Abegweit, Elsetkook and the Mi’Kmaq Heritage
In the Tracadie area, about halfway along the Hillsborough’s route to Charlottetown Harbour, piles of discarded shells called “middens” provide an archeological clue to the early history of the watershed. While evidence of human habitation throughout maritime Canada dates back at least 10,000 years, the midden sites suggest that First Nations people first inhabited the Hillsborough area about 3,500 years ago. Some historians speculate that “Shellfish People” were joined by the Mi’Kmaq, a branch of the Algonquin Nation, while others maintain that the Mi’Kmaq were the first culture of the region. No matter what the chronology of aboriginal settlement, it is clear that the Hillsborough was once an important seasonal food source and transportation route for early inhabitants of Prince Edward Island. to the early Mi’Kmaq, the river was known as Elsetkook, “running close by high rocks,” in an island known as Abegweit, “land cradled by the waves.”
The Acadians of Île St. Jean
Visited by Jacques Cartier in 1534, and named Île St. Jean by Samuel de Champlain in 1634, Prince Edward Island became the focus of early 18th century French colonization. Acadian settlers from the central valleys of France, who had already settled along the tidal flats of the Bay of Fundy, migrated to the French island of the St. Lawrence when the British claimed the mainlands of Canada. Unwilling to become British subjects, they accepted the offers of New France landowners, who were required to secure their New World land grants with colonies.
Ditches and Dykes
In 1720, 300 Acadian colonists sailed to Port La Joye, in Charlottetown Harbour at the mouth of the Hillsborough River. Over the next three decades, Acadian settlement spread inland along the river. Armed with farming ingenuity acquired on the mainland, the colonists constructed an elaborate system of earthworks, using dykes, ditches and dams to convert wetland marshes into productive fields. The community of St. Peters became a major fishing centre for the settlers, and wild game was abundant throughout the land.
Defeat and Deportation
When the French fortress of Louisbourg fell to the British in 1745, Île St. Jean became a British possession. Nevertheless, at least, 2,000 more displaced mainland Acadians sought refuge on Île St. Jean between 1756 and 1758. In August of 1758, following earlier French-English skirmishes on the island, British troops landed at Port La Joye and began the processes of deporting French and Acadian residents.
As British cannons were mounted in what was now known as Fort Amherst, most Acadians – about 5,000 in number – were dispersed. Amidst the chaos, about 30 Acadian families were overlooked. The British conquest had severely threatened, but not completely extinguished, the island’s Acadian life and culture. Today, the Acadian Pioneer Village in Mount Carmel, and the Acadian Museum in Miscouche, portrays the history, culture and development of teh Island’s first European population.
Brigantine Boom: The Hillsborough’s Shipbuilding Era
Today, a walk along the marshy banks of the Hillsborough reveals little of the feverish economic activity that gripped its shores in the mid 19th century. Only a few weathered remnants remain of the shipyards and wharves that once dominated the communities of Charlottetown, Mt. Stewart, Carr Point, Fullerton’s Marsh and Clarktown. but during the age of sail, almost 600 vessels were built on the river’s banks. Upriver ships were towed to Charlottetown Harbour for rigging, and then packed with cargoes of valuable Island lumber. Hillsborough schooners were a common sight in British markets, and Hillsborough hardwood found its way to many corners of the globe. By the time the shipbuilding boom collapsed in the 1880’s, curtailed by the advent of steam power, forest resources in the Hillsborough watershed were running out, and much of the region’s Acadian forest had been sailed away to sea.
A second wave of European immigration began in 1765, when Captain Samuel Holland arrived to survey the new British territory. In the wake of Acadian settlement, he found hundreds of hectares of cleared land. Holland divided the island into 67 massive lots, and preparations were made for colonization.
Under the direction of energetic landowner Captain John MacDonald, hundreds of Scottish and Irish immigrants settled along the Hillsborough River in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Communities such as Scotchfort, Glenaladale and Glenfinnan were established, with the river serving as a year-round resource and transportation route. In the mid 19th century, shipbuilding brought prosperity and notoriety to the Hillsborough River settlements and productive, fertile land fostered a thriving agricultural industry.
Fort Amherst/Port La Joye National Historic Site
Look out over Charlottetown Harbour from the grassy ruins of this former French and British fortification. Strategically located to defend the Hillsborough River’s inland route, the Fort came under British control in 1758 when thousands of Acadian settlers were deported. Visit the Fort’s interpretive displays to learn more about the 18th century French settlement, changing political sovereignty, and resettlement by British immigrants.
Fathers and Founders in Canada’s Birthplace
By Canadian geographical standards, Prince Edward Island is a small province. Yet it is the site of one of the country’s most momentous historical events. It was in Charlottetown, at the mouth of the Hillsborough River, that the Fathers of Confederation met to lay the groundwork for the union of Upper and Lower Canada and the British maritime colonies. The famous Charlottetown Conference of 1864 is now regarded as the birth of Canada as a nation, leading to official confederation on July 1, 1867. visitors to Charlottetown can take part in tours and events that commemorate this turning point in Canadian history:
- Founder’s Hall, Canada’s Birthplace Pavilion, follows the path of Confederation in a series of halo-visuals, multi-media interpretations and interactive displays.
- Festival of the Fathers, held each year at summer’s end, includes a re-enactment of the landing of the Fathers of Confederation at Peake’s Wharf, a promenade up Great George Street to Province House National Historic Site, and 1864 vignettes featuring prominent characters of the day.