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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


Although hunting was important to their subsistence, the French commented only infrequently on the wildlife of the island. Most information comes from general descriptions of Cape Breton written later. Some of the species which seem to have been present in the 18th century are now missing from the animal population of the island. Others, such as the white-tailed deer, have been re-introduced to Cape Breton after having been eliminated.

In describing the moose Denys noted that it could be either grey-white or red and black. [1] Years later Franquet reported the presence of an "orignal" that was "quasi blanc" in winter. These references suggest the presence on the island of the American elk or wapiti, as well as the moose. The elk changes colour in winter. It is almost as large as the moose, though there are differences in facial structure and in the antlers. [2] Pichon wrote that the "orignal" was as large and strong as a mule with a thick coat which was brown-grey in summer and nearly white in winter. He added that some believed it was what was also called the "elan" and in English the elk. [3] Shipping figures for 1785-88 indicate that both moose and elk hides were exported from Cape Breton. [4]

In 1729 De Laperelle reported that the orignal of Ile Royale was a kind of "boeuf Sauvage mais bien plus haut sur Ses jambes qui sont aussy plus fines". The flesh was good to eat, he said, but very dry. On the other hand, the tongue and muscle "passe pour Le plus delicat de toutte La bête". Denys commented that the moose made a good stew and could be preserved in salt. [5] Dodd disagreed with De Laperelle on the tastiness of the flesh of the moose, declaring that it made "the best Stake and soup in the World", but agreed that the "Moussle is by Epicures prefered [sic] to Turtle". He decried the wanton slaughter of the moose on Cape Breton, claiming that in 1788 11,000 moose skins were exported with the animals' carcasses being left in the woods to rot. [6]

This destruction of the moose and elk had begun decades earlier according to Charlevois. He wrote in 1746 that "Formerly the isle was well stocked with game, which is now scarce, especially the elk". [7] A history of Nova Scotia published in 1837 noted that:

The moose and cariboo ... are the principal animals [of Cape Breton]; the former now comparitively scarce, owing to an indiscriminate massacre which took place for the sake of the hides, soon after the English settled in the country. So murderous was the destruction of this fine animal, that hundreds of carcasses were left scattered along the shore from St. Ann's to Cape North; the stench from which was so great as to be wafted from the shore to vessels at a considerable distance at sea. [8]

This over-hunting resulted in the elimination of the moose and elk from Cape Breton by the beginning of the 20th century. The moose was re-introduced to the island in the 1940s. The elk remains absent from the island's wildlife population. [9]

In writing of the black bear Denys declared that it was as big as a large pig, with a thick coat, a large flat head, small ears, and a stub of a tail. Able to climb trees, the bear preferred eating acorn to carrion. It also scavaged along the shore for lobster and other fish washed up by the waves. The flesh of the bear, Denys felt, was good to eat, resembling veal in colour, but having a more delicate taste. Cubs of five to six months of age were also tender and tasty. A bear, he assured, would not attack a man unless it had been injured. [10]

Several people mentioned the presence of the black bear on Ile Royale, but Pichon claimed that there were also some with white fur. The "graisse nouvelle" of the bear, he said, was good to eat, and the meat of the bear cub was very delicate. [11] The white bears referred to by Pichon may have been polar bears which reached the island on ice floes, but it is doubtful that they were ever present in any great number. The natural habitat of this animal does not reach as far south as Cape Breton. [12] 

The Indians hunted bear and sold their skins. Shipping records from 1785-88 show that bear hides were exported from Cape Breton during those years. [13] By the middle of the 19th century the number of black bears on the island had been greatly reduced. [14] Today they still inhabit the northern part of the island, but are few in number.

The lynx, according to Denys, was a kind of cat, but much larger. It was able to climb trees and lived on other animals which it trapped. The fur of the lynx, he said, was greyish-white, while its flesh was light-coloured and good to eat. [15] Although the presence of the lynx was attested to by others in the 18th and early 19th centuries, no one other than Denys saw fit to describe it in any detail. [16] An inventory of the effects of Julien Fizel of Louisbourg in 1757 included six lynx furs valued at 30 livres. [17] Lynx are still found on Cape Breton, though they have been exterminated on mainland Nova Scotia. [18]

In his account of the region Denys mentioned a kind of cat he called a "quincajou". English translations of Denys' work have taken this to be a wolverine, carcajou in French. Denys' description of the animal, however, does not fit a wolverine. The "quincajou" he described had reddish-brown fur and a very long tail which, when held up, made two or three turns on its back. Wolverines have a very short, bushy tail. Though capable of killing large mammals such as moose or caribou, wolverines prey mainly on smaller species such as beaver and porcupine. The creature described by Denys climbed trees, stretched on the length of a branch and awaited its prey. When a moose or other prey passed by, the animal would throw itself on its back, grip it with its claws, encircle it with its tail and bring it down. This is the method of hunting used by the mountail lion or cougar which "likes to land on the prey's shoulders, bite deep into the back of its neck, and rake the head and flanks with its claws". The mountain lion, tawny-brown to greyish-brown in colour, also has a long tail. [19]

Denys did not specify where he had observed this animal. Pichon, however, reported that a cat of roughly the same description, which he also called a "quincajou", inhabited Ile Royale. The tail, Pichon added, was the cat's arm of attack when at rest. [20] Others mentioned the presence of "chats cerviers" on the island and distinguished between these wild cats and the lynx. No description of the animals are offered. [21] Fizel had the skins of 12 "chats cerviers" in his possession at the time of his death. They were valued at 33 livres, considerably less than the lynx furs. He also had a carcajou hide worth 3 livres. [22] Unfortunately, it is impossible to know where the animals originated. They may not have been killed on Ile Royale at all. Wildcat and wolverine skins were exported from Cape Breton in the 1780s. [23]

Modern distribution of both the wolverine and the mountain lion offer little help in determining their 18th century habitat. The author of Mammals of Canada declares that the wolverine has never been recorded in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland or Prince Edward Island, and was eliminated from New Brunswick and Quebec by the middle of the 19th century. The mountain lion was once found on mainland Nova Scotia, though it is considered extinct there today. Recent sightings on Cape Breton have given rise to speculation that the mountain lion may now be present on the island. [24]

In 1867 Uniacke wrote that porcupine, though resident on mainland Nova Scotia, were never found on Cape Breton. He had been assured by the Indians that all their attempts to introduce the animal to the island in order to obtain their quills had met with failure. The porcupine could not, for some reason, survive east of the Strait of Canso. [25]

There are references to the presence of porcupines on the island in the 18th century, and early in the 19th century Judge Dodd claimed that there were a few here. [26] Today, as in Uniacke's time, the porcupine is not found on Cape Breton. [27]

Denys wrote that there were several kinds of foxes in the region. Some were totally black, but they were rare. Others of grey and red were more commonly seen. [28] De Laperelle stated that the island contained red and black foxes. [29] Others mentioned the presence of foxes without referring to colour. [30] Fizel's inventory included six silver fox skins valued at 48 livres and 80 red fox worth 182 livres. [31] Again, it is not known where these hides were taken. Dodd noted that Cape Breton had black, red, grey and patch foxes among its mammals. while the black were few in number, he said, the others were quite numerous. [32]

All colourations of fox described were probably variations of the red fox. This animal has three colour phases:

There is such a thing as a grey fox, but it is found only in southern Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. [33]

The marten described by Denys was similar to those found in France, though their coats were redder and their hair more coarse. [34] Martens were listed in almost every account of the island's wildlife, were hunted and traded by the Indians, and their skins were exported from Cape Breton in the 1780s. [35] Today the marten is extinct on Cape Breton. [36]

There were only two references to the presence of the fisher on Ile Royale. One appeared in De Laperelle's account of the island. In addition, Poilly noted that the fisher was hunted by the Indians for its pelt. [37] Never as numerous as the marten, the fisher was eliminated from Cape Breton many years ago. [38]

The presence of mink on Ile Royale was mentioned by several people in the 18th century. It is one of the fur-bearing animals still common on Cape Breton. [39]

Beaver (Castor) 

Beaver were very plentiful in the 18th century, as they are today. Holland declared that beaver were to be found "in every Lake & pond of the Island, nay within three or four Miles of Louisbourg". [40] Fizel's inventory listed "cent quatre vingts douze livres" of beaver skins which would sell for 55 sols per livre. [41]

Dodd claimed that by the 19th century the beaver was not as common on Cape Breton as had once been the case. This he blamed on the Indians who, he charged, killed males and females indiscriminately, often just at the time the females were ready to reproduce. [42] Heavy exploitation of the beaver from the 17th century almost led to its extinction throughout Canada by 1930. Conservation measures were successful in reversing this trend, and today the beaver figures prominently in the fur market. [43]

In his report on Cape Breton Dodd noted that the caribou was "a fine Animal of the Red Deer Kind", formerly here in great numbers. He claimed to have seen upwards of 1,500 on the Gabarus barrens at one time. [44] A close relative of the reindeer of northern Europe, the caribou was hunted by the Indians long before the arrival of the Europeans. Excessive hunting by white men led to the animal's extermination in many areas, including Cape Breton. The last caribou was recorded in Nova Scotia in 1925. [45]

Pichon observed that caribou meat was eaten, although moose was preferable. [46] Franquet declared that the flesh of the caribou made a good soup. [47]

There are also references to the presence of "chevreuils" on Ile Royale. [48] The chevreuil or roe deer of Europe is a small deer with a white rump not found in this hemisphere. The name was probably applied to the North American white-tailed deer they encountered on the island. [49] According to Mammals of Canada, Cape Breton was indeed part of the white-tailed deer's original habitat, though their numbers were formerly not very large. This animal became virtually extinct in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia early in the 19th century. It was re-introduced to mainland Nova Scotia in 1894 and to Cape Breton in the 1920s. [50]

There were several references to the otter in the 18th century. Its pelts, Poilly reported, were among those traded by the Indians. [51] Holland noted a spot on St. Andrew's Passage of the Bras D'Or Lakes which he said abounded with otter. River otter are still plentiful on Cape Breton today. [52]

Almost all accounts of the island's animal population mention the presence of the muskrat. Its pelts were also traded by the Indians and were exported from Cape Breton in the 1780s. It is among those animals which continue to inhabit the island. [53]

Raccoon (Raton laveur) 

Samuel Holland included the raccoon in his assessment of the possibilities of Cape Breton's "Peltry Trade". Yet there were no other references to this animal during the 18th century and it is generally considered that Cape Breton was not a natural habitat for the raccoon. [54]

The hare was one of the most important game animals found on Ile Royale. Pichon declared that they,were smaller than those in France. Others noted that their grey fur turned white in winter. [55] In 1738 a man testified at a trial that he hunted hares by means of snares and traded them for what goods he needed to subsist during the winter months. He said that the Menadou area yielded a better catch than Louisbourg or Garabous. Sixteen hares bought him a "quinteau" of bread. Another man traded hares and molasses for Indian shoes made of cowhide. [56] Several years later the government regulated the amount which could be paid for hares at 15 sols per animal. This ordinance was to apply to all persons regardless of their station. It was in effect whether the hares were wanted for consumption or resale. [57]

The type of hare described by the various commentators, and found on Cape Breton today, is the snowshoe hare. [58] Pelts from hares were not mentioned by Poilly as being among those traded by the Indians, nor were they among those exported from the island later in the 18th century. [59]

De Laperelle referred to the presence of the flying squirrel in his account of Ile Royale. [60] In 1751 Governor Raymond sent a squirrel to France which he intended as a gift to the Marquise de Beuvron. This squirrel, he said, was a different colour from those found in France. [61] Shipping records from the 1780s show squirrel pelts exported from Cape Breton. [62]

The northern flying squirrel is found an the island today. It is grey in colour and fairly large, measuring up to 18 inches. It is a nocturnal animal whose fur is today considered too soft to be of commercial value. Also found on Cape Breton is the American red squirrel. Its fur was used by Indians for the lining and trim of winter clothing. The red squirrel changes colour in winter, going from "glossy olive brown ... flecked with black" to a much brighter shade with an orange-red stripe from head to tail. [63]

The only reference to bats was by Judge Dodd who included them in his list of Cape Breton mammals. [64] Both the "little brown bat" and Keen's bat have Cape Breton as part of their native habitat. [65]

In 1716 La Grange declared that Louisbourg was overrun with rats. [66] Two types of rats - the black and Norweigan rat - were brought to the New World from Europe, but all published records indicate that their introduction post-dated the Louisbourg period. The Norweigan rat is generally presumed to have been brought to North America around 1775. [67] However, examination of archaeological remains at Louisbourg indicate the presence of this species at least by 1745. [68]