Our Acadian Heritage

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Fisherman Were First To Visit Acadian Homeland

Modern historians have pretty well shot down the idea that Frenchman were the first white men to set foot in America, and that one of them led the way for Christopher Columbus.  But it could have happened.

According to the discredited story, a French navigator from Dieppe named Cousin was sailing off the coast of Africa in 1488, four years before Columbus' voyage, and was forced westward by winds and tides until he reached an unknown shore.  On board the ship was a mutinous seaman named Pinzon who, after the voyage, was thrown out of the French Navy.  Pinzon went to Spain, met Columbus, told him of the New World, and sailed with him in 1492.

There is not much evidence to make historians think the story is true, but who knows?  There are a handful of proven instances of ships being blown far to the west and unto strange shores.

There is, however, good evidence that the first Europeans to establish a permanent settlement in North America were Frenchmen.  They were the ancestral Acadians and they came to the New World as fishermen.

Norman, Breton, and Basque fishermen almost assuredly began fishing Newfoundland's Grand Banks as early as 1497, the year John Cabot explored the area.  These Grand Banks are shallow places in the North Atlantic where plant and animal plankton thrive and feed huge schools of codfish.  Cabot swore that cod were so plentiful that schools of the fish sometimes blocked the way of his ships.  He said there was no need for a hook, line, or bait.  All a fisherman had to do was to drop a basket over the side of his ship, and pull it up, filled to the brim with fish.

That was only a mild exaggeration. The Grand Banks were, indeed, among the best fishing grounds then known, and Frenchmen were among the first to exploit them.  Reliable records show that Jean Denys of Honfleur fished the Grand Banks as early as 1504.  Other records show that Thomas Aubert of Dieppe was there two years later.  In 1507, a Norman fisherman returned to Rouen with an extra cargo of seven sauvages, probable Beothunk Indians.

We know of an early Breton fishing voyage by the ship
La Jacquette of Dahouet because of a shipboard brawl.  The master, Guillaume Dobel, alleged that the ship was carrying too much sail.  He called the skipper, a man named Picart, an idiot, and the quartermaster, named Garrouche, a veall, the meaning of which is not precisely clear.  But it must have been a serious insult.  Garrouche roared up to the quarterdeck to start a fight but instead collected a punch in the jaw from Dobel, who then drew a knife and chased Garrouche overboard.  The crew tried to rescue Garrouche, but he drowned.  Dobel made the best retribution he could to the widow.  He married her.

The early fishermen who visited the Grand Banks made two trips each year.  The first was in late January or early February and, braving winter winds in the North Atlantic, they returned to France as soon as their holds were full.  They sailed again in April or May and went home in September.

At first, these fishermen cleaned the cod aboard ship and stored them between thick layers of salt.  But it was not long before they found that cod could be sun dried on land, and that cured cod tasted better and was easier to store.  The fishermen began to go ashore each summer, to build makeshift villages for themselves and drying stands for their fish.  By 1539, the French, Portuguese, and English had set up such outposts on the shores of Newfoundland, the Acadian peninsula, Cape Breton Island, and the St. Lawrence River.

Salt fish became big business and they were sold wholesale in France by the thousands.  In 1515, Michel Le Bail of Breton sold more than 17,000 codfish to local merchants in Rouen.  By 1529, the Normans were shipping Newfoundland codfish to England.  On just one day in 1542, no fewer than 60 ships sailed from Rouen alone for the Grand Banks.  In 1576, there were 250 French vessels there, and 200 from other nations.

But, except for the temporary villages, the French made no attempt at settlement.  For one thing, they were being kept busy with wars on the European continent.

Jacques Cartier, lured by Indian tales of gold and the hope of finding a Northwest Passage to the riches of the Orient, made voyages to the Canadian wilds in 1534 and 1535.  He attempted a short-lived settlement, but a bitter winter and equally bitter Indians ended it quickly.  Jean Francois de la Roque, Sieur de Robeval, tried to revive that colony but met with even less success.  Then France became involved in another war and the king and his courtiers forgot about North America for a while.

But the fishermen didn't forget.  They kept coming.

By the middle 1500s, the fishermen, still drying their cod ashore, had begun trading with the Indians for a rich harvest of furs.  The furs found a ready market in France, and official interest in the New World picked up in direct relation to the value of the fur and fish trade.  In 1588, realizing an opportunity for profit, the French monarchy began to grant fur-trading monopolies to groups of merchants.  As the trade developed, the idea then struck the crown that these fur traders could also establish settlements that would better establish French territorial claims in North America.

With that in mind, King Henry IV gave Pierre du Gua, Sieur de Monts, a Protestant merchant of some wealth, a 10 year monopoly on trade "on sea and land in La Cadie, Canada and other parts of New France between 40° and 46°."  His domain ran roughly from Philadelphia to Newfoundland.  His grant required that he establish a settlement in North America.  He set up a private company that included merchants from several ports in France and began to gather supplies for the settlement.

On April 7, 1604, De Monts set off from France with Samuel Champlain and Jean de Biencourt, Sieur de Poutrincourt, who was a Catholic and one of the substantial investors in de Monts' settlement.  There were 80 to 120 men with them, depending upon which estimate one believes.  There were enough men to fill two ships.  One ship was commanded by Francois Grave du Pont, the other by de Monts himself.

It took two months to cross the Atlantic; then de Monts explored the coast looking for a place to put his settlement.  He decided finally to establish his colony on minuscule Saint Croix Island, in Passamaquoddy Bay, an arm of the Bay of Fundy near the mouth of the river that today divides New Brunswick from Maine.  He selected the island because if offered some protection from marauders.  Apparently, that was its only redeeming value.

De Monts left Champlain and 78 other men on the island, then sailed back to France.  He promised to return in the Spring with new supplies.

Historian Francis Parkman described the first settlement.  "The rock fenced islet was covered with cedars," Parkman wrote, "and when the tide was out the shoals were dark with the swash of sea weed....(Here), in their leisure moments, the Frenchmen, we are told, amused themselves with detaching the limpets from the stones, as a savory addition to their fare.  But there was little leisure at St. Croix.  Soldiers, sailors, and artisans betook themselves to their task.  Before the winter closed in, the northern end of the island was covered with buildings, surrounding a square, where a solitary tree had been left standing. On the right was a spacious home, well built, and surmounted by one of those enormous roofs characteristic of the time.  This was the lodging of De Monts.  Behind it, and near the water, was a long, covered gallery, for labor or amusement in foul weather.  Champlain and the Sieur d'Orville...built a house for themselves nearly opposite that of De Monts; and the remainder of the square was occupied by storehouses, a magazine, workshops, lodgings for gentlemen and artisans, and a barracks for the...soldiers, the whole enclosed with a palisade.  Adjacent there was an attempt at a garden...but nothing would grow in the sandy soil.  There was a cemetery too, and a small, rustic chapel on a projecting point of rock."

In the summertime, the island was very pretty and cozy.  In winter, it was something entirely different.  Vegetables would not grow in the sandy soil, even in summer, so the colonists had to plant their garden and sow their wheat on the mainland.  The spring on the island went dry, so fresh water had to be brought across from the mainland as well.  So also with firewood.

The first snow fell on October 6.  By December 3, ice floes began to cut off the Frenchmen from the mainland garden, woodlots, and water.  A bitter wind blew constantly from the northeast, making it impossible to keep warm.  Food froze hard, then rotted.  Scurvy began to take its toll.

Thirty five of the 79 men who originally settled on the island were dead by the time De Monts finally returned the following June.  He decided to move the colony across the Bay of Fundy to a place he named Port Royal.  It would become one of the first permanent settlements in North America.

All of the buildings of Saint Croix Island were taken down and hauled, plank by plank, across the Bay of Fundy.  The same materials were used to build a habitation at a place later named Lower Grenville.  This time, the habitation, built in the form of a hollow square, was better suited to the colonists' needs.  It fronted the Annapolis Basin and its back was protected from winter winds by a range of 500-foot hills.  The first Acadians had settled in to stay.

As historian J. A. Doyle put it, "For the first time there was to be seen in America a colony of Europeans, not a mere band of adventurers or explorers, but a settled community subsisting by their own labor."  Among those settlers was the first black man known to have come to New France.  His name was Mathieu de Costa or d'Acosta.  He had been to
Acadia in a Portuguese ship and had learned the Micmac language.  A Rouen merchant kidnapped him in Portugal or in the East Indies and sold or lent him to De Monts as an interpreter.

Of the colonists, Marc Lescarbot, described their new home like this:  "This port is envisioned with mountains on the North side; towards the South be small hills, which (with said mountains) do pour out a thousand brooks, which make the place pleasanter than any other place in the world; there are very fair falls of water, fit to make mills of all sorts.  At the East is a river between the said mountains and hills, in the which ships may sail fifteen leagues and more, and in all this distance is nothing of (sic) both sides the river but fair meadows."

Champlain created a little garden near the Port Royal habitation, complete with a gazebo where he could go to relax.  He recorded in his journal, "We often went there to pass time; and it seemed to please the little birds of the neighborhood; for they assembled there in great numbers and made such a pleasant warbling and twittering, of which I have never heard the like."

Despite the idyllic setting, De Monts' company barely turned a profit in the first year.  Sale of the furs that were gathered just covered expenses.  Nonetheless, by the Spring of 1607, it looked like the little settlement would last.  Naomi Griffiths reports, "There is a tradition that one of the colonists who had arrived the year before, Louis Hebert, had brought his wife with him, and that she gave birth that Spring to a daughter, who would thus be the first Acadian born.  In any case, so strong a sense of optimism pervaded the settlers then that cultivation began before the ships arrived."

Unfortunately, the ships brought news of trouble at home.  Merchants who did not get a piece of the North American trade began to grumble to King Henry.  Militant Catholics complained that it was even worse that the monopoly was given to a Protestant.  Their griping was so incessant that in 1607, the king revoked De Monts' monopoly.  When that happened, De Monts' partners pulled out of the trading company, leaving him with no way to continue to support the colony.  So, after asking the local Indians to guard the Acadian settlement, everyone returned to France.