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Nova Scotia in 1775: “Every Spot is Inhospitable and Frigid”

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Nova Scotia in 1775: “Every Spot is Inhospitable and Frigid”

Nova Scotia was part of Acadia, and it was not until 1749 that the English period took hold with the founding of Halifax. Efforts to bring in English-speaking settlers met with limited success until after the expulsion of the Acadians in the 1750’s, and colonization went slowly even after that. More concerted efforts to bring people in began in 1760’s.

So, Nova Scotia was an outback frontier in 1775 when today’s author, identified only as ‘An American’ published a book in London entitled American Husbandry and dedicated a chapter to Nova Scotia. At that time, the population included people from Scotland, Ireland, England and New England plus the Mi’kmaq.

Mr. ‘An American’ was not impressed with what he found, and following is his story.


A View of Halifax, ca. 1750

Map by Thomas Jefferys, from Wikipedia

To judge of the climate of Nova Scotia by the latitude would lead any person into the most egregious mistakes. Between 44 and 50 degrees of latitude in Europe we find some of the finest and most pleasant countries in this quarter of the world; but in Nova Scotia the case is very different. The winter lasts seven months, and is of a severity that is dreadful to newcomers. The deepest rivers are frozen over in one night, so as to bear loaded wagon; the snow lies in some places ten feet deep, and upon level tracts it has been known to be six feet deep. The inhabitants are shut up in their houses and, except in the towns, lead a miserable life almost in as torpid and lifeless state as the vegetables of the country. Much of the summer is spent in laying in fuel for the winter, and brandy and rum are then the greatest luxuries the people indulge in. Such a degree of cold as is then felt benumbs the very faculties of the mind, and is nearly destructive of all industry. When this severe winter goes, at once comes a summer (for they have no spring) of a heat greater than is ever felt in England. The snow is presently melted, and runs in torrents to the sea; the ground is thawed, the trees are presently in leaf, and the little husbandry here practised is then begun. But what is almost as bad as the extremes of heat and cold, are the perpetual fogs, which render the country equally unwholesome and unpleasant and are peculiarly provoking to the inhabitants. Such is the climate: it is bad almost in excess. But we are not to imagine that it banishes husbandry, which might be the first conclusion of such as were unused to northern latitudes.

The soil varies greatly. In many parts it is thin and gravelly on a bed of rock. For many years this was what they endeavoured to cultivate, but ill success taught the inhabitants a change which has proved very advantageous. They fixed in the salt marshes on the bay of Fundy, which, although they required a very expensive drainage, yet, from the fertility of the soil, repaid the farmer much better than other tracts gained with much less difficulty. The soil in these marshes is a white or blue clay, mellow when in culture and marly. If the water is well conveyed off, it is capable of producing great crops, being suitable to the heat of the summer. But the expense of getting this land is not small; the sea is to be dyked out, and those dykes are to be kept in repair, with temporary flashes conveyed off. Further, only the line next the coast is of value, as that only has the benefit of harbours for boats and schooners, and for carrying off lumber for the West Indies. Most of the advantageous trails were patented several years ago; but the lots change hands often, and at present many of them are to be sold cheap enough, though under culture.

An idea of their management may be gained from the following particulars. Upon the settlers first going they fix upon a piece of marsh, with an adjoining one of woodland, seldom less in the whole than from five hundred to eight hundred or a thousand acres. If the marsh is already banked, they pay an annual tax for that work; if not, they must execute it before any profit can be made. They build the house on the edge of the woodland; a work that costs nothing in materials from the plenty of wood, which is fine, consisting generally of oak, pine, or black birch but all the trees are grubbed, which makes the labour heavy.

Three years are nominally given to settle the tracts assigned, but this is not strictly adhered to, but extended by favour to six or seven. After ten years a quitrent is paid to the King of two shillings for every fifty acres; and also a covenant entered into of planting two acres with hemp of every fifty taken up. The planters are kept to this article, but with very little effect, for the climate is utterly improper for that production.

The marsh land is fine, and wants little more after draining; but to let the plough to work for sowing wheat, it is all covered with a short but thick and spongy moss, which they plough in, and on one ploughing harrow in their wheat. This work they perform as soon as the weather breaks, and the snow is all gone. They do it in a very clumsy manner, attending not the least to their lands being laid neat and regular. In September the corn is ripe and they usually mow it, and the crops they get, notwithstanding the soil being good, scarce ever amount to middling ones in England. I have been assured, that two quarters of bad wheat in quality, are a great crop. They have hardly any idea of fallowing, but in the succeeding year plough up the stubble for another wheat crop, which they continue as long as the land will yield it, and then leave it to recover itself. Sometimes, however, they change for beans. The woodlands, when cleared, they plant with peas, potatoes, cabbages, &c. the latter production is very useful to them, they keep under the snow in winter very sound.

As to enclosures, they have only a ring fence, and one or two near the house, and not always that. Sometimes there are none but what parts their marshland from the woods. Cattle, in summer, are turned into undrained marshes and the woods, and in winter are three parts starved.

It is much to be regretted, that the annual expenditure was not known, but if the high price of labour is considered — the wages of the fishermen, the repairs of the vessels, nets, implements, ammunition, wines, rum, tea, sugar, and other  luxuries, all these articles would certainly make a considerable deduction from this annual product. As to the products of the land, they are more than consumed at home. Can any unprejudiced person suppose that the sum of thirteen hundred pounds might not be expended on waste lands in Great Britain to much better advantage? I will not so far anticipate the subject as to calculate here, but most assuredly we may determine that, in point of profit, such a sum might be more beneficially expended in British husbandry, than in that of Nova Scotia.

I say, in point of profit, as to that of pleasure, there are other circumstances to be considered, which are material. These particularly concern the great plenty of game in the country, and the general freedom of all sporting and fishing. It has been asserted, and not upon bad authority, that a boy of twelve or fourteen years of age, with his gun, would maintain ten or twelve in family the year-round, pork and bread excepted. Two boys have been known to catch above two hundred hares in one winter with twine snares. Six boys, in three canoes, shot, in four days, one hundred and fifty wild geese, and four hundred black ducks. To this may be added, that eels are in the little rivers so plentiful, that they keep immense quantities of them frozen for winter provision.

These particulars, indeed, indicate, not only pleasure, but also a considerable degree of profit; for a country, which will admit of such circumstances, must yield no trifling advantages in housekeeping and, however insignificant such a point my seem in a general account of a country, yet is it of importance in the eyes of those who quit their own to settle in America. In Britain, the game laws are so strict that unqualified persons must give up all thoughts of the pleasure of shooting and fishing, as well as the advantage in feeding their families, or be liable to severe and infamous penalties. That this monstrous contrast sends no trifling number of people to the colonies I have not a doubt.

In the preceding accounts the reader finds that the whole product of the new plantation (and that a considerable one) consists in fish and lumber. It is remarkable, that without the fishery the inhabitants of this colony would starve. Their husbandry is inefficient to feed them; a circumstance strongly characteristic of the merit of Nova Scotia as a colony. In this respect the farmers somewhat resemble the inhabitants of Devonshire, Dorsetshire, and Cornwall, before the northern colonies almost beat the mother country out of her share of the fishery. A very great portion of the English Newfoundland fishery was carried on by little farmers on the above mentioned coasts, who went out as soon as their spring seed was over, and returned before harvest: but in Nova Scotia it is the principal dependence of the people for their subsistence; and the only sale by which they can supply themselves with manufactures and other necessaries.

Their other export is lumber to the West Indies, but of this the whole province does not send out more than sells for five thousand pounds, and sometimes not so much. A part of the winter season is applied to cutting and sawing trees, but from the severity of the season the progress made in this work is inconsiderable, and yields no great profit to the farmer. The distance of those islands, with the vast superiority of the more southern colonies in climate for the winter execution of this work, lessen the profit of the Nova Scotians greatly.

Neither the fishery nor the export of lumber prove advantageous enough to render the settlers comparable in ease and wealth to the people of New England, New York, &c. or, I may add (and this is what I mean particularly to inculcate) to the same class of men among our farmers in Britain; except in the articles, not immaterial I allow, of shooting and fishing. But when the difference of climate is considered, the agreeable and healthy life which is lead even in winter in England; the friendly society enjoyed by our lowest classes of farmers in our country towns and village ale houses, upon market days and other meetings — the goodness of our roads, and the security of living, what can tempt any that feel such advantages to leave them in pursuit of imaginary happiness in the woods of Nova Scotia? Where the winters are miserably severe, where society is scarcely anywhere to be found, without a road in the country, and where a hostile race of Indians, till very lately, rendered the whole colony unhappily insecure. But the great superiority remains to be mentioned: promotion, if I may so express myself, is cheaper in England; for it appears from the preceding calculation, that a much larger sum is necessary to go to, and settle, with any advantage in Nova Scotia, even on the smallest scale, than would be sufficient to stock a good farm in England. The fishing apparatus is expensive and if that employment is neglected, the most profitable branch in the country is lost: the planters must degenerate into mere tartars, without a commodity for sale wherewith to buy manufactures. Let these circumstances be considered, and I think it must be apparent, that many of the emigrants who go to Nova Scotia with a view to practice at husbandry, &c. more profitable than that of Europe, must find themselves miserably deceived.

What sort of a country must it be where government is forced to give a bounty on raising corn to keep the people from starving? Yet this is the case with Nova Scotia. On all wheat raised it is one shilling a bushel; on barley, oats, and pulse, nine pence, and on roots six pence.

Relative to the islands of Cape Breton and St. John [i.e., P.E.I.] I must observe, that the former has only a few plantations, made by connivance, by fishermen, merely for the convenience of its situation for the cod fishery. But the island of St. John was granted to some well-known noblemen, since the peace, with a view to colonize the whole. The scheme was originally formed by the late Earl of Egmont; but he did not live to see any success attend the plan, which yet was laid as well as most could be for such climates, and the execution begun with great spirit, at an expense that would have brought into culture no inconsiderable tract of waste in England or in Scotland; and that the success would have been greater and infinitely more beneficial at home than in America, cannot for a moment be doubted. Several hundred settlers have been fixed there, yet they are at present supplied with food from New York instead of a beneficial system of pasturage and planting hemp, they have already, like all these northern colonists, taken to the fishery, as the only means of paying for the necessaries of life, in direct contradiction to the designs of their patrons. This is, and ever will be, the consequence of colonizing in such northern latitudes, where agriculture must ever be carried on with feebleness; where the climate is to the last degree rigorous; and where every spot is inhospitable and frigid. To plant colonies in such situations, is acting contrary to every rational idea of colonization.

I am sensible that the original idea of planting Nova Scotia was not so much upon a plan of agriculture as defence. The encroachments of the French made settlements and fortresses necessary and the neighbourhood of Louisburg rendered a safe port, as a retreat for the navy, indispensable. Upon this plan garrisons were necessary, and these could not be supported without an adjacent agriculture. There is something rational in this, but it extends no further than the necessity of the case, and not to the immense expense which the nation has suffered on account of the colony, amounting to considerably more than a million sterling; besides, this argument, since the peace, has no longer any validity, whereas we have acted as if it continued in full force; and after feeling the unprofitable expense of one snowy desert, have planted a second. This conduct would have been excusable had we possessed no other territories in America, but while such immense districts remained uncultivated to the south, it was really inexcusable upon every principle of good policy.


Written by johnwood1946

August 2, 2017 at 8:50 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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