Echoes from Old Acadia II: At the St Croix Mouth.

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Echoes from Old Acadia II: At the St Croix Mouth.
Charles G. D. Roberts
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ECHOES FROM OLD ACADIA II. AT THE ST. CROIX MOUTH. BY CHARLES G. D. ROBERTS. (Concluded.) No small part in the making of “the Maple Leaf Land” was played by the seaward sister provinces which together formed Acadia. Walled around with fogs, and rocks, and inhospitable seas, Acadia, now parted into Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, is lovely at heart with sunshine and fertility. Her harbors are gateways leading from a region of storm and wild tides into a land of delicious summers- a land of tumbling streams and blue lakes, of simple meadows deep with grass and flowers drowsing through the long afternoons, of vast forests so thick that their green shadows never knew touch of sun. And one of those well-favored Acadian havens lured to itself the first settlement that struck root in the whole broad country now called Canada. This was the harbor of Port Royal, wherein DeMonts set a colony to 1605. It was seventy years before this that the drama had been opened upon the Acadian stage. On the 30th of June, 1534, it began, when Cartier sighted Cape Escuminao (locally now Skiminac,) on the gulf-shore of New Brunswick, coming from the bleak, forbidding coasts of Newfoundland, which he deemed to be Cain’s portion of the earth, this harshest corner of Acadia appeared to Cartier a paradise. The wide water on which he found himself was Miramichi Bay. Not discovering the Miramichi itself, whose mouth lay hidden close at hand, behind long, yellow ranges of sand-spit, chains of islands, and intricate shoals, he landed on the banks of a lesser river, not identified among the thousand such that overlace that region with sliver courses. This stream rippled shallow over its gleaming pebbles, and swarmed with trout and salmon. The rich woods about consisted of pine and cedar, elm and ash, birch, willow, fir, maple and tamarack, and the sailors' hearts rejoiced over such unlimited possibilities of ships. Where the woods gave back a little space the ground was covered with wild fruits. Great melting strawberries betrayed themselves to his mouth by their red gleams piercing the matted grate. The bronze-green black berry thickets were heavy with their yet unripened fruitage, and the wild pea trammeled his footsteps with its ropes of purple and pale green. This prodigal land was populous with game. When wild pigeons in immeasurable flocks streamed past and darkened the air, the heavens seemed as thick with wings as the sea and streams with fish. The men lay awake at night and listened with wonder to the noise of the countless salmon passing the shoals. Every edge-grown marsh was noisy with ducks. Plover and curfew piped softly about the edges of the pools. And the people possessing this land were friendly and few. Bearing northward, Cartier's weather-darkened sails were soon wafting him over the fairest bay his eyes had yet seen. Its water was clear green, its surface scarcely rippled under the steep run of mid-July. No reefs, no shoals; but here and there a dark green island asleep on the sleepy tide. On either hand a long, receding line of lofty shores, drawing close together toward the west, and shading gently from indigo to pale violet. So great was the change from the raw winds of the gulf to this sultry sea that Cartier called its name “the Bay of Heats”- Baie des Chaleurs. Here they passed some days very sweetly in indolent exploration, in trading with the hospitable Micmacs, in feasting on seal's flesh and salmon. So commercial were the natives of this land that they sold the clothes they wore for beads and trinkets. Then Cartier sailed on to the mouth, to discover the great St. Lawrence and Canada. And the picture of this visit of his to Acadian shores is the mere fleet revelation of a lightning-flash in the night, with thicker darkness following after it. After lapse of nearly three-quarters of a century Acadian history makes a real beginning, at the St. Croix mouth. To the Sieur de Monts were given letters patent conferring on him the title of Lieutenant General of the Territory of Acadia, with full power, between the 40th and 46th parallels, to divide and bestow the land as he might see fit; with power also of monopolizing trade, of making war and peace, and ordinances and law. With him set sail from Havre de Grace, in March, 1604, Baron de Poutrincourt, and the Father of Canada, Champlain. In June the prospective colony, in search of an abiding-place, having rejected Port Roseignol and the pastoral valley of Port Royal, having traversed the yellow turbulence of the Bay of Fundy and discovered the rock bastioned harbor hollowed by the outflow of the St. John, found itself among the myriad island of Passamaquoddy Bay. Even Champlain, the faithful chronicler, could keep no count of these islands. A vast, sweeping curve of shore, leagues in extent, clasped the sunny archipelago as a handful of jewels; and at the apex of the curve a broad river emptied itself quietly, between wooded low-lying lands, watched over by a solitary peak. This river they called the St. Croix, and on a little inland within its mouth they resolved to set the colony. The waters round about were alive with fish, the islands and the bay with birds. The place was one easy of defense, easy of access, and they judged the site a well-nigh perfect one, not realizing what it lacked. At the south or seaward end of the island, which was long and narrow, containing about half a score of acres, rose a grassy knoll upon which to set their watch. Save for a stray elm or water ash, the island bore but grass from brink to brink, and the two or three trees they found they cut down to go to the building of their fort. This was raised at the north end, and around it the dwelling-houses clustered, the store-house, the chapel, and a great baking oven of burnt brick. On the mainland near they built a mill, and sowed, though it was now full summer, their rye and barley, and they laid out garden plots in loving likeness to the thymy closes and beds of marjoram which sweetened the air about their Norman homes. Strange in their nostrils were the heavy aromatic odors of the wild parsnip, cloying the midday breeze. Stranger in their ears the intricate metallic babblings from the bobolink's throat, the chirr of the grackles in alder and swaying elm-tops. They cut the elm for building and the alder for fagots; and the bobolink moved further off as he saw his loved wild-parsnip heads laid low. So with digging and with building the summer passed merrily along. But by and by the summer went out in a sudden blaze of scarlet and gold; it Had glared against the noonday, and was not; and a disappearing grayness stole across the landscape. When late October winds began to pipe over the shelterless island, bending the sere, long grasses all one way, and ridden by such a legion of crisped leaves that every brook was choked and the still pools hidden from sight, their hearts turned homeward very longingly. At last the Acadian winter broke upon them, and it caught them unawares. The pleasant river grew dark, of the hue of steel, and chafed past their thresholds with a burden of ice and debris. The cold was such as France had never taught them to endure, or to conceive of. Sleet and pitiless winds drove in through the chinks of their rough walls, till they crouched over their meagre fires and were sorely wretched at heart. Nor fuel or water was on the island, and for both these they had to face the fury of the weather and the danger of the sweeping ice-cakes. A band of Indians came and pitched their camp upon the island; and the colonials, not yet acquainted with the friendliness and good faith of their “Souriquois," were harassed with continual fear and watchings. Champlain’s hope and cheerfulness nothing could daunt, and he strove to sustain the flagging spirits about him. But in vain! Then from their despondency and homesickness, from the cold on their bodies Ill-inured to it, until from the salt unwholesomeness of their fare, came disease upon them. It was a plague strange and terrible, for which they could find no remedy. The mouths of those stricken swelled, and their throats, till they were near choking. Their teeth dropped out; and their limbs, grown horribly enlarged, were powerless altogether. So swift was the disease that hardly could the sick be given service and the dead burial. When spring came, and kindlier skies, there remained alive but forty-four persons, out of nearly four score; and these, as soon as strength returned, took ship with the most propitious weather. South as far as Cape Cod they searched the coasts, and found no place to their liking. But they had kept in mind the fertile valley and spacious sheltered basin of Port Royal; and thither they betook themselves, with whatever could he carried away from their sorrowful winter’s home. The fort and the walls of their dwellings, they left standing, and they sowed grain on the island before forsaking it. The deserted walls fell soon, or were taken away by the Indians, and the stone and cedar foundations have been buried under drift and river silt. The island has moved up stream a little gnawed off to windward by the tides. But its shape is still unchanged, so that the ancient chronicle describes a familiar spot. The wind beats steadily across it still, the grass bending before it with desolate monotony; and save for the solitary light-keeper, who is there but from sunset to sunrise, the island is as empty of life to this day as when first Champlain dropped anchor in the St. Croix mouth.