This Week in History


The Accidental Naturalist: Nicolas Denys’ Adventures in Perseverance

For the week of Monday December 3, 2007

On December 3, 1653, Nicolas Denys purchased the rights to most of the region from what is now Cape Breton Island to the Gaspé peninsula, and all the adjacent islands including the Îles de la Madeleine, and Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island).

The world of Nicolas Denys (1660s)
© Cape Breton Museum Network, 2002

Starting in 1632, Denys had journeyed often to Acadia to fish, lumber, trade, and to attempt to establish permanent settlements. His was not an easy journey. Nicolas often clashed with the Governors of Acadia and merchants of the Compagnie de la Nouvelle-France. On several occasions his lands were seized, his property confiscated and he was imprisoned. Although the French judicial powers always exonerated Nicolas and ordered that his lands be restored to him, Denys was never fully compensated for his losses. This left him near bankruptcy and unable to pursue his dream of establishing a great seigneury on New Brunswick’s north shore.

Denys established forts and villages in what is now New Brunswick at Miscou, Nipisiquit (Bathurst), and Chedabouctou (Guysborough), and in Nova Scotia at Saint-Pierre and Port Rossignol (Brooklyn), but by 1662 only seven families of permanent settlers remained. The lowest point in his career came in December 1668 when his home and business at St. Pierre were destroyed by fire, forcing his move to Nipisiquit. However, Denys’ most lasting contribution to history resulted from this misfortune. Now nearly destitute, he decided to compile his forty years of recollections and experiences in Acadia into book format. He hoped that the sale of these narratives would provide needed funds and attract new settlers.

Nicolas Denys (1598-1688) in St. Pierre (St. Peter’s)
© Cape Breton Museum Network, Lewis Parker artist (1982)

This last-ditch effort failed, but Denys left us with two invaluable volumes of knowledge. The first, Description géographique et historique des costes de l’Amérique septentrionale: avec l’histoire naturelle du païs, gave a detailed description of the Acadian coastal region from Maine to Gaspé and recounted his interactions with noted contemporaries such as Isaac de Razilly, Charles de Menou d’Aulnay, and Emmanuel Le Borgne. The second, Histoire naturelle des peuples, des animaux, des arbres & plantes de l’Amérique septentrionale… discussed the Acadian cod fisheries and other natural resources, like coal, which Denys is credited with discovering on Cape Breton Island in 1672. His accounts of the Mi’kmaq peoples are considered by today’s historians to be the most accurate published to that time.

For his intimate connection with, and honest recollections of the land and peoples of early Acadia, Nicolas Denys was recognized as a National Historic Person in 1924.

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