Melanson Settlement: A Rich History

The Melanson Settlement was an Acadian family settlement in the former Port-Royal area. It was located on the north shore of the Dauphin (now Annapolis) River, 6.5 kilometres down river from the town of Port-Royal (later Annapolis Royal.) Like the other Acadian settlements scattered along the river, the Melanson Settlement was an agricultural community where family members and neighbours worked co-operatively in the distinctive dykeland agriculture that was unique in colonial North America.

The houses, farm buildings and other architectural features of the settlement, as well as its orchards and upland gardens were situated on an upland terrace, overlooking the river, while its dykes and extensive fields were located on the salt marshes. Because it was on the approach to the fort at Port-Royal/Annapolis Royal, engineers recorded the Melanson Settlement on several 18th-century maps, providing an unusually detailed record for a pre-Deportation Acadian settlement.

Artwork of the establishment of agricultural dykelands Artwork of the establishment of agricultural dykelands
© Parks Canada/A. Vienneau, Nova Scotia Museum

Early Years

The settlement was founded by Charles Melanson dit La Ramée and Marie Dugas after their marriage in about 1664. The couple built their home on the edge of the upland adjacent to the St.Charles marsh and, working with the Guilbeaux, their neighbours on the other side of the marsh, built the first dyke across the extensive marsh. Before Charles Melanson's death in about 1700, the couple had 14 children. As they grew to adulthood and married, eight of the children chose to remain in the family settlement, but not all at the same time.

Artwork of trade at the Melanson settlement
Artwork of trade at the Melanson settlement 
© Parks Canada/C. Picard



British Period

Under the British, the Melanson Settlement was part of a wider area sometimes known as Pointe aux Chesnes. Alexandre Robichaud and later Jean Melanson served as a deputy, representing the area in its dealings with the British governor and council at Annapolis Royal. The settlement on the upland grew slightly but seems to not have exceeded 10 to 12 households.

Dykeland agriculture continued at the site. A second dyke had been constructed by 1708. By 1725, the reclaimed marshland extended all the way to the river on both sides of the Melanson Settlement. Significant portions of the 17th and 18th-century Acadian dykes still survive.

 

Artwork of the Acadian Deportation Artwork of the Acadian Deportation
© Parks Canada/C. Picard

By the time of the Deportation, four generations of Melansons had lived in the Melanson Settlement. Its residents were among the 1666 Acadians deported from the Annapolis Royal area in December of 1755. All of the buildings of the settlement probably were destroyed at this time.

History After the Deportation

In 1759, the north shore of the Annapolis Basin and the Annapolis River, including the lands of the Melanson Settlement, became part of Granville Township and was granted to New England Planters. The Planter and later landowners of the former Settlement continued the cultivation of the dykelands. They built their homes along a road, away from the upland terrace that held the remains of the Acadian buildings. Over the past 250 years, the Acadian foundations have remained relatively undisturbed.




Revelations from a 17th century Acadian settlement
 

Interview with Brenda Dunn, historian and author


Interviewed by Andi Rierden for Parks Canada

Brenda Dunn at Melanson Settlement Brenda Dunn at the Melanson settlement
© Parks Canada/A. Rierden

Few places in North America can tell us as much about Acadian family and community life in the 17th and 18th centuries than the Melanson Settlement National Historic Site. Archaeological digs in the 1980s - aided by historic documentation - revealed ruins of a village left untouched, apart from light farming, since 1755. As historian Brenda Dunn details in a conversation below, the site emerges as a prominent and important early Acadian settlement, whose members were key in helping to create a distinct society based primarily on family kinships and a unique form of agriculture. Located on the upland overlooking the entrance to the Dauphin (Annapolis) River en route to the epicentre of government for Acadie, the settlement managed to thrive for many decades under the weight of a long and unremitting struggle for control over the region.

Before retiring from Parks Canada in 1998, Ms. Dunn served as an historian for the Nova Scotia National Historic Sites of Canada at Louisbourg, Fort Anne, Grand-Pré and Melanson Settlement. She has published widely on Nova Scotia’s colonial history and is the author of A History of Port-Royal/Annapolis Royal : 1605-1800 (Nimbus Publishing, 2004). Here are some excerpts from our conversation:


What is the link between Melanson Settlement and the Fort Anne and Port-Royal National Historic Sites?
The settlement is an important part of the larger history of European settlement in the Annapolis Royal area. It was founded by Charles Melanson and his wife Marie Dugas, following their marriage in about 1664. Marie Dugas was among the first generation of Acadians to be born at Port-Royal; her father and her maternal grandfather had settled at Port-Royal with Charles de Menou d’Aulnay in the early years of the colony. Charles Melanson arrived from England with his parents in 1657 when Acadia was under English rule. His father was a French Huguenot and his mother was English. Through his marriage into the Dugas family, Charles gained connections to many other Acadian families. In addition, Charles’ brother, Pierre Melanson, married Marguerite Mius d’Entremont and they eventually moved up to the upper Bay of Fundy and founded Grand-Pré. As their network grew, the Melansons became one of the most influential families in Acadia.

It’s important as well that the fort [present-day Fort Anne National Historic Site] was the seat of government for the region and so that had a definite impact on the Melansons economically and politically. As one example, in 1720 [a decade after the British gained control], Alexandre Robichaud, the second husband of Anne Melanson, who came from an established Acadian family and lived at the Melanson settlement, was selected as one of the first deputies to represent the Acadians in their dealings with the British government at Annapolis Royal.

View to Goat Island (on the right), and the opening to the Annapolis (formerly Dauphin) River From the upland of the settlement visitors can view Goat Island (on the right), and the opening to the Annapolis (formerly Dauphin) River from the Annapolis (formerly Port-Royal) Basin
© Parks Canada/A. Rierden

Why was the Melanson Settlement so well documented very early on?
Under the French and later the British, various engineers at the fort [present-day Fort Anne National Historic Site] prepared several maps of the approach to the fort from Goat Island [formerly l’île aux Chèvres], providing a valuable record of the evolution of the Melanson Settlement and the other settlements on the lower river. No other area of Acadian settlement is so well documented.

A map drawn in 1708 by Pierre-Paul Delabat, engineer at the fort, showed the Melanson Settlement on the upland point overlooking the St. Charles’ marsh [now the Queen Anne marsh]. The map shows five houses in the Melanson settlement.

The most important details on the map are the names of the occupants of the houses. Although only one name is Melanson, members of the Melanson family lived in four of the five houses. An Acadian family rarely lived in isolation; its members were related by marriage to others in the community, often in several ways.

Dotted areas adjacent to four of the houses indicate gardens where crops such as turnips, cabbages, herbs and flax would have grown. Small trees on the slope running down to the marsh belonged to the Melansons’ orchard. In the one census that included orchards, taken in 1698, Charles Melanson had 76 trees, one of the largest orchards in Port-Royal. He had the second largest amount of arable land.

The 1708 map and another drawn in 1710 provide a direct correlation between the people of the settlements along the lower river and the physical setting. We are also very fortunate that the French census of 1707 links to Delabat’s 1708 map. It is not possible to make this link for any other settlement area in pre-Deportation Acadia.

How did the Acadians evolve?
In the 1630s, Isaac de Razilly brought settlers from France to La Have. After his death, Charles d’Aulnay [Razilly’s lieutenant] moved the settlers to Port-Royal and brought new colonists from France. Under d’Aulnay, they built the first dykes, beginning Acadia’s distinctive dykeland agriculture. During the period of English rule, which lasted from 1654 to 1670, the settlers began to leave the town site and extend settlement along the Dauphin [now Annapolis] River from Goat Island, the island at the entrance to the river from the Port-Royal [now Annapolis] Basin, to above the present town of Bridgetown.

One of the earliest references to the term comes from François Du Pont Duvivier of Louisbourg. Hoping his Acadian connections would be influential in urging the Acadians to join his expedition prior to his attack on the fort in 1744, he told them, “Je suis Acadien.” By the late 17th century, these settlers had evolved into a distinct Acadian society. They were removed from France and had developed a great affinity to the land in this area.

A grass fire uncovered the Melanson site in the early eighties, which eventually led to the archaeological excavations in which you were involved as an historian. What were the overall findings?
The findings led to the conclusion that the site was not used as domestic settlement after the deportation in 1755. We have assumed that most, if not all, of the features identified date to the period of the Acadian occupation of the area. The historical record also supported this conclusion. It is the only pre-expulsion Acadian settlement that has extended ruins with detailed historical documentation.

The archaeological team uncovered quite a range of artifacts such as ceramics from England, Germany and China, scissors, coins and glass beads. This discovery added much to the understanding of the Melanson Settlement and Acadian life in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The excavations on one feature showed that four buildings had been built in succession on the same site. The first two were of picquet or vertical post construction and the second two of charpente, heavy timber framing with clay and marsh hay fill, built on a fieldstone foundation. The charpente houses both had a substantial fireplace and an exterior bake oven on the west wall. The first of these two houses had lead-camed windows - one caming was stamped with the date 1740. Bake ovens and a similar cycle of rebuilding were also found in excavations at Belleisle, further up the river.

Prior to the Deportation, how did the battles between the British and the French impact the daily life of the Melanson settlement?
It was very stressful for people living on the lower river because of all the expeditions anchoring off Goat Island. The settlement was the first Acadian settlement that came into view as vessels sailed up the Dauphin, now Annapolis, River after passing through the channel on the north side of Goat Island, at the entrance to the river from the Port-Royal, now Annapolis Basin. On at least five occasions while Acadia was under French rule, enemy fleets anchored off Goat Island, near the Melanson Settlement. On a few occasions, raiders burned Acadian buildings and killed their livestock.

What happened to the Melansons after the Deportation?
During the Deportation, most of the residents were put on the Pembroke destined to go to North Carolina. Charles Belliveau, who had grown up in the Melanson Settlement, and others managed to overpower the crew and took the ship to the St. John River. From there, most of them made their way to Quebec. Subsequently some died from a smallpox epidemic including Charles Melanson and his brother Ambroise and Ambroise’s wife, Marguerite Comeau. Both men were elderly. Two years after the Deportation, a British officer described the scene along the lower river as he approached Annapolis Royal with Acadian villages in ruins, with large numbers of pear and apple trees bending under the weight of their unpicked fruit.

What do you want visitors to the site to come away with?
I want them to come away with a sense of place and an understanding of the history of the Acadians who settled along the Dauphin River (now Annapolis) and undertook a form of dykeland agriculture unique in North America. The settlement is a distinct example of Acadian settlement before the Deportation and links to the wider history of French and British colonization in the 17th and 18th centuries. 



Dykeland Agriculture

Mother and child walking across dyke road at high tide and at low tide Mother and child walking across dyke road at high tide and at low tide
© Parks Canada

The dykeland system in Nova Scotia began with Charles de Menou d’Aulnay in the 1630s who applied a technique similar to one long used in France. The concept entailed constructing earthen dykes along a tidal river or bay to prevent salt water from flooding the marshland. At low tide, a system of canals, streams and dykes allowed freshwater to flow through sluices (aboiteaux) in the dykes made from hollowed logs or planks and out to sea. At high tide, a wooden valve at the river end of the sluice closed as the tide rose, preventing the sea water from entering the marshland. Within a few years, rain and melting snow leached out most of the salt, creating a fertile plain where farmers could cultivate crops such as wheat, oat and flax.

Roads in farming areas often led along the tops of dykes. Carts drawn by oxen or horses were used for local travel. The dykeland system has survived throughout the centuries. Today, thousands of hectares of agricultural land along the Bay of Fundy coast in Nova Scotia are maintained as dykelands, based on the concept brought here by d’Aulnay and his settlers.

Modern-day aboiteau on the Annapolis River Modern-day aboiteau on the Annapolis River
© Parks Canada/A. Rierden
Remnants of sod layers and with branch webbing from early dyking construction have survived through time Remnants of sod layers and with branch webbing from early dyking construction have survived through time
© Parks Canada/A. Rierden

 

Dykeland Construction

A) Aboiteau at low tide

 
1. Flow of fresh water from the marsh
2. Clapper valve opened by the pressure of the flow of the fresh water
3. Sluice (aboiteau)
4. Dyke

Aboiteau at low tide © Parks Canada



 

 

 

 

 

 


B) Aboiteau at high tide


1. The drained marsh is below sea level
2. Clapper valve closed to prevent salt water from entering the dyked area
3. Sluice (aboiteau)
4. Dyke

Aboiteau at high tide © Parks Canada


 

 

 

 





Resources

BLEAKNEY, J. Sherman. Sods, soil, and spades: the Acadians at Grand Pré and their dykeland legacy, McGill University Press, 2007.

Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture and Marketing, Maritime Dykelands: the 350 year old struggle, 1987.