Nova Scotia Archives

The Port Royal Habitation

Four Hundred Years of European Settlement in North America

Furthing Reading

Barbara M. Schmeisser, "The Port Royal Habitation - A 'Politically Correct' Reconstruction?" in Collections of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society, Vol. 44 (1996) pp. 41-47. Reprinted by permission of the author and the Society.

"The Port Royal Habitation - A 'Politically Correct' Reconstruction?"

Port-Royal National Historic Site, six miles from Annapolis Royal on the north shore of the basin, is the location of a historical reconstruction that was erected in 1939 by the government of Canada. By examining how this came about, it is possible to track certain principles and policies that have emerged and influenced the Canadian preservation movement. The Port Royal project marked a greater commitment to heritage development in the late 1930s and involved questions of appropriate treatment of heritage resources which are still timely today and for this reason make it an interesting case study.

One might first wonder why? What was the appeal of Port Royal? Unlike Louisbourg, there were no romantic ruins to inspire the preservationists.1 Neither was the Habitation site threatened by new constructions as was the case involving the historic walls of Quebec City.2 Its promoters were inspired by a history, albeit a brief one spanning 1605 to 1613, that left a legacy with broad appeal. Following the ill-fated attempts at a settlement on St. Croix Island, Pierre Dugua de Mons'company of colonists removed to Port Royal in 1605, constructed their Habitation and set about introducing French culture as they went about the daily business of survival in an unfamiliar territory they called Acadia.

The Mi'kmaq welcomed the newcomers, and Membertou an important sagamo, in particular, befriended the French. In 1610 he and some others were baptized into the Roman Catholic faith. Samuel Champlain was another whose actions contributed to the legacy of this fledgling colony. He compiled charts of the Atlantic coast and published descriptions of what in the eyes of Europeans was a strange new world. As well, he increased morale over the long winter by introducing the 'Order of Good Cheer.' Marc Lescarbot also published a chronicle of his stay at Port Royal, and wrote poetry and even a play called "Neptune's Theatre" for the entertainment of the inhabitants. A grist mill was constructed on what is now the Allan River, and fields and gardens were cultivated to foster self-sufficiency. By 1609, financial losses, and challenges to the fur trade monopoly forced Dugua to withdraw his interest in Acadia, leaving the Poutrincourts to re-establish a colony at Port Royal in 1610. Three years later, the Habitation was burned to the ground by Samuel Argall's raiding party from Virginia.3

This record of human experience ultimately inspired a group of amateur historians to mount an effort to recreate a symbol of these achievements. The first step entailed the acquisition of property that included all of the historic site and the second involved the actual "restoration" of the habitation. In reality, the promoters of the Port Royal project, embarked on a major undertaking that entailed a complete historical reconstruction based on various contemporary descriptions and Champlain's engraving. In 1928, Harriet Taber Richardson teamed with Loftus Morton Fortier to launch this project.4 Mrs. Richardson was an American from Cambridge, Massachusetts and summer resident in the Annapolis Royal area since 1923. For years she had admired Samuel Champlain and her studies of him broadened to include Port Royal. Loftus Morton Fortier, a retired civil servant, had considerable impact on the community, as founder and first President (1919) of the Historical Association of Annapolis Royal and first Honourary Superintendent of Fort Anne National Historick Park. Following his death in 1933 Col. E. K. Eaton took up the Port Royal scheme and with the contonued support of Mrs. Richardson and associates, eventually reaped the fruits of their labour. In 1938, the federal government agreed to create the Port Royal National Park and undertake the historical reconstruction of the habitation.5

Some background about the preservation movement in the Maritimes and elsewhere will help in the assessment of this particular project. At the turn of the century in Atlantic Canada, most commemorations were small scale undertakings and there were few historical museums, despite there being several 'venerable' houses with historic associations. This differed from the American experience especially that of New England. It had a heavy concentration of historical museums supported by a larger population base, wealthy philanthropists, and fiercely independent historical societies who opposed government involvement in their museums.6 For a region of Canada with a small population base and few wealthy philanthropists, it was fortunate that the Canadian federal government was committed to fostering national pride. This was to be achieved through commemorative and the creation of a National Parks system whose roots went back to 1885.7

The establishment of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMB) in 1919 provided a mechanism to recognize individuals, events and places of national historic significance. Members of the Board advised the Minister responsible for the Dominion Parks Branch, which in turn assisted local groups to commemorate what was determined to be of national historic significance. The Historical Association of Annapolis Royal was in the vanguard of the early organizations which successfully combined their own commemorative efforts with those of the federal government. In 1924, they transferred a plot of land, identified by Dr. William Francis Ganong, the author of numerous studies of early Acadia, as the general location of the historic Port Royal of 1605-13 era, to the federal government. A plaque and cairn were provided for an unveiling ceremony held at Lower Granville that year.

By the late twenties monument-raising was quite common although museums were still rare. In the Maritimes, the handful there had opened their doors before Confederation, and were associated with government or educational institutions: (i.e.) New Brunswick Museum (1842), Newfoundland Museum (1849), Nova Scotia Mechanics Institute (1831); College St.-Joseph, Museé Acadienne (1886); and the Pictou Academy, McCulloch Collection (1820s). In the 1890s, the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia each had one private museum. Prince Edward Island's first museum was opened in the early 1950s by the municipality of Montague.8 Newfoundland's Tourist and Publicity Commission restored Saint John's Queen's Battery in 1928, developing it as a tourist attraction. In the early 1950s, this battery was incorporated into the federal government's newly created Signal Hill National Historic Site, although little else had been achieved in Newfoundland heritage circles in the interim.9

On the mainland there were communities whose special historic places were also enjoyed by the public as "places of resort." Following a national survey in 1914, the Parks Branch acquired Fort Howe in Saint John which became the first historic park in the system. Already a popular recreation spot with splendid views, it combined leisure, scenery, education and history, which at the time were perceived to be all the desirable characteristics for a Dominion historic park.10 A community group, the Garrison Commissioners of Annapolis Royal, had been looking after Fort Anne since 1899 and regarded it as both an historic landmark and public recreation area.11 Not surprisingly it was incorporated into the National Park system in 1917 and the officers' quarters was opened as a museum and park office in 1918.12 Ten years later it became the planning and research center for the Port Royal project.

Dr. J. C. Webster, HSMB member for New Brunswick, was responsible for numerous plaquings in that province including that of Fort Beausejour in 1926, and a decade later, the creation of a park and museum at that site.13 Other heritage advocates, Pascal Poirier and J. S. McLennan promoted 18th century Louisbourg. There too, additional plaques commemorations preceded national historic park status and museum construction, both occurring in 1936. By no means are these all of the commemorative efforts happening during the 1920s and 1930s in the two provinces, but they provide a context and confirm that the Port Royal project in time and place was unusual in its expectations.

Ontario differed from the Maritimes, in part because it had strong members on the HSMB which facilitated many more many more plaque commemorations. Also, more heritage groups promoted their own favourite heritage site and other levels of government not only supported museums but took a lead role in undertaking historical restorations. Examples of these include the partial historical reconstruction of Fort Erie and Fort George undertaken by the Niagara Parks Commission in the late 1930s, the restoration of Fort York in 1934 by the city of Toronto, and the Ontario's Department of Highways 1936 initiative to restore Fort Henry in Kingston.14 These Canadian projects were mostly historical restorations or where reconstructions took place complemented already present historical resources. In this, they differed from the Port Royal project which had no existing historical resources present and consequently the project entailed a full scale historical reconstruction.

South of the border, the Americans were well ahead in the area of historical restorations. Several of the earliest ones, such as George Washington's birthplace, Wakefield farm (1926); Jefferson's Monticello, (1934+) and villages such as Henry Ford's Greenfield (1926) and J. D. Rockefeller's restoration of 18th century Williamsburg (1927+) were opening whe the Port Royal project was being promoted by Mr. Fortier and Mrs. Richardson. While all these restorations aroused considerable interest at the time, owing to their scale, each undertaking was specific and local in concept. They did not reach across political and international boundaries in the way that Port Royal did.

In the United States, Mrs. Richardson established the Associates of Port Royal, with chapters in Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. Their goal was to raise money for the actual reconstruction. An important list of university presidents, academics, Governors, and diplomats contributed and some New England organizations also lent their support to various aspects such as horticulture. The international radio programs, public appeals and promotions of the history of Port Royal and the exchanges of comparative historical information fostered by Mrs. Richardson and the Associates kept the dream alive even though the $10,000 sought, proved to be an illusive goal. Inspired by Canadian and American collaboration, various organizations and communities in France took a special interest in the project. The French government even promised period furnishings, which eventually arrived after World War II. Whe the actual reconstruction became the responsibility of the National Parks Branch, the Port Royal project retained its special character as an international cooperative effort.15

Local efforts were more successful in reaching the goal of obtaining the principal properties associated with the historic site. Generous loans such as that provided by Dr. W. L. Morse in 193416 assisted in land purchases, and outright gifts like that of wealthy entrepreneur Edwin Fickes of New York gained still more land. Beginning in 1924, the Historical Association had acted unofficially as property agent and this role continued until 1938 when the adjacent farm containing part of the historical habitation was purchased for the federal government. Other Canadians working on other fronts, such as C. W. Jeffreys, J. C. Webster, D. C. Harvey, E. Fabre-Surveyer, J. L. Isley, Angus L. MacDonald, and A. Stirling MacMillan also contributed to the project's success. The decision to go ahead with the project may well have been the result of a political desire to spend money in the region, but the prevailing conditions resulting from the early groundwork certainly made the decision easy.

A has been noted the reconstruction of the Port Royal Habitations was a departure from certain preservation principles which questioned the value of undertaking historical reconstructions when no extant resources existed.17 Despite this, the project acquired credibility because the pursuit of historical accuracy to depict the past was evident from the outset. Primary documentation such as the works of Champlain, Lescarbot, and Biard were combed for structural details. Mrs. Richardson's research notes and consultations with such experts as W. F. Ganong, W. I. Morse and C. W. Jeffreys, and her correspondence with Branch employees, in particular K. D. Harris the project manager, all attest to a serious regard for historical accuracy. It was not the quality of research bu the dearth of historical construction details available in primary documentation that prompted reservations about the degree of achievable historical accuracy.18

As a consequence of this deficiency architect Pierre Ansart in France and Professor Ramsay Traquair in Canada contributed their expertise in comparative 17th century architecture. The archaeological research component was further supported by Dr. C. T. Currelly of the Royal Ontario Museum. He spent several days on the site with C. Coatsworth Pinkney who had been engaged to carry out archaeological excavations by the Associates of Port Royal. This group provided the funds to pay Pinkney's salary furing the fall on 1938 and the spring of 1939, a gesture welcomed by the Parks Branch and an early example of a cost-sharing partnership. It was also recognized by all involved as an important opportunity to confirm building dimensions and unearth any additional structural details.

C. C. Pinkney was an American landscape architect who had architectural restoration experience from working at Mount Vernon and Williamsburg, and some knowledge of modern archaeological methods. Assessments of the 1938-39 excavation at various times19 suggest Pinkney did not find evidence of the Habitation, but that he had assumed he was digging in the correct site and simply interpreted everything he found to be part of the Habitation. American archaeological experience proved helpful. J. S. Harrington, who is today recognized as the father of American professional historical archaeology began his career with the American Parks Service in 1936 with a degree in architecture and some courses in anthropology. He discovered, while working at Jamestown between 1936 and 1942, that the digging techniques learned at Williamsburg by other architecturally trained colleagues were not refined enough to reveal 17th century 'gossamer threads."20 In this context Pinkney's archaeology at Port Royal can be better understood.

Harrington and his contemporaries became first generation historical archaeologists. V. Chatelain, hired in 1931, and his successor Ronald Lee, arriving 19 1935, were first generation professional historians in the United States Parks Service.21 In Canada, Lee's equivalent, A. J. H. Richardson did not appear on the scene until 1954. It was not until 1959 that he was able to concentrate on the Branch's requirements for historical research and it was not until 1962 that professional historians were first hired.22 Clearly, during the early years of the heritage movement both historical and archaeological research was in the hands of academics, antiquarians, and dedicated amateurs. Pinkney appears to have been prepared as any other of his counterparts in North America searching for 17th century traces. That he may not have excavated the original site of the habitation may be a fortunate circumstance. Traces of the original historic site may yet exist providing an opportunity at some future time to locate exactly the original buildings and further enhance knowledge of this colony.

The of the Port Royal experience raised the profile of careful research paying the way for more elaborate developments that incorporated rigorous historical and archaeological investigation. K. D. Harris, and C. W Jefferys distinguished historical illustrator diligently recorded not only what methods and materials were used but also the rationale behind their choices. In published articles23 both acknowledged that a blend of primary documentation, historical probabilities and modern practicalities combined to produce the reconstructed habitation. The limitations of this historical reconstruction were recognized and accepted by its creators and in doing so they endowed it with its own enduring historical integrity. Both these men had strong views about the architectural significance of the historical reconstruction, praising the design and its execution and its function, the materials and technical achievement.

Harris saw it as a monument paying tribute to 17th century European building traditions that had been transplanted to the new world. Jefferys similarly saw the whole exercise as a valuable contribution to the history of building on this continent in the process discrediting what he termed "prevalent misconceptions." Added to all of this was the intended impact that the historical reconstruction had and still has on its surroundings. It provided the visitor with a sense of the past using clear views of the basin and Goat Island. From the gun platform, today it is easy to imagine men long ago waiting for a sail to appear. Early landscaping plans associated with this project respected the concept of cultural landscape and historical viewplanes long before either came into vogue.

Major elements of this historical reconstruction made it an exceptional undertaking in 1939. The Port Royal project was a unique cooperative effort and it could well be the way of the future for government and communities to safeguard our heritage. It was a project that set a precedent and reinforced the importance of historical research and archaeological investigation. It was also a historical architectural reconstruction, the first of such a scale to be undertaken by the federal government and it was not the last. Time has not diminished its role as a milestone in the Canadian preservation movement. However, there is little doubt that there have been differing opinions about the project's appropriateness. In 1938, the politicians supported it as an unemployment relief project and for them it was money well spent in a depressed area. The purists in the preservation field wanted funding to go into the preservation of existing historic landmarks rather than see it spent on replicas. Within Parks Canada the Habitation has occasionally been viewed as an embarrassment and or as a "fact" to be "explained with minimum fanfare." Interpretations change as we learn more about the historical process of making history.

In 1993, the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office designated the Habitation as a classified heritage building. It received the second highest score ever given based on "its historical associations, its status as an architectural reconstruction and its environmental significance." Moreover in 1995, in light of new research and the continuing historical process, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board reviewed certain components of the history of the Port-Royal site that contributed to the national historical significance of the site. The Board confirmed that the historical reconstructions of the Habitation contributed to the national historic significance of the site by virtue of being the government of Canada's earliest large-scale reconstruction and a milestone in the Canadian heritage movement.


1. John Johnston, "Reserving History: The Commemoration of 18th century Louisbourg, 1895-1940," Acadiensis, Vol. XII, No. 2, 1982, p. 54.

2. Marc Lafrance, "Le Projet Dufferin: La Conservation D'Un Monument Historique a Quebec au XIXe Siecle," paper presented at Conference of Learned societies, Quebec, 1976, Parks Canada, Quebec Region. Etudes Historiques, 1976, p. 79.

3. R. H. McDonald, European Settlement in Acadia, 1604 - 1632, Parks Canada, Atlantic Region, Mss., ARO 107b, chapters 1 & 2.

4. Barbara Schmeisser, "Port Royal Habitation, 1928-1938 A Case Study in the Preservation Movement," Unpublished paper presented at the CHA Conference, Montreal, 1985, Parks Canada, Atlantic Region, Halifax, ARO 0033(1), pp. 4, 5, (hereafter Schmeisser, "Port Royal Habitation, 1928 - 1938 a Case Study."

5. Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Minutes, June 1938, Microfiche, Parks Canada, Atlantic Regional Office, Halifax, NS.

6. C. B. Hosmer Jr., Presence of the Past, (G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1965), p. 40 (hereafter Hosmer, Presence of the Past).

7. C. J. Taylor, Negotiating the Past? The Making of Canada's National Historic Parks and Sites, (McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, Montreal-Kingston, 1990), p. 47. (hereafter, Taylor, Negotiating the Past).

8. The Official Directory of Canadian Museums,1984, (Canadian Museums Association, Ottawa, 1984), c. f. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island sections.

9. James Candow, A Structural and Narrative History of Queen's Battery: Signal Hill National Historic Park, Parks Canada, Manuscript report series, no. 343, Ottawa, 1980, p. 36.

10. C. J. Taylor, Negotiating the Past, p. 29.

11. Maxwell Sutherland, A History of the South Magazine at Fort Anne, Indian and Northern Affairs, National Historic sites, Ottawa, MRS, no. 110, April 1973, pp. 53, 54.

12. Brenda Dunn, "Preliminary Narrative and Structural History of Fort Anne, A Background Paper." Parks Canada, Microfiche Report Series, no. 132, 1984.

13. Barbara Schmeisser, Creations and Development of Fort Beausejour National Historic Park, May 1979, Mss., Parks Canada, Atlantic Region, Halifax, ARO 0039(e), p. 10.

14. The Canadian Encyclopedia, Second Edition, Vol. II, (Hurtig Pub., Edmonton, 1985) pp. 820, 925.

15. Barbara Schmeisser, "Port-Royal Habitation, 1928-1938, A Case Study," p. 23.

16. Schmeisser, "Port Royal, 1928-1938 a Case Study," p. 26.

17. PAC, RG 84, Parks Canada, PR-2, No. 2., J. B. Harkin to Pickering, 21 August 1936.

18. W. I. Morse, ed., Pierre Du Gua Sieur Demonts Records: Colonial and Saintongas, (London, Bernard Quaritch Ltd., 1939), p. 45-46.

19. John Rick, "Archaeological Investigations of the National Historic sites service, 1962-66," Archaeology and History, No. 1, Parks Canada, Ottawa, 1970, pp. 13-14.; NAC, RG 84, PC, PR-320, No. 1, Johnson to Coleman, 30 April 1964, ibid, Bennett to Robinson, 9 July 1968.

20. Ivor Noel Hume, Martin's Hundred; (A. A. Knopf, New York, 1979), p. 31.

21. Hosmer, Preservation Comes of Age, Vol. 2, pp. 1248, 1250.

22. C. J. Taylor, Negotiating the Past, pp. 141-142.

23. K. C. Harris,"Restoration of the Habitation of Port Royal, N.S." The Maritimes Advocate, Vol. 31, no. 1, August 1940, Sackville, N.B.; C. W. Jefferys, "The Reconstruction of the Port Royal Habitation of 1605-13," Canadian Historical Review, Vol. XX, no. 4, December 1939.