Island History


          This short history of PEI expands the “very short” history as found in my book, Paddling Prince Edward Island.  I have always found it enjoyable to have a sense of the historical background of where I was paddling or traveling.


Under the French Flag

          The history of Prince Edward Island does not begin with the 1534 Jacques Cartier visit to the Island. His captain’s journal, however, does begin the written record of European interaction with the Island. Actually, it was probably the famous explorer Samuel de Champlain who “discovered” the Island for the French Crown in 1603. Native peoples inhabited this locale long before the “white man” appeared on the scene. Around 13,000 years ago, the glacier receded and allowed for human migration of the Paleo-Indian communities to walk across the land bridge that joined present day New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. These nomadic hunters eventually died out, and around 3500 B.C.E., the most recent migration of native inhabitants occurred, presumably traveling north from New England and other Maritime areas. Unlike their predecessors, they ate shellfish, so they were designated by historians as the “Shellfish People.”  These more recent inhabitants were the direct ancestors of the Micmac nation. It was the Micmacs that greeted the first French explorers and later, the fishermen. It was the Micmacs who allowed and helped the Europeans to settle the Island.

All one has to do is to trace the name changes of the Island to readily understand its history. England and France, the two world powers of the day, could not easily share the political and economic stages of the times. They often fought, and the military engagements within Europe always extended to the New World. Thus, as one country loomed victorious in Europe, so the balance of power in the Maritimes was tipped in the favor of the most powerful country. As the balance of power swung to England, so the French settlements of the Maritimes (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Cape Breton Island) came under increasing peril. France had settled the Maritimes earlier and the long-time inhabitants became known as Acadians, for the French Maritimes was named Acadia. Because these Acadians developed a social identity all their own, even though they spoke French, they really did not consider themselves as merely French settlers. Acadia occupied a very strategic position in the new World. The English had developed colonies to the south in New England, and France had settled New France (Quebec) to the north. The St. Lawrence River and the Gulf of St. Lawrence was the economic lifeline for the French to the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean en route to Europe and the West Indies. In addition, Acadia was the nearest land to the enormously important fishing grounds off of the Grand Banks. No wonder, Acadia and the Acadian people were in a tenuous position, poised precariously on the political seesaw of European politics.

          The French were the ones who settled the Island, but their success at building a substantial colony was meager, at best. At first, they developed plans that centered on seal hunting and fishing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, especially near the Magdalen Islands. Prince Edward Island, then known as Ile St. Jean, did not appear to hold any potential for substantive colonization. The French, generally, were much more focused on the development of Quebec and Montreal. It was not until the 1720’s that the French tried to colonize the Island in earnest. Three hundred pioneers settled at Port La Joie, which was in the area of Charlottetown Bay. Crude buildings were erected and boats were built. Soon, other French settlements on the North Shore began to develop, as did ones on the eastern side of the Island. The growth of French colonization was very mediocre for there were many physical hardships to overcome along with the backbreaking work of clearing the land for self-sufficiency. Overall, as the historian Nicolas de Jong states, the lack of success to fully colonize the Island was the result of its being perceived merely as a “resource for Louisburg [the large [enormously strategic] French fortress on Ile Royale, Cape Breton Island]. The colony was not to be considered as an end in itself.” In short, Isle de St. Jean was never a high priority for economic development. The Island’s French population, however, despite the Island’s low profile, did begin to grow in population and settlement. There was some Acadian migration to the Island all along, but the larger population movement occurred in the late 1740’s and early 1750’s after the English took possession of Acadia (present day Nova Scotia on the Bay of Fundy) and demanded that the local inhabitants take an oath loyal to the English Crown. The French authorities, on their part, actively encouraged Acadian immigration and provided incentives. In 1751, the population of Ile St. Jean was about 3000. The increased population, especially after the 1755 Acadian exodus from Nova Scotia, brought its own perilous problems. There never was enough food to feed the inhabitants, leave alone the huge influx of displaced Acadians, so the settlements increased their dependence on the importation of foodstuffs. This always caused grave anxiety on the part of the settlers. A good harvest year brought a sense of well-being and relief, but when the crops failed, there was widespread depression. Living on the Island was always difficult and insecure. Added to the basic agricultural insecurity was the anxiety caused by the military precariousness of the French. Fort Louisburg was the largest fort in North America, supposedly an impenetrable, world-class fortress. In 1745, a large war party of mainly American colonials with some English naval support, accomplished the impossible by defeating the French at Louisburg. This military feat had huge implications for the entire North American Continent. (A fascinating book that details the battles for Louisburg is The Fantastic Breed  by Leon Phillips, published by Doubleday.)


End of the French Era

          England and France resumed all-out hostilities in the late 1750’s. Fort Louisburg had been given back to the French as part of a treaty, but in 1758, the English again overpowered the French and with the surrender of Fort Louisburg to the British in 1758, England now controlled the Maritimes. War ships and soldiers invaded Ile St. Jean, rounded up the Acadians, pillaged and destroyed buildings and livestock, and deported thousands of helpless Acadians to other English colonies or back to France. Some Acadians escaped the manhunt and hid. Others managed to escape, especially with the help of the Micmacs, to French Canada. In all ways, the French rule of Ile St. Jean had ended, and the Island was renamed St. John’s Island in 1763.  The conquest of the Island left an indelible mark on the Acadian consciousness to this day.  Hundreds of deportees died in the trans-Atlantic voyage either from disease or drowning. Families were torn apart, never to be reunited. Only the sadness of the Island lay heavier than the smoke from the fires that burned the buildings and fields of the inhabitants. Because the French and the Indians had attacked the English colonials for years, the English wanted to make an historic statement that emphasized its political power over the French. Anything or anyone French were despised by the British, so even though the Acadians were not really Frenchmen, and they certainly were not the French military,  to the English, they symbolized the French presence in the Maritimes. So stark is the historical memory that to this day, Acadian folk songs and literature refer to the deportations with grief. The Cajun folk song tradition, found in the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, echo the pain of the Acadian Diaspora.



          The English were far more enthusiastic about the settling and developing of St. John than the French. Of course, much had transpired in the globalization of the world since the French first set foot on the Island. The English realized that the demand for fish in England was huge, and the Grand Banks could be a major supplier of food to England and other European countries. In 1764, Samuel Holland, a very capable military officer, engineer and cartographer, was enlisted by King George III to survey the Island. He must have been more than just an efficient bureaucrat, for he successfully led his men through very difficult times. Surely, he was impressed by the Island’s potential and beauty. He divided the Island into three counties that still bear his naming: Kings, Queens, and Prince. In addition, he sub-divided these counties into 67 lots that were roughly twenty thousand acres each. These were large parcels of potential farmland. A lottery in England was designed to create ownership of the lots. The land ownership structure on the Island mirrored the same socio/economic conditions that existed in England. Wealthy men submitted letters of intent to develop the land and to be responsible for its governance and expansion of population through stimulating immigration. On the face of it, all appeared to be ready for a population and economic boom for the Island of St. John. The problem was that intentions and actual follow-through were miles apart. Many of the landowners really had no intention of colonizing their land holdings. They were only interested in making money from the selling of land at a future date. There were some efforts to settle the land, but those who actually journeyed across the Atlantic found unimagined hardships and obstacles. Planning for settling the land was often ineffective. Supplies were often mishandled and never arrived. The enormity of subduing the wilderness was beyond the scope of ill-fed, ill-housed, and ill-prepared settlers. Settlements were begun and failed. The men associated with the major settlement endeavors, both failed and successful, were Montgomery, Macdonald and Selkirk.

          Immigration to Prince Edward Island (so named in 1799 in honor of the son of King George III) was miniscule, mainly due to the lack of the opportunity for individual land ownership. The landlord/tenant relationship that was so hated in England spilled onto the virgin soil of PEI. The dynamic spirit of the pioneer settlement movement in the New World was based on the prospect for personal independence and individual ownership of the land, so the perpetuation of the system of “old world” land ownership proved to be highly discouraging to immigrants. In addition, the living conditions on the Island were very primitive and demanding. It was not until the 1850’s that there was even a bank, which indicated the low level of economic development and the acquisition of general wealth. Douglas Baldwin, in his very readable Popular History of Prince Edward Island, states, “The Island generally attracted only the poorer and less-educated immigrants.”  The War of 1812 pitted the Americans to the south with the English colonists to the north. In the process of repelling American incursions, a new sense of Canadian identity began to emerge. Just as the earlier French and Indian War sharpened the self-reliant skills and spirit, which contributed to the American rebellious identity, so, the War of 1812 began to mold a new Canadian persona. Despite this new sense of stronger self-image, economic growth with its attending social development grew slowly, but there was measurable progress. By the 1830’s, the Island was self-sufficient in its ability to feed itself. This was no mean accomplishment given the long history of food shortages and starvation in the past. The real memory of such deprivation must have been dramatically acute for the Islanders, just as the Great Depression of the 1920’s and 30’s left indelible nightmares for millions throughout the world. So, the spirit of the Island took a noticeable turn for the better as the Island began to emerge into a semblance of normalcy. The 15,000 inhabitants in the 1830’s began to enjoy the labors of their hands. Despite the continued militant tension between tenant farmers and the land lords, a communal sense of hope began to evolve, whether that was motivated by the solidarity of class militancy or just the prospect of progress. Bartering was brisk, churches developed with the untiring leadership of the Protestant minister, Donald McDonald and the Catholic priest, Father Angus Bernard Maceachern, but education of the young was still lacking. Most were illiterate. Roads needed to be constructed, more adequate housing needed to replace the very primitive log cabins, and the never-ending requirement to clear more land for cultivation was a constant. Horse and oxen power provided the energy sources for any difficult chore.

          The one major, nagging problem slowing the development of the Island was land reform. Island landlords and local rent collectors frequently met with grave tenant animosity at the end of pitchfork. The landlords often did not pay their taxes,  so it was difficult for the governor to fulfill his responsibility to oversee the running of the Island and keep communication between the Island and the Crown effective. As time went on, the ownership of land became more of a hot political issue, indeed, a flash point of unrest and outright violence. The demand for greater representation of landowners, merchants, and farmers produced the development of an assembly that could communicate in force to the governor. By 1853, the Land Purchase Act was in effect that allowed the government to purchase estates and resell the land to tenant farmers. By the Canadian Confederation in 1873, one third of the Island property had been redistributed to tenants. The dream of land ownership was being realized.




          The people of Prince Edward Island have always been proud of their Island and of their agricultural and seafaring roots. This sense of independent identity was intensified by the very fact of their physical separation from the mainland. The insular quality of the Island was pervasive. So, the citizens of PEI responded unenthusiastically to the invitation to join a Maritime Union with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. How much the more so was there reluctance to be part of the greater Canadian Confederation that was being created. The Islanders were concerned that they would not be adequately represented in Parliament; what would be gained by giving up homegrown governmental control? Ultimately, through long negotiations and several major confederation conferences, tiny Prince Edward Island joined the Canadian Confederation. Political reluctance on the part of PEI politicians served to gain the Island a more acceptable arrangement. Island debts from the building of the all-important trans-Island railroad were assumed by the national government, as was the running of the railroad. Better communication and transit between the Island and the mainland were promised. There was more political representation in Parliament, and very important to the farmer-tenants, the Island received $800,000 in order to purchase the remaining estates so that they could be sold to individual farmers. (The historical displays at the Confederation Hall in Charlottetown vividly describe the Confederation history).

          Prince Edward Island was coming into its own by the mid 1800’s. In 1841, the population was 47,000, but by 1861, it had almost doubled to 81,000. This was a gigantic increase in such a short time. Just by looking at the population numbers, one can surmise that the economy of the Island was booming. And so it was. Free trade stimulated the export of agricultural and fishing products, and in addition, the lumbering and ship building industries were enormously successful. The large work force required countless support services, all of which contributed to the growing economy. Late in the century, fox farming added to the Island’s wealth. The “golden age” of PEI’s economic history, however, slowed to a standstill as the world’s need for wooden sailboats gave way to steam power and steel hulls. By 1880, shipbuilding was almost dead, and between 1870 and 1900, as many as thirty thousand Islanders departed their homeland in search of employment in the United States and western Canada. In 1881, the population of the Island was 109,000, but by 1924, the population had plummeted to 86,000. With the enormous decrease of employment in shipbuilding, agriculture and fishing remained the mainstays of the Island’s economy. As new inventions and products were developed on the mainland, so they started to appear on the Island, but because of the worsening economy, the modernization of the Island progressed very slowly.  The First World War, the Great Depression, and The Second World War all effected the Island as they did throughout Canada. The entire economy of the Island was debilitated.  The brief war industry that bolstered the economy vanished with the peace treaties. The Depression’s effects were enormous. It was the strong sense of community values that enabled the people to survive.  Compared to the dramatic changes experienced in the cities and farms elsewhere on the Continent, PEI remained provincial and quiet. Where other provinces embraced the use of the automobile, for example, PEI was reluctant. Douglas Baldwin pointed out that as late as 1941, the number of farm homes with electric lighting was only 6%, with running water, 9%; only 60% had radios, and 22% had phones. Some parts of the Island did not have electricity until the 1950’s, and the first television program was broadcasted on the Island in 1956. Even today, there are those on the Island who can remember much slower and more primitive times. One can only imagine what these old timers have witnessed in their life times, from horse-drawn plows to huge air-conditioned tractors, from candlelight to laser technology.



          Touring the Island today, one can still sense its colorful history. The visitor must look more intently, however, to spot the clues that echo the past. As small family farms disappear, the old barns crumble rapidly. Presently, tourism has grown to be one of the top industries on the Island. Farming and fishing, especially the lobster, mussel, and oyster sectors, contribute large sums to the Island’s economy, and technology has transformed agriculture dramatically. By comparison to the past, the Island is enjoying an over-all prosperity. The Confederation Link Bridge has enabled businesses to ship goods and products with greater ease. Even though there was a quaint enjoyment in sailing to the Island from the mainland on the ferries not so long ago, the rapid and easy drive across Northumberland Strait hopefully will stimulate greater tourism and controlled and environmentally responsible economic growth. With rapid transportation alternatives and the internet, the world has radically shrunk. Resultantly, life on PEI does not feel so insular anymore, but the charm and the values of the Island are still very much in existence. The inhabitants, however, will have to fight hard to retain the Island’s old values of self-reliance, hard work, and community spirit. Economic and communication progress wields a two-sided sword. The present population of 130,000 barely presents the critical mass for growth, and there are real concerns that many of the Island’s young people will continue to move off the Island to find employment and professional pursuits. This is a fact of life; even with all the modernization and change, some things on the Island do not change. Despite the complexities of living in our shrinking world, PEI’s future is bright and promising. The real test will be how the Island retains its natural, generative, and cultural heritage while striving to become more prosperous. As I discuss in Paddling Prince Edward, the problems of the Island may very well become the exported technologies of the future, a teacher to rest of the world.

Back to Homepage