A small tidal river, the Missaguash, flowing quietly between banks of thick brown mud, marks the border between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The highway between the two provinces across the Isthmus of Chignecto undulates gently over two low ridges that once played a significant part in the history of the region.
On the seaward slope of one ridge was the English bastion of Fort Lawrence. On top of the second ridge, with a clear view east and west across the marshes and out over the Bay of Fundy, is the reconstruction of Fort Beauséjour, one of the last French forts in Acadia. The two forts, just over a mile apart, were built in 1750-1751 in response to the disputed boundary between French and English territory. Nearly 250 years ago, in June of 1755, a fleet of ships sailed into the Bay and anchored in Cumberland Basin near Fort Lawrence. From their vantage point, the French watched the ships discharge a large contingent of enemy troops and they prepared for battle. In two weeks it was all over for the French, with only a handful of casualties on either side. For the Acadian people the repercussions were catastrophic.
Acadian settlement of the Isthmus of Chignecto began in 1672 when Jacques Bourgeois, a surgeon, farmer and ship-builder, sold some of his holdings around Port Royal and moved with his grown family to take up land there. The high ground was suitable for farming, and by dying the broad marshlands, they increased their acreage on the rich, alluvial soil. Bourgeois brought with him a flour mill and a saw mill, purchased from New England merchants with whom he traded regularly. In 1676, ten square leagues of land in Chignecto was granted as a seigneury to Michel Le Neuf de la Vallière, by Count Frontenac, the Governor of Canada. De la Vallière who named the area Beaubassin, built a manor house on a tidal island of the marsh, brought in settlers and indentured labourers. The two landowners thrived, the population grew and Beaubassin became one of the most prosperous places in Acadia.
While Acadians traded surplus produce with Boston, the French sometimes raided New England forts along the Atlantic sea-board with their Malecites and Abenakis allies. This resulted in retaliatory attacks on French outposts, the most aggressive being led by the Indian fighter and colonial officer, Ben Church, who took revenge by punitive assaults against unarmed settlements, twice burning the village of Beaubassin.
Such events were a foretaste of the future when war between Britain and France spilled over into their colonies in North America. In the European conflict which ended with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the English were given mainland Nova Scotia, while the French retained Ile Royale (Cape Breton) and Ile St. Jean (Prince Edward Island). Though the boundary of Nova Scotia was undefined, the communities in the rich farmlands of Beaubassin, an area stretching from present-day Moncton to beyond Amherst, continued to prosper and by the 1750’s had a population of 3000. The Acadians were prepared to swear an oath of allegiance to the English king on condition that they had the right to remain neutral in any future conflict, and were permitted to have French priests to serve their Catholic faith.
A few of these priests were conscientious in maintaining the neutrality agreed to as one of the conditions for serving in Nova Scotia. Others could not forget their loyalty to France. Among the latter was Abbé Jean-Louis Le Loutre who arrived in 1738 as a missionary to the Micmac. Zealous and diligent, Le Loutre soon mastered their difficult language and developed a loyal following among them.
After thirty years of calm, a new European conflict erupted in 1744, and once again French and English raided each other’s colonies, although the settlements of Beaubassin remained relatively peaceful. A daring young French officer, Charles Deschamps de Boishébert, who had carried out reconnaissance and raids in the Atlantic region, established the French presence with a fort at the mouth of the Saint John River in 1749. From there he travelled, disguised as a fisherman, visited the Acadian settlements around the Nova Scotia coast to assess their loyalty to France and to inform them of French military plans for the area beyond the disputed border. Coincidentally Abbé Le Loutre was using his clerical power to incite the settlers of Beaubassin to burn their farms and move across the Missaguash River from the English to what was considered the French side. These settlers then became refugees, under the protection of the French government, within sight of their own land.
To counter the rising tide of French patriotism among the Acadians, Major Charles Lawrence landed with English troops in Cumberland Basin April 22,1750 with the intention of building a fort. Joshua Winslow, the second in command, described the scene in his journal:
Came to anchor about 300 yards from the shore and landed all our forces upon a salt meadow about 1/2 miles distant from the Town which was still on fire…every house and barn, with the mass house, were set on fire and the whole town burnt down by the enemy.
They met with strong resistance from the French and the Micmac, and withdrew under a flag of truce, returning with a stronger force in September to erect Fort Lawrence near the ruined village of Beaubassin. The French responded by building Fort Beauséjour on the opposite ridge the following year. During several years of uneasy peace, the garrisons of the two forts maintained cordial relations and the Acadian settlers pastured their cattle on the intervening land and sold produce at both forts.
Toward the end of 1753, Thomas Pichon arrived at Beauséjour from Louisbourg to serve as Commissary and purchasing agent. Pichon was disgruntled by his removal from the fort of Louisbourg, and soon established communication with Col. George Scott, the commandant at Fort Lawrence. Scott easily persuaded Pichon to spy for the English with the promise of generous compensation. Pichon’s reports, which give an intimate portrait of day-to-day life in the region, were given to Scott and his successor Captain Hussey by trustworthy settlers who could move freely between the two forts. In his letters, which date between September 1754 and October 1755, Pichon describes Fort Beauséjour?s flaws and urges the English to attack while the defences are weak, recommending a spring offensive.
In addition to local gossip and news of the wider world, the letters contain many items about the activities of Abbé Le Loutre, whom he characterizes as ruling the Acadians ?almost despotically,? and reports the cleric provoking the Indians to make random attacks against isolated English outposts and settlement. About the Commandant, Louis Du Pont Duchambon de Vergor, whom he describes as ?universally despised? Pichon is scathing:
[He] merely applies himself to skimming the cream off this colony. He has scarcely any other talent, and the plans he makes are utterly absurd. He makes life extremely difficult for all his subordinates and is universally despised…he owes his position solely to the contemptible complaisance of M. Bigot [The Intendant in Québec], whom he has more than once served as a pimp. If any serious fighting should take place here I doubt if he would be obeyed, but have no doubt that he would quickly lose his head.
Shaped like a five-pointed star, Fort Beauséjour was built to accommodate a small detachment of troops to reinforce the French claim on the area. It relied on its position high on the ridge with visibility on four sides to protect it from surprise attack. However, on the fifth side the ground slopes upward for 900 yards through a wooded area leaving the fort vulnerable from that direction. With the English largely in control of the Bay of Fundy, supplies for the fort were landed on the other side of the Isthmus, fifteen miles away, and stored at the village of Baie Verte, protected by Fort Gaspereau at the head of Baie Verte off Northumberland Strait. The long overland portage between the two forts was another major weakness in the defence plan.
In 1752 the government in Quebec recognizing that Beauséjour might need to be defended, sent a detachment of artillery with instructions to increase the fortifications. Without an engineer to direct this operation, a young artillery officer, Jacau de Fiedmont, was put in charge. With the settlers as his labour force, he dug around the fort?s perimeter a two-metre-deep trench more than five metres wide at the top. He then raised a berm around the outer walls with the removed earth, building casemates below reinforced with heavy squared timber. But the labourers were often busy on their own farms or building dikes under the direction of Abbé Le Loutre, and de Vergor was more intent on lining his own pockets than improving the fort. Work was still in progress on June 2, 1755, when a French settler sighted a British fleet of about forty vessels in the Bay of Fundy waiting to drop anchor at the entrance of Beaubassin. Alerted, de Vergor dispatched couriers to Quebec, the Saint John River, Louisbourg, and Prince Edward Island to solicit aid, while local inhabitants were summoned to the fort. A force of about six hundred men was raised.
The English landed early in the evening and the next day they encamped on an elevation that dominated Fort Lawrence. ?The Commandant of Fort Lawrence,? de Fiedmont noted in A Journal of an Attack on Beauséjour, wrote to the Commandant of Beauséjour asking him to instruct the settlers to keep their cattle from crossing to his side of the river in future…A few English crossed to our side on the pretext of recovering their cattle and were stopped by…the officer in charge of our observation post…they had comedy, presumably, merely to examine the ground over which their troops were to pass?.
Preparations at Fort Beauséjour continued in haste. To halt the enemy?s advance, de Vergor ordered a redoubt and a bridge to be destroyed at Bout Bridge over the Missaguash River which the French regarded as the boundary of their territory. Meanwhile, de Fiedmont laid out a trench along the dikes. ?But,? he wrote, “the settlers refused to work…to withstand the enemy who, in approaching the river, would have no cover…they were more intent on assuring their own retreat. Four small swivel-guns [were] placed behind the…barricades of stumps and bushes…Fifty Micmac Indians joined the settlers to await arrival of the English?.
At six in the morning on June 4, the English army set out. De Fiedmont entreated de Vergor for ?a few well-disposed men? to defend Buot Bridge, but he was rebuffed. Meanwhile, the English, with columns of soldiers extending more than twenty-five hundred metres, advanced slowly northwest across the extensive marsh. Wrote de Fiedmont:
They arrived at the river…drew up in battle formation, and made ready their artillery? As they prepared to throw a bridge across the river, our swivel-guns and musketry opened fire without much effect. The enemy paused and responded with cannon and musketry… directed at [our] swivel-guns… which were soon put out of commission. The Indians immediately abandoned the entrenchment…[as did most of the settlers]; only a few soldiers remained in the entrenchment with the officers.
A little over four hours later, after setting fire to guard-house and the buildings in the neighbourhood, the French troops abandoned their post. One French soldier was killed and one settler injured. The English rested briefly in the woods, then, about noon, continued their advance. They set up camp about two thousand metres from Fort Beauséjour, below Butte à Mirande [Mount Whatley]. The French removed provisions from the storehouses and dwellings outside the fort and set fire to the buildings..
By this one skirmish the English had established control of the territory, effectively cutting off communication with Fort Gaspereau. The French were confined mainly to the area of Fort Beauséjour, while bands of settlers and Micmac roved about under cover of the surrounding bush, inflicting slight damage on the enemy. Meanwhile, De Fiedmont continued to strengthen the defences with limited help from settlers who were concerned with their own safety.
On June 8, the French captured an English officer, who de Fiedmont wrote ?was received with consideration and politeness?.
He was left free on parole within the fort…Our Commandant wrote to assure [his Commandant] that he would procure for this officer…all the comforts possible. [The messenger] was led into the enemy camp with his eyes bandaged, and…was taken to see the park of artillery; he noted several appeared to be 18 and 24 pounders and a few mortars.
Over the next few days, the English advanced a thousand metres closer to the Fort, consolidating their position at a deliberate pace, steadily unloading great quantities of ammunition and artillery from their transports. The French, firing from behind the dikes, were unable to hinder them. De Fiedmont worked unceasingly on the fortification of Beauséjour, hoping for reinforcements to arrive from Louisbourg, but the English mortar attacks increasingly drove his men to abandon their work and crowd into the casemates. Late on June 14, the situation worsened. De Vergor received a letter from the Governor of Louisbourg saying that no assistance was available. ?The bad news became known to the settlers almost at once,? de Fiedmont noted in his journal. ?Eighty of them disappeared in the night?.
Two days later, a bomb penetrated the roof of the casemate considered the most secure, killing the English prisoner, two other men, and wounding more. The disaster threw the fort into turmoil. The settlers demanded that de Vergor either capitulate or they would turn their arms against the officers and soldiers and deliver the fort to the English. Too weak to overcome the settlers and with no hope of help arriving, the commandant called for suspension of hostilities. The Honourable Robert Monckton, the English commander, dictated the terms of capitulation, which were to be accepted by seven that evening.
A journal of the siege written by Louis de Courville, the Royal Notary in Acadia, stationed at Fort Beauséjour, tells of the final day in the fort:
M. Jacau de Fiedmont, who during the siege had performed his duties to the very utmost, now became zealous for the safety of the Acadians and demanded for them honourable and advantageous conditions…Colonel Monckton had good reasons to arbitrarily dictate the conditions. From morning to night there was nothing but discordance in the Fort; the Officers were occupied only in pillaging….They signed without the slightest deliberation, and we had considerable difficulty in making them cease pillaging in order to have them sign the articles of capitulation. The Commissariat officers of the English wished to have a signed inventory of the munitions of war, the provisions and the merchandise being handed over to him. But François, the keeper of stores, replied in the presence of M. de Vergor that he would sign no inventory for the reason that the thieving and pillaging had been done in full view of the Commandant.
The French troops, allowed to march out with their arms, baggage and drums beating, were transported to Louisbourg on British ships, and were forbidden to bear arms for six months. Fort Gaspereau surrendered with the same terms the following day.
Fort Beauséjour was immediately renamed Fort Cumberland and manned by British troops, who continued to march to different parts of Beaubassin, burning villages and crops, and capturing settlers. Sloops and schooners arrived from Halifax to take away those who had been taken prisoner.
The fears of reprisal that had haunted the settlers had been realised. The expulsion of the Acadians from the lands they had occupied peacefully since the seventeenth century had begun. By the thirteenth of October, 1,100 Acadians from Beaubassin had been transported to South Carolina, Georgia and Pennsylvania. By the end of 1755 a total of 6000 Acadians had been sent into exile.
In the confusion, families were separated. The New England colonies, still at war with France, did not welcome French-speaking Catholics who were destitute and a drain on the public purse. As more Acadians arrived they were dispersed up and down the New England coast, sent to British colonies in the Caribbean and to England. Hundreds died in shipwrecks and from epidemics contracted in filthy conditions. A proud and prosperous people had been reduced to poverty, their homes destroyed, their lands confiscated to be given to new English-speaking immigrants.
Some Acadians went into hiding, aided by Boishébert who led his soldiers in guerrilla attacks while helping the people to flee northward in what is now New Brunswick. Persecution and capture continued slowly in Nova Scotia and the Beaubassin area until 1763 by which time more than 10,000, three-quarters of the entire population, had been sent into exile.
This article first appeared in the June/July 2002 Issue of “The Beaver” Magazine, 478 – 167 Lombard Ave. Winnipeg, Manitoba R3B 0T6 and I am very grateful to Canada’s National History Society and the author of the article, Gwyneth Hoyle, for having provided me permission to re-print same on this web site.
The following is one of the 100 articles written by Father Clarence-J. d’Entremont and published in…
The Vanguard between 1989 and 1990.
Father Clarence J. d’Entremont
THE ESCAPE OF THE ACADIANS FROM FORT BEAUSEJOUR AT THE TIME OF THE EXPULSION
Last week I told you about the escape of 86 Acadians from Fort Lawrence, the 1st of October, 1755. There was another similar escape in that vicinity five months later, this time from Fort Beausejour, involving 80 Acadian prisoners. We do not have as many details with regard to this escape as we did for the other one, but we have enough to know that it happened and to know the way that it was done.
It was planned by one of the ancestors of many of today’s Acadians of Yarmouth County, namely, by Pierre II Surette, born in Port Royal on December 9, 1709, the son of Pierre I and Jeanne Pellerin. In 1755, he was living in Beausejour, located on the border between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, when the Acadians of that region were summoned to appear at Fort Beausejour on August 11 of that year. As I was telling you last week, 250 answered the call. But a number, apprehending that it was some kind of a scheme, took to the woods. Pierre II Surette and a number of others, who intended to hide in the woods, tarried too long behind and were captured and taken to Fort Beausejour. It was from this fort that they escaped during the night of February 26, 1756, under the guidance of Pierre.
The story of this escapade has been brought down from father to son up to a couple of generations ago. It is said that these prisoners were fed on horse meat and, at the request of Pierre, they saved some of the rib-bones which they hid in the day time and used during nights to dig a tunnel under the outside wall of the fort, covering their work during the day. On that date, 26th of February, they had it all completed and 80 men escaped.
The last one to get out was Pierre Melanson, the biggest man of the crowd, and he got stuck for a while in the middle of the tunnel. They got out just in time to escape the guards who had heard the racket and were right on their heels, but they reached the woods in time by paths that they knew better than the English did. There was a song which was composed regarding Melanson’s predicament. My uncle H. Leander d’Entremont says somewhere that he heard his mother, my grandmother Anne Vitaline, and her mother, my great-grandmother Angelique Foi, sing it. In 1941, my Uncle put an ad in a newspaper asking if there was anyone who knew that song. I’m afraid that it is another piece of our folklore which is lost forever.
Father François Le Guerne, who was their missionary, wrote a long letter from Belair, near Cocagne, New Brunswick, under date of March 10, 1756, addressed to Chevalier de Drucours, Governor of Louisbourg in which he tells what Pierre Surete reported to him concerning the English at the fort. “I hold this (information) from Pierre Surette … This man, formerly a captain in the militia of Petcoudiac, is sensible and of good judgment, and well versed in public affairs, and was often employed by our Messieurs Officers in delicate matters. The English had kept him this winter at the fort as a man of reason who knew the country and might be useful to them. His agreeable manner of speech gave him a free access to the Commander of the fort (Mr. Scot), who thought him secure, so much so, that he spoke his mind openly to him. He knows the English language and is ever ready to converse with anyone, and they were in the habit of holding nothing in reserve when talking with him”.
After his escape, Pierre II Surette with his family, along with other Acadian families, stayed hidden in the woods, not far in that vicinity. After two years of misery and starvation, eating roots, meat of decayed animals, and even the excrement of animals as we are told by Father Le Guerne, these Acadians went around Miramichi, where their condition proved to be worse. Finally, they were obliged to surrender, that which took place around Petcoudiaca and Memramcook, November 18, 1759. They were 700 in all, led by Pierre II Surette and Jean and Michel Bourque, the ancestors of the Bourques of Yarmouth County. They were taken to Halifax and kept prisoners till after the Treaty of Paris, 1763, which marked the end of the Seven Year War.
After this date, Pierre and his family were to stay six or seven years in the vicinity of Halifax, not knowing where to settle. In 1769, three of the children had their marriage blessed in Chezzetcook by Father Bailly, as recorded in his registers. See sketch No. 34.
It was just shortly after this date That Pierre II Surette, his son Joseph and his three sons-in-law, namely Joseph Babin, Jean Bourque and Dominique Pothier, came to Sainte-Anne-du-Ruisseau and Belleville, being the ancestors of the Acadians of those names in Yarmouth County.
Pierre II Surette had married in Grand-Pre, September 30th, 1732, Catherine Breau, daughter of Pierre Breau and of Anne LeBlanc. She is the ancestral mother of a great many Acadians in south-western Nova Scotia. According to an old tradition, she would have been buried towards the shore of Salt Bay or Salt Water March, at Sainte-Anne-du-Ruisseau, way behind the grocery store that the Misses Pothiers used to keep, daughters of Mande Pothier and of Louise Bourque, now under the management of their nephew Surette. The first road ever built in what was then Eel Brook used to go through here, following close to the shore. It was the same path that the narrow-gage railway was to follow up to Argyle, after having followed the western edge of Eel Lake from close to Belleville, traces of which are still visible. What happened, through the influence of some Belleville people–the name of Lezin Pothier, who was constable, is often mentioned–the railroad was finally to go through Belleville and then go on to the east side of the lake.