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History of Isle Madame

Ile Madame, once known as Ile Ste. Marie, was named after the second wife of Louis XIV, Madame de Maintenon. The island is located off the south east coast of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and separated by the Lennox passage. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to its east and south, and the strait of Canso to its west. The earliest European occupants of Ile Madame were transient fishermen, who came from France, Basque and Portugal in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nicolas Denys, who had established the nearby village of Port Toulouse (today St. Peters) had exclusive fishing rights of the area from 1640 until 1682, and promoted French settlement, at least on a temporary basis. 

When France definitively lost Acadia in 1713, it withheld the northern island of Cape Breton, which it named Ile Royale, and constructed an immense fortress to protect its interests. It was fishing, however, not agriculture, that formed the economic basis of the new colony. In order to populate the island, France tried to entice Acadians to leave their fertile lands along the shores of the Bay of Fundy. Very few of them were tempted by these invitations, and in fact, only 67 families moved to Ile Royale between 1713 and 1734, and several returned to mainland Nova Scotia.  

The Acadians that did relocate settled at Port Toulouse, or at the fortress of Louisbourg. Two French merchants, D'Aroupet and Hiriat turned the harbor of Petit de Grat into a major fishing and smuggling center, and many officials of the time estimated that there was a greater volume of goods moving through Petit de Grat than through Louisbourg!
The first official documents of Ile Madame were prepared in 1752, when a Frenchman, Sieur de La Roque compiled a census of Ile Royale. There were about 35 Acadian families settled on Ile Madame, along with several families from France. Sieur de la Roque provides the following description of life on the island:
"The nature of the soil is not suitable for cultivation, as in addition to the fact that fogs are constantly prevalent during the whole of spring, the quality of the soil can only be described as a mixture of earth largely composed of clay, and an infinite number of rough stones heaped upon one another... Petit de Grat is suitable only for the cod fishery. None of the people who are settled there have any other occupation."      
While development on Ile Madame was becoming more and more permanent, the residents of Port Royal were on the brink of becoming victims of a catastrophe. The almost continuous struggle for supremacy between England and France in North America was nearing an end, and in 1755, almost 8,000 Acadians were expelled from their homes and deported to other lands.
After the fall of Louisbourg in 1758, there was another deportation that year. In his book of the history of Cape Breton, Richard Brown notes that early in the year of 1758, there were at least one hundred fishing boats in Arichat and Petit de Grat, while later in the same year, the Acadians of Ile Madame had been run off, their boats, homes and fishing enterprises burned. The Abbey Emile Dubois wrote the following (“Chez Nos Freres Les Acadiens”):
"How many Acadians of Cape Breton, the gulf coast and Ile St. Jean (Prince Edward Island) were victims of this second dispersion, just as barbaric and inhuman as the first? Probably more than 6,000, but this is only an estimate, for during this period of Acadian history (1755-1760), almost all of the official documents have disappeared from the Archives in Halifax."
Not surprisingly, the officials at that time were not too proud of their work, for even the British General Wolf, himself wrote in September 1758
"We have done a great deal of harm, and spread the terror of His Majesty's Arms throughout the entire area of the gulf, without bringing Him any glory
The island started to repopulate in the early 1760's with the arrival of a number of Acadian refuges who had obtained permission to settle after the fall of Louisbourg, and had been given grants of land. In 1766, Petit de Grat had 9 families and 37 people. In 1768, around 200 Acadians arrived from St. Pierre & Miquelon, took the oath of allegiance, and settled predominately in Petit de Grat. In his book "History and Genealogy of the Acadians", Bona Arsenault established the population of the island in 1774 at 1,011 souls, half of which lived in Arichat and Petit de Grat. 
During the American War of Independence in 1776, all but 6 families left the island and settled temporarily at Chezzetcook, just north of Halifax. Many returned and resettled after the Armistice of 1783. Nova Scotia's anti-Catholic laws were abolished in 1784, which helped Ile Madame's rapidly expanding Acadian population. By 1786, the population had increased to such an extent that Arichat was assigned its own resident Catholic priest, making it the second oldest Catholic parish in Nova Scotia. Arichat's first chapel was built about 1786, under the direction of the missionary priest, Pierre Bourg. 
Provided they sign an oath of allegiance to the British Crown, Acadians abroad were permitted to resettle in Cape Breton. Many Acadians appear to have taken this oath, for in the year of 1792-93, a second wave of Acadians from the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, returned to Cape Breton, and settled mainly on Ile Madame. Because they had refused to take an oath under the new constitution of France, instituted in 1792 after the French Revolution, they resolved to return to Nova Scotia.
Documents of the early settlers of Ile Madame are rare and difficult to find. Because the Acadians were in constant danger of being deported by the English, especially after the second deportation of 1758, they often built their homes in small coves, inaccessible by roads, and close to the sea. They were not allowed to own property, to vote or to hold any public positions, and as a result, left very few documents. Additionally, the earliest church records were completely destroyed when Arichat's first Catholic Church burned on the night of November 23-24, 1838. 
A precious document, however, has survived and identifies the first settlers of Ile Madame during the formation of the parish of Arichat (in the late 1700's), and is located at the Public Record Office in London, England. Addressed by "His Majesty's faithful Acadian subjects, Inhabiting the Isle of Madame", the document was signed by the heads of the first 70 families of Isle Madame to show their appreciation for the construction of a church and school, the concession of lands, and a request for a tax exemption for their fishing industries. Acadian genealogist Stephen White has written short biographies of each man.
As the amount of habitable land and water frontage was limited, Acadian migrations to Ile Madame came to an end by the early 1800's. At this time, Arichat, the island's largest village with one of the deepest harbors in North America, was becoming a major port on the Atlantic Ocean. Situated at the entrance to the Strait of Canso, which formed a link to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Arichat was ideally suited to act as a stopover place for vessels headed to the larger Canadian cities. Soon, the island's economy began to improve. In fact, Monseigneur Plessis, Bishop of Quebec, who made two visits to Ile Madame in 1812 and 1815, noted on his second visit:
"Even within these last three years there is a notable difference and a considerable betterment. The houses are more attractively constructed, and the people dress better. They eat better food, such as bread, (which the Acadians know so well how to do without); not that their fields produce more grain, for they do not cultivate them, but because they have money enough to buy flour."
Eventually, the exports of fish were no longer in such great demand, and by the late 1800's Ile Madame's economy began to decline. Steam powered vessels arrived, eliminating the need to use Arichat as a stopover point. Moreover, these iron ships required technical expertise far beyond that of the local captains. Fewer new ships were built, and the tall ships of Ile Madame slowly disappeared. Many of Ile Madame's young men began to emigrate to Boston and the New England states, where they could find more work. Today, the economy is mostly supported by the industries of nearby Port Hawksbury, on Cape Breton. The fishing industry in Atlantic Canada is currently at a standstill as fish stocks, at one time so plentiful, are at an unprecedented low.
Written by Charles A. Samson and George Rose, December 1997


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