We are on our next journey, exploring the history of the Chignecto Isthmus to understand the interconnection of its cultural heritage sites, including the important role the three main forts in the region played in shaping the very fate of North America. But the Chignecto Isthmus is also about so much more!
From the rich cultural heritage of Indigenous groups in this area and Acadian ingenuity, to world conflict between two European powers and 19th century attempts to reengineer the landscape – the sites in this series are as rich as they are diverse. Throughout this series, we will look at the importance of this isthmus to the understanding of our past and how control of this one strip of land could be so strategically important.
In this blog, we will look to understand early life on the Chignecto Isthmus, with a particular focus on Acadian’s, through their ingenious dyke systems. Remnants of these early sea barriers still exist today and our pursuit to find what remains of them will take us through this history, while answering questions about the importance of these centuries’ old dykes to the development of this region.
“The Land Where the Water Drains”
But first…what is the Chignecto Isthmus and what was going on here before Acadians arrived?
The Chignecto Isthmus may be quite small, but it has been in use and of strategic importance for thousands of years, home to a complex of unique, yet interconnected sites. Linking the Atlantic world. The Isthmus acting as an early crossroads linking land and sea, not to mention, people, trade and ideas!
The Chignecto Isthmus, traditionally called Sikniktuk, by the Mi’kmaq, meaning, “the land where the water drains,” is a narrow strip of land, nestled between the Bay of Fundy and the Northumberland Strait, connecting today’s Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. This land’s traditional name, Sikniktuk, perfectly describes this region’s unique geography, with one of the largest saltmarshes on the Atlantic coast of North America, broken up by ridges, and rivers that rise and fall with the tides. Saltwater meeting fresh on this isthmus, ensuring a rich variety of resources thrived here, like whales, seals and caribou, but also small mammals, fish, shellfish, birds and plants. A complex land, with a complex history.
Thousands of years before Europeans ever set foot on the Chignecto Isthmus, this area was inhabited by the Mi’kmaq, who used this region as a meeting point and portage route between the Bay of Fundy and the Northumberland Strait/Gulf of St. Lawrence. As it was situated within the heart of traditional Mi’kmaq territory – Mi’kma’ki. Its position, making the chiefs within this territory valued leaders, who were considered particularly knowledgeable. And as the Mi’kmaq moved seasonally to best access natural resources, trade and use the portage routes throughout this region, the Chignecto Isthmus became a natural meeting point as bands moved from one place to another. But eventually European arrival would bring about major changes to this way of life.
The first Europeans to the Isthmus arrived in the mid-1500s, as fishermen and traders, but it wasn’t until Champlain arrived in 1604 that the region was properly mapped. On this expedition, the French would attempt to establish their very first long-term settlement, their hopes resting on the St. Croix River. But this was short lived, as they relocated the settlement soon after to Port Royal/lower Annapolis, with the population of Port Royal ultimately feeding the growth of what would be a significant Acadian settlement to the north of it (even capital for a time), on the Chignecto Isthmus – Beaubassin.
It was the early 1670s, France held “Acadie” (mainly made up of present-day New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) and the area was well populated with both second-generation Acadians and the French. It was in these early years that the Acadian settlement, known as Beaubassin, was founded. Its small but growing population would plow the fields, raise livestock, build ships, trade and do all the things needed to keep a successful settlement running. But none of this would have been possible if it weren’t for the dyke system they constructed.
Not long after their arrival at Beaubassin, Acadians began work on dyking the large salt marsh surrounding the ridges on which their village was built. This system was in use nearby, from Port Royal to Grand Pre, and was a technique likely imported from practices established in the La Rochelle region of western France (as far back as the Romans), where many Acadian settlers could trace their lineage. This region of France had a similar natural environment to that of the Acadian coastline, necessitating careful management to profit from the land.
By allowing fresh water to run out while stopping salt water from flooding back in, through an ingenious, yet simple wooden gate, this system would create highly productive agricultural lands, whether for cattle or to produce agricultural products. This productivity spurred on a healthy trade industry with other settlements nearby (like Le Have, Canso and Louisbourg), New France and Boston. Shipping products like livestock and grain to Boston and Louisbourg, while trading European cloth and iron ware for furs with the Mi’kmaq. All while receiving a variety of goods (cotton, wool cloth, earthenware, iron wares, sails, rope, sugar, rum, molasses, wine, brandy, glass beads, etc.) from Europe and the West Indies (via Boston and Louisbourg).
Back to business! In relative terms, the dyking and drainage works created by Acadians on the Chignecto Isthmus were quite a straightforward system, especially in comparison to the grand engineering works being built elsewhere in the 17th century. But still, this system was ingenious in its simplicity, manipulating the flow of natural processes without large scale capital intervention. These Acadian settlers devoted a lot of time and effort into building and maintaining the dykes that protected their pastures and fields. With the help of a few specialized tools (particular types of spades, pitchforks, axes and hollowed-out tree trunks), wetlands and marshes could be transformed into arable land.
Chunks of sod would be taken from the wetlands themselves and assembled into massive dyke structures (long mounds, several metres high). The grasses/brush and their deeply, densely packed roots would anchor them, allowing the dykes to stand up to saltwater incursions for many hours daily. But that wasn’t all, as mentioned, this system was reliant on aboiteaux (sluice gates) situated wherever the dykes crossed paths with the rivers that snaked through this marsh land. The gates were wooden and hung vertically, so that when water pressure from the rivers would build, the gates would be pushed open, allowing the fresh water to rush out. But, in reverse, as the tide would rise, the gates would hold firm, shutting tightly against a sill that would keep tidal (salt) waters from entering. A system still used today!
This simple system of managing and cultivating productive lands, made a comfortable home for a large Acadian population. It fueled the growth of a distinct society and identity with complex interactions with others, including New England and the Mi’kmaq. And from all that we have seen, this setting and life would have been quite idyllic (despite a few hiccups along the way).
So, we finish-up with a greater understanding of what truly made life on the Chignecto Isthmus unique. This area acting as a strategic central meeting point and crossroads within Mi’kmaq territory. Eventually becoming very important for its early Acadian inhabitants, where centuries’ old dyke systems that flank these hill sides ensured that a thriving society could emerge. Turning it into a bustling agricultural centre, where people, cultures, goods, ideas and technology met. The dykes embodying the complex nature of this life…but soon all of this would be threatened…
Check out our next blog (episode) where we will explore how this area’s agricultural value held an underlying strategic importance that would be contested by both the French and British, leading to the fortifying and militarization of this once idyllic location…