Shore/lines: Mapping Coastlines on Isle Saint-Jean

Bibliothèque Nationale de France

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on Canadian coastal histories, which considers intersections of nature and culture along the saline shores of the land and tidewaters currently known as Canada, the country with the world’s longest coastline. Guest-edited by Sara Spike.

Note: this is taken from a longer piece in a forthcoming collection on the eighteenth century and environmental humanities, edited by Jeremy Chow.

Though the popular image of Prince Edward Island is landward, of red soils and Green gables, in the eighteenth century coastal knowledge of Epekwit’k or Kjiktúlnu[1]or Isle Saint-Jean was critical for Mi’kmaq and Europeans alike: for navigation from sea, harvests on shore, and the siting of settlements on land.

Islands, especially, enabled colonizing powers to craft what Adam Grydehøj calls legible geographies, “making [places] easier to date, imagine, essentialise,” and thus mark their arrival and subsequent occupation of the place.[2] I like this phrasing because it speaks to both the historical processes that drove map-making and the technique of inscription in textual and visual form. But how to represent a changeable, irregular littoral in the flat, fixed medium of post-Enlightenment cartography? 

Figure 1 Carte du Fleuve et du Golfe de St. Laurens (undated), Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF). This probably dates after 1713, as it shows the Dauphin Gate at Louisbourg with a pennant. The French began constructing a fortress at Louisbourg after surrendering mainland Acadie to the British in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.

Isle Saint-Jean was often featured as part of an archipelago of French colonies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, tied together by their role as bases for the fishery. These maps were not intended for fishing captains and fleets, but as public-facing claims to areas of maritime wealth. Offshore and inshore zones are carefully delineated, ghostly but real spaces, neither-land-nor-sea.There is also detail in sand bars, shallows, shoals, and other hazards: all drawing the eye seaward and suggesting greater-than-terrestrial footprints, akin to modern satellite images or Google Earth showing the continental shelf beneath dry land.

Figure 2 “Isle St-Jean, isles de Miscou, isles de la Madelaine, coste d’Acadie, isle Royale” (1713), BNF.

The ports and channels on the Island had been known to Basque and French fishers for over a century. Apart from Havre St. Pierre,the most populous settlement on the island, several names acknowledge Mi’kmaw presence on the north shore (Cascamquesques – Keskamskek, Macpec – Maqpa’q, Caccocpiche – Katewpijk), as these bays and estuaries represented crucial sites of seasonal harvest in birds, sea mammals, fish, and shellfish.[3]  

The harbours also suggest where to look for older cultural landscapes, where the landscape has invited and sustained similar use over time. As archaeologist Peter Pope said of northeastern Newfoundland, “A good place to land a boat is a good place to land a boat, and landing stages (fishers’ wharves) have therefore been rebuilt in the same locations for centuries.”[4] Yet these are precisely the sites being lost with storm surge and erosion in a warming ocean.

After 1720, French authorities encouraged Acadians to migrate from British-held Nova Scotia to the islands of Isle Saint-Jean and Isle Royale (later Cape Breton). Acadian agriculture frequently relied on draining and dyking coastal marshes for pasturage, a practice that deeply shaped a terroir that would persist even after British occupation.[5]

Figure 3 Carte de l’Isle St. Jean et d’une partie de l’Isle Royalle et de l’Accadie (1690), BNF. This map is likely misdated as it shows the fort at Port La Joye, established in 1720.

It also belonged to a seasonal rhythm where small-scale farming complemented subsistence fishing.[6] As an observer wrote in 1752,

There has for a long time been a mistaken belief … that the settlers who follow the fisheries, neglect the cultivation of the soil. The harbours of Saint-Pierre and of L’Acadie are a certain proof in evidence to the contrary. Witness the extensive clearings which the settlers have made in those places…[7]

In the 1740s and 1750s, Acadie became again a small but significant theatre of the ongoing conflict between European powers. This map, accordingly, is less concerned with marking sites of cultivation or harvest than with signs of possession and strategy. There is less ecological detail—no colouring or hatching, a cruder rendering of rivers and bays—but more habitations and pathways between them, most prominently the portage de Cobeguit linking the Northumberland Strait to the Bay of Fundy.

Figure 4 Acadie, Isle Saint Jean and part of Isle Royale with the Baye Francoise (1740), Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.

The map also notes “cabanes savage” at Malpeque and across the strait, to insist on a historic ally. Such acknowledgements are relatively rare, but remind us of the long history of European intrusions into the territory of Mi’kma’ki.

By way of epilogue, let’s look at water where we have come to least expect it: in the urban landscape.

The townsite chosen for the colony’s capital offered the twin advantages of salt and fresh water: sheltered anchorage, navigation along the Hillsborough and West Rivers, and fresh water in two creeks on either side of the planned town. I am always amazed—intrigued, unsettled, and strangely heartened—to see how much water exists in colonial cities. Both Charlottetown Creek and West Creek are now buried along with several other ponds and runs in the city. What would happen if we unearthed these streams? And what can maps tell us about older shorelines when rising sea levels are flowing over two centuries of manufactured coast? 

[1] Patrick J. Augustine, “The Significance of Place in Textual and Graphical Representation: The Mi’kmaq on Lennox Island, Prince Edward Island, and the Penobscot on Indian Island, Maine,” master’s thesis, UPEI Island Studies, 2009.
[2] Adam Grydehøj et al, “Islands of Indigeneity: Cultural Distinction, Indigenous Territory and Island Spatiality,” Area 52 (2020): 14–22, a special issue dedicated to islands; also Grydehøj, “Islands as Legible Geographies: Perceiving the Islandness of Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland),” Journal of Marine and Island Cultures 7 (2018): 1–11.
[3] David Keenlyside and Helen Kristmanson, “The Palaeo-Environment and the Peopling of Prince Edward Island: An Archaeological Perspective,” 59–81, and Rosemary Curley, “Wildlife Matters: A Historical Overview Of Public Consciousness of Habitat Loss on Prince Edward Island,” 111, in Time and A Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island, ed. Edward MacDonald, Joshua MacFadyen, and Irene Novaczek(Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press/Island Studies Press, 2016). Allan Dwyer discusses the Beothuk use of inner coastal zones in “Liminality and Change in an Atlantic Borderland: Notre Dame Bay, Newfoundland in the Eighteenth Century,” in Land and Sea: Environmental History in Atlantic Canada, ed. Claire Campbell and Robert Summerby-Murray(Fredericton: Acadiensis, 2013), 27–44. For more on Indigenous coastal life, see also Andrew Lipman, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).
[4] Peter E. Pope, “Historical Archaeology and the Maritime Cultural Landscape of the Atlantic Fishery,” in Method and Meaning in Canadian Environmental History, ed. Alan MacEachern and William Turkel (Toronto: Nelson, 2009), 47.
[5] Matthew Hatvany, “‘Wedded to the Marshes’: Salt Marshes and Socio-Economic Differentiation in Early Prince Edward Island,” Acadiensis 30, no. 2 (2001): 40–55; Wynn, “Reflections on the Environmental History of Atlantic Canada,” in Land and Sea,237–39; J. M. Bumsted, Land, Settlement, and Politics on Eighteenth-Century Prince Edward Island (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1987), 8, though Bumsted consistently refers to the Island as wilderness, which suggests a reconsideration from the perspective of environmental history. There is more literature on Acadian dykeland farming in Nova Scotia, by such scholars as Sherman Bleakney, Jonathan Fowler, and Ronald Rudin.
[6] Edward MacDonald and Boyde Beck, “Lines in the Water: Time and Place in a Fishery,” in Time and a Place,218–21. Tracadie also borrows from the Mi’kmaw Tlaqatik.
[7]Tour of Inspection Made by the Sieur de La Roque, Census 1752,” [translation] in Report of the Public Archives of Canada, 1905, pt. 2 (Ottawa, S. E. Dawson, 1906), 151–52. I am indebted to Daniel Samson for this source.
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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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