When France decided to colonise Ile Saint-Jean in 1720, settlers from France and parts of Acadia came and established the various towns built on present-day Price Edward Island. It was intended that forts in the style of Vauban should be built in key locations and I will discuss those in a future post. Suffice it to say that by the 1730s, a four-pointed star fort was in the process of being built at Port la Joye, the capital of Ile Saint-Jean. An image of it—reality or wishful thinking—has survived in this splendid 1734 watercolour of the settlement with accompanying plans.
The inscription under the top panorama is the following, indicating in red which buildings had been constructed by 1734. A loose translation follows.
PLAN DUN FORT PROJETTE AU PORT LA JOYE A L’ISLE ST. JEAN pour mettre en Sureté le Detachemt. dans le quel on a representé en colour rouge les Battimt. qui on estés Establis L’Année 1734, avec la Veüe prise du coté du Port.
(Plan for a fort intended to be constructed at Port la Joye on Ile Saint Jean to provide security for the administration and soldiers. In the plan the structures that have been constructed in 1734 are coloured in red. The picture was drawn from the side of the port/installation.)
The panorama of Port la Joye is exceptionally fine and perfectly represents the landscape of today, large parts of which have survived untouched.
There are several details of this watercolour I would like to show you. The first is the concept of the fort that was planned.
Detail of Proposed Fort Plan
It was to be a very basic enclosure with four earth bastions surrounded by a palisade of pointed pickets. Running down to the shore was to be a large bastion called a barbette. Inside the fort, there was to be a chapel with rooms for a chaplain and a surgeon general. The officers and soldiers—about 60 of them—were to be housed in separate buildings. There was very little money set aside for this and so the cheapest form of construction was employed and that was the technique called en picquet, slender trees sharpened and driven into the ground, held together at the top with some kind of wall plate and then roofed over. Detailed plans and elevations for each of these buildings survive, drawn by the engineer Verrier Fils.
Things did not go as planned and the ordered fort we see in this drawing, based on the principles of the great engineer Vauban, may only have been begun by the time the fort was destroyed by the English in 1745. It was completely demolished at the time of the British deportation of the Acadians in 1758. In spite of its attractive appearance in the watercolour, the fort, with its small bastions and shallow fosse-work, did not have much substance to it.
There is a plan of the site that was produced in 1749 when Port la Joye tried to rebuild after the English raid that had destroyed everything.
At the bottom of the key to the plan, there is a vital note that suggests that perhaps all the buildings that comprised Port la Joye were built in the same manner:
Tous ces logements, ont été faits en Piquets et en Planches en 1749. Leur Construction sera de peu de durée, attendu qu’ils n’ont été considéré que provisionnels, et ont coutés suivant le toisé qui en a été faits la somme de 9169-17-8.
All these structures were built en piquet and boards in 1749. They will be short-lived considering they were built for the short-term and were priced following the dimensions (toises = 6-foot units) that could be bought for 9169 – 17 – 8 in the money of the day.
A vital combination of evidence provides us with an official description of how the buildings of Port la Joye and, by extension, the buildings of the various settlements on Ile Saint-Jean, were constructed. This information consists of the note I quoted from the site map, and this extremely detailed account of expenses kept in 1749 by a certain Gautier, a local inhabitant. It is very thorough and covers all expenses for every component of each structure. Schmeisser provides a translation (not always accurate) in her Appendix C. I have appended this document below, and for the moment I provide you with the relevant details concerned with construction using the en picquet technique.
[These buildings are] made of upright picquets (pickets) and altogether, including the lean-to, and small sheds (?) comprised 60 running toises [toise approximately 6 feet] and two pouces [French inches] in length.
The pickets for the buildings were 9 pieds [feet] high and approximately 6 pouces (inches) in [diameter] and buried 18 pouces. All the picquets are joined the one to the other and fastened above by stringers (wall plate) and joined using mortice and tenon. The said pickets being rounded at the joint have been covered over with torchis (a mixture of chopped straw and clay).
This drawing, whose source I have lost, gives you an idea of how these houses were put together.
If we try to convert these measurements into a credible description of the interior spaces, we conclude that the ceilings must only have been around seven feet tall. The floor would have consisted of two layers of planks resting on logs with a layer of soil or some other insulating material between the layers. This was the custom of the day in New France.
The Second Detail
The second detail is the righthand portion, which contains the village as Verrier the Younger saw it. In this detail from the remarkable 1730 map of the Hillsborough River in the French National Archives, which identifies not only the reclaimed marshlands but also the names of all the property owners, we can see exactly who owned the various pieces of land across from the fort. This can help us make sense of the drawing that Verrier did of the village.
While, as he asserts, his drawing of the fort and its buildings is partly fantasy, there is no reason whatsoever to draw, in such detail, a fantasy village.
The two streams still drain on either side of this small headland where one supposes the more important part of the town was situated. Prominently in the centre, with a large forecourt with an ornamental gate in the palisade wall, is an exceptionally fine building, a five-bay centre-plan hipped roof château, as the French called their country houses. It is a large presence, bigger than the others. In the 1730 map, this corresponds to the property given to de Pensens, the military commander at the fort. De Pensens was a career officer in the French military who was repeatedly passed over when promotions became due. His assignment to Ile Saint-Jean with a corps of 20 or so soldiers was a slap in the face, considering that he commanded twice as many when he was at Louisbourg. To silence his complaints, he was given 500 livres to build a house, one assumes separate from the quarters he might have had in the fort. This house, as the records I quote above show, was most likely built en picquet and, characteristic of that style of building, rotting at ground level would have begun immediately. De Pensens complains loudly in his communications to his superiors about the condition not only of his house but of the official buildings generally.
It must have been a great relief, after frequent mental health leaves to Louisbourg, and even France, when de Pensens retired to France in his very frail old age after having commanded the garrison at Port la Joye from 1727 to 1736.
In the detail from the Verrier Fils panorama, we can see the houses of the other settlers who are recorded in the 1730 map. It is believed that on the right side of the view there is a building with a spire that might have been a church. There is no information that I have come across that supports this.
What were the interior spaces of these houses like?
All of these houses would have been built on French models current in the areas of France where the various settlers came from. There would be regional differences, particularly concerning bed cupboards, that I will discuss in the next post. There would also be differences in the houses of the Acadian settlers who rushed to Ile Saint-Jean to obtain new rich farmland. The Acadians had been in Nova Scotia since the seventeenth century and it is most likely that, through time, their house arrangements would have reflected adaptations to local needs and conditions.
There is a plan that has survived of a large house in Upper Brittany that dates to the end of the seventeenth century. Its size suggests that it may have been a guest house. In this rare drawing, every piece of furniture is drawn to scale and carefully labelled so that we know the basic furniture of a French house in Acadia and how it was arranged.
The house was rectangular, consisting of one large common room with a section for storage and with the barn attached to the house. The heat from the bodies of farm animals and their manure could provide much-needed warmth in cold winters. The main focal point of the house was its large fireplace, designed to burn logs. Attached to its stonework were various metal cranes that swung in and out and which held the various cooking vessels over the fire. Intensity of heat was controlled by moving the pot closer or further away from the flames. Benches were also placed on either side of the fireplace for the occupants to gather to sit next to the fire.
Beds from the Middle Ages onward were curtained for privacy and to cut drafts. In some parts of Northern France, the beds were built as cupboards entered by a small opening. These were called lit clos (enclosed bed) in France, but the historian Georges Arsenault believes that among Island Acadians they were called cabanes. Indeed, I remember my Acadian grandparents referring to beds as cabanes. I have made the assumption that these kinds of beds were common in Acadia among the working class and will discuss this in the next post. Soldiers would have slept in bunk beds.
The most common piece of furniture was the chest, used to store personal possessions. They were the height of a chair, and they could be used as seating. That kind of chest survived well into the twentieth century and my family had several. There were tall cupboards called armoires in which household linens and such things were stored. The form survived into our times as bedroom closets. Against the wall there would be a hutch or sideboard of some sort, probably quite similar to the ones made by our British ancestors and still found in antique shops. The base had doors at the bottom and drawers above. The back rose to the ceiling and consisted of plate racks. There would have been simple wooden chairs, with little decoration.
A masters thesis written by Sara J. Beanlands, which transcribes and annotates a manuscript by Rev. Dr. Andrew Brown called “Removal of the French inhabitants of Nova Scotia by Lieut. Governor Lawrence & His Majesty’s Council in October 1755” contains a valuable source of information on the Acadian house that supports what I have been discussing above.
These villages would have pleased the poet (45) of the year, being placed, between the breathing forest & the sounding shore, on the first brow of the upland, near a brook that seldom failed in summer & that continued to flow during the severest frost. A Cabin of rough logs, standing East & West & about twenty-four feet square, satisfied the modest wishes of the Cultivator. . . .Some used a roof of battened deals ingeniously fortified by a coating of birch bark; while others preferred the warmer covering of wheaten thatch, under which their forefathers had lived & died. The common people had only a single apartment, seven feet high & surmounted with a loft, in which they deposited their valuables. Only the Priests & Elders built houses of larger dimensions with sitting rooms & sleeping closets. With these slight exceptions, the architecture & distribution of the family dwelling conformed to a single pattern.
The chimney rose in the East gable. There was a door near the center of each side wall, & one in the West end of the house. Each side wall contained two neat windows of clear glass trimmed with some care. Three beds, of the finest feathers & a sheeting of white linen, occupied part of the Area; the two first so disposed of on the opposite side walls as to leave an open space of Eight feet in the length in front of the fire; & the third on the north of the west door but placed on purpose to form a small recess between it & the other bed on the same side, which being closed in with a screen and having a communication with the court yard by the North door, held the milk & daily provisions of the family. The free space to the front of the fire, which served at once as a kitchen & a parlour seemed to have been arranged by the genius of the Scottish part of the population. A shelf, the exact counterpart of what may still be seen in the pastoral districts of Perth & Sterling, exhibited many bright rows of Pewter dishes and a full assortment of wooden trenchers & horn spoons. The chests which contained the clothing of the household were well finished, and being covered with the shaggy hide of the Moose or black bear served as seats for the family & its guests. These seats were generally crowded, every house swarming with inhabitants. A circumstance so pleasing in its nature did not pass unobserved; and the officers of the New England troops used to say in their letters to their friends, ‘You may perhaps be pleased to hear what is meant by a family among the happy people of this land. They have no servants.
Indeed there is not now, & there never has been in their community a single instance of an individual living by the wages of labour. All are independent; all are land workers; all are nearly equal – and when the Elder children of a house are married, it generally happens that one of the younger children takes the home settlement, & the old people, being past labour, have the singular felicity of being cherished & soothed by the latest objects of their tenderness. Hence a family frequently consists not only of a man’s wife & children, but of his parents & younger brothers & sisters, whose stock of cattle is rapidly increasing for their future Establishment. The length to which this custom is carried, will appear from the Census of the river Annapolis. We reckon it at two hundred families. But of these only a hundred & thirty six consist of the husband & wife & their children; the rest being composed in the manner now mentioned; so that it is no rare thing to find a house with four men capable of bearing arms, for they are fruitful, and multiply fast, and live to a great age.’
Easily as these numerous inmates were accommodated, one part of their dwelling always engaged particular attention. The severe winter of North America taught the first colonists the value of the cave or cellar & its dryness & security from the frost were duly consulted. For the purpose of preserving vegetables as well as liquors, it usually occupied the whole area of the cabin, & was dry to the depth of several feet, & faced with a stone wall firmly bound together by long moss. A lode (pool) of soft water filled to the brim was often found in one of the corners.
(Beanlands, pp. 172-175.)
Here is another house plan from Minudie in Nova Scotia that gives a smaller variant of the Brittany house. There is a stair to the loft and a trapdoor in the floor to access the cellar where produce was stored over the winter. There was no foundation, or at most a course or two of stone. The cellar was excavated in the centre of the house space, well away from the walls and the frost of winter.
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