The lands and shores surrounding Port-la-Joye—Fort Amherst have been part of historic Mi’kma’ki since time immemorial. The first permanent European settlements on the Island — then called Epekwitk by the Mi’kmaq or Isle Saint-Jean by the French — was established here in 1720. This harbour setting played an integral role in the history of European settlement on Prince Edward Island, serving as the seat of government until 1768, port of entry for settlement and a colonial outpost in the Franco-British struggle for dominance in North America. The four cultures that converged here and called this place home: Mi’kmaq, French, Acadian and British as well as the friendships, conflicts and alliances forged in the 18th century set the stage for what would become Prince Edward Island.
In 1720, three ships owned by la Compagnie de l’Isle Saint-Jean, under the monopoly granted to Louis Hyancinthe Castel, the Comte de Saint-Pierre, set sail from Rochefort, France carrying 300 settlers and landed on the south shore of this Island. This harbour provided an ideal setting for the strategic defence of a small colonial outpost. Some of these newcomers began construction of Port la Joye, while others decided to settle elsewhere on the island. Among them were French fishermen wanting to take part in the lucrative cod fishery.
Michel Haché dit Gallant and his family came to Port la Joye from Beaubassin, becoming one of the first known Acadian families to settle on Isle Saint-Jean. The Gallant family settled between the French outpost and the creek flowing into the cove, an area which soon developed as the heart of Port la Joye’s civilian community. It was hoped that this growing settlement would become a thriving agricultural community capable of supplying the French colonial stronghold at Louisbourg. These settlers constructed structures at Port la Joye to accommodate the small garrison of la Compagnie Franche de la Marine and civil authorities, including a chapel, storehouse, bakery, forge, powder magazine, barracks and the commandant’s lodgings. The future of the new colony looked promising, and in 1721, Louis Denys de la Rond, French naval officer, exclaimed that Port-la-Joye was "One of the most beautiful harbours that he eye can behold!".
Taking advantage of the natural river highways, some settlers established farms along the Rivière-du-Nord-Est (now the Hillsborough River, a Canadian Heritage River) as far as Havre Saint-Pierre. Others established fishing settlements, following the most lucrative stocks.
Mi’kmaq: Neighbours and Allies
The Mi’kmaq people moved seasonally throughout Mi’kma’ki which stretched from present-day Cape Breton Island to the Gaspé Peninsula, including Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, much of New Brunswick, parts of Newfoundland and into the state of Maine. The Mi’kmaq helped the French settlers adapt to their new environment, forging a close relationship with the settlers and an alliance with French officials. Following the influence of Mi’kmaq Grand Chief Henri Membertou, who was baptised at the French settlement of Port-Royale in 1610, most adopted Roman Catholicism. Each year during the French regime there was an important annual gathering of the Mi’kmaq and French at Port la Joye. Leaders and Elders came from various parts of Mi’kma’ki to renew their alliance with the French.
In recognition of the assistance provided by the Mi’kmaq, French officials travelled from the Fortress of Louisbourg to attend the gatherings, which included speeches, feasts and a gift presentation. There is still a Mi’kmaq community at nearby Rocky Point, which is part of Abegweit First Nation.
Struggle for Dominion
After the fall of Fortress Louisbourg to British troops from New England in June of 1745, a detachment of these forces moved north to take possession of Isle Saint-Jean, burning the settlements at Port la Joye and Trois-Rivières (now Brudenell Point). Isle Saint-Jean fell under British Rule from 1745 until 1748. By this time, Acadia had been under British rule for more than thirty years. With the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, the Island returned to French possession, marking the start of a decade of renewal. Due to mounting tensions in British-controlled Acadia, Isle Saint-Jean received an influx of Acadian refugees from the mainland, increasing the Island’s population to an estimated 4 350. In 1755, the Great Upheaval saw most mainland Acadians deported to the Thirteen Colonies. The Acadian Odyssey that ensued included subsequent migrations from Virginia to England, a return for some to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, as well as migrations to Quebec and Spanish-controlled Louisiana.
In 1758, the British took possession of Isle Saint-Jean for a final and decisive time and ordered a mass deportation of the French and Acadian population. Colonel Lord Andrew Rollo arrived at Port la Joye to issue the terms of take-over to the French commandant and deployed a contingent of his forces to gather the approximately 4 350 French and Acadians living on Isle Saint-Jean. While approximately 3000 were assembled at Port-la-Joye for deportation to France, a significant number located in Malpeque escaped deportation. Oral history suggests that they were assisted by Mi’kmaq in evading the British. Others escaped by fleeing to the mainland in their own vessels. More than half of those deported perished en route, many drowning when three of the thirteen transport vessels sank, and others from dehydration and malnutrition aboard the overcrowded and undersupplied vessels or shortly after their arrival to French ports.
A contingent of Colonel Lord Rollo’s forces began construction of a British fort was located close to the site of the former French fortifications at Port la Joye and named it Fort Amherst. While not as large as many British colonial forts, it was protected by 18 cannons, a waterless moat and drawbridge. When Charlottetown became the colonial capital of St. John’s Island in 1768, the military moved across the harbour and was established at Fort Edward. Fort Amherst was essentially abandoned and only the earthworks that are visible above ground remain as a testament to the ambitions and struggles of the past.
Captain Samuel Johannes Holland was commissioned as Surveyor General to survey much of British North America, starting at the Island of St. John’s. Using new innovations —such as the astronomical clock and the refracting telescope — he set out to survey and map the entire Island, laying it out in lots and parishes. He began the survey from his home base adjacent to Fort Amherst at Observation Cove (now Holland Cove) in October 1764, and completed it two years later in 1766. He was granted Lot 28 (Tryon area) as payment during the 1767 land lottery. Ensuring it was settled by farmers and former soldiers, Holland went on to other commissions, administering the lot as an absentee landlord. By 1798, there were 136 tenants on the lot.