Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 8, 2009

The Legacy of Port Royal

The oldest European settlement in the New World

Early in the morning the town is sleeping. A blue mist drifts over the river softening the outlines of the shoreline; time and distance dissolve in the quiet of the pre-dawn. A heron lifts slowly off the water, its dark shape reflected in the rippled surface. On Lower Saint George Street — the heart of the town’s historic area — a brindled cat greets me, purring softly.

This is the town of Annapolis Royal, in western Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. A community of about 600 people, it was founded in 1605, and is one of the oldest European settlements in Canada. It was established three years before Quebec, two years before Jamestown, Virginia, and 15 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

To many, it is Canada’s birthplace; to others it epitomizes New World history, and is where the preservation of history in this nation truly began. The epicentre and crucible of Nova Scotian history, Annapolis Royal is also a community of quiet vigour, deferential manners, and modest self-determination.

But the tranquillity that greets visitors to Annapolis Royal today was not always thus. Following its birth in 1605, Annapolis Royal and its environs endured the territorial effects of 150 years of struggle between the great European powers of the time — England and France — changing hands seven times. Not until 1710 did it fall decisively under the dominion of the British who renamed it Annapolis Royal in honour of Queen Anne.

This struggle for dominance in the New World was exacerbated by divisive coalitions that the two foreign nations formed with separate first nations people — Iroquois and Mi’kmaq. The subsequent reversals of fortune continuously nullified the natural peace of the region.

The hand of fate

Strategically located on the Annapolis Basin and at the heart of “the Valley” of the same name, the town is also a key destination on the poignant Evangeline Trail. This picturesque route commemorates the fateful history and culture of the Acadian people, the first French settlers in North America. Above all, Annapolis Royal is at the heart of one of the most beautiful and serene areas of Nova Scotia. Here a peaceful “down home” lifestyle embodies the calm that a heightened awareness of the turbulent events of history and a reasoned respect for them produces. This is a community of exemplary historical integrity, an attribute for which the region and Nova Scotia itself are renowned.

A living archive

The morning light emerges through the mist as I walk back up Lower Saint George Street past the O’Dell Museum (1869), a former tavern-inn and general gathering spot for what once was a busy commercial waterfront; the Bailey House (1780), home to United Empire Loyalists who chose Canada over an American republic; the elegant Robertson House (1784) that personifies the entrepreneurial spirit of the town in this period; and the Adams-Ritchie House (1712) where Sir Thomas Ritchie, one of Canada’s “Fathers of Confederation” was born.

Opposite the wharf from which ships once left for Boston carrying cargo and passengers, a few early risers are setting up their stands at the Farmer’s Market. I linger awhile and discover an antique book stall where for a dollar I purchase Memorie and Rime (1884), by Joaquin Miller an obscure and quirky American author. A chapter titled “What is poetry” catches my attention. In the centre of the market, now stirring with purposeful but unobtrusive activity, I read:

“What was poetry before poetry was written? Beauty! Beauty of soul, thought, form, passion, expression — beauty, visible and invisible…. The wide-winged ship in the middle of the sea, pointing straight to its course through its wide path of foam … bearing in its bosom its little world of love and faith and trust and truth and hope….”

The Father of New France — and company

This imagery evokes the arrival in this area 400 years ago of a French longboat carrying a small crew led by Pierre du Gua Sieur de Mons and the man who came to be known as the Father of New France — Samuel de Champlain. Having left their main ship on the eastern coast of what is today Nova Scotia, De Mons and Champlain had made their way around the southern tip of the peninsula, up the eastern coast, in and out of the stupendously beautiful and enormous bay they named Baie Sainte Marie (St. Mary’s Bay), through a narrow gap (“gut”) of three narrow islands to the east and into an even larger bay which they called La Baie Française. The latter is what we know today as the Bay of Fundy, famous for the highest and most powerful tides in the world.

Navigating with passion and good fortune, they chanced on another narrow passageway a little over 40 kilometres further. The Digby Gut, as it is known today, is really only visible when it is directly abeam. And on what was a fine June day in 1604, de Mons and Champlain made an historic and ultimately fortuitous turn to starboard and entered another narrow passage sheltered on either side by elevated ridges. Completing the passage they gazed in amazement at the expansive body of water on their port side. Du Mons and Champlain would name the entire area Port Royal.

With its obvious strategic location, stunning surroundings, and natural harbour — described by the cartographer Samuel de Champlain as being “of royal dimensions” — this basin would eventually nourish the first permanent European settlement in Canada. And as the gateway to the prodigious Bay of Fundy and the fertile Annapolis Valley, it was to this area that ships bearing settlers with vision, hope, and a peaceful purpose first came from France to establish what became a kind of commercial and agricultural research station.


Their chance encounter with this promising — even idyllic — location would not be fully appreciated until almost a year later. Eager to discover even more, du Mons, Champlain and crew sailed back out into the Baie Française, circumnavigating its coastline in a counter-clockwise route. Exploring other bays, rivers, and inlets, they also considered other possible sites for settlement. Arriving eventually at the mouth of a river that today forms part of the boundary between Canada and the United States, and it being June 26, they had the foresight to prepare for winter. They proceeded up what they would name the Sainte Croix River and began in earnest to construct their first home on the North American continent on a small, lonely island. They built the necessary structures including a blacksmith shop, a chapel, and a cemetery. It was the latter that would prove sadly very serviceable. The first snows fell on October 6, and a severe Canadian winter followed. Unprotected from the icy winds from the north and lacking the kind of food that would prevent le mal de la terre (scurvy), 35 of the 79 settlers would not survive what Champlain in his journal referred to as the “six months of winter in this country.”

But despite the climatic shock, the dream of these first European settlers had not come to an end; they now knew that they had already discovered the ideal location for their settlement. With the relief that spring brought, de Mons, Champlain and company disassembled their dwellings, loaded them on two barques and returned to Port Royal. There they began to reassemble their rudimentary buildings as part of a larger and more permanent structure.

Throughout the morning I meander along “Canada’s oldest thoroughfare” in Annapolis Royal, admiring the unassuming, cohesive, and pragmatic architectural styles of 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Having the highest concentration of heritage buildings in Canada, Annapolis Royal is noteworthy for having the oldest wooden house in this country, the oldest operating Courthouse, the first Masonic Lodge, numerous private homes of Loyalist families, and homes built during the original French (Acadian) period.

I cross over the causeway between the Basin and the Annapolis River and pass the Tidal Power Generating Station. This unique facility is the only one in North America and is a powerful contemporary symbol of the successful exploitation of the region’s natural resources — a fundamental relationship the first French settlers recognized in the region 400 hundred years ago. Following the road on the western side of the Basin past dyked marshlands that were prime agricultural land first reclaimed by the original settlers, I come to Port Royal and its Habitation.

Here to stay

This faithful re-creation from actual sketches by Champlain himself of the original quadrilateral Habitation testifies to the solitary but productive life led by these first settlers. Sheltered by the north mountains of the western Annapolis Valley, the reconstruction is a reminder that these were highly skilled and industrious craftsmen. The cohesive wooden structure has the rough elegance, precision, and practicality that adept shipwrights and carpenters create; a land-sea architectural style that is thematic throughout Nova Scotia. Self-contained and separate living and working areas arranged around an interior courtyard demonstrate the Norman architecture of the period. The huge wooden beams and the mortise and tenon construction are especially impressive and emulate the solid determination of the settlers.

As a result of careful archeological research, the dwelling is situated on the exact spot where du Mons, Champlain and company built it. And today the panoramic view of the Annapolis Basin just outside the Habitation brings to the mind’s eye images of supply-laden ships arriving from France and others transporting to the Old World great quantities of furs.

A visit to the Port Royal Habitation is enhanced by the costumed interpreters whose skills and knowledge base are as admirable as their craft of evoking life as it was on this spot 400 years ago.

A microcosm

This was a fur trading post but also a microcosm for a new way of life. De Mons, a (protestant) Huguenot with access to the Catholic king of France, and Champlain, a royal geographer, were charismatic leaders of a group of equally skilled and prescient men including a lawyer and writer, a surgeon, an apothecary, two Catholic priests and a Protestant minister. That second winter was also harsh, and more men died, but their new settlement had an unquestionable permanence. Access to good drinking water, fuel, wild game, and arable land would assure that it would flourish. Relations with the Mi’kmaq were more than just friendly. From these indigenous people the settlers learned how to survive winters in this new land and how to make the most of life in their challenging surroundings. They exchanged many things — furs for items produced in the Habitation’s forge of course — but also expertise. In exchange for fresh meat, for example, the French gave the Mi’kmaq French bread to which the latter took quite a liking. They learned each others’ ways.


Port Royal was a settlement of firsts. The first crops planted on Canadian soil by Europeans took place here. The first boat was built here. The first social club — the legendary Order of Good Cheer — was established here. The first theatre — Le Théâtre de Neptune — performed the first European plays in the New World. Port Royal was a fertile environment and life here was productive and promising — a model of self-sufficiency.

Sadly, the ideals of the settlement would be compromised by the inconstancy of history. De Mons’ enemies in France would have his royal letters of patent revoked. The settlers would be recalled. Port Royal would not be revived until 1610 when a new agenda would focus on increased settlement and the conversion of native peoples to Christianity, conceptually a quite different form of colonization. And Port Royal and the Annapolis Basin would be enmeshed for 150 years in national rivalry and warfare between European nations.

Fort Anne

The sun is beginning to set as I enter Fort Anne. Located at the western end of Lower Saint George Street, this is Canada’s oldest national historic site. It is also a grand stage on which the theatre of European empire building was played out over and over again. (Four forts were built on this spot, the first in the 1640s. They were destroyed in part or wholly in successive battles.) It was a key site for control over what the French knew as Acadie and the British eventually named Nova Scotia. It was the commander of this fort who oversaw the deportation of the Acadian people in 1755. It was an outpost that defended the town against privateers in other conflicts such as the American Revolution and the War of 1812. It became Canada’s first administered national historic site in 1917.


The magnificent and sweeping view of the Annapolis Basin from the grassy ramparts of Fort Anne is one of the great vistas in Canadian history and geography. From this spot, historical perspective is enhanced by the visual dimension; the sight lines spell out the events. Below the surface of the earthworks — fortifications designed in the style of the French military engineer Vauban — lie the remains of numerous forts built and subsequently destroyed by rival forces. Nearby is one of the oldest English cemeteries in Canada where evening candlelight tours evoke the ghosts of the area’s turbulent past.

Today, Fort Anne is a perfect spot for a picnic. The grassy star-shaped mounds, the perimeter walking trail, the ideal conditions for kite flying, the Victorian games of croquet still played here, the Canada Day celebrations, the visitor-friendly museum in the 18th-century officers’ quarters, and the historical re-enactments by the 84th Highlanders make for a grand public space that is open, free, and conducive to contemplation.

Having made my way to the outermost fortifications, I notice a young man sitting on the grass staring out across the Basin. We acknowledge each other’s presence without actually speaking. The setting however invites dialogue and so we begin what initially is a casual discussion of the beauty of the place.

His name is Mike Flanigan. He is a university student of English Literature, and is working for the summer at a factory nearby. Our discussion turns to the historical significance of this serene spot, and of the tide of history and layers of meaning inherent in it. Mike has an intuitive understanding of fundamental human values, the weight of human history, and the levels of interpretation of both.

Mike begins to talk passionately about that history, revealing also a remarkable awareness of human behaviour and the mixed blessing of human civilization. He draws parallels between the timeless themes and issues present in Port Royal/Annapolis Royal and contemporary literature and philosophy. He also displays a keen appreciation for the human misery this place must have seen. When I comment on the incongruous beauty of the place — given the discord and suffering that occurred here — Mike says quietly, “The land is forgiving.”

When you go…

A cultural crossroads since 1605, the Annapolis Royal/Port Royal region of Nova Scotia is a cornucopia of attractions, indoor and outdoor activities, and affordable accommodation.

For more information, visit the town’s website at

At the Port Royal website you will also find a wealth of information.

The Nova Scotia official tourism website at will also help you plan your visit.

For information on the Acadian people visit Acadie Vacances.

Also, visit Nova Scotia’s offical tourism website.


From CBC News Thursday, November 13, 2008

A map of Eastern Canada drawn by French explorer Samuel de Champlain has sold at auction for $286,570 Cdn, three times its estimated price.

Sotheby’s auction house in London said the work sold to a private collector, but did not give the home country of the new owner.

The rare map of the St. Lawrence River and Eastern Canada, including what is now Newfoundland, was originally estimated to sell for $75,000.

Drawn in 1612, it includes four figures of First Nations people, illustrations of fish, seals and vegetation the French explorer encountered on his voyage to the new world.

Sotheby’s called the map “the most important single map in the history of Canada” adding that Champlain had used it in a political struggle to get resources for further voyages and eventual settlement.

“Champlain is more than a cartographer,” said a Sotheby’s expert. “He is also Canada’s first exploration artist. The great map of 1612 shows for the first time the diversity of Canada ‘s wealth.”

By the time Champlain drew this map and wrote his Les voyages du Sieur de Champlain, he had explored the Fundy Coast, Cape Cod and the St. Lawrence region and established Quebec as the site of a settlement.

The London auction house said several bidders, calling in from different continents, bid up the price of the rare document.

Library and Archives Canada has a copy of the Champlain map, one of several copies that survived from a 1613 print run of his map and travel accounts.



  1. A great piece about some of the history of Nova Scotia. Someone shared this on our Facebook page. Nova Scotia’s official tourism website is We hope that many of your readers get to come and learn about some of our history at the very sites you describe so well.

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