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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


Most of the blockhouses built in Canada were designed and erected only as temporary fortifications. In most cases, the blockhouses answered the need for inexpensive and easily constructed defences which individual crises demanded. The blockhouse was a defence which could be built quickly, using local materials, without any large expenditure of labour or money. It was therefore adapted to a wide variety of situations, and was used as an isolated post, as a keep for a battery, inside a stockaded fieldwork, or as part of a more elaborate system of permanent works. In each case the blockhouse provided essentially a barracks which could be defended against musketry. The size, shape and construction details varied with function and with the skill and idiosyncracies of individual builders.

Although the two-storeyed horizontal log design prevailed it was not a rigid type of construction. Somewhere, amid the variations in design and function, a woolly definition of the blockhouse type might be found: it was a single defensible structure, usually composed of thick horizontal logs, machicolated, two-storeyed, loopholed for muskets and portholed for ordnance, and was normally a barracks for a small detachment of men. But the best definition possible, if definitions are necessary, is that of example; one may take a blockhouse like that at Madawaska, which was complete in every respect, and use it as a standard for comparison, although ultimately each blockhouse must be studied as an individual structure.

Two closely related factors were responsible for the extensive use of blockhouses as fortifications in British North America. First, the enormous territory to be defended, both on the Atlantic coast and along the interior frontier waterways, demanded numerous small posts to provide local defences, and often to maintain and protect an extended line of communication. Second, parliament was unwilling to spend the enormous amounts of money which would have been necessary to systematize and fortify permanently the important Atlantic harbours or the strong points along the interior frontier. Most blockhouses were temporary answers to the basic dilemma of money and security.

In the British conquest of Acadia, the first war waged by the English against the Indians in Canada, the blockhouses were closest to the earlier American origins. They were built as temporary defences against muskets and arrows, in situations where there was little chance of artillery being used against them. Blockhouses were built in the important smaller Atlantic coastal communities during the War of 1812 to provide temporary defences against American privateers. In these situations, the blockhouses assumed a secondary defensive role after the harbour batteries, and served mainly as keeps and barracks for the artillerymen. Along the inland frontier waterways of Canada, blockhouses, either by themselves or in support of batteries, served as advanced or intermediate posts between the more regularly fortified strong points. These blockhouses provided a local defence, housed small detachments of troops and helped protect the various lines of communication and supply. They were also useful in providing rallying points for local militia. In regular fortifications of important harbour defences and interior strong points, blockhouses were invariably used as temporary expedients to strengthen these positions in times of crisis, while the intended permanent systems awaited the outcome of crises and the decisions of Whitehall.

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