400 Years Of History At Port-Royal

Following my introduction to the quaint and historic town of Annapolis Royal I drove about 10 kilometers out of town across the causeway on the north shore of the Annapolis River and arrived in one of the most historic locations in north-eastern North America.

Port-Royal is a reconstruction of a settlement – a “Habitation” of French settlers founded in 1605 by Sieur de Mons and Samuel de Champlain and one of the earliest successful European settlement attempts in North America. The settlement existed until 1613 when it was burned to the ground by Captain Samuel Argall of Virginia. My expert guide for this introduction to early French life in Canada was Wayne Melanson, a ninth generation Acadian and twin brother of Alan Melanson who I had already met at Fort Anne during my initial discoveries of Annapolis Royal.

Interestingly, on my drive to Port Royal I noticed a sign saying “Melanson Settlement”, a National Historic Site of Canada which indeed refers to the forefathers of today’s Melanson family. When I connected with Alan and Wayne Melanson, I realized that I had tapped into a piece of living history and was excited to learn more about their story. Charles Melanson, the forefather of today’s Melanson family, had come to today’s Annapolis River area with his wife Marie Dugas in about 1664 and settled along the north shore of the river.

The Melanson Settlement was an agricultural community employing the Acadian dykeland farming techniques that were unique in the colonies. In 1755 Charles’ son Ambroise and his family were deported from the Annapolis area by the English as part of the Great Expulsion (“le grand derangement”) once this area changed from French to British ownership. Wayne explained that six men, including Ambroise’s son-in-law Pierre Bellieveau initiated a mutiny on the boat and overpowered the crew. Pierre’s son Amand returned to settle in the Clare region in southwestern Nova Scotia. To this day, some descendants of Charles Melanson are still living right near the original homestead that he founded in the 17th century. Wayne commented that despite this tragic past, people have survived and preserved their cultural identity, a testament to human fortitude and tenacity in the face of adversity.

It was amazing to me that after this great diaspora of Acadian settlers in the 18th century two ninth-generation Acadian twin brothers would live and work right next to their ancestors’ original settlement, both bringing history to life for the area’s visitors. Wayne is a presentation supervisor with Parks Canada, the federal agency in charge of many of Canada’s most significant heritage sites, and his appearance reflects the style of dress of early French settlers in the area. He explained to me that today he was dressed in the style of working class people with a simple shirt and pants, covered by a heavy woolen cape against the cold. On his feet he was wearing wooden clogs, a popular piece of footwear at the time. We entered the habitation through the wooden gate that features the coat of arms of Henri IV, King of France in 1605 when the original habitation would have been built. The coats of arms of the two governors, Sieur de Mons and Sieur de Poutrincourt, are also represented above the doorway.

The entire Port-Royal complex consists of six attached wooden buildings located around a central courtyard. The buildings were reconstructed from 1939 to 1940 and are a historically accurate replica of the original habitation. This project was a result of the efforts of Harriet Taber Richardson of Cambridge, Massachusetts who raised funds to bring in a Harvard-educated archeologist for the authentic reconstruction of this early French settlement. The Port-Royal Habitation is an excellent example illustrating the lifestyle and hardships of the early French settlers and fur traders that settled in the eastern part of Canada. Wayne explained that the original settlement held about 30 craftsmen and 15 gentlemen, including a surgeon, a lawyer and a ship’s pilot. No women were residing in Port-Royal.

We started our walk at the forge where metal goods were produced on site. The blacksmith was an important member of the community because he produced the hardware needed for the upkeep of the habitation. He also fabricated goods for trade with the Mi’kmaq First Nations People which contributed directly to the settlements financial well-being. The kitchen next door was a place where geese, rabbits and other interesting dishes would be prepared and fresh bread would be baked. The adjacent Common Room was decked out in 17th century style with pewter tableware and was the location of frequent dinners of the French settlers and Mi’kmaq natives. The “Order of Good Cheer” was the first European social club, founded to while away the long dark winter nights. Prominent members of the colony took turns preparing a feast, arranging entertainment and preparing delicacies such as fricasseed beaver tail and boiled moose nose.

Despite the harsh conditions at the early settlement, culture was present at Port-Royal. A Parisian lawyer by the name of Marc Lescarbot, spent the winter of 1606-1607 at the Habitation and wrote a play called “The Theatre of Neptune” which was first performed in November of 1606. He also chronicled life in the habitation and his records provide great insight into the daily challenges of early French settlers. Wayne then introduced me to the second-story dormitory that at the time would have held about 30 craftsmen, including joiners, carpenters, masons, stonecutters, locksmiths and iron workers. These men were required to work three hours a day at their trade and could use the rest of their time to go fishing, hunting or tend their gardens. A foot-powered spring pole lathe was made to turn wood and create objects such as spindles, goblets and candlesticks. Wayne gave me a demonstration of this contraption and the functionality of this human-powered piece of equipment was astounding. The apothecary next door was in charge of ensuring the health of the early settlers. Various herbs would be crushed with a pestle and mortar to provide remedies for common health problems.

This was a harsh environment and many of the original inhabitants did not survive the harsh winters. Several gentlemen’s quarters follow, each equipped with bunk beds and draw curtains for privacy. Generally each room was inhabited by two to four gentlemen and equipped with a table, chair, wardrobe, a large bench and a fireplace. The largest sleeping quarters are those of the Governor which are decorated with a smoked moose hide, artwork originally produced by the Mi’kmaq natives which was much admired by the French settlers. Wayne explained that moose hide would often be worn to protect against the cold. The most effective way was to wear the hairy side on the inside with the smooth part facing outside.

The next building holds the fur storage area where furs from various animals are displayed, including beaver, silver fox, bobcat, raccoon, timber wolf, otter and lynx furs. Wayne informed me that beaver fur was the most valuable fur since there was a big craze for beaver fur hats at the European royal courts. Essentially the entire early settlement of Canada was a result of Europe’s fashion hunger for beaver fur. Rabbit fur was also used to make hats, but in order to remove the keratin from the hair, mercury had to be used which had severe effects on the mental health of the craftsmen producing the hats. Wayne explained that this is where the expression “mad as a hatter” comes from. When we entered the wine cellar, my expert guide pointed out that every man who resided here received 1.5 pints (about 1 litre) of wine a day. Wine was considered much healthier since much of the water in the early communities was polluted due to poor sanitary conditions. People would toss their slob buckets into the rivers, effectively contaminating their own drinking water supply.

Next door we entered the trading room which was a room were barter transactions for basic goods would take place. In a loft upstairs a Mi’kmaq canoe as well as an original coffin is on display. The steep roof would help the snow slide off during the long harsh winters. Wayne then took me outside to the Cannon Platform from where there is a great view over the Annapolis River. Any intruder approaching the area could easily be seen from this platform. Outside the Habitation is a monument honouring Membertou, one of the great Mi’kmaq chiefs who helped the French adapt and survive in Acadia who together with his family was baptized in 1610.

I thanked Wayne Melanson for his great introduction to Port-Royal, this early place of French history. On an increasingly cloudy day I made my way back to Annapolis Royal, stopping to take some pictures of a few beautiful house in Granville Ferry, the town located directly across from Annapolis Royal. Prior to an earlier bridge and today’s causeway, Granville Ferry was indeed the location of a ferry service that would connect both towns by ship.

Shortly after I arrived back in Annapolis Royal and was more than ready for a tasty dinner. And I would have a chance to see history brought to life in my much anticipated Garrison Graveyard Tour, to be presented by Alan Melanson, the other member of this duo of historic experts.

Susanne Pacher is the publisher of http://www.travelandtransitions.com, a web portal for unconventional travel & cross-cultural connections. Check out our brand new FREE ebooks about travel.