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DESSAULLES, JEAN – Volume VI (1821-1835)

d. 20 June 1835 in Saint-Hyacinthe, Lower Canada


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

The Atlantic Region

By reason of their geographic position it was inevitable that the Atlantic Provinces should be the first part of Canada to be known to Europeans. Just who the first European explorers of the region were, however, may never be determined. It is now accepted that North America was “discovered” by Europeans many centuries before the time of Columbus; yet conclusive evidence for pre-Norse voyages is so far lacking; and following the Norse voyages the evidence again fades out so that until the late 15th century we are left with only a few more legendary accounts of European visits to America.

With the last quarter of the 15th century we come to a very different period. Expanding trade, advances in the science of navigation, and international rivalries all pointed, as we can now see, to the imminence of a “break through” in western Europe’s problem of penetrating the Atlantic and finding a short route to the Far East. In such a “break through” the region of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Provinces was bound to become a critical area – a focus of international rivalries and of the earliest activities in trade and settlement. Even before the voyages of Columbus the rich fisheries of the West Atlantic were apparently known to fishermen from western Europe; and to quote J. A. Williamson’s The Cabot voyages and Bristol discovery under Henry VII (London, 1962), “there is no doubt that from 1480, if not earlier, the merchants of Bristol were making voyages for the discovery of unknown lands to the westward of the British Isles” [see John Jay and Thomas Croft]. That they succeeded before John Cabot’s voyage of 1497 is stated in the recently discovered John Day letter: “It is considered certain that the cape of the said land was found and discovered in the past by the men from Bristol who found ‘Brasil’ as your lordship well knows” (L.‑A. Vigneras, “The Cape Breton landfall: 1494 or 1497; note on a letter from John Day,” CHR, XXXVIII (1957), 228). The Bristol men concerned may have been Robert Thorne and Hugh Eliot. In any event, John Cabot’s voyages and his discovery or rediscovery of 1497 were widely reported in his own day, although from that time until the present opinions on his exact course, on the location of the “country of the Grand Khan” or the “Island of the Seven Cities,” and on the role of his son Sebastian have varied. It is now generally conceded that Sebastian struck farther north on his voyage of 1508 and from his account, if it is accepted, it may be deduced that he passed through Hudson Strait to the mouth of Hudson Bay. He believed he had discovered the opening of the northwest passage to Cathay.

While John Cabot was possibly the first to explore Canada’s eastern coast, he was soon followed in the early years of the 16th century by other daring adventurers eager to probe the North Atlantic and to profit from western discoveries; among them João Fernandes, the Corte-Reals – Gaspar and Miguel – and a few years later João Alvares Fagundes, all from Portugal; from France sailed Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524; and from Spain (1524–25), Estevão Gomes. Especially notable for Canadian history were the voyages of Cartier in the mid 1530’s, not only because of their importance in the continuing quest for a sea route to the Orient, but because they gave Europeans their first clear report on eastern Canada. To Cartier goes the honour of discovering Île Saint‑Jean (Prince Edward Island), northern New Brunswick, the Gaspé peninsula, and the majestic St. Lawrence which he systematically explored and mapped. The narrative of his explorations is of the greatest value, containing as it does a careful description of the area he saw and the Indians he encountered. “It does not seem too much to say,” wrote W. F. Ganong, “that Cartier’s voyages … are the key to the cartography of the Gulf for the remainder of the century” (“Cartography of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Cartier to Champlain,” RSCT, 2nd ser., VII (1889), sect.II, 51).

Thus by 1535 these maritime explorers had probed the coast from Greenland to Maine and unveiled the expanse of Canada’s eastern regions to Europeans. Their voyages, however, brought no more immediate permanent result in the way of settlement than did the discoveries of Cabot. The problems of the northern environment were forbidding, such obvious sources of wealth as gold and precious stones, tobacco, and spices were lacking, and many more years were to pass before a successful interest in colonization could be aroused.

Cabot’s voyage had turned the attention of men of other nations to the fisheries beyond Iceland which Bristol men had been seeking since the 1480’s. Cabot and his companions, said Raimondo de Soncino in a letter to the Duke of Milan dated 18 Dec. 1497, affirmed that “the sea there is swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net, but in baskets let down with a stone so that it sinks in the water.… These same English … say that they could bring so many fish that this kingdom would have no further need of Iceland …” (Williamson, Cabot voyages (1962), 210). Although the Iceland fishery remained of primary interest to English fishermen in the first half of the 16th century, word of the new discovery soon spread and the annual voyages of Breton, French, and Portuguese vessels to Newfoundland began, for fish was in constant and heavy demand in Europe as an article of diet.

The Bretons came as early as 1504 and the Portuguese in 1506. The Normans Jean Denys and Thomas Aubert introduced to their compatriots the fishing grounds off the Avalon Peninsula and Bonavista. Portuguese fishermen also established themselves on the east shore after 1506. In 1512 a Basque captain of Capbreton was given permission to go the new lands and many Basques were undoubtedly fishing here by the first quarter of the century (La Morandière, Histoire de la pêche française de la morue, I, 227–28). When Cartier sailed through in 1534, Bretons were frequenting the Straits of Belle Isle. H. A. Innis (The cod fisheries, 25) deduces from the date of departure of the vessels that the Banks fishery developed after the shore fishery, towards the middle of the 16th century.

It should be noted that the methods developed in carrying on the fishery had profound effects on the history of the region. The French and Portuguese, who possessed abundant salt supplies, used the “wet” or “green” method of curing in which the cod were dumped fresh into the ships’ holds, layers of salt serving as a preservative. The French were able by this method to exploit the Banks fishery while the English, who lacked salt and had to buy supplies from the Portuguese, were limited to the fishery off Newfoundland’s east coast. During the third quarter of the 16th century the English developed a “dry” method of preserving fish: cod was cleaned, lightly salted, and dried in the sun. As the Portuguese and Spanish fisheries declined towards the end of the century the English found an increasing market for their dried cod in the Mediterranean countries. French Basque fishermen and their financial backers in La Rochelle gradually adopted the dry method to supply the Spanish market. A large and increasingly widespread home market encouraged Bretons, Normans, and Biscains to exploit other fisheries off the south, west, and north shores of Newfoundland, off Gaspé, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and in the Gulf, where larger and superior cod were to be found in abundance.

At shore bases in these regions the fishermen came in contact with the Indians who wanted European goods, and trade soon sprang up as a highly profitable sideline. In Newfoundland itself the white men had few dealings with the Beothuk Indians who moved to out-of-the-way places in the island, probably because of persecution. On the mainland, contact was made chiefly with the Micmacs and Malecites who inhabited the eastern seaboard and with whom the French were to have a more successful relationship, making these tribes in fact their staunch allies. Of all the furs obtained by the fishermen, beaver pelts came after mid-century to have the greatest value owing to the discovery by hatters of their usefulness for making felt. Soon there was a great demand for furs and some of the French fishermen decided as early as 1569 to make the trip to Canada for furs alone. Toward the end of the century the fisheries and the fur trade reached such large proportions that groups of merchants began to seek charters of monopoly for such trade, the first being granted by France to Jacques Noël in 1588. However, monopolies were impossible to enforce effectively because of the number of men striving for quick profits from furs, and keen competition convinced the merchants that trading posts should be established to enable them to be close to the supply, and in a better position to compete. The fur trade, therefore, created the monopoly system which provided the financial base for subsequent exploration and settlement.

In Newfoundland, however, in contrast with the mainland, the fishery remained dominant and it was out of the fishery that the beginning of settlement emerged. Since the dry fishery required more permanent footholds than did the green fishery on the Banks, men from the fishing vessels began to stay behind for the winter, to cut timber for buildings and other shore equipment and to protect property. As we have seen, the English interests were largely concentrated along the east coast of the Avalon peninsula including St. John’s, and England came to assume a kind of overlordship of this region and of the fishery carried on there. By the end of the 16th century a nationalistic element was added to the purely commercial one as Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s ceremonial claim of possession for Queen Elizabeth in 1583 and Sir Bernard Drake’s damaging attack on the Spanish Newfoundland fleet in 1585 indicate.

Meanwhile France had been able to pay little attention to Canada. For 60 years following Cartier’s voyages religious strife engaged her to the exclusion of officially sponsored overseas enterprises. The merchants and seamen of Brittany and Normandy were thus left largely to their own devices. With the end of the century, however, there were stirrings of new interest. Troilus de La Roche de Mesgouez’s ill-starred attempt in 1598 to establish a settlement on Sable Island (Île de Bourbon) was a dismal failure; but the triumph of Henri IV in uniting France had already set the stage for a new period of French exploration and settlement in the Gulf and St. Lawrence region. Since the crown was too poor to bear the costs involved, the obvious solution seemed to be the granting of a charter requiring the encouragement of settlement in return for the exclusive right to trade in furs. Such a charter was granted in 1603 to Pierre Du Gua de Monts, and in 1604 a fort was established at Île Sainte‑Croix in Acadia, which in the next year was abandoned in favour of a new site, Port-Royal (Annapolis Royal). Though the founding of Quebec in 1608 meant the transfer of the major French effort to the St. Lawrence, the establishment of Port-Royal is a milestone, since it proved that Europeans could live the year round in Canada. Not only did it thus mark the beginning of French settlement in what is now Canada, it was the beginning also of French Acadia which has remained a permanent element in Canadian culture to the present day. It should be said that Acadia in the 17th century was an ill-defined region; roughly it may be stated to have comprised all of the present New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, most of northern Maine, and a part of Quebec south of the St. Lawrence.

In selecting Acadia as the site of his venture de Monts, who had already been to Tadoussac on the lower St. Lawrence, reasoned that, lying farther south than the St. Lawrence, it would be free of the bitter winter cold, that this area might reveal a passage through to Asia, and that it was close to the fishery. As in the St. Lawrence valley, the establishment of early Acadia owed much to religious motives and the support of missionary efforts by wealthy patrons in France. Thus religion entered into the tangled skein of rivalries which beset Acadia in the 17th century, setting Frenchmen not only against Englishmen but against one another, as we shall see.

England also shared the increased interest in New World settlement which developed in the early years of the 17th century, an interest shown both in Newfoundland and in Virginia but with very different results. In 1610 the London and Bristol company was chartered by James I with the object of carrying on trade and founding a colony in Newfoundland. In the same year John Guy of Bristol established a settlement at Cuper’s Cove (Cupids) on Conception Bay under the terms of this charter. Guy’s colony lasted about 18 years but it was not a great success, and this was also the fate of two other attempts made in the next few years, notably that by Sir George Calvert (Lord Baltimore) who established his little colony at Ferryland but soon found the climate and prospects too discouraging.

These difficulties were not the only obstacles to colonization, however. Fishing settlements were already scattered along the coast, and these fitted into the plans of the London and Bristol “sack-ship” owners who were interested in promoting their carrying trade in white wine and bullion, and in buying fish in Newfoundland for export, particularly to Spain. But such plans flew directly in the face of the interests of the West Country fishermen from the ports of Dorset, Devon, Somerset, and Cornwall, who, as G. O. Rothney says, “wished to have as many foreigners as possible competing with the Londoners in purchasing their product and did not want to have inhabitants competing … in selling it” (Newfoundland from international fishery to Canadian province (CHA Booklets, X, Ottawa, 1959), 6). The West Country men had established their fishery by annual voyages and by early in the 17th century they were sending as many as 300 ships and 3,000 fishermen across the Atlantic each summer, while 20,000 men were employed in England. Their dry-fishing operations required extensive shore space in all the good coves and harbours and over the years they had come to view Newfoundland as almost their own property. “Official settlement meant civil administration, which meant in turn, regular immigration, the growth of settlement, and the loss of the fishing monopoly to the inhabitants as had been the case in New England” (G. S. Graham, “Britain’s defence of Newfoundland: a survey from the discovery to the present day,” CHR, XXIII (1942), 260–79).

Included in the 17th-century nationalistic outlook was a belief, generally accepted by the European countries concerned, that the fisheries were a nursery for seamen. Throughout the century the West Country merchants with their immense stake in the fisheries would use this argument persuasively through Parliament to curb settlement in Newfoundland. The bitter conflict of interests prevented the establishment of civil government in Newfoundland not only in this period but indeed until early in the 19th century.

Through this long period of governmental anarchy the balance of power swayed back and forth, with the settlers as the principal victims, even though they were also participants in the violence and bloodshed which erupted at intervals in a most vicious fashion. To all the other troubles were added from time to time pirate raids by such famous buccaneers as Peter Easton and Sir Henry Mainwaring. Newfoundland thus unhappily became, to use the apt phrase of one writer, “the sport of historic misfortune” (PRO, Acts of P.C., col. ser., 1613–80, xxix).

On 24 Jan. 1633/34 the West Countrymen appeared to win a decisive victory by obtaining, in letters patent known as the Western Charter, regulations of unspecified duration which subordinated the settlers and the shoreline to their control. Among the traditional practices now given the force of law was that of recognizing as admiral of a harbour the captain of the first ship to arrive in the spring. The fishing admirals had the authority to enforce the Western Charter in their respective harbours in Newfoundland. Appeal was theoretically possible to the mayor of any of the eight West Country ports, but the mayors always backed up the West Country admirals.

In 1637 the extremely unsettled state of affairs was complicated by a proprietary grant of the whole island to Sir David Kirke and his associates, backed by the London sack-ship owners, though it was specified that the regulations of the Western Charter must be respected. For a short time, Kirke, seated at Ferryland, gave the troubled shoreline a period of peace; but in the Civil War crisis he was marked as a supporter of the crown, and with the triumph of the Parliamentary cause he was brought down. Arrested in 1651 and taken a prisoner to England, he died in 1654. Commissioners were sent out by the Commonwealth government [see John Treworgie], but neither in the 1650’s nor in the Restoration period was a permanent solution for Newfoundland’s conflict of interests worked out, and the settlers remained the principal victims of the uncertainty. In fact, the pressure for their entire removal, mooted at several points, actually increased until in 1671 an order-in-council declared that the regulation in effect since the 1630’s but hitherto disregarded which forbade any planter from living within six miles of the shore would be enforced. In 1675 the commodore of the annual convoy of fishing vessels, Sir John Berry, was instructed to warn Newfoundlanders that in the following year they would be removed either to England or to the West Indies. On his return to England, however, Berry so vigorously defended the settlers, supported by determined Newfoundlanders such as John Downing and Thomas Oxford, that the plan of expulsion was never carried out, and provisions in an act of Parliament of 1699 actually made the situation of the settlers a little easier.

In the last year of the century, because of the failure to enforce England’s mercantilistic customs regulations, Newfoundland became the centre of a remarkable unrestricted re-export and smuggling trade linking both sides of the Atlantic. “Newfoundland was a great hole in the wall of national self-sufficiency that the mercantilists sought to erect around the mother country and her colonies” (Lounsbury, British fishery at Nfld., 202). The decade of the 1690’s was, however, as we shall see, overshadowed by the Anglo-French war which broke out in 1689.

Meanwhile the situation in Acadia had been scarcely less stormy as a result not only of conflict among the French themselves but also of international rivalries, especially that between England and France. Both nations claimed the region, England on the basis of prior discovery, France by right of prior settlement. The Anglo-French struggle for Acadia was to last into the 18th century. It began in 1613 when the English captain Samuel Argall destroyed Port-Royal. This had no permanent result since Port-Royal was repaired and reoccupied by the French under Charles de Biencourt de Saint-Just, and outposts were established at Cap de Sable, La Hève, and Pentagouet on the Penobscot.

However, in 1621 a new element came into the situation when James I granted Acadia to Sir William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, under the name of New Scotland. In 1624 he was authorized to create, for a fee, baronets of Nova Scotia; and in 1629, under his son, Sir William Alexander the younger, a settlement was attempted. Its short and confusing history, in which the Alexanders, Sir David Kirke, the Saint‑Étienne de La Tours, Sir James Stewart (Lord Ochiltree), Charles Daniel, and others were involved, illustrates the bewildering complexity of rivalries, personal and international, in the Acadia of this early period. In 1627 hostilities broke out between England and France; and the English gained control of Acadia as they did also of Quebec. This transfer of Acadia to England, the first of three changes of ownership during the century, was short-lived. In 1632 Acadia, like Quebec, was returned to France, and the Alexanders’ attempt at colonization came to an end.

France now decided that peasants should be sent as colonists to the New World and the first of these arrived in Acadia with Governor Isaac de Razilly in 1632. They settled at La Hève and later moved to Port-Royal. These farmers were the first of the Acadians, a sturdy and vigorous people who showed a great love of the land and were unusually prolific. As their numbers grew, they spread through Acadia in a most successful experiment in colonization. Yet it must be said that this was achieved in the face of the neglect of the mother country and the hostility of the English who were establishing strong colonies to the south. It was the gentlemen adventurers, the trading companies, and this little band of pioneers who struggled to maintain French interests in Acadia.

However, for a number of years the situation was a nearly chaotic one. By 1640 Acadia was governed by three men – Menou d’Aulnay, Nicolas Denys, and Charles de Saint‑Étienne de La Tour – each with his own territory to administer and in which he had exclusive right to trade. Fighting between the three for supreme control broke out and greatly hampered colonization. With d’Aulnay’s death in 1650, peace was restored and more settlers were placed on the land. In 1654 a British force under Robert Sedgwick captured all of Acadia except for the extreme northern portion, but during the next 13 years the English proprietors, Temple and Crowne, made no effective attempt to colonize Acadia, and in 1667 by the Treaty of Breda it was returned to France.

In the Newfoundland area the beginning of the 1660’s was marked by a significant development in the rivalry of England and France. The great Colbert may be credited with the encouragement of the natural tendency of the French towards expansion in the north Atlantic, but with the aim of naval as well as commercial supremacy in accordance with the mercantilist plan. French fishermen had controlled the south coast of Newfoundland for many years but there were few permanent settlers. Plaisance (Placentia) was fortified in 1662, under Du Perron, to serve as a secure base for the widespread fishery, as a port of call for convoys going to and from Quebec, and as a guardian of French possessions in North America. Plaisance, attached for governmental purposes to New France, became a bastion of French power and influence until finally lost by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.

With the reoccupation of Acadia in 1670 the French government was coming to be more concerned with the effectiveness of her Acadian settlements. It was noted that although great profits had been realized through the fur trade and fishing, insufficient progress had been made in the colonization of the new land, largely owing to the trading companies’ lack of interest in settling the country. So it was that the seigneurial system was introduced, the first seigneuries being granted in 1672 to Martin d’Aprendestiguy de Martignon, to Joybert de Soulanges, and Jacques Potier* de Saint‑Denis. While almost all the most advantageous places in Acadia were given as seigneurial tracts of land, this system proved a failure both for land cultivation and for settlement because the majority of the grantees did little or nothing to develop their holdings. A further hindrance to settlement was the repeatedly changing ownership of the country.

Both Acadia and Newfoundland suffered from raids by the Dutch during the second and third Anglo-Dutch Wars. In 1665 the Dutch, under de Ruyter, pillaged vessels and shore equipment in the outposts; they attacked St. John’s in the next year and Ferryland in 1673. In 1676 the Dutch also raided Plaisance and destroyed the French fishing fleet in the area. Then, too, a Dutch ship under Jurriaen Aernoutsz had captured the French forts at Port-Royal, Penobscot, and Jemseg in 1674, and declared Acadia to be Dutch territory. By 1678, however, the Dutch had retired from the scene. There then followed ten years of relative peace, although unauthorized attacks on rival ships and establishments continued.

With the outbreak of general war between France and England in 1689 the conflict in the Gulf region entered a new phase which was to last with interruptions until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. In Boston, plans were quickly made for a new attack on Acadia, and in 1690 Sir William Phips set out with an expedition which captured Port-Royal, the Gut of Canso, and La Hève, though it failed at Quebec. At the same time, the French were busily engaged repairing and strengthening their fortifications at Plaisance. The garrison of regular soldiers was augmented and a series of privateer raids launched from that base on the island’s English settlements. In retaliation, an English force raided Plaisance in 1690, tortured the governor, Antoine Parat, and removed the guns, but the town was returned to French control. Two years later it withstood a cannonade by units of the British navy and, over the next few years, Plaisance served as the base of operations for a series of hit-and-run attacks, in which Pierre Le Moyne* d’Iberville figured largely and which destroyed all the English settlements in Newfoundland with the exception of Bonavista and Carbonear. Thus the colonists paid for England’s failure to resolve the problem of Newfoundland settlement; defence of the ports rested with the navy since none had been fortified.

Both Acadia and Newfoundland were thus embroiled in the clash between the two great powers. France had not been content to see the English win partial control in Acadia in 1690. Joseph Robinau de Villebon was appointed governor in 1691 and he succeeded in reconquering the whole of Acadia. What is more, from his post at Naxouat (Nashwaak) he directed a spirited counter-offensive against Massachusetts, the marauding bands of French and Indians which he organized carrying out a series of bloody raids on New England settlements. In 1696, a New England expedition under Colonel Benjamin Church* destroyed an Acadian settlement at Beaubassin (Chignictou) and, led by Colonel John Hathorne*, attacked Villebon’s fort at Nashwaak, where it met stout opposition and was forced to retire. Late in the next year, the Treaty of Ryswick brought the fighting to a temporary end. Just prior to the signing of the treaty, England had sent two regiments and a naval squadron to recapture Newfoundland, and when they arrived at St. John’s they found not a single building left standing, stark evidence of the destruction that had taken place during the war years.

The peace treaty settled a few issues and in 1701 war was renewed. The Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch were gone, but the grim struggle for economic and military control of the whole of North America from Newfoundland to the Antilles would go on; and in that struggle Canada’s Atlantic region would continue to figure prominently as a focus of tensions and rivalries because of its great strategic importance as the eastern flank of the continent.


Director, Centennial Centre of Science and Technology, Toronto, Ontario. 


George MacBeath, The Atlantic Region, in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, revised edition, 1986, http://admin.biographi.ca/en/special.php?project_id=49&p=9.


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