The Possibility of Acadian Prisoners on Devils Island, Halifax Harbour, in the Period 1755-1768

Terry J. Deveau — 2014-06-24

I've been trying to track down the source of the information that some Acadian prisoners were held on Devils Island in Halifax Harbour for at least part of the period 1755-1768. This factoid came to my attention a few years ago from a reference to it in Lucie LeBlanc Consentino's web site (under the heading for Chezzetcook). link

The source for this information, I found, is Susan Surette-Draper's pamphlet, Return to Acadie, 2004, p. 20.

Susan was kind enough to point out to me that her source for this particular bit of information is the book by Ronald Labelle, Acadian Life in Chezzetcook, 1995, p. 13. link The endnote in this book attributes the source of the information to Edmé Rameau de Saint-Père, Voyage de Rameau de Saint-Père en Acadie 1860 : Halifax, as published by La société historique acadienne (SHA) — Les cahiers, Vol. 4, No. 8, 1973, p. 345. This is one of a series of articles printed in the cahiers that were extracted from Rameau's notes held in the archives of the Centre d'Études Acadiennes (Rameau 1820-1899, 2, 13-2). The relevant portion is as follows:

Chezetcook, c'est le nom de ce village, a eu pour origine un certain nombre de familles acadiennes, qui ayant été capturées à diverses reprises dans l'intérieur, après la proscription, furent dirigées sur Halifax où on les retint longtemps en captivité dans une île qui se trouve au milieu de la rade méridonale et que l'on appelle l'île rouge. Ils vécurent là, tantôt des rations de la geôle, tantôt du produit de leur travail quand on leur permettait de travailler pour les habitants. Enfin 10 à 12 ans après la grande catastrophe, on leur permit de s'établir à quelques lieues au nord d'Halifax sur le petit Havre de Chezetcook.

There are only two things that are surprising or unexpected in this material: the location of the lengthy Acadian confinement and the name of this island: “l'île rouge.” It is somewhat well-known from various sources that in the period 1755-1764 there were Acadian prisoners who were kept, at times, on Georges Island, which was close by the South Battery, in the inner Halifax Harbour (perhaps among other, lesser-known places)—reference the execllent article on this subject by Ronnie-Gilles LeBlanc: link. It is notable that Rameau's textual description of his “île” fits Georges Island perfectly, though it definitely does not fit Devils Island. Rameau says that the Acadians were held in captivity for a long time “in an island that is found in the middle of the southward roadstead and that is called the red island.” [The adjective “méridonale” is often used to mean “southern” but it technically means “southward.” A roadstead is an old nautical term for a navigation channel.] Devils Island is not in the middle of anything, it is at the outermost southeastern fringe of the harbour, not in any roadstead at all, but surrounded by treacherous reefs (witness the wreck of HMS La Tribune, which initially foundered near there).

On page 312 of the same cahier, Père Anselme Chiasson writes “Enfin, nous continuons la suite du VOYAGE DE RAMEAU EN ACADIE EN 1860, en tirant ce qu'il y a de lisible de ses notes originales en forme de brouillon.” This made me wonder whether this could be the key to the enigma: if Rameau's original notes were in the form of a barely-legible rough-copy, he could have written “l'île ronde,” which is what the French then called Georges Island (although in earlier times it was “L'île-aux-Raquetes”), and if hard to decipher it could have been mistaken for “l'île rouge” when the article for the cahier was being edited.

I’m very grateful to Stephen A. White for taking the trouble to check this for me in the original Rameau manuscript. He reports that “l'île rouge” is written quite clearly (no capitals) and was transcribed correctly in the SHA cahier. It seems to me, therefore, that Rameau himself must have been misinformed, or made a mistake in writing his notes, because the well-known location, “l'île ronde,” fits his own location description perfectly, whereas “l'île rouge” does not.

Further evidence for this error is the fact that although Devils Island has been known under a number of names throughout history, “l'île rouge” was actually never one of them. It would have been known to Rameau’s informant as “Île Rouse,” perhaps, as it had been granted in July 1752 to Capt. John Rous (variously, Rouse, who’s brother Joseph would later be the first lighthouse keeper on Sambro Island. link). The early French name for the island was actually “Île Verte” (Green Island), owing to the dense “forest primeval” that covered it; the British first called it Wood Island for the same reason. There is a different, very small island (at the southern tip of McNabs Island) that was called Red Island due to its red-coloured glacial-till bluffs (today called Thrumcap Island), but Devils Island is low and rocky, with no till bluffs at all (on Bellin's 1744 Carte de L'Accadie it is labelled “Île Platte” — link). It was only cleared of its dense forest cover in the mid-nineteenth century. At the time of the Acadian captivity in Halifax, then known both as Devils Island and Rouse’s Island, it was owned by prominent Haligonian Richard Bulkeley, as son-in-law of the original British grantee (who died in 1760), and a prominent official in the Colonial government. link

Another check on the above analysis is to consult Rameau himself. His “notes,” after all, were for the purpose of his book, published in two volumes in 1889 as Une Colonie Féodale en Amerique : L'Acadie. link In the second volume he makes several references to the “semi-captivity” of the Acadians in Halifax during the period in question (pp. 174, 178, 183, 184, 197, 200, 201, 214, 220), however, he is never specific about the location at all. The closest he comes to anything specific is on p. 178, “… under a regimen of semi-captivity in the suburban military quarters of Halifax.”

Is there any source whatsoever, then, that indicates that Acadian prisoners were ever held on Devils Island?

I know of none that say so directly. The only candidate, discussed above, appears to be a mistake resulting from two compounded errors:
(A) a mistake by Rameau or his informant: giving “l'île rouge” in place of “l'île ronde.”
(B) an interpretation error in assuming that Île Rouse could be also known as “l'île rouge.”

Given the above, what do we actually know about where the Acadians were held during their period of captivity in the environs of Halifax? [What follows are some notes on this subject that I collected a few years ago, before the above-mentioned recent article by Ronnie-Gilles LeBlanc appeared. While these may still be of some interest, the new article gives a much broader treatment: link]. Beamish Murdoch (BM), for one, frequently refers to the Acadian prisoners (see Murdoch, A History of Nova Scotia or Acadie, Vol. 2, 1866, pp. 282-285, 312, 373-378, 387, 390, 407, 414-423, 426, 431,437-445, 473)

In all of these references, Murdoch mentions only twice a specific place where the prisoners were kept in confinement: Georges Island. Those two instances are (a) the Acadian deputies incarcerated on the eve of the Deportation in July 1755 (p. 284), and (b) the 151 Acadians captured at Cape Sable and kept prisoner in Halifax from June 29 to November 9, 1759, (pp. 373, 375) then taken to England, and subsequently reaching Cherbourg, France, on January 14, 1760.

Apart from these two specific instances, however, Murdoch intimates by other remarks that they most-likely resided in various places and in various degrees of confinement during their period of captivity in Halifax:

(1) September 21, 1761, Council resolves that Acadian prisoners are to be employed in making the road from Halifax to Fort Sackville (p. 407).

(2) May 9, 1762, Lt. Gov. Jonathan Belcher stated to the Council that he had information that the French prisoners assembled frequently in great numbers at the Mass house; ([BM:] where?) also that they were mostly armed, and were possessed of several armed vessels, under pretence of fishing, particularly at Dunk cove. He went on with apprehensions of their capturing our vessels coming into port, taking them to the West Indies, and giving the enemy intelligence of our situation. The council advised him to seize their vessels, and to apply to the military commander to disarm and confine the prisoners. ([BM:] I suppose they were Acadian French).

(3) July 8, 1762, both houses address the Lt. Gov. and ask that those French neutrals be put under a guard and not permitted the use of boats or shallops, nor suffered to go abroad without the proper passports (p. 414).

(4) July 10, 1762, the Lt. Gov. convened a council of war where it was resolved that the French neutrals, prisoners of war, be collected together, lodged, and put under such regulations as the commanding officer directs,—those who might be fishing on the coast were to be brought in; … The French neutrals who are at work for the inhabitants in Kings and Annapolis counties, to be ordered to Halifax, under escort of 100 of the militia of Kings county. ([BM:] 130 were brought to town.) (p. 417).

(5) July 23, 1762, French prisoners were at work upon the wharf at the Lumberyard, who were only out of confinement by day upon tickets of leave, and employed as axe-men by order of major-general Amherst (p. 418).

(6) July 26, 1762, the House refers to the lenity shewn the Acadian prisoners—liberty to work at the highways—allowance of provisions, etc. … That these French neutrals, as they are now collected together, are at present a heavy charge upon the inhabitants, especially the labouring people, who are obliged to mount guard every third day and night in their turn, to prevent the escape of prisoners confined only in open barracks, there being no place of close confinement to contain such a number (pp. 414-415).

(7) December 10, 1763, Gov. Montague Wilmot wrote “They are now chiefly victualled by Government, having no lands or houses. If they are to remain here they should be scattered in small numbers” (p. 437).

(8) March 22, 1764, Gov. Wilmot wrote that the chief means of their support was from the provisions they received ‘on the military list’; they also worked at high rates, and the wages they got clothed them (p. 440).

(9) November 9, 1764, Gov. Wilmot writes “Some prisoners, taken in the course of the war and residing here, have much fomented this spirit [devotion to the French king and the Roman Catholic religion] … all those people who live in and about this town have so peremptorily refused to take the oath of allegiance” (p. 443).

(10) December 24, 1764, many of the Acadians (prisoners) hired vessels at their own expense, and 600 of them (including women and children) departed from Halifax about the end of November for the French West Indies. They had received rations similar to the soldiers, and they used to supply the town with wood for firing. On this account their absence was severely felt by the inhabitants (p. 444).

(11) February 20, 1768, Lt. Gov. Michael Franklin writes that the arrival of the French Acadians from St. Pierre and Miquelon, [November 13, 1767] disposed to become British subjects, had made an impression on the French Acadians who were before in this government, and on a proclamation being issued, they sent in deputations, desiring permission to take the oaths to the king, and requesting to have lands granted to them. The council advised 80 acres to be given to each head of a family, and 40 to each other person … (p. 473).

(12) There is an additional reference in Murdoch, A History of Nova Scotia or Acadie, Vol. 3, 1867, p. 10 — link: “In May [1782, in the Halifax Gazette], advertised for sale at auction, ‘all that choice wood lot on the West side of Bedford Bason, near the Block-house cove [today, Fairview Cove, but then referring to the North Peninsular Blockhouse — link], containing 200 acres, being the next lot to the Northward of John Tracy, and on which many of the neutral French live.’ ([BM, 1867:] Behind Birch cove there are the traces of a small village, said to have been inhabited by Acadians. Mass used to be performed then at or near Birch cove. There seems to have been a military post kept there.)”

From the above, it can be seen that there were Acadian prisoners (later, refugees) in the vicinity of Halifax, subject to various degrees of confinement and dependence upon victualization, without land of their own, more-or-less continuously, from 1759 to 1782.

It is also apparent that only a few of them ever were confined to Georges Island, and only for relatively short periods. Most of the time they (that is, the men) were occupied with road building, fisheries, wharf building, and wood cutting, (in other areas, where dykes existed, they were also employed repairing them) and would necessarily have been lodged within relatively easy access to the locations where this work took place—Georges Island is too small for all of them to have been kept there all the time, and too difficult to access for taking them from there each day to their work sites.

One place where the fishery was prosecuted, as named above, was Dunk Cove, now called Herring Cove, just to the south of Halifax. It is documented that the Acadian prisoners conducted a fishery out of Herring Cove. Might they have also been fishing out of other locations? Items (2), (3), and (4) above seem to imply that there were several such locations in 1762 (italics added to highlight this purpose). There is also the remark made on June 26, 1764, by Charles Morris that “about 18 families of Acadians live here [Halifax] who follow the fishery ... employed by the merchants of Halifax.” link [see fn. 3 in the printed book, the footnotes are no longer online.] It seems that this must refer only to the subset of the Acadian prisoner families who were involved with the fishery; perhaps residing in Herring Cove and possibly other locations as well.

Although only 37 acres in extent and deserted today, Devils Island has supported a thriving fishing community in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1920's there were 28 families living there (all fishermen), two lighthouses, a school, and a post office. By 1932 there were 21 children attending the school on the island. (John Boileau, Historic Eastern Passage, 2007, pp. 97-102). link

The name Rouse’s Island (variously Rous's Island and Rous Island) dates from 1752 and persists on maps until at least 1814, if not longer. However, the name Devil's (or Devyl’s) Island also dates from an early epoch, appearing on maps at least as early as 1759 (link) and 1766 (link). It is uncertain how the island came by this later name, but according to modern sources (John Boileau, Historic Eastern Passage, 2007, p. 98; Colin Stewart, History of Lawlor Island and Devil's Island in Discover McNabs Island, Friends of McNabs Island Society, 1995, p. 64) “it is now believed that it is a corruption of the name of a former French occupant—Deval, Devol, or even DeVille.” This theory of the origin of the name of Devil’s Island seems to originate with H. W. Hewitt, Dartmouth Patriot, July 6, 1901, who asserted that this is the “real origin of the name.” link

It would appear that, if there is any truth to this theory of the origin of the name “Devil’s Island”, this supposed French occupant would have to have been there sometime during or before 1759 (but not too much before), and long enough to have his name stick. This would have been during the earliest period of the Acadian prisoner presence in Halifax. As noted earlier, the land-owner at around this time was Richard Bulkeley, a prominent Irishman who, though Protestant, perhaps would not have been averse to French Acadians using his island as a base for the fishery, perhaps arranging for a market for the catch, and benefiting financially from the arrangement—in line with the remark by Morris. (This angle is perhaps a research opportunity).

Another clue comes from the Register of Abbé Bailly, who travelled around to the numerous groupings of Acadian and Mi'kmaq Catholics during this period: Registre de l'abbé Charles-François Bailly, 1768 à 1773 (Caraquet), transcribed under the direction de Stephen A. White, Moncton, 1978, 221 pp. The register can be consulted online at this link.

By examination of this document, a list can be made of the locations and dates near Halifax where Abbé Bailly recorded meeting with the Acadians:

a. Halifax (July 21, 1768; June 2-4, 1769; July 6, 1769; Oct. 27 – Dec. 25, 1770; Nov. 29 – Dec. 1, 1771; Apr. 29, 1772)

b. Windsor = Pisiguid = Sainte Famille (July 12, 1768; Aug. 28 – Sep. 4, 1768; April 30 – May 14, 1769; Jan. 12 & Mar. 3, 1771)

c. Birch Cove = between Fort Sackville and Halifax (April 21, 1772; also mentions a birth that took place there prior to a baptism performed in Eastern Passage on Sep. 28, 1770)

d. Chezzetcook = Chegetkouk (July 23-24, 1768; June 14-25, 1769; Mar. 25-30, 1772)

e. Eastern Shore = Côte-de-l'Est (August 14, 1768; Oct. 14, 1770)

f. Dartmouth (Abbé Bailly doesn't explicitly go there, but he mentions several births that took place there in the period 1770 – 1771)

g. Eastern Passage = Pointe-du-Passage = Pointe-de-l'Est-Passage (Sep. 28 – Oct. 1, 1770)

h. Pointe-du-Diable (July 8-10, 1769)

Birch Cove is of interest with respect to item (1), the work on the road from Halifax to Fort Sackville. It seems that, 10 years later, the Acadians who had located there to work on that road in 1761 were still living in that vicinity, and indeed, based on item (12), even 21 years later!

Of more immediate concern are Eastern Passage and Pointe-du-Diable. It seems likely that Pointe-de-l'Est-Passage is where the Eastern Battery (renamed Fort Clarence in 1798) was constructed in 1754, (repaired in 1762, for which some Acadian prisoners may have supplied labour) and perhaps where the military victualization was carried-out to the prisoners residing nearby. Pointe-du-Diable is more enigmatic. It is a location that I have not found on any map. The only explanation I have for this toponym is that it may have been the name for the point of land nearest to Devils Island (where the row of x’s emanates from on the 1766 map link). This point is not named on most maps; sometimes it is called Hartlen Point—but usually that name is assigned to the next point further along the coast to the southeast. A WWII fortification was built there, known as Devil’s Battery, but a few fleeting references (so far not substantiated) call it Devil’s Point Battery.

It is possible that there was an Acadian prisoner / refugee settlement on the point of land nearest to Devils Island. (Further research may shed light on this.) It would be close to any Acadians who may have been fishing out of Devils Island, close to the Eastern Battery where the rations were distributed (but not too close), and would have better access to mainland resources (such as day-jobs in Dartmouth for the women) than would be the case for people actually resident on Devils Island. In that era, the main community of “Dartmouth” was centred more to the south of what is the downtown today.

It is pretty clear from the references citied here that there was a major Acadian refugee presence along the Dartmouth shore, at least from the Eastern Battery to Hartlen Point, probably from around 1763 to at least 1772. There is an additional reference that gives some idea of the magnitude of this presence, and the approximate date when it may have begun to disperse. In The Story of Dartmouth (1957), J. P. Martin writes, “Many of these 1750 grantees [referring to Dartmouth shore landowners] evidently were neglecting their Dartmouth holdings, because in 1779 the Government issued a proclamation threatening prosecution to ‘plunderers, particularly French-Acadians, who have cut down and carried away timber and grass growing on granted lands on the east side of the harbor without any leave from the proprietors’” (p. 93).

From Bailly's register we can find that one of my ancestors, Jacques Deveau (variously Desvaux, deVaux, Devault, etc.), was one of the family men who met with Abbé Bailly at Pointe-du-Diable to have his children baptised. When Abbé Bailly was there in August 1769, Jacques Deveau had not seen a Catholic priest in seven years, since the time that Abbé Maillard had baptised one of his older children in 1762. This despite Abbé Bailly's multiple visits to Windsor, Halifax, the Eastern Shore, and Chezzetcook over the preceding two years. Where was Jacques Deveau during this time? Was part of it spent fishing from Devils Island? Jacques Deveau is later identified as a “fisherman” on a land transaction and is known to have conducted a fishery in Saint Marys Bay in 1785. Was he the unknown French occupant mentioned by Hewitt? Could it have been the name Devault's Island that ultimately got corrupted to “Devil's Island”? No, Jacques Deveau could not have been there as early as 1759; at that time he and his family were refugees from Isle Saint Jean, living and travelling with the Mi’kmaq in the Miramichi-Restigouche area of what is today northern New Brunswick.

Regarding actual names of candidate Acadians for the unknown “French occupant,” There are only a few sources that might suggest possibilities; the best known ones are Bailly's Register (cited earlier) and Manuscripts of Chief Justice Deschamps 1750-1800 (NSARM - Family Papers Deschamps, Isaac - Vol. 32). In the latter, the prisoners are listed with the number in each Family. link

I don't find any other names in Bailly or Deschamps that make a good-sounding match, but perhaps there was a “Deval, Devol, or DeVille,” etc. among the Acadian prisoners fishing out of Devils Island who did not get recorded in Bailly’s register nor in the Deschamps manuscript of Fort Edward prisoners. The article by Ronnie-Gilles LeBlanc, cited earlier, also includes an appendix: List of Acadians Families & Individuals at Halifax between 1759 & 1764. Again, Deveau is the only name in this list that even remotely sounds like Devil or Diable.

The earliest date that Jacques Deveau could have gone to Devils Island would be the fall of 1762 (other Acadian prisoners could theoretically have been sent there as early as 1759). If there was some now unknown French fisherman based on Devil’s Island at an early date, the fish traders around the Halifax fish markets may have started referring to “DeVille’s Island” (etc.)—initially not intending to rename the whole island after him, but just an informal reference to the island where his fishing was based. The English speaking community probably would have made the linguistic jump to the name “Devil’s Island” rather quickly (as it has a natural catchiness, and could have started as a joke or a witticism). With conditions as despicable as they likely were for the Acadians on the adjoining mainland, where it seems some were located by 1769 (and likely earlier), it would be all too poignant and ironic for the French speakers to resist subsequently picking-up on the linguistic twist of fate and refer to their own location as “Pointe-du-Diable” (Devil’s Point).

This appears to be the extent of the available information regarding an association of Devils Island with the Acadian prisoners of the period 1755-1768. It is likely that Rameau’s informants told him about Acadian prisoners briefly held captive on Georges Island (Île Ronde) and possibly also about a much longer confinement, as fishermen, on Devils Island (Île Rouse). In collecting his notes together, Rameau may have inadvertently coalesced these two locations into one and mistakenly written its name as “l'île rouge”. Later historians, in reading “l'île rouge” in Rameau’s notes, have interpreted this as a reference to Île Rouse (Devils Island), which in the end may be partly correct, although also partly wrong as Rameau himself has apparently confounded it with the Acadian confinement on Île Ronde (Georges Island).


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