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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
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Reports of the Public Archives of Canada (1872-1972): 18th Century Isle Royale and Cape Breton Selections


Eric Krause

Krause House Info-Research Solutions

Report of the Archivist ~ History of Cape Breton 
(1711, 1758 - 1801)

... CAPE BRETON was partially disjoined from Nova Scotia in 1784, but continued to be subordinate to the governor of that province, having, however, a separate legislature on the same system as that of St. John's Island (P.E.I.) On the 7th July, 1784, Parr was informed that Major Frederick Wallet DesBarres was to be Lieut.-Governor of Cape Breton, but that the island was still to remain a part of his (Parr's) government. Until the arrival of DesBarres, Cuyler, a loyalist and formerly mayor of Albany, was to act in his room, which he did for a short time. The information respecting the date of the arrival of DesBarres is not clear in the documents. According to them, he arrived in Halifax some time previous to the 16th November, 1784, and reached Cape Breton between that date and the 22nd February, 1785, when his first official paper is on record, dated at Coal Mines (afterwards Sydney), being an instruction to the Committee of Council to have the cargo of the "Blenheim" inspected and reported on.

Cuyler, who acted as locum tenens for DesBarres, appears from the correspondence to have left Albany and to have been employed for some time at New York. In October, 1782, he was at Montreal employed as inspector of the refugees and charged with the distribution of provisions to those in that district. During that time he was engaged in active correspondence with friends in Albany, with the object of obtaining secret intelligence. On the 24th of March, 1783, he wrote to Major Mathews, secretary to Governor Haldimand, expressing his apprehension that a shameful Peace had been made and that although stipulations were inserted in favour of the loyalists, these would have no effect. His words are:

" I make no doubt but His Majesty will endeavour to make such a stipulation, but I have no expectation that such of the loyalists as are considered of consequence will benefit by it, as it is clear to me that such cannot live in peace and safety amongst them when the sovereignty is lost, and as to their property that has been confiscated is lost, and their estates, should they be suffered to be sold, they would not fetch a fourth value, therefore all the good purpose that may be expected from such stipulation may be experienced by such as were of no great consequence among them when rebellion began and that tamely sit down to be insulted." (Archives, series B., vol. 165, p. 58).

The opinion of counsel given by Alexander Hamilton, dated at New York on the 13th February, 1784, on the application of Cuyler for leave to return to the State of New York to secure his property under the protection of the treaty of peace, bears out the anticipations that Cuyler entertained as to the inefficiency of the stipulations contained in the fifth and sixth clauses of the Treaty of 1783. Hamilton's opinion was that it would be very dangerous for Cuyler to return and that there was no prospect for the restoration of his property. Reference may be made to series B. of the Archives vol. 165, for Cuyler's correspondence and his negotiations in London for grants of land in Cape Breton. At the end of the same volume, following page 261, is a list with the title: -- " Return of the loyalists associated for the purpose of Forming a Settlement on the Island of Cape Breton, agreeable to His Majesty's Instructions to Abraham Cuyler, Esq., and the agents appointed for that purpose." The return gives the names, number, of each family, their former place of residence or regiment and their occupations. The total number was 141, of whom 80 were men.

Apparently Cuyler did not act cordially with DesBarres, of whose unfriendly conduct he complained to Nepean. These quarrels being of comparatively slight public interest, except as throwing light on some of the causes which retarded the progress of the island, need not be treated at length. It may be briefly stated, that on the appointment of Macarmick, who succeeded DesBarres as Lieut.-Governor, Cuyler was taken into favour, and in 1787 made assistant judge and an Executive Councillor, other offices being added. Whether the cause was in the imperious disposition of Macarmick, as has been alleged, or in the temper of Cuyler, is not plain, but in 1789 Cuyler was suspended from his offices and Macarmick recommended that the suspension should be followed by dismissal and a successor appointed. The Council took up the quarrel and a long investigation into Cuyler's conduct was the result. In a letter of 18th May, 1790, Macarmick charged Cuyler with insolence as the mouthpiece of a faction, but the Imperial authorities did not take so serious a view of the transaction as did the Lieut.-Governor, holding that although Cuyler's conduct had been reprehensible, it did not warrant his dismissal. On the 30th of August, 1790, Macarmick repeated his charge of insolence against Cuyler, but added that he would have pardoned him, had not the suspension been made an affair of the Council. Cuyler, who had been in London to present his case to the Privy Council and been ordered back to duty, returned to the island in October, 1790, and resumed his offices, but apparently only as an evidence that he had been reinstated notwithstanding Macarmick's efforts, as he at once resigned the offices he held. It seems clear that he could scarcely have retained these, especially his seat in the Council, whilst Macarmick was Lieut. -Governor, their relations being of so unfriendly a nature. Macarmick charged him with issuing a pamphlet against his administration which was circulated with "uncommon diligence," containing, Macarmick complained, charges very injurious to his character. Cuyler, according to Macarmick's statement, shortly after his return from London, left the island and went to Canada, from which, so far as the papers to 1801 show, he, did not return.

DesBarres, the first Lieut. -Governor, was of high scientific attainments, as is evident from the works he has left but, apparently misled by his law advisers, especially by the Chief Justice, a man of extreme views, he was charged with taking higher grounds as civil governor than his commission warranted. One instance is reported by Captain Sawyer of H. M.S. " Thisbe" that he had met with a brig loaded with coal, flying a pennant, the distinguishing mark of ships of the Royal Navy, in virtue, Captain Sawyer alleged, of a commission issued by DesBarres. How far that commission was supposed to justify the master for assuming this special indication of His Matjesty's ships does not appear, but the captain of the "Thisbe " evidently assumed that DesBarres was in the habit of issuing such commissions, as he ordered that all such should be revoked until the directions of the Admiralty were received. No further reference is made to the subject in the correspondence so that there is no explanation by DesBarres nor appeal by him to the authority or supposed authority under which he acted. As only one vessel was employed at a time for the provincial service, it is not probable that any other commission of this nature than one was issued and, therefore, that Captain Sawyer's order to refrain from issuing commissions was precautionary rather than founded on what was actually taking place.

The quarrels between the Lieut.-Governor and the military authorities respecting the control of the provisions for the troops seem to have arisen, to some extent at least, from the confusion caused by the shipment of those for the soldiers and loyalists together, all consigned to the Lieut.-Governor. This, no doubt, led to his believing, encouraged by the Chief Justice, that he had complete control of these and that he alone could decide on their disposal, an opinion not shared by the General of the district, who instructed the officer in command at Cape Breton to hold possession of the provisions, those for the loyalists to be issued on the requisition, not by the order, of the Lieut.-Governor. The Attorney General differed in opinion from the Chief Justice in regard to the powers of the Lieut.-Governor and declined to enter suit for the recovery of the provisions, recommending that the question should be submitted to the Treasury for decision, a course not followed and the quarrel proceeded to extremities, warrants being issued by the Lieut.-Governor for the arrest of the officers and soldiers who had prevented the store-house from being taken possession of by the Provost marshal acting under the orders of DesBarres. Whilst the question was before the Secretary of State to whom it had been submitted by Campbell, the General. commanding the district, a short-lived reconciliation had been effected between Colonel Yorke, commanding the detachment on the island and Lieut.-Governor DesBarres, but the quarrel was soon renewed with increased violence, the Lieut.-Governor and Chief Justice denouncing in the Council the conduct of Colonel Yorke, as evidencing an intention to starve the people. The feeling of animosity to the troops created in the minds of the settlers by this charge was the most serious effect of the quarrel. Prosecutions were entered against Yorke and his officers and a true bill was found against the former by the Grand Jury. At a meeting of Council called to consider the question, the Attorney General gave it as his opinion, that DesBarres, as Chancellor, had power to issue a warrant against Yorke, but was responsible to the Crown for its exercise. The Chief Justice took high ground, maintaining that the Lieut.-Governor had absolute power over all authority, civil or military, on the island and subsequently, in a charge to the Grand Jury, he stated that be declined to proceed to any trials till the military forces were removed. It seems from the correspondence that the inhabitants of the island were greatly divided in opinion, rival addresses being signed, some in favour of the troops, with serious charges against the Lieut.-Governor and Chief Justice on the one band and on the other addresses in favour of these two officials. On the 30th November, 1786, the Secretary of State wrote to DesBarres that the King was not satisfied with some of his proceedings, which had raised doubts of his rectitude, or at least of his prudence, and that he was to come to London to give an account of his administration, leaving the senior Councillor in charge. Gibbons the Chief Justice was suspended but restored on account of his general good character, although his conduct was held to have been censurable. He, however, died in prison in France, having been taken a prisoner of war whilst on board ship. Shortly after the recall of DesBarres, Macarmick was appointed to succeed him.

The anxiety of Lieut.-Governor DesBarres for the speedy settlement of the island is apparent from the whole correspondence, but his efforts were thwarted by objections given effect to by government to emigration from the United Kingdom to the colonies although emigrants could not be prevented from going elsewhere, notably to the United States. The consequence was that the great expense incurred by DesBarres was, to a large extent, thrown away, an expense which, with others incurred officially in the course of his administration, he was unable to recover in spite of his efforts to that end. The violent party spirit that reigned in the island led to charges of all kinds being made against the Lieut.-Governor for the time being, a fact which must be borne in mind in regard to the first who held that office in Cape Breton as well as in respect to the charges against his successors.

Macarmick, often, but improperly, written McCormick, his successor, was not more fortunate than his predecessor in escaping obloquy. He reached Sydney on the 7th October, 1787, but did not land till the 12th, DesBarres not having vacated Government House. Shortly after his arrival, Macarmick reported that he had taken steps to recover lands held under licenses of occupation granted by DesBarres. The cause of these licenses being issued appears to have arisen from the prohibition to grant lands absolutely, which it was complained prevented the settlement of the island and thereby retarded its progress. Macarmick's proceedings in this case were approved of, the issue of the licenses being regarded as an evasion of the prohibition and pronounced invalid, formal authority being given to Macarmick to recover them by legal proceedings, but he reported that he did not anticipate any trouble from those in possession.

It is not necessary to dwell on the quarrels between Macarmick and the officials, which were frequent and bitter, it is sufficient to notice that the enmity of a portion of the inhabitants towards the military on account of the check kept on the issue of provisions remained unabated; the origin of this feeling has been already noticed. The apprehended war with Spain over the seizures of vessels at Nootka Sound, led to the orders for Cape Breton, as well as the other colonies, being put in a state of defence, but peace being speedily re-established, little expense was incurred for the island on that occasion.

In 1758, the strong fortification of Louisbourg was captured and held by Great Britain de facto, until by the treaty with France in 1763, a formal surrender was made of Nova Scotia, including Cape Breton, in terms of the fourth article of that treaty, which is in these words: --

IV. His most Chri-tian Majesty renounces all pretensions, which he has hitherto formed, or might form, to Nova Scotia or Acadia, in all its parts, and guaranties the whole of it, and with all its dependencies, to the, King of Great Britain ; moreover, his most Christian Majesty cedes and guaranties to his said Britannic Majesty, in full right, Canada, with all its dependencies, as well as the Island of Cape Breton, &c., &e.

The existence of coal in the island was well known, grants having been made early in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the French King, and in the journal of Sir Hovenden Walker of the unsuccessful attempt on Quebec, he says on the 11th of September, 1711, dating from  Spanish River Road," speaking of Cape Breton (journal, edition of 1720, p. 150): --

Being informed by several officers who had been there, that a Cross was erected on the Shoar, with the names of the French Sea Officers who had been here, which I looked upon as a Claim of Right they pretend to for the King their Master, the Island having been always in the times of Peace used in Common, both by the English and French for loading coals, which are extraordinary good here, and taken out of the Clifts with Iron Crows only and no other Labour : I thought it not amiss therefore to leave something of that kind to declare the Queen's Right to this Place; and having a Board made by the Carpenter, and painted, I sent him ashoar to fix it upon a Tree in some eminent Place where it might easily be seen, which was after this Form, with the Inscription following:-

WalkerCross.jpg (29280 bytes)



This claim was not, however, established for upwards of fifty years, as already noted, the treaty by which Cape Breton was surrendered by France having been signed on the 10th of February, 1763. Next year General Howe and other officers who bad served in the army, applied for a grant of land to be used for opening coal mines. The application was referred by the Privy Council to the Lords of Trade on the 19th March, 1764. On the 26th of the same month and year, a similar reference was made to the Lords of Trade of a memorial from the Duke of Richmond and associates for a grant of the whole island, in which no mention was made of coal mines. Other applications followed in respect to the coal lands. On the 10th of May, Sir Thomas Fludyer was desired to attend the Privy Council to support the case of himself and others, who had presented a memorial for the lease of all the coal lands in Cape Breton. Sir Thomas Fludyer was an alderman of London, knighted by George III. in 1761. His brother, Sir Samuel, created a baronet in 1759, joined his brother Thomas in a second memorial in which they asked for 100,000 acres in Cape Breton, and for a lease of all the coal lands within the limits of the grant; a map accompanied this second memorial. Other proposals for the coal lands were received, and on the 10th of July, 1764, the Lords of Trade recommended to the King the acceptance of the offer by Sir Samuel Fludyer and associates. What steps, if any, were taken by the successful offerers cannot be traced n the correspondence; a report from Francklin, Lieut.-Governor of Nova Scotia, dated 30th September, 1766, gives some information respecting the mines, the buildings, etc., so that some work must have been done to develop them. He reported that the vein was 12 feet thick and half a mile wide, that the coal ready for transportation could be sold for twelve shillings and sixpence, presumably a chaldron, the cost for raising the same quantity being five shillings, showing a large profit, which he urged should be used for the public benefit, and that the coal should be sent to Halifax in order to supply export cargoes for vessels bringing merchandise, instead of them being obliged to sail in ballast. This was followed by an address from the Legislative Council and Assembly, asking for the revenues of the coal mines and for the quit-rents on the lands granted to be used for provincial improvements, but this request was refused, the reason alleged being the heavy expenses for the American services, of which Nova Scotia came in for a very ample share. Apparently whatever leases had been granted had expired, for Lord William Campbell, Governor of Nova Scotia, at that time including Cape Breton, in a dispatch dated 21st May, 1767, reported that he had allowed merchants in Halifax to raise coal, that is that he had granted licenses for that purpose, that he had realized £500 by this step, and that as the coal was on the coast and easily accessible, the holders of licenses would for their own interest prevent unlicensed persons from carrying it off. The money thus raised was employed for the construction of roads, a course which did not meet with the approbation of the King, as Lord William Campbell was informed by the Secretary of State that His Majesty could not grant the revenues from quit-rents and from the coal mines for provincial services, but a sum was granted to cover the amount expended for these purposes. When the prohibition to carry off coal for general use was given does not appear in the dispatches, but a letter from Francklin, dated 28th May, 1768, shows that such an order had been received. In sending copy of the contract for digging and carrying off coal, he sent an affidavit of the quantity already removed, reporting that by His Majesty's instructions he had prevented the removal of the rest, and that by order of Sir Jeffery Amherst a quantity had been raised for the troops. The prohibition, it was represented, would have no effect in saving the coal, but the contrary. The removal of the 59th from Louisbourg Lord William Campbell reported on the 12th of September, 1768, would be followed by the total desertion of its inhabitants and that the coal mines, ordered not to be touched would be worked by any one who chose to go there. A repetition of the order not to renew the contract was given by dispatch from the Secretary of State of the same date (12th September) and Lord William Campbell, apparently in answer, stated the nature of the coal contract and again informed the Secretary of State of his apprehension of the bad effects of the contract not being renewed, or a similar arrangement being entered into. That his apprehension was well grounded appears from a report made on the 30th June, 1770, that one inhabitant of Louisbourg had taken out 500 tons of coal for his own advantage, a case which does not appear to have been singular. It, however, led to a military guard being placed over the coal mines and the seizure of what had been brought to the surface, which it was suggested should be sent to Halifax for the use of the troops, or, if the expense of removal were thought too great, some other way of disposing of the coal could be considered. From this and previous evidence, it seems clear that Campbell regarded the existence of a contract as a guarantee that the contractors would guard their own interests instead of the expense of preserving the coal being thrown on Government. It is apparent that the military guard was insufficient to watch over and protect the coal deposits, which, as previou1y reported, were easily accessible, for Legge, successor to Campbell, called the attention of Commodore Sbuldham, on the 21st of June, 1774, to the fact that a regular contraband trade was carried on with St. Pierre and Miquelon, the islands off Newfoundland left in possession of the French, which were supplied with coal from Cape Breton, brandy, wine, and other merchandise being given in exchange. Such a trade, the Secretary of State believed, could only be stopped by the vigilance of the cruisers, and on the 27th January, 1775, orders were given that care must be taken to prevent the removal of coal from Cape Breton, except for the use of troops at Halifax and Massachusetts Bay.

The cause of the subsequent change of policy in respect to the preservation of coal does not appear in the correspondence, but it may be considered probable that the liberty to the inhabitants of Halifax to dig coal on Cape Breton of which they were informed by the Lieut.-Governor on the 26th April, 1776, was due to the influx of troops and refugees to Halifax, consequent on the evacuation of Boston. The system was allowed to continue in force during the war which, no doubt, accounts for the absence of reference to the coal supply during that period, as it was not till the 8th of March, 1785, that the Secretary of State informed Parr, then Governor of Nova Scotia but having Cape Breton as a subsidiary part of his government, that the existing system of supplying Halifax with coal might continue, but that the privilege could only be temporary. The only references to the coal mines during the progress of the revolutionary war were reports that threats were freely expressed and attempts made to destroy the works, and that a force was sent for their defence, consisting of newly-raised independent companies, under command of Capt. Hierlihy. On a definite report that two pirates were to make a descent on the mines, the naval commander, Capt. Fielding, had a force sent off in twenty-four hours to repel the attack.

After the close of the war, Macarmick reported (23rd October, 1787) that he had sent coal to Halifax, the proceeds of which were to be applied for the purchase of provisions, and on the 28th of the same month, in a dispatch to the Secretary of State, he informed him that little or no revenue was to be expected from the mines, which had been a sink of expense, and he proposed to farm them out; an indication, although not evidence, that the profit went to individuals, whilst the expense fell on Government. No answer to this is on record, and on the 1st of July, 1789, Macarmick again reported on the expense of bringing the mines into working order, and that it had been proposed to ballast the mast ships with coal.

What was done towards farming or leasing the mines does not appear in the correspondence, but an official letter from Mathews, the Attorney General, dated in January, 1792, shows that Mr. Moxley was in possession of the mines whom Macarmick desired to dispossess by a suit, declared by the Attorney General to be illegal. He, however, bowed to the Governor's order and informed him of the method of procedure that should be adopted. The attention of Government appears to have been called that year (1792) to the importance of the coal deposits in Cape Breton, by a series of observations by James Miller on the coal trade of the island, for a few days after (Miller's letter with the "Observations" is dated 31st June, of course through error) an order was sent to Macarmick by the Secretary of State, that a full report should be transmitted respecting the coal mines. In accordance with this order a return was sent of the quantity of coal raised on Spanish River for five years from 10th October, 1787, to 10th October, 1792, with a copy of the contract entered into with Tremain and Stout, but what had become of Moxley does not appear in the State papers. The terms of the lease were not satisfactory to Government, as Macarmick was informed by the Secretary of State, but the lessees were to be allowed to continue working on the terms agreed on, the revenues to be kept distinct and no part of them to be reserved as a perquisite for the General commanding the district or Lieut.-Governor. Apparently the quantity produced had increased sufficiently to warrant the erection of a shipping wharf, as one was ordered to be built,

James Miller, already referred to, was appointed to superintend the coal mines in Cape Breton, to report on those in that island and in the other provinces and on the salt mines, as they were called, of Upper Canada. Nothing appears to have been done respecting those salt springs or wells and but little, so far as the papers show, in regard to the minerals in other provinces, as except for the one visit he paid to Nova Scotia, at the desire of Wentworth, be does not appear to have left the island but remained there till his death. At the end of 1793 he left England to take up the duties of his appointment, but was driven back by bad weather. When he reached Cape Breton is not stated, but on the 27th August, 1794, he wrote as if he had been there for a short time. He then sent chart, plans and reports, with a memorial from Tremain & Stout for leave to raise the price of coal. He asked that no determination should be come to on that memorial until a general report he was preparing should be received. The proposal to raise the price of coal was disapproved of, the increase being apparently considered unadvisable. This determination was not satisfactory to Miller, who reported that the contractors had made no profits. It is clear from the correspondence that depredations were committed persistently on the coal mines by marauders; these and the proposed importation of coal from England tended to reduce the price and to affect injuriously the revenue of the country and no doubt also the profits of the contractors, but if a contraband trade existed, and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of checking it, except at a cost that would not be entered upon, rendered it permanent or nearly so, and the competition from Great Britain which it would have been whollv contrary to the policy of Government to interfere with, were to be apprehended, it is difficult to see how liberty to raise the price of the Cape Breton coal could have benefited the contractors.

It is unnecessary to enter into details of the differences between Mathews, Administrator, and Miller, up till the time Mathews was superseded by Ogilvie, sent to put a stop to the disputes among the officials and to take steps for the security of the island, but it may safely be assumed that these disputes tended to obstruct the progress of the coal industry, Mathews, so far as the correspondence shows, opposing Miller in every way, whether rightly or wrongly there is not sufficient evidence to show.

Ogilvie, believing that the contractors had lost money by the lease, an opinion in which he was supported by Miller, allowed them to increase the price. Whether or not the legal competition was only a threat and not a reality and that the illegal competition had been checked there is no record among the correspondence to show, but Ogilvie reported that the increased price had not diminished the consumption, the demand having on the contrary increased. Ogilvie remained but a short time and was succeeded by Colonel Murray, who received the local rank of Brigadier General. Before he left Halifax to assume the administration, he proposed a change of policy in the management of the mines, his proposal being to work them on account of Government, to open a trade with the United States and to allow coal to be exported in American bottoms. In accordance with his proposals he took the working out of the hands of Tremain & Stout, who from the expiration of their lease had remained as tenants at will, quarrelled with them and reported in glowing terms of the financial success of the new method of working, which was flatly contradicted by his successor, Despard. What further occurred in respect to the coal mines down to 1801, may be traced in the calendar.

The political history of the island down to 1801, is the narrative of party spirit and abuse of whoever was Lieut.-Governor ; dismissions and suspensions of officials and changes on the part of each new governor of the policy of his predecessor, so that the serious charges made against DesBarres, the first governor, down to Despard who was in the occupation of the office in 1801, when the calendar closes, must be received with doubt, if not in many cases with disbelief ...

Extracted from the Report on Canadian Archives, 1895 (Ottawa: S. E. Dawson, 1896), pp. xiii-xxi

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