New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Saint John River and Port Royal in the Early 1600’s

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Following is a physical description of the Saint John River and of the Port Royal area. It is special because it was written by Nicolas Denys, and describes New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as wildernesses in the early to mid-1600’s. Denys’ writing was difficult to decipher, but William F. Ganong was a capable translator and produced this English version in 1908, which he entitled “Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America (Acadia).”

William F Ganong2

William F. Ganong in 1895

From the web site of the Smith College Libraries

The Saint John River and Port Royal, in the Early 1600’s

The entrance of the River Saint Jean is dangerous of approach [to one] coasting the land along either shore. The best entrance is on the starboard or right hand side without approaching too near the shore. This entrance is narrow  because of a little island which is to larboard, or on the left side, which being passed, the river is markedly larger. On the same side as the island there are large marshes or meadows which are covered at high tide. The shore is of muddy sand and forms a point. This being passed, there is a cove which makes into the said marshes, and has a narrow entrance. Here the late Monsieur de la Tour had a weir built in which were caught a great number of those Gaspereaux which were salted down for winter. Sometimes there was caught so great a quantity that he was obliged to break the weir and throw them into the sea, as otherwise they would have befouled the weir which would thus have been ruined. Sometimes there were also found Salmon, Shad and Bass, which [latter] is the maigre of La Rochelle, and serves every Spring as a grand manna for the people of that country.

A little farther on, beyond the said weir, there is a little knoll, on which D’Aunay had his fort built, which I have not found well placed according to my idea, because it is commanded by an island which is very near and more elevated; and behind it all vessels are able to lie under shelter from the Fort, in which the only water is from pits, and not very good, no better than that outside the fort. It would have been, according to my idea, better placed behind the island where vessels anchor, and where it would have been more elevated, and hence not commanded by other neighbouring places, and would have had good water, as in the one which the late Sieur de la Tour had built, [and] which was destroyed by D’Aunay after he had quite wrongfully made himself master of it, as he had no right to do. This he would have had great trouble in accomplishing had he not been informed of the absence of the said Sieur de la Tour who had taken with him a part of his garrison, and had left only his wife and the remainder of his people as a guard to the fort. She, after having sustained for three days and three nights all the attacks of D’Aunay, and after having compelled him to withdraw beyond range of her cannon, was in the end obliged to surrender on the fourth day, which was Easter Day, having been betrayed by a Swiss who was then on guard, whilst she was making her men rest, hoping for some respite. The Swiss yielded to bribery by the men of D’Aunay, and allowed them to mount to the assault, which was again resisted for some time by the Lady Commandant at the head of her men. She only yielded at the last extremity, and under the condition that the said D’Aunay should give quarter to all. This he did not do, for, having become master of the place, he threw them all into prison, including the Lady Commandant, and later, by advice of his council, hung them with the exception of a single one who had his life spared on condition that he would perform the execution; and the Lady Commandant accompanied them at the gallows, with a cord around her neck as though she had been the greatest villain. Such is the title which Le Borgne has made use of to claim, as a creditor of the said Sieur d’Aunay, the proprietorship of the River Saint Jean.

The island of which I have spoken being passed, below which vessels anchor in order to be better sheltered, it is only a good cannon shot to the falls, where there is no passing except by boats and small craft, and that at high tide only. But before entering farther into the river, there is one thing surprising enough. In the pitch of the fall is a great hollow, of about three or four hundred feet around; this is made by the rush of the water as it passes between two rocks which form a narrow place in the river, an arrangement rendering it more swift at this spot. In this hollow is a great upright tree which floats, but no matter how the water runs it never gets out; it only makes its appearance from time to time, and sometimes is not seen for eight, ten or fifteen days. The end which appears above the water is a little larger around than a hogshead, and when it appears it is sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other. All of the Indians who passed by there in former times, and they are in great number in these parts, rendered it homage, but they give it little at present, having been undeceived. They called this tree the Manitou, that is to say the Devil. The homage which they formerly rendered it consisted of one or two beaver skins, or other peltry, which they attached to the top of the tree with an arrow head made of a moose bone sharpened with stones. When they passed this spot and their Manitou did not appear, they took it for a bad omen, saying that he was angry with them. Since the French have come to these parts, and they have been given arrowheads of iron, they no longer use any others, and the poor Manitou has his head so covered with them that scarcely could one stick a pin therein. I have seen it, and some of the men of Monsieur de la Tour, who lived formerly with him and afterwards with me, have assured me that he once had ropes attached to the head of this tree, and that boats with ten oarsmen, rowing with all their strength and aided by the current, were never able to pull it out of the hollow.

The falls being passed, the river enlarges, much more in one place than another because of certain islands. There are three of these which are large, and in which there are very fine meadows, as there are also along both shores of the river. These are inundated every year by the melting of the snows, which occurs as a rule in spring. It extends very far inland, to such a degree that the Indians by means of this river, and crossing some land, pass into other rivers, of which some empty into that of Saint Laurent, others fall into the Bay of Saint Laurent and at Nepiziguit in the Baye des Chaleurs. There are along each route two or three canoe portages through the woods, where are found the paths which run from one river to the other, and these they call Louniguins. The other portages are at places along the rivers where the navigation is impeded by waterfalls or rapids caused by the rocks which hold the [waters] back and narrow their passage. This renders the current so swift, and makes the water fall from such a height, that it is necessary to carry the canoes upon the shoulders or upon the head as far as the place where the course of the river is smooth. Most frequently these portages are of five to six leagues, sometimes as much as ten, which, however, is rare. It is these which the Indians call Louniguins, and of which they willingly undertake the traverse on account of the ease with which they carry their canoes; these are very light, as will be easily understood from the description which I shall give of them in the proper place. Boats cannot go up this river higher than eighteen to twenty leagues because of falls and of rocks which are scattered there, thus compelling a resort to canoes.

Besides all the woods I have already named to you, there are also here a great number of very beautiful Oaks, which would be fine for building ships, and which ought to be better than those of the northern coast of which the wood is too soft. There are also Beeches in plenty, very tall and with branches high up. Abundance of wild Walnuts also occur, of which the nuts are triangular and hard to open; though when placed by the fire they open easily, and that which is inside has the taste of walnuts. There is found here also a great quantity of Wild Grapes, on wild vines which bear grapes, the fruit of which is large and of very good taste; but its skin is thick and hard. It comes to maturity, and if it were cultivated and transplanted I do not doubt that it would produce very good wine. This is a sign that the cold there is not so severe, nor the snows so abundant as everyone says. I believe that there are actually districts in France which are not worth so much as this place, so far as climate is concerned, and where many people live in less comfort than they would have in these parts, distant though they are.

From the entrance of the River Saint Jean to that of Port Royal there are a dozen leagues to cross, over that which we call the Baye Francoise [Bay of Fundy], and which extends ten or a dozen leagues farther into the land. In leaving the River Saint Jean there is, upon the left hand, a point which advances into the sea, and this being rounded, one enters a large bay which extends about a league into the land. At its bottom there are two islands. Continuing along the coast, about three or four leagues, one finds two little bays distant a league from one another, where there are said to be mines of iron. Continuing this route one sees a great point extending into the sea, behind which is a little river. Going still farther, one sees a cape which is named the Cap des Deux Bayes. Their entrances are narrow and they advance fifteen or sixteen leagues into the land. There are plenty of rocks in these bays and they are dangerous, because the tide rises eight or ten fathoms and covers them. This I have heard said by those who go there in longboats to trade, as also that they are obliged to cast anchor in fifteen to sixteen fathoms in order to be safe. There are several rivers falling into these bays, by means of which the Indians pass into that of Saint Jean; by others they proceed into lakes which empty towards Campseaux and Cape Saint Louis, which is in the Great Bay of Saint Laurens. There are some lands to traverse in going from one place to the other. The Indians of those parts carry their peltry to the English at the River Saint Jean. The Sieur d’Aunay traded there in his time even to the extent of three thousand Moose [skins] a year, not counting Beaver and Otter, and this was the reason why he dispossessed the Sieur de la Tour of it. These bays are called des Mines because here occur some of those flint stones such as were used formerly in wheel-arquebusses; and all who have been there say there are also mines of copper in several places.

In these bays are plenty of mountains back in the country, some of them really high. There are also flat lands, and a great number of Pines, Firs, and Spruces, mixed with other good woods. But there is little of them on the margin of the sea all round the two bays for about a league or a league and a half. Farther inland there are beautiful woods, which are much more open. From the report of all the Indians there should be found an abundance of mast materials and plankings, as well of Oak as of other kinds.

Leaving these Bayes des Mines, and continuing the way towards Port Royal there occurs an island of great height, and of one and a quarter leagues of circumference or thereabouts. It is flat on top, and despite its height a spring of water occurs there, [and] it is said, also a mine of copper. Thence coasting along the land six to seven leagues, through which extent are only rocks, one comes to the entrance of Port Royal. This is rather narrow, which causes a great tidal current, and if one wishes to take a vessel in or out with the tide, it is necessary that this shall be done stern first, and even so it is needful to take great care for oneself.

Port Royal is a very beautiful place [including] a very fine basin with more than a league of breadth and about two of length. At the entrance there are eighteen to twenty fathoms of water; there are not less than four to six fathoms between the land and the island, called Isle aux Chevres, which lies about in the middle of the basin. There it is possible to anchor large vessels, and in as great security as in a box. The bottom is everywhere good. In the extremity of the basin there is a kind of point of land where Monsieur d’Aunay had a fine and good fort built. This point is between two rivers, one on the right and the other on the left, which do not extend far inland. One is broad at its mouth; the other is not so broad but much deeper, and the tide runs up eight to ten leagues. There are numbers of meadows on both shores, and two islands which possess meadows, [and] which are three or four leagues from the fort in ascending. There is a great extent of meadows which the sea used to cover, and which the Sieur d’Aunay had drained. It bears now fine and good wheat, and since the English have been masters of the country, the residents who were lodged near the fort have for the most part abandoned their houses and have gone to settle on the upper part of the river. They have made their clearings below and above this great meadow, which belongs at present to Madame de la Tour. There they have again drained other lands which bear wheat in much greater abundance than those which they cultivated round the fort, good though those were. All the inhabitants there are the ones whom Monsieur le Commandeur de Razilly had brought from France to La Haive; since that time they have multiplied much at Port Royal, where they have a great number of cattle and swine. Aside from the two rivers of which I have just been speaking, another discharges into the basin, and it is very full of fish, as are the two others. Here is caught a great quantity of fish, such as Gaspereau, Salmon, Trout, Esguilles [sand-eels], and other kinds.

On the upper parts of these three rivers, there is a quantity of Oaks, and upon the banks are Pines, Firs of three sorts, Birches, Black Birches, Beeches, Aspens, Maples, Ashes and Oaks. This country is not very mountainous. The Grape vine and the Butternut are also present. There is very little snow in this country, and very little winter. The hunting is good throughout the year for Hares, for Partridges, for Pigeons, and other game of the woods. As to water game, there is a great abundance of it. Summer and winter the country is very pleasing.

Leaving Port Royal and going towards Isle Longue, after two or three leagues one finds a big cove where vessels can anchor. It has a good bottom, but the shelter there is not from all sides, and it is properly only a roadstead. Continuing along the coast six or seven leagues, one finds coves and rocks covered with trees as far as Isle Longue, which is about six or seven leagues in length. It forms a passage for leaving the Baye Françoise and for going to reach the land of Acadie. There are between Isle Longue and the mainland of Port Royal, rocks which make the Grand and the Petit Passage. The currents there are very rough, among other places at the Petit Passage which is only for longboats. I once wished to pass through there, but the wind not being favourable for stemming the tide, or to carry us to the Grand Passage, I wished to have the anchor cast, even though there were only two and a half fathoms of water in the entrance. The current was so strong that the anchor could not take hold, and we lost it along with our cable which ran out to the end. We had to bear away for the River Saint Jean, where I was given an anchor and another cable. From there I returned and went through the Grand Passage of Isle Longue.


Written by johnwood1946

May 20, 2015 at 9:09 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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