© Parks Canada/T. Bunbury
Fort Edward was constructed in June 1750 to secure the overland route between Annapolis Royal, the old capital of Nova Scotia, and the new capital at Halifax, founded in 1749. The British colonial officials also intended the fort to assert government authority in the Piziquid area, one of the centres of Acadian settlement in the province. As well, Mi'kmaq frequently travelled through the area following the two rivers (the Avon and the St. Croix) that met below the hill on which the fort was constructed.
In the autumn of 1755, Fort Edward served as a centre for the deportation of approximately 1200 Acadian men, women and children from the villages of Pisiquid. Some Acadians however evaded the deportation and small groups were detained at the fort over the next few years.
During the American Revolution, the fort was repaired and garrisoned to protect the area, now called Windsor, from attack by American raiders. One of the captains of the British regiment occupying the fort was Allan Macdonald, husband of Flora Macdonald, who had won fame as the rescuer of Bonnie Prince Charlie following the defeat of his Highland forces at the Battle of Culloden in 1745. Flora spent the winter of 1778-79 at Fort Edward before she returned to Scotland.
when war broke out between Britain and the United States in 1812, military officials feared an attack on the Windsor area. Fort Edward was hastily repaired and manned. Despite this brief revival, Fort Edward had ceased to have strategic importance in the defence of Nova Scotia decades before. The fortifications gradually fell into disrepair but the grounds were used by the local militia for training as well as for the site of the Windsor Agricultural Fair. During the First World War, the fort grounds also served as a camp for troops from the Annapolis Valley waiting to go overseas.
An Exact Plan of Fort Edward at Pesaquid, 1757 (William Clements Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan), shows that the defences included a blockhouse, barracks for soldiers and officers, provisions stores, a powder magazine and service buildings, protected by earth ramparts, a wooden palisade and a ditch. Outside the ramparts, on the hillside, were small gradens, stables for cattle and horses, a hospital, a forge and huts for some of the soldiers. There was also a truckhouse, a government-sanctioned trading post set up to facilitate trade with the Mi'kmaq. Only the blockhouse survives: the oldest standing blockhouse of the 200 that were built in Canada and the oldest surviving in North America.
The Blockhouse form
The term “blockhouse” usually denotes a simple wooden structure of two storeys with the upper storey overhanging the lower. The heavy timbers that formed their walls were easily cut from nearby forests and hewed with simple tools. Blockhouses provided excellent protection against arrows and small arms, the weapons used most when the British built Fort Edward.
Acadian craftsmen prepared the framing timbers for the blockhouse in Halifax. They were then transported to Piziquid. On the second storey of the blockhouse, you can see paired sets of roman numerals on the timbers. This made it easy for the workers to put the framework of the blockhouse together at the site.
Built to defend
From left to right: exterior of the fort’s second storey; interior showing pothole and overhead loopholes; interior close-up of loophole showing splayed form.
The Fort Edward block house possesses several defensive features. As the above photos show, square potholes were cut into the centre of the upper walls. Soldiers used four-pounder guns here, most likely set on swivel mountings. They could also fire on invaders through the five slits above the potholes. These so-called “loopholes” were stationed at shoulder-height. The openings are splayed to give the soldier a wider angle of fire.
“Machicolations” – long slits cut in the floor of the overhang of the upper storey – enabled soldiers to fire down at attackers who reached the blockhouse.
Photos © Parks Canada/T. Bunbury
Archaeologists have worked at Fort Edward at various times between 1986 and 1999. This work has been done for practical purposes, to clear areas for electrical wiring, for the construction of paths and for the stabilization of the blockhouse. But each has been valuable in revealing interesting information about the fort and its occupants.
The Blockhouse midden: Treasures amid the garbage
Plans to stabilize the foundation of the blockhouse led to a full excavation of the interior, plus the perimeter around the exterior. Most surprising was the discovery that a massive amount of garbage had been thrown under the floorboards some time before the middle of the 19th century. Perhaps this was done to reduce the air space under the floorboards and maybe provide some insulation. Within the space below the floorboards, archaeologists found military buttons, shoe buckles, musket balls and gun flints, broken ceramic dishes and glass bottles, tobacco pipes, Jews’ harps, ink bottles and a wide variety of animal bones, discarded from meals. All of these seem to date to the first quarter of the 19th century.
Here are just a few of the items the archaeologists discovered:
Anglo-American coarse earthenware dish with a slipped decoration; jawbone of a monkfish (Lophius americanus), caught and eaten by soldiers of the garrison; soldiers cut bone discs from flat bones to replace buttons lost on their clothing; tobacco pipes, an ink bottle and a clay marble
Before the Blockhouse: Acadian Parish Church of l’Assomption
Archaeology has also confirmed the presence of the Parish Church of l’Assomption on the hilltop. Something as mundane as the placement of security lights around the blockhouse led to the first evidence. Deep in a small square excavated for the light fixture in the northwest bastion, archaeologist Stephen Powell uncovered pieces of clay, burnt in a fire, which clearly showed traces of salt-marsh grasses, spartina sp.
Photos © Parks Canada/R. Ferguson
A ten-minute walk down adjacent King Street leads you to the museum of the West Hants Historical Society. Here you can view military buttons, cannon balls and other artifacts excavated from Fort Edward.