Canada: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

The Story of the French in Acadie

The first mention of Acadie is to be found in the charter by which De Monts, one of Champlain's early patrons, obtained the right of colonizing in the country called "La Cadie," a vast territory which, according to the charter, spread from about New York to Montreal. But Acadie, as it appears in the story of Canada, merely included the Peninsula of Nova Scotia, the mainland of New Brunswick, part of the state of Maine, and Prince Edward Island. Its limits were always rather uncertain, varying according to its different owners. It was a beautiful country, with rich fertile soil, splendid harbours, and many rivers.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Canada by Beatrice Home


The accounts of the sufferings endured during the winter by the colonists on the St. Lawrence, made De Monts avoid that region when he led his expedition to the New World in the year 1604. He sailed farther south, and skirted the coast of Acadie, the Nova Scotia of to-day. He was accompanied by two ships, containing Champlain, just returned from his first visit to the St. Lawrence, the Baron de Pontrincourt, and a motley following of gentlemen of fortune, Huguenots, and thieves set free from the prisons of France. De Monts led this mixed company round the coast, naming various bays, until he came to the Bay of Fundy, where he discovered the beautiful opening now known as Annapolis Basin. The explorers were enchanted with the long stretch of calm water, sheltered by wooded hills from the storms of the bay outside. Pontrincourt, who had obtained a grant from De Monts, named the place Port Royal, and determined to build his home there, but the rest of the company went on to find another site.

After discovering the St. John River, which they named after the saint, De Monts and Champlain came to Passamaquody Bay, at the mouth of the St. Croix River, now the boundary of Maine. They chose an island in the bay on which to build the settlement, sending back Pontrincourt to France to get more supplies. The winter that followed was a very severe one, causing terrible suffering to the unfortunate settlers. Being on an island they were often cut off from obtaining any water or fuel from the mainland. Storms of snow and sleet beat down upon the roughly-built cabins, striving to find a way in through all the cracks. Champlain did his best to keep up the spirits of the colonists, but scurvy broke out, and when the spring came only forty-four were alive out of the seventy-nine who had begun the winter full of hope and courage. The spring brought Pontrincourt with fresh supplies from France, but the island had proved so unsuccessful that it was decided to abandon it and seek another and more suitable place. The leaders set out to explore the coast, but finding nothing better, they removed the colony to Port Royal, leaving no trace of their short residence upon the island.

With the winter Pontrincourt and De Monts returned to France, leaving Champlain in command at Port Royal De Monts had heard that some of his enemies at the French Court were trying to persuade the King to take away his charter, so he had to go back to look after his interests, The Indians near Port Royal, known as the Micmacs, had a very wise old chief, named Membertou, who treated the Frenchmen very kindly. Owing to his friendship, the milder weather, and the more sheltered situation, the settlers did not have to endure any of the hardships of the previous winter. But when the spring came and food was getting scarce, Champlain became very anxious when the ships from France with the expected supplies did not arrive. Two small boats, built by the settlers, started off to try to reach Newfoundland, where they hoped to come across some French fishing-boats. Just after they had gone Pontrincourt arrived with the longed-for supplies, together with more colonists, among whom was a lawyer from Paris, named Lescarbot, who became the historian of New France. De Monts had been obliged to remain behind.

All through the summer of 1606, Champlain and Pontrincourt went exploring down the coast of America, and when they returned, after a somewhat unfortunate voyage, they found the colony at Port Royal, which had been left in the charge of Lescarbot, very prosperous and full of good spirits. Lescarbot had inspired the people with his own bright good humour, and by keeping them employed—digging the fields, planting crops, and working in their gardens—he had kept them happy as well. Champlain, in the following winter, instituted what he called the "Order of a Good Time," an order that was to promote good-fellowship. It was the duty of the Grand Master to provide food for the members of the Order for one day, handing on his collar of office to another member when the chief meal was over. There was no scarcity of food, for the supplies from France were abundant, and fish and game were obtained from the Indians, who, while the meal was in progress, used to squat on the floor round the fire in the large raftered room of Pontrincourt's house. Membertou, the old chief; sat at the chief table, being much respected for his wisdom and kindness. In this way the dark winter days passed away pleasantly, and when the spring returned the colonists were full of hope, working enthusiastically on their farms. They were making a water-mill, and everything was looking very prosperous, when bad tidings came from home. A ship arrived from France, saying that De Monts' charter had been taken away, and that the colonists could no longer look for any help from the Mother-country. This obliged them to leave their sunny fields, and their homes by the sparkling waters of Port Royal, and sail back to France, leaving their settlement to the care of the Indians, who were deeply grieved at their departure. It was the misfortune of the French colonies that they depended too little upon their own efforts, and too much on royal favour, so that when it was withdrawn, as it very often was, the settlers were incapable of supporting themselves. Many lives had been lost, much money spent, and great efforts put forth to start a colony in Acadie, and now everything was abandoned because the King no longer smiled upon De Monts.

Three years later, in 1610, Pontrincourt returned to Port Royal, which had so delighted him that he could not rest in France. He brought with him a missionary-priest, Father La Fleche, who entered upon the task of converting the Micmacs with great zeal. Membertou and his tribe accepted his teaching gladly, the old chief being with difficulty prevented from fighting all those Indians who were not instantly converted. Champlain never came back to Acadie, but spent the rest of his life upon the St. Lawrence, as related in the last chapter.

Meanwhile, in France, the King (Henry IV.), who had granted the Huguenots freedom to follow their own religion, had been murdered, and the Court of the new King (Louis XIII.) was filled with the most ardent supporters of the Catholic faith. There was a great desire to win souls for the Church, and the Queen and the ladies of the Court being very generous, the funds were soon supplied to send the black-robed Jesuits into the pathless forests of America, to suffer death willingly if only they might convert the heathen. One of the Queen's ladies, Madame de Guercheville, bought out all the shares of the Huguenots in Acadie, and obtained a grant from the King of all North America, from Florida to the St. Lawrence.

Two Jesuits, Father Biard and Father Masse, went out with an expedition in 1613, to try and start a colony near the Penobscot River in Acadie (now in the state of Maine). They had barely begun this settlement, which they called St. Sauveur, before they were attacked by a British ship, led by Samuel Argall of Virginia. Argall claimed that the French were invading territory belonging to King James I., who had decided that all North America was his, by right of the first discovery of the continent by Cabot. Seizing the colony, Argall took most of the settlers as prisoners to Virginia, leaving the rest to their fate in an open boat, to be rescued, after much suffering, by a French trading-ship.

Hearing of Port Royal from the prisoners, the Governor of Virginia sent Argall to capture it. He found this an easy task, as Pontrincourt was not expecting any enemies and had left it practically defenceless. Argall, who was a man without any mercy, burnt all the buildings erected with such high hopes, and destroyed all the crops, leaving the colonists to pass the winter as best they could, without either homes or food. He, himself, returned to Virginia to be knighted by his grateful King.

By this time England had begun to occupy a minute portion of the vast continent that she claimed for herself. There was a flourishing little colony at Jamestown in Virginia, and settlements began to be made in Newfoundland. A Scotch favourite of King James, Sir William Alexander, to whom had been given all the land of Acadie, was busy with a scheme to people his new property. In the meantime France had obtained a stronghold upon the St. Lawrence, at Quebec, and had a colony in Acadie.

After the disaster at Port Royal, Pontrincourt returned to France, where he died a soldier's death. His son Biencourt remained in Acadie and rebuilt part of Port Royal. When Biencourt died he left his possessions and rights to his friend Charles de la Tour, who had been his faithful companion. Disaster again overtook the French in Acadie, for Admiral Kirke, after defeating the fleet laden with supplies for Quebec, took possession of Acadie in the name of Sir William Alexander. Charles de la Tour refused to submit and shut himself up in a little fort, near Cape Sable. When peace was proclaimed between France and England in 1632 De la Tour was rewarded for his constancy by being made Lieutenant-General of Acadie.

France having been persuaded by Champlain that it was necessary for her honour to maintain her hold upon the New World, now determined to make Acadie into a really strong colony. A friend of Richelieu, Isaac de Razilly, was sent out as Governor, and with him came Charles Daunay, Seigneur of Charnisay, who was to prove a source of great trouble in the rising colony. With the death of Razilly, in 1636, a quarrel arose between De la Tour and Charnisay, who both claimed the right of succeeding as Governor.

Having considerable influence at Court, Charnisay, after persistent efforts, succeeded in getting De la Tour's commission taken from him, and an order recalling him to France to be tried. It is not surprising that De la Tour did not submit quietly to this injustice, but from within the strong walls of his fort at the mouth of the St. John River, defied his enemy. He was supported by some French soldiers, who remained loyal to their leader, and by a number of Indians; but his chief strength lay in the courage and devotion of his beautiful wife. The first attack made by Charnisay against the fort failed utterly, owing to the resourcefulness of the defenders. When the assault was beaten back Charnisay tried to blockade the fort, but De la Tour and his wife managed to slip out and reach a ship from La Rochelle, which carried them to Boston. The men of Boston, English puritans, who, a little more than twenty years before had left their homes and fled across the ocean to seek freedom for their faith, came to the assistance of De la Tour. With five ships they surprised Charnisay, driving him back to Port Royal.

His anger against his foe being only inflamed by his defeat, Charnisay two years later in 1645, once more fell upon Fort la Tour. This time he felt sure of an easy victory, for he knew that De la Tour was absent. But he had forgotten Lady de la Tour, who so inspired the defenders, that they made an heroic resistance in the face of fearful odds. For nearly three months the fort held out, though supplies were getting low, and even the ammunition ran short. But the end was inevitable, for no ship could get through the blockade. At last Charnisay determined upon a great attack, and, landing his men, stormed the landward side. With stubborn resistance the defenders succeeded in keeping him off for two days, till, through the help of a traitor, who opened the gates, Charnisay obtained an entrance into the fort. Still De la Tour's followers fought on. Fearing that he might after all be beaten by a woman, Charnisay offered honourable terms in consideration of the heroism displayed by the defence. No sooner had Lady de la Tour consented to the terms and had handed over the fort, than Charnisay tore up the paper, and proceeded to hang her brave devoted followers before her face, She herself was conveyed by the shameless Charnisay to Port Royal, where she died a few weeks later. Now that his enemy was completely ruined, Charnisay enjoyed a few years of prosperity and undivided rule in Acadie, but, just when all things were smiling upon him, he was drowned in the river at Port Royal.

Directly he heard the news, De la Tour, who had been wandering homeless in New England, returned to France, put his case before the King, and obtained such restitution as was possible. He was restored to his estates and made Governor of Acadie. Just when good fortune seemed to have settled upon him after his stormy life, an English fleet appeared in 1654 off the coast of Acadie, and captured both Fort la Tour and Port Royal. England was not at war with France, but with Holland, and the fleet had set out from England to capture the Dutch settlements on the Hudson River. Hearing at Boston that England and Holland had made peace, the fleet, disgusted at losing the opportunity of fighting, took Acadie on its way home. Cromwell, who was then ruling in England, refused to give up Acadie to the French, but he listened to De la Tour, who had gone to England to plead his cause, and granted him a third share in a company to whom had been granted the whole of Acadie. Having suffered so many reverses of fortune, De la Tour was anxious for a peaceful life, so, selling out his shares, he retired from the historical stage of Acadie. England held the colony till Charles II. returned it to France in 1667 by the Treaty of Breda.