Parks Canada Banner
Parks Canada Home

Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 23

Blockhouses in Canada, 1749-1841: A Comparative Report and Catalogue

by Richard J. Young

Part I: A Comparative Study

The Conquest of Acadia: Stockaded Forts and Peninsular Blockhouses of Early Nova Scotia

A study of the stockaded forts and blockhouses built during the British conquest of Acadia is important for three reasons. First, these blockhouses were the earliest built by the British in the territory which is now Canada, and thus provide material for at least a chronological comparison with others built much later. Second, the conditions under which these forts and blockhouses were built, although they were unique, nevertheless present a parallel with the conditions of the French and Indian wars in New England where the blockhouse evolved as a reliable defence. Third, these fortifications were designed and built by the British military during their first protracted experience of North American wilderness warfare. The nature and disposition of these forts provide an interesting commentary on parliament's unwillingness to spend large sums of money on a relatively unimportant province and the consequent dilemma faced by Governor Cornwallis and those who followed him. For a decade after the foundation of Halifax — until the destruction of Louisbourg and the fall of Quebec — the English in Nova Scotia were all but prisoners in their own forts. Except for Halifax, only two settlements were attempted, Lunenburg and Lawrencetown. The story of these two townships and their peninsular defence is unique in Canadian history.

Until the founding of Halifax in 1749 the only permanent English settlement in the province of Nova Scotia was Annapolis Royal. Nova Scotia, by provision of the Treaty of Utrecht, was a British territory and was nominally governed from the fort at Annapolis Royal. But "nominally governed" is the only proper description of the state of affairs. The settlement consisted of a tiny, miserable garrison in a dilapidated French fort, almost totally neglected by Great Britain, and left unmolested by the French and Indians only because it posed no threat to them. "This has been hitherto no more than a mock government, its authority never yet having been extended beyond cannon-shot of the fort," was the way Governor Phillips summarized his situation in 1720.1 Until the middle of the 18th century, Great Britain tried neither to settle Nova Scotia nor to exercise any control over it beyond the administration of Fort Anne and Annapolis Royal.

When Halifax was founded in June 1749, the serious British investment of Acadia began. There were three motives behind this move. First, Governor Shirley of Massachusetts had been applying strong and insistent pressure for British help against the French and Indians, who were contesting the expansion of settlement in northeastern New England. Second, the British wanted to establish a naval base in the North Atlantic to compensate for the French fortress at Louisbourg. Third, the British suddenly determined to make good their treaty claim to Nova Scotia by settling the province with newly disbanded soldiers, their families, and any others who were willing to take advantage of the generous land grants and tax exemptions which the government offered.

These three goals were not achieved immediately when Halifax was founded. The end to the French and Indian harassment of the expanding frontiers of New England did not come until the fall of Louisbourg and Quebec. The settlement of Nova Scotia was contested until the capitulation of Fort Beauséjour in 1755 and Lawrence's susbsequent removal of the Acadians from their lands. Even then, Indian harassment continued. The settlement of Lawrencetown had to be abandoned in 1757 because of the fear of Indian attack, and late in 1758, after the fall of Louisbourg, Governor Lawrence complained to the Lords of Trade that Indians were still murdering unwary settlers at Lunenburg and hindering the progress of that settlement.2 As for the establishment of a strong naval base to balance Louisbourg, it was not until the middle of the 19th century that the fortifications of Halifax were in any way representative of its importance. The British did not build another Louisbourg at Halifax — a fact which bears witness to the fundamental difference between the French and English imperial systems. Great Britain was content to take possession of one of the finest harbours in North America, to fortify it only as money became available or expediency demanded, and to rely, for the most part, on the power of her fleet to maintain the security of the port.

Governor Edward Cornwallis, with 400 troops and 2,000 settlers, arrived at Halifax in the last weeks of June 1749. From the beginning this settlement enjoyed at least a superiority of numbers against Indian attacks. Work on the town progressed rapidly, and by the end of the summer, a large stockaded fort, doubly picketed and with five bastions, each with barracks for 100 men, was completed. A shore battery and a battery on Georges Island provided a meagre defence from assault by sea.

Cornwallis was determined to establish British administration and authority throughout the province. Small as his forces were, he wrote optimistically to the Lords of Trade in July that

As soon as the Garrison arrives from Louisbourg, I propose to send two Companys to Minas, with Orders to build a Barrack & stay there the Winter, I shall likewise send an Armed Sloop to ly in the Bason of Minas — This will shew the French that we can master or protect them according to their behaviour, & in case any of them should be decoy'd to Canada or Louisbourg or St. John's, that force will prevent their carrying off their affects.3

A detachment was sent from Annapolis to Minas in September, but arrived too late to build barracks before winter. Instead the soldiers took up quarters in the deserted Acadian houses, erecting a triangular wall of picketing. This made rather poor security, as Governor Lawrence complained in 1753.

The Situation which they were obliged to take up with on Account of these Houses is upon a low, flat ground, Commanded by a Hill, and so Exposed to the Weather that in deep Snows it has been often Possible to walk over the Palisades.4

Nor did the detachment prevent the Acadians from deserting their lands or the Indians from passing freely about the province. On 27 November a band of 300 Indians ambushed and took prisoner a patrol of 24 men from the fort.

The second fort to be established was Fort Sackville. On 11 September Captain Goreham was sent to the head of Bedford Basin to establish a post there which would protect the communication with Minas. Cornwallis sent an armed vessel carrying "materials of all kinds, for a Barracks etc."5 as well as a company of Rangers. By the middle of October, the governor described both Fort Sackville and the fort at Minas as "secure," and reported that he had encouraged Acadians to clear a road from Halifax to the post and the head of the basin.6 By December a road eighteen feet wide had been made all the way from Halifax to Minas. Troops could be dispatched to the heartland of the Acadian settlement in a single day.

In the face of growing French and Indian resistance, Cornwallis began to realize that his small force and insubstantial little forts had no authority whatsoever. Acadians continued to desert the peninsula. Amid rumours that the Indians were massing for an attack on Halifax and that regular French troops, Acadians and Indians were gathering at Chignecto, Cornwallis firmly advised the Lords of Trade,

Settling this Province, preserving our rights & making this Country what it is intended to be a Frontier to the other colonys, depends upon more force... Chinecto must be secured in my Opinion first of all, & being the general Rendezvous of the Indians & the Entrance from Canada, not less than a Regiment will suffice to carry on the Works necessary there — besides a Sloop or two of War — This will create Expence, but surely, My Lords, the sooner the Province is settled the greater will be the Economy... As it is impossible to say, how long the Peace may last, add Strength to the Infant Settlement while you may effect it.7

Plans for a settlement and fort at Chignecto went forward all winter in both Halifax and London. The king acceded to the governor's request for a regiment and two sloops of war.

Major Charles Lawrence, with a detachment of 200 troops, four armed sloops and a schooner, arrived at Chignecto on 20 April 1750. This force was intended to establish a small post in advance of the main body of troops and settlers due to arrive that summer. One sloop of war carried the prepared timber for a small blockhouse.8 Lawrence was entirely unprepared for what he found there. "La Corne & Loutre are at the head of 2,500 men at Chinecto," Cornwallis wrote frantically to the Lords of Trade.

Major Lawrence with his Detachment was obliged to reimbark the same day he landed there. That all the Inhabitants of La Rivière, de Canard, Minas, Piziquid & Cobequid are about retiring from the Province threaten'd with a general Massacre by La Corne & Loutre.9

Meanwhile Lawrence and his force had retired to Minas, and ultimately to Piziquid. While awaiting reinforcements, Lawrence busied himself by building Fort Edward near the junction of the St. Croix and Avon rivers. This was the third stockaded fort built by the troops in a year.

Cornwallis's naive confidence of the autumn of 1749 had given way to more sober judgements by the late spring of 1750. Facing militant French resistance and a general Indian war, the governor gave up hopes of establishing a settlement near the intended fort at Chignecto. The only course possible was to wait for the Irish regiment he had been promised, and somehow to accommodate the new settlers at Halifax.

On 19 August Cornwallis was finally able to begin operations. On that day Major Lawrence, with Lascelle's regiment and 300 men from Warburton's, marched from Halifax to Minas, where Lawrence and the troops embarked for Chignecto. The troops carried the fort with them: "two blockhouses & three large barracks frames & materials of all sorts necessary for erecting them."10 Lawrence was instructed to "secure a post & erect barracks sufficient for four hundred men at least to remain the Winter."11 After a little resistance, the force was able to establish itself on the south side of the Missaguash River. The troops immediately began to construct Fort Lawrence, the fourth and last stockaded fort built by the British during their conquest. Cornwallis praised the efforts of his troops in a year-end report to the Lords of Trade.

The Difficultys I have had this Year in Establishing at Chignecto, I almost despair'd of surmounting. The Season of the Year was so late, All Materials and Provisions to be sent by Sea, a very ugly Navigation and no coming at it in the Winter, the Enemy constantly annoying them, All cattle drove away, Their Fuel Difficult to get tho' Coal is so near they could not come at it, as it would have taken half the Detachment to have cover'd the people and in that Case They could not have got under Cover, nor their Provisions on Shore On which depended their remaining the Winter. And Yet by the indefatigable Labour of Colonel Lawrence and poor How, this is accomplish'd; their Fort finish'd, Barrack up and I hope furnish'd with Everything for a long winter, for so I must call it, as I can furnish them with nothing, nor hear from them for four months to come.12

Considering the limited resources available to Cornwallis, the first year and one-half of his government showed remarkable energy. The four forts he established successfully completed his strategy of laying the groundwork of British power in Nova Scotia. But that military power lay impotent and defensive behind the stockaded walls of the forts for the next five years until a formal declaration of war between France and England finally broke the impasse in Nova Scotia.

The policy of the French toward Nova Scotia after the foundation of Halifax was an impressively subtle one. Rather than openly attack the British fort, they used their manpower to build a fort at the mouth of the Saint John River, Fort Gaspereau on Baie Verte, and Fort Beauséjour at Chignecto. Fort Beauséjour was a small but strong fort built within sight (but out of cannon reach) of Fort Lawrence on the opposite side of the Missaguash River. The three forts — especially Fort Beauséjour — gave credibility to the French claim that the Missaguash River was the treaty limit of British territory. At the same time, the governor of Quebec supplied the Saint John and Micmac Indians with firearms, provisions and gifts. De La Corne and Abbé Le Loutre successfully directed an Indian harassment of the English settlements and forts. This strategy effectively contained the English and frustrated any hopes they had of expanding their sphere of control.

Cornwallis had greatly exceeded his financial estimates in the first two years of his administration. Because of stringent limitations on spending imposed by Parliament, the governor had trouble even in consolidating what he had won. The Lords of Trade were caught in the middle, trying to placate both Parliament and Cornwallis. After trimming the estimates for 1751 the lords firmly advised the governor that

as to publick Works you would therefore do right to carry on as many of them as the Appropriation of the Money to other Expenses will permit; but always remember that nothing is so essentially requisite to the Welfare and future Success of your undertaking, as to preserve the good Opinion and Affection of Parliament towards it, which cannot be done but by keeping to that Rule and Degree of Expence, which they prescribe in their Grants from a sense of what the Circumstances of the Nation can bear.... We must advise you rather to postpone even the most necessary Works than to exceed the Estimate.13

Cornwallis's vehement reply to the Lords of Trade gives some idea of the dilemma he faced.

I am sensible of the great advantage that would arise by keeping within the grant of Parliament, but fear it can scarce be done even with security to the Province, thus am I distracted between the Saving on the one side, and the loss of the Province on the other side, if you are determin'd that only £18,000 odd hundred pounds should be spent in the Province I think it my duty to acquaint your Lordships that the securing this Province to yourselves will be a task attended with great Expense, and not attain'd in length of time unless what is necessary for the Execution of it is given . . . for my own part, I think no Expence can be hardly to great to Secure the Province of Nova Scotia to the British Throne.14

Cornwallis, exhausted by his command, returned to England in the spring of 1752. Both Governor Hopson and Governor Lawrence, who followed Cornwallis, faced the same paralyzing situation. When war between England and France again broke out in 1755, Colonel Monckton, with 2,000 provincial troops, besieged and captured forts Beauséjour and Gaspereau and the post on the Saint John River. Peace was not finally achieved until the British eradicated French power in North America.

The four stockaded forts built by the British were inadequate picketed defences built in the emergency of the first year. Their main purpose was to establish a token British presence in hostile territory. The defences were rudimentary and protected the garrison only against musket fire. The security of the forts depended on the ditch and high, sharpened palisades which enclosed them, as well as on the blockhouses inside. Small four-pounder swivel guns mounted in the second storey of some blockhouse posed a considerable deterrent to an attacking party armed only with muskets, bows and arrows.

Fort Sackville was a small, square, palisaded fort with bastions in the corners and a ditch outside. Inside stood a barracks for 50 men and a small blockhouse. The fort stood on a knoll at the mouth of the Sackville River where it empties into Bedford Basin. It was built to protect the line of communication from Halifax to Minas.

Fort Edward was established in June 1750 by Major Lawrence. It too was a square, palisaded fort with bastions in the corners and a ditch outside. It was much larger than Fort Sackville, measuring 85 yards on a face. Inside the fort stood a blockhouse, two barracks to contain 200 men, and a store house. The only ordnance mounted seems to have been in the top storey of the blockhouse. Lawrence built this fort as a show of strength after he was forced to retire from his first attempt at Chignecto. A garrison was established there to watch the Acadians and to prevent them from taking their possessions from the province.

Fort Lawrence was a palisaded square, about the size of Fort Edward, with bastions and a ditch. Blockhouses within the northwest and southeast bastions provided covering fire along the faces. Ordnance (the size is unknown) was mounted on five platforms on the north side of the fort looking toward Fort Beauséjour. In addition to the blockhouses, the fort contained barracks for 400 men, two storehouses, officers' quarters and two guardhouses. The fort was taken down in 1755 when the British decided to consolidate their forces in Fort Cumberland (formerly the French Fort Beauséjour).

The Peninsular Blockhouses

In addition to their fortified garrisons, the British attempted only three settlements in Nova Scotia between 1749 and 1755: Halifax, Lunenburg and Lawrencetown. The intended settlement at Chignecto was cancelled because of the strength of the French and Indian forces massed there. Halifax, Lawrencetown and Lunenburg had one geographical feature in common which made settlement possible in spite of the Indian war: they were all peninsulas. The narrow necks of land which connected each of them to the mainland could be easily and cheaply fortified and defended by a small detachment of troops lodged in blockhouses. Life proceeded as normally as could be expected behind these defences.

Halifax was chosen as a naval base because of its excellent harbour, not because of its peninsular situation. The original harbourside defence at Halifax was a double-palisaded pentangle with bastions and barracks for 100 men at each angle. A space 30 feet wide around the palisades was cleared and a barricade of trees was formed at the edge of the clearing. The primary concern during the first year of settlement was for the security of soldiers, settlers and the government from Indian raids; but the pressure of population and the promise of land to settlers soon determined that advanced posts had to be established if the settlement of the peninsula was to proceed.

During the winter of 1750, while rumours were flying of an impending Indian attack on Halifax, Cornwallis and his chief engineer, John Henry Bastide, decided that three stockaded blockhouses connected by a road of communication would supply the necessary defence. Each blockhouse was to contain a small detachment of men. The forts were to be situated on the highest ridges of land overlooking the narrowest point in the peninsula between the Northwest Arm and Bedford Basin.

The blockhouses were built in the spring and summer of 1750. According to Harry Piers, they were enclosed in a triangular picketing with shallow ditches around their perimeters.15 They were small, about 12 feet square in the lower storey. Piers imaginatively reconstructed these blockhouses, using the one constructed at Fort Edward in the same year as a model. Since all the blockhouses constructed in Nova Scotia during this period were prefabricated in Halifax, Piers's reconstruction is probably fairly accurate. Blockhouses were considered only very temporary works, but more elaborate fortification of the peninsula was financially out of the question and probably unnecessary.

The township of Lunenburg was established in early June 1753 for 650 German immigrants. The site chosen was about 16 leagues by sea from Halifax, on a long narrow peninsula where there had formerly been a French settlement and where "a small Picketing would inclose a Peninsula of three thousand Acres."16 Nowhere in Nova Scotia would have such an undertaking been possible at the time, except on a peninsula. The basic prerequisite of settlement was the possibility of cheap security for the settlers. Governor Hopson sent 160 men under the command of Major Lawrence to protect the settlers and to build defensive works. Lawrence's journal of his proceedings at Lunenburg in the summer of 1753 provides an unusual and interesting account of the difficulties faced in the settlement.

On the afternoon of 8 June 1753, the day after the convoy arrived, Major Lawrence and Captain Morris, the surveyor, decided on the situation of the town and the blockhouses for its defence. The line of palisades and the blockhouses (which had been prefabricated in Halifax and shipped with the troops) were to be situated at the extremity of the 300 acres of cleared land.

The blockhouses were unloaded from the boats and hauled ashore the first evening. The morning of the next day, settlers shouldered the heavy square timbers and carried them the half-mile to the top of the hill. By ten o'clock the same morning the carpenters had set up the first storey. At nightfall, all the timbers for both blockhouses had been carried up the hill, and a road from the higher blockhouse to the water at the back of the hill had been cleared. The carpenters showed less enthusiasm on the second day of work, and it was not until a week later that troops were able to occupy the two blockhouses. Meanwhile, Lawrence employed 30 Germans to cut pickets and ordered a detachment of troops to cover them. At week's end, discouraged by the settlers' refusal to help drag guns up to the blockhouses, Lawrence commented on their character and described how critical the situation was.

The Settlers had now slept 7 night in ye harbour of Maliquash. A long dreary period in ye situatn. In all yt. time they had done little for ymselves & begrudging ye loss of every momt. were not disposed to enter into ye spirit and meang. of the previous tasks to wc. they were summond. Yet these were absolutely indispensable. The Alarm of a single night & ye havoc of a single lndn. wd have defeated ye whole design and drawn ym back to Halifax. What they called ye Kings works and public stores, were works and stores for yr. own security and preservatn. without wc. they cd not have been safe nor ye settlemt have proceeded.17

By 18 June Lawrence was able to write Governor Hopson that the guns were mounted in the blockhouse, and that he had employed between 300 and 400 settlers in digging the trench and cutting 3,000 pickets "wc. according to our Calculatn. will be sufficient for ye line from water to water."18 Apparently the troops and settlers enjoyed a security of numbers, for there were no signs of Indians all summer. The job of cutting a trench and digging in the pickets proved a far heavier task than Lawrence had originally calculated, and it was not until 8 August that the line was finished from the top of the hill to the harbour side. Another month was occupied in continuing the palisades to the water on the other side of the peninsula. A small log house was built at the end of the picketing on the harbourside to guard the shallow water at that end.

By the end of September, Lawrence had returned with his troops to Halifax, leaving the militia to keep guard in the blockhouses. The militia system lasted only two months before a small insurrection among the settlers forced Lawrence to send Colonel Robert Monckton with 200 troops to confront the insurgents. Monckton brought the leaders of the rebellion to Halifax, but thereafter about 40 troops were kept at Lunenburg to man the defences. After this incident, the settlement prospered, although continual harassment by Indians prevented it from expanding outside of the peninsular picketing to any degree.

Lawrencetown, ten miles east of Dartmouth, was the third settlement attempted. The site was chosen for the same reasons as Lunenburg; it was an easily defended peninsula and had cleared land. Encouraged by the fact that the proprietors of the township had picketed in the peninsula at their own expense, Governor Lawrence sent 200 troops with the first settlers on 16 May 1754. The troops cleared a road as they marched. They also carried a blockhouse with them, which the executive council had decided should be supplied in order to encourage settlers. Lawrence could dispense with 200 troops only for a short time and eventually, when the blockhouse had been made secure and the picketing fully set in, only 40 Rangers were left to man the defences.19

The settlement of Lawrencetown lasted only three years. Prospective settlers, fearful of the Indians of the eastern shore, declined to take up offers of land. One by one the original land owners drifted back to the security of Halifax. On 13 October 1757, Colonel Monckton wrote to the Lords of Trade that

His Majesty's Council having taken the Affairs of Lawrence Town into Consideration, have come to a Resolution of withdrawing from thence the few Inhabitants that remained, as they were in continual apprehensions from the Enemy in their Neighbourhood which prevented their being able to Cultivate the Lands or even to venture abroad without the most imminent danger of being killed. This has accordingly been done and the Troops and Blockhouse brought away.20

All the blockhouses described in this chapter were small portable buildings of fairly lightweight timber. The timbers were squared in Halifax and shipped with the troops to their respective posts. This prefabrication undoubtedly contributed to a certain standardization of the form. They involved a bare economy of design, construction and cost. The logistics of the military situation in Acadia demanded such simplicity, and the economies of parliament prevented anything more elaborate. Forts and blockhouses were planned as temporary answers to what the military considered temporary problems. As fortification on an ad hoc basis, the military had discovered and successfully used the blockhouse; it remained to be seen what it would do with the form in other emergencies.

previous Next

Last Updated: 2006-09-15 To the top
To the top