New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Official Account of the Destruction of Burnt Church

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This is the authentic story of the destruction of Burnt Church, New Brunswick, by a military force led by Colonel Murray in 1758. It can be found in the Collections of the New Brunswick Historical Society, Number 9, 1914, edited by W.F. Ganong.

I have read the incorrect story of the destruction of Burnt Church, wherein six sailors were looking for a supply of fresh water when they were attacked by Indians. It is therefore good to have this corrected version of events.

Burnt Church

Burnt Church First Nation, c. 1900

From the New Brunswick Museum

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The Official Account of the Destruction of Burnt Church

On the north side of the Inner Bay of Miramichi stand the modern twin English and Indian villages of Burnt Church, known to have taken their name from the burning of a French Church there by the British about the time of the Fall of Quebec. The local account of the matter is, however, incorrect in details, because derived from Cooney’s well known History, which, misled by erroneous tradition, gives a wrong setting to this incident. I have long sought the original official account of the burning of the church, and at length have found it in the document which follows. It is contained in the Public Record Office in London, where it is classified officially as C.O.5, Vol. 53, (formerly A.&W.I. Vol. 79). The copy has been made for me with care by an expert direct from the original, and is here printed exactly to a letter.

The facts are, that in 1758, as a part of the campaign against the French in Canada, an effort was made by the British to destroy all the French settlements around the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. In pursuance of this plan General Wolfe sent Colonel Murray to destroy the settlements at Miramichi, and it is Colonel Murray’s report of his operations which is here presented. Those interested in these matters will recall that Colonel Monckton was at this very time preparing for an expedition of similar object against the French on the Saint John, his report forming an earlier number (No. 1) of this series.

Louisbourg 24th September 1758.


I have the Honor to acquaint you that all the Fleet, (except the small sloop which parted from Us at Sea and did not join Us till we were on our return to Louisbourg) made Miramichi Bay the 15th instant, and came to an Anchor in an open Road, seven Leagues from the Settlement and three from the Barr, exposed 16 Points of the Compass; Capt. Vaughan expressed much Uneasiness at the Situation of the Ships, but as the Weather was moderate and promised to continue so for sonic time, he eagerly embraced the Opportunity and agreed with me, that we should immediately with the Artillery Sloop and the Boats of the Fleet proceed up the River and attack the Settlement, representing to me the necessity of returning quickly, as the Ships in the Situation they were in, without Boats or Men, could not possibly escape being lost, should the Gales of Wind blow, which are naturally to be expected at this Season of the Year; As we had this morning chased a Privatier into the River which in Company with a Sloop we saw fire several Guns, I mounted the two Six Pounders in our Sloop and contrived to embark Three Hundred Men in her and the Boats, there is but Six Feet Water on the Barr at low Water; We were therefore obliged to wait a little this side of it till the Tide rose by which means it was dark before we could get over it, we struck upon it but got safe within Muskett Shott of the Settlement about 12 at Night, Joseph the Indian being our Pilot, we landed and found all the Inhabitants, (except the King’s Surgeon and Family) had desert’d it, this man told me, that the Inhabitants consist of the neutral French who fled from Nova Scotia, that they expected no Quarter from Us and had therefore run away, that le Pere Bonavanture was with them, their Number about Forty, that there are several Habitations dispersed all over the Bay, for many Leagues both above and below where we were, That many Indians inhabit this Bay, but chiefly about where we were and below, That they lived sometimes in one place sometimes in another, having no fixed residence till the Winter, That on the other side the Bay there was a Settlement of about Thirty Family’s Three Leagues from Us, to destroy which I immediately detached a Party, that Ten Leagues up the River there was another Settlement very considerable of Neutrals and some Family’s who had fled from the Island of St. John’s since the taking of Louisbourg, that the whole were in a starving Condition, had sent away most part of their Effects to Canada, and were all to follow immediately as they every Hour expected the English, and besides could not subsist, since they could not now be supported by Sea as they formerly were before Louisbourg was taken, that the Inducement for settling in that River was the Furr Trade, which is very considerable, no less than Six Vessels having been loaded there with that Commodity this Summer, That Monsr. Boisbert commands the whole as well as the Settlement on St. John’s River, That he is at present with his Company at Fort George, against which he is to act in Conjunction with a Detachment from Montcalm’s Army and is no more to return to Miramichi, which is abandoned for the reasons already given, That the two Vessels we had seen, were, one a Privatier mounting Six Carriage Guns, the other a Sloop which had an Officer and Twenty Five Men on board for Canada, they had escaped from Cape Britain, but being chased by one of our Frigates off Gaspee, I suppose the Kennington, were now to make the best of their way inland to Canada, there being a Communication from the head of Miramichi River to Quebeck by Rivers and Lakes a few Portages excepted, He added that the Passage up the River to the Settlement Ten Leagues up, was very narrow but water enough for the Sloop; As the Weather was still fair and promising, I immediately, upon this Consideration, wrote to Capt. Vaughan for some Guns to mount upon the Sloop (as I found our Six Pound field Pieces would not work in her) and some more Provisions, that I might proceed up the River to destroy every thing in it, but he sent me the enclosed Letters one after the other, I likewise took care to have Capt. Bickerton consulted about the Situation of the Fleet, who declared he could not Sleep while it continued where it was; I therefore in the Evening of the 17th in Obedience to your Instructions embarked the Troops, having two Days hunted all around Us for the Indians and Acadians to no purpose, we however destroyed their Provisions, Wigwams and Houses, the Church which was a very handsome one built with Stone, did not escape. We took Numbers of Cattle, Hogs and Sheep, and Three Hogsheads of Beaver Skins, and I am persuaded there is not now a French Man in the River Miramichi, and it will be our fault if they are ever allowed to settle there again, as it will always be in the Power of two or three Armed Vessels capable of going over the Barr, to render them miserable should they attempt it. I thought it was a pity that the two Vessels I have mentioned should escape Us, and therefore proposed to the Sea Commanders to go up with the Sloop manned with Soldiers to attack her and desired some Six Pounders, but they declared she was not in a Condition to carry any, and was otherwise very improper for such an Enterprize; If this could have been done the Fleet might have proceeded to Sea, out of the Danger it was exposed to, by lying in the open Road. We are now returned to Louisbourg in the same Situation we left you at Gaspee; I am etc.

Ja. Murray

To Brigadier Genl. Wolfe.

a true Copy, Jam: Wolfe.

endorsed: Copy of Colonel Murray’s Report.

in Brig. Genl. Wolfes of Nov. 1st 1758.

It is thus proven that Burnt Church was destroyed by Colonel Murray in 1758, acting under orders from General Wolfe, as part of a plan of military operations. The account by Cooney, contained in his History of Northern New Brunswick and the District of Gaspe, 1832, and widely accepted locally, is erroneous in almost every particular. Cooney says (page 35), that after the conquest of Quebec a vessel containing the remains of General Wolfe and carrying despatches, was driven by stress of weather or other adverse circumstances into Miramichi, where the captain resolved to replenish his stock of water, and despatched six men for the purpose. They proceeded to Hendersons Cove, and having loaded their boat were rambling about when they were surprised and murdered, with refined tortures, by the Indians, supposed to be assisted by the French. In retaliation the Captain proceeded up the river, destroyed all the French settlements there, and on his way out to sea burnt the Chapel at Neguac, thus originating the name Burnt Church. A form of this erroneous tradition is given by Father Gaynor on page 56 of this volume of these Collections.

It is perhaps not worthwhile to discuss Cooney’s account, which evidently rests upon distorted traditions. But we may point out the utter improbability of a vessel bound from Quebec to England on an important mission putting into Miramichi, a place far out of her course, and supposed at that time to be highly dangerous for navigation, as our document incidentally shows. Moreover, (as recorded in Wright’s Life of Major General James Wolfe, London, 1864, page 594), it is known that General Wolfe’s remains were taken to England on a man of war, the Royal William, obviously a vessel quite unadapted to the navigation of the Miramichi. We may note, as well, the improbability of so great an ascent of the river for a water supply. In one other minor feature Cooney’s account must also be wrong, viz., the Acadian Indians did not torture prisoners.

Traditions, however, while highly untrustworthy in details, are rarely manufactured altogether, but have generally some nucleus of fact. In this case I believe that Cooney has recorded a tradition which had really linked together two separate events. Thus the matter of the six British sailors seems to find a support in a Riviére des Six Bretons (qy. Britons — English?), applied to a stream on the north side of the Miramichi, apparently at about the position of the present Bartibog, on the early French maps. The earliest on which I find the name is that of Sieur l’Hermitte of 1724, putting the event, if the connection is genuine, before that date, though I set no great store by this matter. More important is this fact;— we know that in the year 1690, two English privateers from New York pillaged the French settlements at Port Royal and elsewhere in Acadia, and destroyed utterly the French establishment at Gaspe, as fully discussed in the Champlain Society’s Edition of Father le Clerq’s New Relation of Gaspesia, 68; and there is every probability, sustained by some little clues of evidence, given in that work, that they also pillaged and destroyed the establishment which Richard Denys de Fronsac had previous to that time, maintained near Beaubears Island (see also papers in No. 4 of this series). Taking everything together it would seem probable that a half dozen men from one of these privateers were ambushed and killed by Indians and French at some stream on the Miramichi, perhaps the Bartibog, while the vessels were working their way up the river; and that later these privateers kept on to the settlement of Denys de Fronsac, north of Beaubears Island, where they burnt his establishment, including the chapel which he would certainly have had at his fort. Then in time tradition confused this event with Colonel Murray’s expedition, finally uniting them into one incident in the way recorded in Cooney. All of the data and conditions of the case are harmonized by this supposition.

Written by johnwood1946

April 29, 2015 at 9:02 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Great work! I was a teacher for 36 years next to the old cemetery. And a descendent of acadians buried there. Thank you for the letter of James Murray to General Wolfe.

    Jean Claude Robichaud

    November 7, 2020 at 5:50 AM

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