as if with flea bites; and they could not walk on account of the contraction of the muscles so that they were almost without strength and suffered intolerable pains. They experienced pain also in the loins, stomach and bowels, had a very bad cough and short breath. In a word, they were in such a condition that the majority of them could not rise nor move and could not even be raised up on their feet without falling down in a swoon. So that out of seventy-nine, who composed our party, thirty-five died, and more than twenty were on the point of death. The majority of those who remained well also complained of slight pains and short breath. We were unable to find any remedy for these maladies. A post-mortem examination was made of several to investigate the cause of their malady. ...
The spring (1605) brought considerable relief to those that
had wintered over at St. Croix. With the churned up ice now
gone from around their island holdout, water, food and fuel
become obtainable. With the freshness of the new season, the
physical strength of these first Frenchmen soon returned; and,
so too, their spirits when Pontgrave appeared coming up the river in a shallop (small boat) on June 15th.18 (Champlain reported
that Pontgrave had anchored his sea-going vessel 18 miles away
from the settlement.) I should note that Pontgrave, together with
Ralleau had been sent back with the returning vessels the previous
autumn; and, now, they had returned with supplies and 40 fresh
men. Having just spent such a dreadful winter - it should not be
surprising to learn - de Monts determined to move the colony.
Champlain tells us of this decision:
Those who continued sick were healed by Spring, which commenced in this country in May. That led us to believe that the change of season restored their health, rather than the remedies prescribed. ...
It would be very difficult to ascertain the character of this region without spending a winter in it; for, on arriving here in the summer, everything is very agreeable, in consequence of the woods, fine country, and many varieties of good fish are found here. There are six months of winter in this country" (As quoted by Ganong, pp. 51-3.)
"Sieur de Monts determined to change his location, and make another settlement, in order to avoid the severe cold and the bad winter which we had in the Island of Ste. Croix. As we had not up to that time found any suitable harbour, and in view of the short time we had for building houses in which to establish ourselves, we fitted out two barques, and loaded them with the framework taken from the houses at St. Croix, in order to transport it to Port Royal, twenty-five leagues distant, where we thought the climate was much more temperate and agreeable. Pontgrave and I set out for that place; and, having arrived, we looked for a site favourable for our residence, under shelter from the northwest wind, which we dreaded, having been very much harassed by it." (As quoted by Ganong, p. xviii.)In September of 1604, before they experienced their miserable winter on the St. Croix, Champlain had sailed further down the coast of the present day State of Maine. They were proceeding into territory which was known to French fishermen and traders as Norembega, a fabled country19; but, apparently, Champlain did not get much further in his coasting explorations than that of Mount Desert Island and the mouth of the Penobscot River (called by Champlain, Pemetigoet), at least on that first voyage in the autumn on 1604. The following year, after these adventurous Frenchmen had regained their health, they continued their exploring activities. In an armed pinnace, "a bark of fifteen tons, with de Monts, several gentlemen, twenty sailors, and an Indian with his squaw, ... set forth on the eighteenth of June on a second voyage of discovery." Passing down the coast, they went beyond the point where they had left off the year before. The 9th of July brought them to Saco Bay and into the territory of the Armouchiquois (later to be called the Massachusetts). The principal difference between the Armouchiquois and the tribes to the north of them was that the Armouchiquois tilled the soil and raised "maize, beans, pumpkins, squashes, tobacco and the ... Jerusalem artichoke."20 They carried on down into Massachusetts Bay and called into a harbour which, when the Pilgrims stepped ashore 15 years later, became known as Plymouth Harbour. According to Parkman, "Indian wigwams and garden patches lined the shore."
"Of the human tenants of the New England coast he [Champlain] has also left the first precise and trustworthy account. They were clearly more numerous than when the Puritans landed at Plymouth, since in the interval a pestilence made great havoc among them." (Parkman, Vol. 2, p. 261.)Parenthetically, I add, that the Massachusetts tribe and this small band of Frenchman got off to a very bad start. This bad start between the French and the Massachusetts tribe was not indicative, leaving out the Iroquois nation, of the overall relations which the French, versus the English, were to generally have with the original occupiers of the North American woods. It seems a party of French sailors went ashore below Cape Cod, "Nausett Harbor," to get water, when an argument broke out between the sailors and a group of natives over the ownership of a certain kettle. At any rate, there was soon one dead Frenchman lying on the beach, and with that the ships guns were put into play; well, I will let Parkman tell it:
"The French in the vessel opened fire. Champlain's arquebuse burst, and was near killing him, while the Indians, swift as deer, quickly gained the woods. Several of the tribe chanced to be on board the vessel, but flung themselves with such alacrity into the water that only one was caught. They bound him hand and foot, but soon after humanely set him at liberty." (Parkman, Vol. 2, p. 260-1.)The experience that the French had with the Armouchiquois is similar to their experience with the Micmacs. The French found the Micmac to be friendly and eager to trade,21 whereas the further south these Frenchmen went, they found the "savages were numerous, unfriendly and thievish." This experience only served to confirm their decision that the best place for the French colony was to be that place which they returned to found: Port Royal. As it turned out, like so many minor events in history, the theft of a kettle was to have a great effect of the French English configuration in North America. At any rate, the confrontation with the Cape Cod Indians brought to an end any further exploration by the French of what was to become known as the New England coast. The French under de Monts determined to leave the place to the natives, and effectively to the British when English colonists (the Pilgrim Fathers expedition) stepped ashore at Plymouth in November of 1621.
So, it is, that we see a small group of Frenchmen industriously piling up their possessions and moving them across the bay from St. Croix.22 There, at the head of Port Royal (which today we call the Annapolis Basin), under the shelter of the north mountains they build their habitation, a closed quadrilateral dwelling, which has generally been accepted by historians as being the first continuing European settlement, aside from Florida, to be established on the continent of North America.23
In the fall of 1605, de Monts, leaving a holding company behind at Port Royal under the command of Pontgrave, sailed for France.24 The second winter in Acadia was not as hard on the Frenchmen as was the first winter; but still, 12 men died of scurvy during this second winter. Spring arrived and there was no sign of French ships with the necessary supplies. Time passed; and soon, Pontgrave and his men began to despair that de Monts would return with provisions. In order to save themselves, they turned to the business of building a sea coasting vessel. The work was most likely carried out under the direction of Champdore, an accomplished boat builder. In this boat, the Frenchmen intended to set out for Canso where they knew they would find ocean going sailing vessels of French origin. Such vessels had come into that port, Canso, with their seasonal fishermen for years. It was to be their chance to get back home to France rather than to spend another cold and hard winter in Acadia, especially without supplies.
Not that anybody should be critical, but Pontgrave, in his plans to desert Port Royal, jumped the gun. Help was on the way. On May 13th, 1606, the ship Jonas had set sail from France. The expedition was under the overall command of Poutrincourt and was sent to re-provision Port Royal. De Mont, this time, is not aboard, having determined he might best serve by staying in France to continue to shore up the company's financial problems. Aboard, however, would be found Jean de Poutrincourt (commander), Charles de Biencourt, and a French lawyer by the name of Marc L'Escarbot.25 The Jonas did not reach Port Royal until the end of July and suffered a "long and tedious voyage."26 The Jonas, with men and supplies, arrived just after the overwintering occupants of Port Royal (Pontgrave, Champlain, et al.) had left for Canso; indeed, they had missed each another by just a few miles. Pontgrave, however, was to find out from a passing ship that the Jonas had arrived on the coast; and so, on hearing this, Pontgrave hurried back to Port Royal to join up with his fellow countrymen who had arrived at Port Royal on July 31st. "The Jonas brought out a number of new immigrants and considerable fresh supplies."27 After an appropriate celebration during which the two meeting parties caught up on the news, plans were soon made for another coastal exploration. Leaving L'Escarbot behind, Poutrincourt and Pontgrave set sail in the Jonas and made their way, once again, down the American coast; they returned to Port Royal on the14th of November.
During the summer and fall of 1606, while their friends were on their cruise south, Port Royal was under the direction of L'Escarbot and Louis Hebert, and they and the men under them make a number of improvements to the living arrangements at the habitation.28 On November 14th (1606) the exploring Frenchmen returned to Port Royal and soon after, the Jonas returned to France, no doubt with bales of furs in her hold. The intrepid Frenchmen left behind, with their spirits much buoyed, settled in to spend a third winter in Acadia. It was at this time we see the ordre de bon temps (the order of good times) was brought into being; it was an eating club whose sole object was to bring good cheer to those who would otherwise be obliged just to wait as the cold and dreary winter passed by. And while the ordre de bon temps was to keep these Frenchmen entertained, -- still they died; but, only seven this time.29 The prominent members of the French company who were at the habitation during the winter of 1606/07 were: Poutrincourt (Lord of the Manor), Champlain, Biencourt, L'Escarbot (the lawyer), Louis Hebert (the apothecary), Pontgrave, Champdore, and Daniel Hay (surgeon).30
With the arrival of the spring, in the year 1607, the French continued, with great expectations, to improve their settlement. Their buildings and grounds around the habitation were improved upon; a grist-mill was built. This grist-mill was built on the Allain River, situated near by the present day Annapolis Royal31. So too in this year, farming activities (much of it on an experimental basis) were carried on in the natural fields surrounding the lower part of the Annapolis River and their explorations of the area were extended.
In the meantime, back in France, things were not going well for de Monts and his company. The plain fact is that while the company's revenues were high, the expenses were higher; and the loss of de Monts' monopoly position was imminent. Thus, it was, in 1607, with the return of the company's ship, in the spring, that Poutrincourt received word that Port Royal was to be abandoned. And so, sadly, in the fall of 1607, this brave group of Frenchmen -- Poutrincourt, Champlain, et al. -- departed32 Port Royal: "the desertion of the colony was complete; not a European was left in the hamlet or the fort, or in the vicinity."33 The group -- after exchanging sad farewells with their friends, the Micmac -- made their way around the end of peninsular Nova Scotia and up the eastern coast to Canso where the Jonas awaited them.34 For the next two years Port Royal remained without white inhabitants.
Next: Chapter 5, Poutrincourt's Second Settlement (1610-13)