Acadian heritage: the landscape of Grand-Pré

By Valerie Casbourn

Nova Scotia Heritage Day 2022 celebrates the Landscape of Grand-Pré UNESCO World Heritage Site. Acadian settlers to Grand-Pré built a system of dykes to transform the tidal marshland into farmland, creating an Acadian agricultural settlement that flourished from 1682 to 1755. The Grand-Pré landscape is rich in agricultural tradition and an important place of memory for Acadians. A variety of archival and published records related to Grand-Pré may be found in Library and Archives Canada’s collections.

Acadian roots in Nova Scotia

France first established a settlement in Mi’kma’ki, the lands of the Mi’kmaw people, in 1604. The French called the region Acadie (Acadia in English). The Mi’kmaq greeted and helped the early settlers. The Mi’kmaq and the French traded with each other and established an alliance that was renewed annually.

A marsh and a wooden dyke at Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia.

Grand-Pré dyke with Cape Blomidon in distance, Nova Scotia. Canada, Dept. of Mines and Technical Surveys, 1926 (a020116)

In 1682, Acadians moved from Port Royal, near the Bay of Fundy, to the shores of the Minas Basin, an area known as “Les Mines.” Grand-Pré, which means big meadow in French, was established there and became a thriving settlement. The Acadians built wooden dykes with sluices, called “aboiteaux,” and transformed the tidal marshland into rich agricultural land. They grew crops, planted orchards and raised livestock. The Sieur de Dièreville travelled in Acadia in 1699 and published his observations.

It is necessary, in order to raise grains, to drain the marshes, which the sea at high tide overflows with its waters; and which they the (Acadians) call the lowlands. […] It is not easy to stay the course of the sea; the Acadians, nevertheless, accomplish the task by means of strong dykes, which they call aboteaux; and this is how they make them: They set up five or six rows of large trees, quite entire, at the places by which the sea enters the marshes, and between the rows they lay other trees lengthwise, one upon another, and they fill all the empty spaces so well with soft clay, well packed, that the water can no longer pass through. They fit in the middle of these works a flood-gate (un esseau) in such a manner that it allows, at low tide, the marsh-water to flow out by its own pressure, and prevents the water of the sea from entering. (Account by the Sieur de Dièreville, translated in John Frederic Herbin, The History of Grand-Pré, OCLC number 1016223920, 1911, p. 32)

 

The wooden structure of an old dyke at the edge of a field.

Showing old face, Grand-Pré dyke, Nova Scotia. Canada, Dept. of Mines and Technical Surveys, 1926 (a020117)

In 1713, France ceded Acadia to the British under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht. The British called the region the colony of Nova Scotia. There was no treaty or agreement between the British and the Mi’kmaq at that time. In 1755, the colonial administration of Nova Scotia demanded the Acadians swear an unconditional oath of allegiance to the British Crown. The Acadians refused because they wished to maintain a policy of neutrality. The British authorities then ordered the deportation of Acadians, beginning the Grand Dérangement (Great Upheaval).

The British expelled over 2,000 Acadians from their homes in the Grand-Pré region and sent them to other English colonies. Many did not survive the poor conditions on board the ships. Some Acadians escaped the deportations and were supported and sheltered by the Mi’kmaq. After the deportation, a group known as the New England Planters settled in the fertile lands at Grand-Pré. They learned to maintain the dykes and farm the land, along with later immigrants to the area. Some Acadians eventually returned and settled in other parts of what are now the Maritime provinces and Quebec.

Acadian archival records

Library and Archives Canada holds records about Acadia in the Fonds des Colonies (MG1), which has copies and transcriptions of selected records from the French colonial period. “Série C11D. Correspondance générale; Acadie” (MG1-C11D) (Series C11D. General correspondence; Acadia) contains copies of correspondence, instructions and other records related to Acadia.

Our Acadian genealogy and family history web page describes various records that are useful for those seeking information about Acadian ancestors. Parish records are particularly helpful; the 18th-century Grand-Pré parish church was Saint-Charles-des-Mines. The Fonds de la paroisse catholique Saint-Charles-des-Mines (MG9-B8-12) (Catholic parish of Saint-Charles-des-Mines fonds) has transcriptions of baptism, marriage and burial records dated between 1707 and 1749. You can access digitized copies on the Héritage Canadiana website (microfilm reel C-1869).

Finding Aid 300: Other census and related documents (1640 to 1945) is a comprehensive guide to early censuses and related records. The section for Acadia (1671 to 1763) has a list of census returns for different areas, with links to digitized copies of many of the records.

Handwritten transcriptions of households with details on family members and their ages, as well as on the amount of farm animals, land and guns owned.

Start of Les Mines section, Acadian census for 1693 (Reel C-2572, Image 82; MG1-G1 volume 466 page 79)

Memory and commemoration

Grand-Pré remained an important place in the memory of Acadians. In the early 1900s, John Frederic Herbin published several books and poems about Acadian history and culture, with a focus on Grand-Pré. In 1907, Herbin bought the land where the original Saint-Charles-des-Mines church had stood and established Grand-Pré Park as a memorial to Acadians. The Dominion Atlantic Railway purchased the land in 1917 and took over the park’s maintenance. The Société mutuelle de l’Assomption took official title to the church site in 1921 and built the Memorial Church there the following year.

The Acadian Memorial Church under construction, with people gathered in front for a dedication ceremony.

Dedication ceremony for the Acadian Memorial Church being built in the Dominion Atlantic Railway Park at Grand-Pré, August 16, 1922. Canada, Patent and Copyright Office (a031296)

Grand-Pré was designated a National Historic Site in 1955. In 1957, the Government of Canada acquired Grand-Pré Memorial Park with the understanding “that the park and the chapel were held by the government in perpetuity and that their historic character was maintained.” (Cabinet Conclusion “National Historic parks; acquisition of Grand Pre Memorial Park” 1957-01-14, RG2 volume 1892)

Three tourists standing beside Evangeline’s well, in front of the Acadian Memorial Church.

At Evangeline’s Well, Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia. National Film Board of Canada, July 1953 (e010949154-v8)

The Canadian Parks Service fonds (RG84) includes records about Grand-Pré. To consult file descriptions, try a search for keywords like “RG84 Grand-Pré” and select “Collections and Fonds (Archives Search)” in the LAC Collection Search tool. To access digitized copies of these files, note the microfilm reel number in the file description (e.g. T-11310) and then search for that reel number on Héritage Canadiana.

In 1995, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada added a second designation to commemorate the national significance of the Grand-Pré Rural Historic District. The significance of this cultural landscape was further recognized in 2012 when the Landscape of Grand-Pré became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Grand-Pré continues to be at the heart of Acadian cultural memory.


Valerie Casbourn is an archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Halifax office of Library and Archives Canada.

Plaisance: A French fishing colony in Newfoundland

By Valerie Casbourn

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds records related to the French colonial period in early Canada, and some of these records are available online. Included are records about the French cod fishery in the Atlantic region and the French colony of Plaisance in Newfoundland (1662–1713).

During the 17th century, the cod fishery in Newfoundland became increasingly important to the European fishing industry. France was one of several European countries competing for a share of this fishery, and in 1662, the French established a garrison town at Plaisance, on the western side of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. The French wanted to secure their merchant fishing fleet’s access to the fishery and their share of the European market for cod.

The site of Plaisance was chosen for its proximity to rich fishing grounds, its sheltered and relatively ice-free harbour, and its strategic location. Eventually, the colony of Plaisance grew to have a small permanent population, with military fortifications, and served as a base for the French Atlantic cod fishery.

A hand-drawn and coloured illustration that shows the shore with people on a wooden stage working on curing and drying cod in Newfoundland.

A view of a stage and also of the manner of fishing for, curing and drying cod at New Found Land […] (c003686) A digitized copy of the map L’Amerique, divisee selon l’etendue de ses Principales Parties, et dont les Points Principaux sont placez sur les Observations de Messieurs de L’Academie Royale des Sciences. Dressee Par N. de Fer, Geographe de Monseigneur le Dauphin can be seen at the Osher Map Library website.

The French and English established colonies along the southeastern coast of Newfoundland, which encroached on the Indigenous territory of the Beothuk and the Mi’kmaq. The French had little recorded interaction with the Beothuk, who withdrew from the coast and its resources to avoid contact with the European fishermen and colonists. Before the arrival of the colonies the Mi’kmaq navigated the waters between Cape Breton and Newfoundland by canoe. They established friendly relations with the French, becoming important trading partners and military allies.

The colony of Plaisance encountered many difficulties, particularly during its first few decades. Its population was small and poorly supplied, and its early governors were ineffective. However, in the 1690s, the colony became stronger, and the French administration highly valued the Atlantic fishery.

The economy of Plaisance was largely based on the cod fishery. The colony’s small permanent population with its “habitants-pêcheurs” was bolstered each year with the arrival of a large seasonal workforce on the merchant fleet from French ports. All worked intensely to catch and preserve cod during the summer months. The residents of Plaisance relied on the merchant fleet to bring extra labourers, food and manufactured goods, and to ship their dried catch back to Europe to be sold.

During this period, there was ongoing conflict between the French and the English, as well as between the Mi’kmaq and the English. In the 1690s and early 1700s, both the French and the Mi’kmaq conducted raids, sometimes jointly, on English settlements on the Avalon Peninsula. The War of the Spanish Succession culminated in the Treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713, in which France ceded its claim to Newfoundland to England. The English took over the settlement of Plaisance, changing its name to Placentia. Most of the French colonists moved south to the colony of Ile Royale (now Cape Breton). There they established themselves in the new French settlement of Louisbourg and continued their work in the French cod fishery. The French also retained the right to fish off the coasts of Newfoundland and to process their catch along stretches of the shoreline, known as the French Shore.

Nautical chart, on vellum in coloured ink, of the coastline of Newfoundland, Acadia and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Nautical chart of the coastline of Newfoundland, Acadia and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Produced after 1713, the chart shows both Plaisance and Louisbourg (e011182107)

Records at Library and Archives Canada

LAC holds records related to the colony of Plaisance, among other topics, in the Fonds des Colonies (MG1). This fonds includes copies and transcriptions of selected records related to the French colonial period in early Canada. The records are in French, and the original documents are held at the Archives nationales d’outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence, France. The Fonds des Colonies consists of records including correspondence, reports, journals, instructions, records of fortifications and commerce, civil registers, and notary documents.

Many records in the Fonds des Colonies have been digitized and are available directly on the LAC website. Use LAC’s Collection Search to search for records about the colony of Plaisance. Try keyword searches, such as “MG1 Plaisance” or “MG1 pêche” (without quotation marks), and use the drop-down menu to search “Archives.” Including “MG1” will limit your search results to records in the Fonds des Colonies; you can search more broadly by not including it. Because the original records are in French, try using French keywords such as “pêche” (fishing), “Terre-Neuve” (Newfoundland), or “morue” (cod).

Related resources


Valerie Casbourn is an archivist based in Halifax with Regional Services at Library and Archives Canada.