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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada



Microfiche Report Series 83


Margaret Fortier


Fortress of Louisbourg

Part Three - Flora and Fauna


The southern half of Cape Breton's woods belong to the hemlock/white pine/ northern hardwood forest which characterizes the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. The northern part of the island is more properly classified as Boreal Forest, that is, primarily coniferous trees with a mixture of birch and poplar. Descriptions of the island's woodlands from the early 18th to the mid-19th centuries indicate that the species of hardwood characteristic of these types of forest were much more plentiful then than is the case today. Oak and ash, though never present in great quantities, were more numerous, as were elms, apparently of relatively modest size, and beech, maple and merisier (see forward). The last three species seemed "inexhaustible" even in the early 19th century. While spruce and fir covered the coastal areas then as they do now, mixed forests were much more common, as were such conifers as pine and hemlock. Therefore, while the basic type of forest has not changed, distribution and quantities have altered significantly. Beech, found in virtually every part of Cape Breton in the 18th century, was until recently in this century found only in the northern part of the island. Paper or white birch, on the other hand, does not seem to have been nearly as plentiful then as it is today. [1]

The most significant factor in altering the composition of the forest was the indiscriminate cutting of hardwood by Europeans. Not long after the establishment of the French on Ile Royale, Jacques L'Hermitte, the colony's first chief engineer, noted that it was already necessary to travel some distance from the shore to find good wood. This was due, he said, to all that "nous y avons pris dequis que les françois Sont a Ile Royale". [2] Louisbourg's need for firewood and "bois de construction" was almost insatiable during the three decades prior to the first siege. As supplies within easy transporting distance became harder to find, the cost of supplying fuel to Loui,bourg's inhabitants rose. Any scheme which would bring wood to the capital of the colony, located as it was in the poorest forest area on the island, was greeted enthusiastically. [3] In 1749 the minister instructed Desherbiers to investigate the use of coal as an alternative source of heat in order to reduce the colony's dependence on wood. [4] Thereafter, for the next 200 years, coal was to become the chief fuel used on the island.

Depletion of Cape Breton's forest resources may have slowed at the end of the 18th century. Charles Morris, Surveyor-General of Nova Scotia, reported in 1774 that Cape Breton contained great quantities of "Black Birch" and "Black Spruce" which would be very useful for ship-building. The island was also rich in "other Timber, such as Beach [sic], Ash, Maple and all other timbers common to the Country". Consequently, it was Morris' recommendation that 

the whole Island of Cape Breton should be reserved for the purposes of preserving for His Majesty's use Timber for Shipbuilding and other uses - this Island being the nearest tract of land to England where such quantities of Timber are to be procured and having many excellent harbors for the exportation thereof. [5]

The Board of Trade in England accepted Morris's report. They informed Governor Legge of Nova Scotia that all of Cape Breton should be reserved for the purpose of providing timber and masts for the Royal Navy. A fine of 10 livres was imposed on anyone found cutting or carrying off wood, or in any way despoiling the forest. An exception was made for fishermen who were permitted to cut wood within a half mile of the coast for use in drying their catch. The governor informed Lord Dartmouth that this exemption was of no help to the fishermen of Louisbourg, since there was "no wood whatever in that neighbourhood within a much greater distance of the sea shore". [6]

The ban on cutting Cape Breton's timber seems to have expired when the island was. given colonial status, independent of Nova Scotia, in 1784. [7] At the beginning of the 19th century, Judge Dodd wrote that Cape Breton's forest "might be appropriated to many valuable purposes and form a very profitable and extensive Commerce - everywhere affords fine and Suitable Streams for Saw-Mills and the various Species of Timber procurred in any form Dimension and quantity". [8] Lumbering, however, did not begin on a large scale until mid-century when the requirements of ship-building and mine construction necessitated the cutting of large amounts of timber. [9] Answers to questions posed to various residents of each county of Cape Breton by Thomas Haliburton in 1861 revealed that: the forest of Inverness County was mostly hardwood with some fir; Victoria County had no unclaimed timber land of any value; Cape Breton County boasted hardwood with an undergrowth of fir in some areas north of the Mira River, while burnt areas south of the river were being filled in by birch; and Richmond County had stands of pine, maple, birch, beech, ash, spruce, hemlock and "a few oak". [10]

The extensive cutting which took place on the island is apparent from a map and chart of forest distribution on Cape Breton which was prepared for the Canadian Commission-of Conservation in 1909-10. "Young growth" occupied virtually the entire southern part of the island that was not classified as "barrens". This is the area cut by the French in the 18th century. Trees that had grown to replace those cut were either cut themselves or reduced by fire during the following century. Almost 56 per cent of the island's forest was classified as coniferous. Approximately half of those softwoods were still virgin forest. "Culled" areas of coniferous stands accounted for only 4 per cent of the forest. By contrast, 75 per cent of hardwood stands, though only 13 per cent of the island's forest, were classified as "severely culled", and 65 per cent of mixed growth areas were also "severely culled". [11]

Continued cutting and additional fire damage in the 20th century created a forest that was even more dominated by coniferous trees. In areas of Cape Breton where softwoods have been destroyed, hardwood appears to be making gains. The following is an examination of each of the types of trees mentioned by early commentators on Cape Breton.


The earliest reference to oak in the maritime region appears in Nicolas Denys' account of his 17th century travels. In addition to noting that there were oaks suitable for use in ship-building, Denys remarked that it was possible to kill bears by surprising them while they were eating acorns. [12] Later references relating specifically to Ile Royale indicate that the amount of oak present on the island was limited. [13] Some local oak was used in Louisbourg in the construction of cannon carriages and for such things as stairs, and window and door casings. [14] In 1752, however, Louis Franquet, the chief engineer, declared that since oak was not plentiful on Ile Royale it had not been used very often at Louisbourg. He recommended cutting oak from the northern part of the island for palisades. [15]

What oak there was on Ile Royale does not seem to have been of the best quality. L'Hermitte commented that the oaks he observed on his tour around the island had not been good. [16] Another early report indicated that the island's oaks were inferior to those found in France. [17] The problem may have been only with the largest trees. In 1722 it was noted that it was difficult to get good wood from large oak trees on Ile Royale because they were usually rotten in the center. [18] Later that same year, however, oak cut at Port Dauphin was sent to France. Unfortunately, neither the size nor the quality , nor the use to which the wood was to be put was mentioned. [19] In 1736 La Flourie, a soldier in the garrison, agreed to supply Julien Fizel with 559 pieds of oak for the price of 2 sols per pied. [20]

Judge Dodd declared in his report on Cape Breton that there was both red and white oak on the island that were very tall and straight, but not as hard as those in England. [21] Red oak to this day "forms a locally important constitutent of the forest" around Pleasant Bay and Cape North. [22] White oak, though native to Canada, is not now present east of the St. Lawrence River valley. [23]

Haliburton's survey of 1861 turned up only a "few oak" in Richmond County, though they doubtless were to be found among the hardwoods of Inverness County as well. [24] Census figures for the period 1871-91 included ever decreasing quantities of oak being cut in Victoria, Inverness and Richmond Counties. [25]

Ash of a quality that was on a par with those of France was reported on Ile Royale in 1717. [26] Denys had earlier mentioned the presence in the region of some ash which were "very fine and straight". [27] Early in the 19th century Judge Dodd declared that there were both swamp and mountain ash on Cape Breton. While the latter were good for nothing, he said, the swamp ash were "nearly of a quality with the European - not quite as hard". [28]

The mountain ash is very common on Cape Breton today, but is of no commercial value. Black ash, found in "low grounds, damp woods and swamps", is present in "Poorly-drained swamps" in the northern parts of the island. Its timber has commercial uses, but is not as suitable for lumber as the white ash. This tree is found throughout Cape Breton, but was not mentioned specifically by any of the,French or 19th century English commentators. [29]

Beech appears to have been one of the most common types of deciduous trees found on the island in the 18th century. It was one of the few types of hardwood found within a ten mile radius of Louisbourg. There are several references to a stand of beech trees about 1 1/2 lieues (7 1/2 miles) from the town to the northwest. Travellers to other parts of the island encountered beech in almost every area. [30]

According to Denys, the beech trees found in the region were wide and tall. They were, he said, good for making galley oars 40 to 50 pieds long, as well as for planking the bottoms of ships. Just as strong as oak, beech had the added advantage of being less subject to rot in water. [31] This opinion was echoed some years later by Sieur Salicon when he reported on the woods of Ile Royale. [32] Most of the beech within easy reach of Louisbourg seems to have been used as firewood. [33] In 1725 the minister suggested beech as an alternative to elm in the construction of cannon carriages and gun platforms. [34] However, reports from the colony contain no mention of its use for this purpose.

Holland found beech throughout the island, but did not comment on its quality. Dodd, on the other hand, claimed that Cape Breton's beech was preferable to the European variety. It grew, he said, to a "large Size Straight, Clean and of a fine Grain". [35] Half a century later, Haliburton's survey revealed that the driest parts of Cape Breton County were still chiefly beech with an undergrowth of fir. [36]

Only one variety of beech, known as the American beech, is native to North America. For some time a disease has plagued all the beech in Nova Scotia, rendering its timber virtually worthless for any kind of construction. [37]

Another common hardwood on Ile Royale was the maple. With the exception of the southeastern corner of the island, maple seems to have been found in all regions. Its wood was used by the French for gun stocks, tables and other furniture. In addition, the syrup yielded was very popular. [38]

Dodd wrote that Cape Breton had rock, soft, and curled maple. The Micmacs tapped the rock or sugar maple trees. The first trees to run were those with diameters of 16-18 inches, producing seven or eight gallons of liquid. [39] Uniacke reported that Cape Breton's sugar maples grew tall and straight, providing the best wood for fuel and timber. [40]

The soft maple referred to by Dodd was probably the red maple. Though a "hard" wood, the timber of the red maple does not possess the strength characteristic of the sugar maple. Although the red maple produces syrup, its yield is considerably less than the larger sugar maple. [41]

Dodd's curled maple may have been the striped maple which is also native to Cape Breton. This tree is also known today as moosewood or bois d'original. It is likely that it was the striped maple that was referred to by Eurry De Laperelle in 1729 when he listed "bois d'orignac" among the trees found on Ile Royale. He explained that this name had been given to the tree because moose tended to nibble at its twigs. [42] The wood now known as the "curly maple" is a product of the sugar maple, not a separate species. [43]

Denys wrote that during his travels he encountered "very fine elms" which would be suitable for cannon carriages. [44] Elm was employed for this purpose at Louisbourg until 1736 when its use was discontinued because elm did not last well in Louisbourg's climate. [45]

In his account of Cape Breton, Judge Dodd stated that elm was plentiful, large and "very fine", growing particularly well in intervale lands. [46] White or American elms exist in Cape Breton today only in "sheltered pockets", mostly in the northern part of the island. [47]

One of the more perplexing questions concerning Cape Breton's forest involves the use of the term merisier by the French. Merisier, or wild cherry, is a wood highly prized in Fance for furniture manufacture. It polishes to a beautiful dark red tone, especially when thoroughly dried before use. On Ile Royale, the French seem to have applied the term to a member of the birch family. In both the Québecois and Acadian traditions of Canada, the term merisier has been applied to yellow birch. This tree, however, though possessing a core of reddish wood which can be polished to a red tone, does not completely fit the description of the timber referred to as merisier by the French of Ile Royale. [48]

Denys mentioned a tree he called mignogen. It was, he said, a kind of birch, but having redder wood. It was suitable for musket stocks and for use in ship-building. [49] In 1706 a memoir on Ile Royale noted the presence on the island of merisier which would be good for making beautiful furniture and guns. [50] There were also numerous other references to the presence of the tree on the island. Its durability made it suitable for gun carriages and bridges; its resistance to rot recommended it for shipbuilding; and its beautiful colour made it sought after for furniture and musket stocks. [51]

Eurry De Laperelle prepared a report in 1729 in which he stated that the merisier found on Ile Royale, particularly the red variety, was very beautiful.. It was especially good for furniture, when care was taken to dry the wood thoroughly before use. [52] His description suggests that there was more than one variety of merisier, one redder than the other.

In a report on Cape Breton, Surveyor-General Charles Morris described what he called "black birch" as being "firm close grained in color resembling mahogany but stronger and more substantial". [53] Some years later Judge Dodd, who claimed to know the island even better than Samuel Holland because he had traveled extensively through its interior, distinguished between yellow and black birch. The former, he said, was a "very tough strong Grained wood" used in ship-building, while the black birch was a very hard wood which, when polished, was "not inferior to mahogany". He had not been able to learn, he continued, if the two were really distinct species or if the black birch was simply "the aged Yellow". The confusion arose because he had never seen a young black birch. He felt, however, that the two were distinct species because the "Grain of the Wood [of the black] is different from the Yellow, it branches differently in growth, and has a different Bark". [54]

In Native Trees of Canada there is identified a kind of birch known as the "Cherry Birch", alternately referred to as the "Black Birch", in addition to the yellow variety. The two are said to be very similar in outward appearance. The cherry or black birch is described as having "heavy, hard, strong, fine-grained" wood which is "favoured for furniture, cabinet work, interior trim, flooring, doors and veneer". Today, however, this tree is found only in a tiny area on the south shore of Lake Ontario and is thus "too rare to have any economic value". The yellow birch, found in southeastern Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes, is described in much the same way, but its timber ranges in colour from almost white to reddish at the core. [55]

There is a remote possibility that both the yellow and black birch were found in Cape Breton in the 18th century. The similarity of their outward appearances may have caused them to be lumped together by the French under the term "merisier". The red variety of wood mentioned by De Laperelle was probably in great demand due to its excellence for furniture and gun stocks. If the black birch was present on the island it must have been depleted at an early date.

Definitions of "bouleau" found in Furetière's Dictionnaire Universel (1690) and the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert (1751) leave no doubt that the tree described was the white or paper birch. Both sources indicate that its wood was not highly thought of and had a very limited use. [56] Denys wrote that bouleau was a lighter wood than the mignogen which he had described. [57] The 1706 report on Ile Royale noted that the bouleau on the island were very large with a strong grain. Its timber was suitable for planking on shallops and barques. [58] There are very few references to bouleau by the French at Louisbourg, and there is nothing to indicate that white birch was used in construction there. [59] A map of the Mire region in the 1750s indicates a "Pointe au Bouleau" on the north side of the river east of present-day Albert Bridge. [60]

Dodd declared that white birch was soft and useless except for some articles of "Turnsey Wares". [61] Today white birch is one of the most common trees on the island.

Pine (Pin) 

There is little specific information available concerning the species of pine present on Ile Royale in the 18th century. Denys mentioned its presence in the region and its usefulness for planking, as well as for obtaining pitch and tar. [62] L'Hermitte encountered pines north of Menadou, near Baie Des Espagnols, and at Port Dauphin. At Niganiche there was a stand of "beaux pins Rouges", and there was a little pine near Port Toulouse and present-day Port Hawkesbury. [63]

Solican reported that the island's pines were very large and beautiful, but were nearly all "echausés dans le coeur". [64] In 1722 pine cut at Port Dauphin was sent to France. [65] Louis Franquet mentioned in 1751 that pine cut on the island was used in construction of the fortifications. [66] And Thomas Pichon noted that a type of mushroom grew at the extremities of some of the tallest white pines on the island. [67]

Some confusion is caused by Judge Dodd's reference to the presence of red, white and yellow pine on Cape Breton. The red and yellow, he said, were plentiful and equal in both size and quality to any in North America. White pine were found only in areas near the Bras D'Or Lakes and at Mata-wat-Cook, where some were "very fine and large". [68] Today eastern white pine is found on Cape Breton, but is "becoming rarer". The red pine is no longer present. What Dodd referred to as the "yellow" pine was probably the jack pine. This species is still found in northern Cape Breton near Black Brook and in Victoria County in-the New Haven area. [69] Therefore, it would appear that while native pine was not abundant in the 18th century, it was more common than it is today. (Most pines currently found in southern parts of the island are an introduced species).

The French left relatively little comment on what was probably the most abundant tree on Ile Royale, the fir. Although almost everyone who saw fit to comment on the island's woods mentioned its presence. [70] There were few comments as to its quality, size or usefulness. Denys stated simply that fir was suitable for finishing the upper works of ships as well as for obtaining pitch and tar. [71] Sub-engineer, De Couagne, informed the minister that all the wood south of the Bras D'Or Lakes was "mauvais bois de Sapins ..." [72] While an exaggeration, L'Hermitte concurred, commenting that around Louisbourg the firs "ne sont propre a rien". [73]

By 1909 much of northern Cape Breton was still covered with virgin fir. [74] Indeed such stands still occupy many parts of the highlands today. [75]

The proper French name for the one type of coniferous tree to lose its foliage each fall is mélèze. This term was not used by the French of Ile Royale. However, according to Petite Floro Forestière Du Québec, the tree referred to as "epinette rouge" was the larch, tamarack or juniper, as it is alternately called in English. [76] Little distinction was made by the French between this type of wood and other softwoods found on the island. [77]

Dodd stated that larch was valued for planking small boats and for use as fence posts because it is "Straight long and [not as] liable to decay" as other firs. [78] This finding is supported by the author of Trees of Nova Scotia who notes that larch lasts "over 15 years underground without preservatives", while other "softwood posts rot within three years". When Franquet declared in 1751 that, after oak, "epinette" made the best palisades, he may well have been referring to the "epinette rouge" and not the standard spruce. [79] In the early 19th century the larger larch or tamarack on the island were sought for boat building, depleting "the limited stocks of larger trees". [80]

Cape Breton abounds with white, red and black spruce. The French rarely distinguished one type from another. Pichon stated that "epinette blanche" grew very tall on the island and would be excellent for masts and charpente constructions. He described its bark as "unie et luisante". Small lumps on the bark contained a resin which would cure any ailment, even fractures. He had been assured that just two drops of this resin added to a broch would cure fevers, upset stomachs, or consumption, and act as a purge. In Paris it was called "le baume blanc". [81]

Dodd claimed in his report that "Essence of Spruce" was made from young black spruce trees. This variety grew tall and straight, making it useful for masts on small vessels or top masts on larger ones. Red and white spruce, on the other hand, were good only for fence posts. The young buds from the red spruce, Dodd said, made "the finest yellow dye in the World". [82] In 1774 the British Board of Trade had restricted the cutting of timber on Cape Breton partly to conserve the black spruce for use as masts on His Majesty's ships. [83]

All three species of spruce continue to thrive on Cape Breton. Spruce beer, brewed by the French at Louisbourg in the 18th century, can be made from red or black spruce by boiling "new twigs and needles, adding molasses, honey or maple sugar, and fermenting". [84] The black and red spruce are hard to differentiate. Where the two grow in close proximity to each other, they often interbreed, resulting in further confusion. [85] From his description, Pichon seems to have been referring to the red or black spruce, not the white as he stated. Roland and Smith in Flora of Nova Scotia have concluded that white spruce was "probably not common in the original forest except near the coast and in northern Cape Breton". [86] White spruce may not have been found as extensively as the other two species, but all three were definitely growing on the island.

In Thomas Pichon's letters on Ile Royale he mentioned what he called "la perusse". Several other French commentators mentioned "prusse", which has frequently been taken to be a corruption of spruce. [87] To further cloud the issue the word "prusse", not found in standard French dictionaries, has come down among North American francophones to mean balsam fir, sapin in France. Since the French often referred to epinette (spruce), prusse and sapin in the same sentence, it would seem that prusse was meant to signify another type of tree. [88]

Pichon's "perusse" seems to be hemlock. He declared that it was gumy, but did not provide enough gum to be useful. Because its wood lasted a long time in the ground without rotting it was very good for palisades and fences. Its bark was very useful for tanning, and the Indians made a dye from it which was near turquoise in colour. [89] Using Pichon's description and the fact that the French distinguished between prusse and epinette, it would seem that hemlock was the species being referred to as prusse. It was encountered in all parts of the island by travellers in the 18th century. [90]

Dodd wrote that hemlock, on Cape Breton were very large and were useful for wharf construction because of their longevity under water. Its bark was better for tanning than that of oak and it did not burn very easily. [91] Hemlock today is found mainly in patches around the island, though rare in the southern and eastern regions where it may have been depleted by the French. [92]

In his description of Ile Royale De Laperelle mentioned a type of tree he called "aricot". [93] Another reference mentions "Bois d'aricot" being cut at Port Dauphin in 1724. [94] According to Acadian tradition, haricot is the hemlock. [95] De Laperelle, unfortunately, listed both "aricot" and "preusse". If one was hemlock, what was the other? Governor Raymond, in 1752, discussed the use of a wood called "aricot" or "prusse noir" which was plentiful on Ile Royale for charpente and palisades. [96] Without a description of the trees and their qualities it is impossible to know what was meant. It is common today for people to lump several varieties of softwoods under one name, such as spruce. Quite likely this happened in the 18th century as well.

De Laperelle listed "bois blanc" among Ile Royale's trees. [97] In Petite Flore Forestiere du Québec, bois blanc is basswood or linden. [98] This type of wood, which is characteristic of the hemlock-white pine-northern hardwood forest, is not found in Nova Scotia today. [99] Since De Laperelle's reference was the only one to bois blanc and no description was given, it is impossible to determine which tree he had in mind.

Solican's report on Ile Royale mentioned a tree he called "aubia". [100] The Dictionnaire Universel listed aubier: a tree with wood "fort dur" which resembled dogwood. Its fruit formed in clusters. [101] The alternate leaf dogwood found on Cape Breton, especially amid the climax forest of the north, has such clusters of fruit. Its wood is "heavy, hard, uniform in structure, withstands abrasion and wears smooth under friction". Despite these qualities it has no commercial value. [102]

There are a few references to aspen among the French accounts, none of which mentions location, quantity or usefulness. [103] This tree is a member of the poplar family and is found today throughout Cape Breton. [104] Dodd reported that Cape Breton's poplars were found in great quantity and were of the same quality as those in England. [105]

Hornbeam (Charme) 

This wood was not mentioned by the French, but Dodd reported that it was found on the barrens of L'Indien (Liilgan) Bay. He judged it to be harder and of firmer texture than the English variety. [106] Hop-hornbeam is not common on Cape Breton today, being found only in some northern parts of the island. [107]

Dodd declared that "Where ever hard, Wood is Cut and burnt on the Land the Wild Cherry springs up the next year and Covers the whole Surface unless the Land is Croped the same Year it is Cleard - This happens in places where not a Cherry tree is found within 20 Miles". [108] As has been discussed earlier, the French word for wild cherry is "merisier". The possibility that they really were referring to cherry trees has generally been rejected on the basis of the descriptions of the hardness of the wood, the reference by the Minister of the Marine to merisier being a kind of birch, and the scarcity of cherry wood of significant size. [109]

Dodd offered no description of the cherry to which he referred. However, the pin cherry is found throughout Nova Scotia and is most common "on recent burns and cut overs, on barrens, and in thickets along the edges of roads and fields". It is not a lumber producing tree. Two other native cherry trees are the black cherry and the choke cherry. The former is prized for its wood, but is rare on Cape Breton. [110]