A British Fort on the Disputed Frontier of Colonial North America [Ep. 2]

Knowing the broad history of what would become of the Chignecto Isthmus, we wanted to understand its early militarization and what triggered the destruction of the Acadian village of Beaubassin and construction of British Fort Lawrence, including their roles in the wider conflict for the Isthmus.

Ultimately, we believe there are 3 main reasons why militarization of the Chignecto Isthmus was prioritized throughout the 1750s – European treaty-making (which didn’t actually concern itself with North America), colonial expansionist policies (which did) and local dynamics (who we always seem to forget…).

The early history of the Chignecto Isthmus gave way to a complex period of conflict between the British and French that would draw in other players, including the Mi’kmaq and Acadians. Ever since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which had failed to make specific English/French territorial divides on the Chignecto Isthmus, it had become a disputed borderland, something of a “free for all” and a source of future conflict. These boundaries remaining so, even after the Treaty of Aix la Chapelle was signed in 1748, which simply left these old, indeterminate borders. Despite these unclear territorial divides, a de facto line of separation became the Missaguash River on the Chignecto Isthmus – with the British to the south of it and French to the north.

It wasn’t just the lack of territorial clarity on the Chignecto Isthmus that would cause concern for North American colonies. This area was a crossroads that enabled prosperous Acadian trade networks and critical French supply routes between Quebec and Louisbourg, while the fertile lands drew New England’s interest. There could be little doubt that the Chignecto Isthmus would be the next strategic prize.

Embers of a Coming Conflict…1750…

A succession of English and French governors, throughout North America, maintained policies of territorial expansion using trading posts and forts, along disputed boundaries. British and French strategies were simultaneously defensive and offensive, reinforcing what they had, while expanding into what they wanted. In 1750, these tensions between the British and French would peak, putting an end to what might be seen as simpler times enjoyed by the Acadians at Beaubassin.

Acadians became caught in these crosshairs, being considered unreliable allies to the French and unpredictable subjects to the British. With some of these tensions amplified by their position on some of the most fertile lands in Nova Scotia, while refusing to swear unconditional allegiance.

The French sought to defend what remained of their interests in Acadia, by defending what they saw as their portion of the Chignecto Isthmus. Under the order of Jacques Pierre de la Jonquière, the Governor-General of New France, plans were set in motion to build a fort (though it wouldn’t actually be constructed in 1750). To counteract this policy, the British would send an expeditionary force of 400 men to the Chignecto Isthmus, under the command of Major Charles Lawrence. Their purpose? To push French troops out of the region once and for all. But the French, seeing their arrival, began preparing…

We can’t forget that the British had serious concerns. Their problems were many, including the fact that while Acadians technically lived in British territory, they continued to want neutrality, refusing oaths of total allegiance to Britain; they continued to want to practice their catholic faith, which meant they were susceptible to French influence; and they continued to maintain close ties with Indigenous people, all of which hindered British influence and control.

The French fought back with their militia forces, using the dykes as cover. While in the background, Beaubassin was set on fire. At this time, Beaubassin was a settlement of about 140 homes and 700 individuals, firmly in British territory, when the Acadians were driven out of their village by French armed guards, watching as their village and all their worldly possessions were set a-blaze and burned to the ground. These refugees were then pushed into French territory, just across the Missaguash River, their fates no longer their own. A foreshadowing of the future Acadian expulsion – all for money and country.

The destruction of Beaubassin and the events leading up to it, marking the end of efforts to keep the peace, and the beginning of years of violence and turmoil in this region…

Throughout 1750, the rest of the Acadian communities spread south of the Missaguash, where the British claimed territory, were also destroyed (burned) by the French and their allies, under the same pretext as Beaubassin. Now some 940 Acadians were left homeless, as refugees in French territory, while many Mi’kmaq were now also displaced by this conflict.

The Rumblings of War

In September of that same year the British would return with 700 soldiers to establish their base in the Chignecto Isthmus. Local Acadian and Mi’kmaq militia opposed this British landing, leading to a brief battle, becoming known as the Battle at Chignecto. The British were ultimately successful and began construction of a fort on the ruins of Beaubassin.

Fort Lawrence, as it would be called, would be Britain’s regional stronghold, purpose built to guard their interests in the Chignecto Isthmus. This well positioned, four corner bastioned wooden fort, on the Bay of Fundy, had its battery of guns facing north, to the opposite ridge, where the French claimed territory and had a small make-shift fort, a mere 2km away.

Within its walls stood blockhouses in the northwest and southeast, as well as the Commandant’s house, large barracks, guardrooms and stores in the centre. But, outside of its walls held a variety of other structures, including stables, a Fives court (a type of sport), brewery and the Commandant’s summer house, among others. These exterior buildings set on the southern slope of the high ground on which Fort Lawrence was established.

This display of force by the British was cause for French concern, so they saw to it that they carve out their own defensible portion of the Isthmus in 1751…

In our next episode (blog), we will explore how the French in 1751, responded to the militarization of the Chignecto Isthmus and how this reaction would play a key role in the fate of this region…

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