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Charles Fort National Historic Site of Canada

Natural Wonders & Cultural Treasures

History of Charles Fort

Charles Fort Monument
Charles Fort Monument

©Parks Canada, 2008

In 1621, as part of European expansion overseas, James I of England and VI of Scotland granted Sir William Alexander, a Scottish noble, a charter for New Scotland - “Nova Scotia” - to establish a Scottish colony in North America. The charter covered the geographic area made up today of the Maritime Provinces and the Gaspé peninsula. (At the time, the French claimed part of the region as Acadia while the Mi'kmaq knew it as their traditional lands, Mi'kmaki .) The charter gave Alexander rights to minerals and fisheries; the power to make laws, form a government, stop pirates, and seek peaceful relations with Native people; as well as permission to build one or more forts. It would be eight years before such a colony was established, but in 1625, the year Charles I became king, a coat of arms was approved for New Scotland. Four hundred years later, in the 1920s, the flag and arms of the Province of Nova Scotia were adopted using the 1625 heraldry as their basis and inspiration.

In 1629, eight years after the granting of a charter to establish the colony and four years after the approval of a coat of arms, Sir William's son, Sir William Alexander the younger, brought a group of 70 men and women to colonize New Scotland. A second party, led by Sir James Stewart of Killeith, Lord Ochiltree, and comprised of English settlers, established a colony at Baleine, Cape Breton, a few miles north of where the French would later establish Louisbourg. There, they built Fort Rosemar, only to have the French destroy the settlement two months later. Meanwhile, Alexander, with the assistance of Claude de Saint-Étienne de La Tour(1), established his headquarters at Port-Royal (renamed Annapolis Royal by the British after 1713). There, he oversaw the construction of Charles Fort, named in honour of King Charles I. Designed by Captain Ogilvie, the fort was “in forme of a pentagonon, with many horne works good both for offence and defence.” It mounted eight pieces of ordnance - “four demie culvering and foure minion.” The settlers and ships' crews also erected a house for Alexander and a storehouse.

During the first winter, 30 of the 70 Charles Fort settlers died. More colonists arrived in May 1630, along with the Mi'kmaw chief, Segipt, and his family who had gone to England to meet the king(2). When Alexander went to England in the fall of 1630, he found negotiations underway for a return of the area to the French.  In 1632, this area, along with the rest of New France (Canada and Acadia), was officially returned to France under the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.  Forty-seven of the Charles Fort settlers returned to England on the Saint-Jean, one of the vessels that later carried French settlers to La Hève (known today as LaHave) (3) under the new governor, Isaac de Razilly. A few of Alexander's settlers remained in the colony. As partial compensation for the elder Alexander's heavy financial losses, the king made him Earl of Stirling.

1. Claude Saint-Étienne de La Tour came to what was then Acadia with his son, Charles, in 1610 to help settle Port-Royal.  In 1628, De La Tour was captured by the English during a voyage from France to Cap Sable, where his son had built a fur trading post called Fort Lomeron (later renamed Fort La Tour although identified as Fort Saint-Louis in the writings of Samuel de Champlain), and was taken to England as a prisoner.  Expecting Acadia would be lost to the English due to French neglect, he decided to side with the English, providing information about Acadia and assisting with plans to colonize "New Scotland."  In return, he was named a Baronet of Nova Scotia.  In 1630, he and his English wife joined a group of colonists and sailed for Cap Sable, expecting his son to join him in siding with the English in return for a title and other honours.  However, Charles refused and his father led an attack on the fort which failed.  Claude then had little choice but to accompany the other colonists to Port-Royal which was now under English control.  He later wrote to his son asking to be permitted to join him at Cap Sable.  Surprisingly, Charles agreed but forced his father to take up residence outside the fort.

2. Early in the settlement, good relations had been established between the settlers and the Aboriginal peoples of the area.  An eyewitness account written by Richard Guthry states that the Mi'kmaq were “infinitly loving to there wyves and children, and to one another; feasting when they meet, till all there store be gone so every day serves itselfe.”  According to Guthry, the Aboriginal people he met were a “fair cariaged a people among whom people may live verry weel,” suggesting relations between the Mi'kmaq and Scottish settlers at Port-Royal were good.

3. Fort LaHave National Historic Site of Canada was designated in 1924 as the first permanent French settlement in Acadia, settled in 1632.