“Spots beautiful and pleasing”: Nicolas Denys Describes the Eastern Shore Islands in 1672

Nicolas Denys, The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America (1672), edited and translated by W.F. Ganong (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1908), extract from pages 156–157.

In 1672, French trader and colonist Nicolas Denys published one of the most important early European accounts of Acadie, The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America. Did you know that this 17th-century book includes a brief but fascinating description of the Eastern Shore Islands? The excerpt appears above (click the image for larger text if needed).

Mainly interested in the cod fishery, Denys travelled extensively in Acadie but was frequently beset by personal and professional calamities (including a stint chained in the dungeon at Port Royal). Heavily in debt, he hoped that a book about his travels might generate revenue for him and encourage further settlement, from which he would also benefit. Unfortunately the book did neither, and it was not until many years later that its immense historical value was understood.

Denys’s account is now recognized as uniquely valuable for its detailed description of the natural environment, its extensive discussion of the cod fishery, and its important early depiction of the Mi’kmaq, with whom Denys lived and traded peaceably for more than forty years.

Denys’s description of the Eastern Shore Islands begins in the southwest, at “River Theodore,” which has been interpreted by historians to be Jeddore Harbour. From there he sails to what he calls the “Baye de Toutes Isles,” or Bay of All Islands, which in his account stretches from about Ship Harbour to Liscomb Harbour. This geography follows Samuel de Champlain’s earlier use of this name, but it is distinct from the more recent meaning of Bay of Islands, which refers to the area specifically around Necum Teuch Bay. Passing beyond the bay, Denys describes sailing beyond the shoals off of Liscomb and then turning back along the land and into the Liscomb River.

Throughout this expanse, Denys is impressed to report, “there are only islands, of which I have never been able to learn the number.” This is no surprise – the Eastern Shore Islands archipelago contains more than 700 islands, from small exposed rocks to large forested isles, each one unique. Denys also remarks on the beauty of the area, emphasizing the “fine woods and good land, and spots beautiful and pleasing.”

Although brief, Denys’s account provides important historical information about the Eastern Shore Islands area. From an environmental perspective, his description of the flora and fauna reveals both change and continuity. Denys’s reference to the abundance of “wild Pines” around Jeddore is a reminder that the composition of coastal forests has changed over time. But his description of the “little Firs, very low and much branched” will still be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with this coast. Throughout his book, Denys used “fir” [or sapin in the original French] for balsam fir, but also for the various spruces native to Nova Scotia. Short-lived balsam fir and black spruce still dominate the forests along the Eastern Shore.

The natural diversity of the islands was also apparent to Denys. Interspersed with the tree-covered islands were others “which have upon them only moss; others have heathers or low shrubs.” This brings to mind the low crowberry barrens and coastal wetlands of many islands in the archipelago today and it is easy to imagine that the view from the deck of Denys’s ship might not have been so different from our own view of the islands in the twenty-first century.

Denys also observed that game was plentiful in the area, most likely in reference to seabirds, which are still present today. Since 1976, the nesting seabird population in much of the archipelago has been protected by the Eastern Shore Islands Wildlife Management Area. Denys’s reference to the thriving mainland moose population in his time, in comparison to its dwindled numbers today, highlights the importance of responsible wildlife management.

Denys’s description also provides invaluable documentary evidence of Mi’kmaw activity among the Eastern Shore Islands in the early colonial period. Although it is only a brief reference, it nevertheless supports our understanding of local resource use and mobility. Denys observes that the Mi’kmaw presence in the 17th century was primarily centered on the many rivers that empty into the Atlantic along the Eastern Shore. These rivers were an elaborate and well-travelled highway system, connecting the resources of coastal ecologies to those of the interior in a seasonal cycle of natural abundance and trade.

Denys’s knowledge of how to navigate the waters of the “Bay of All Islands” is also significant. It is important to note that Denys was not travelling simply for the sake of documenting the coastline or creating maps. He was a trader, motivated by revenue. Today’s charts and navigation technology make sailing through the Eastern Shore Islands safe and pleasurable, but in the 17th century, ships travelling along the coast would have avoided this labyrinth of islands – unless there was a compelling reason to go inside. And so it is significant that Denys knew of “a passage … among the islands, for a boat or a longboat” (a smaller craft carried onboard ship for navigating coastal waters), adding that it was “necessary to be well acquainted with the route in order to pass there.”

This unassuming comment suggests that European boats were travelling in the waters of the Eastern Shore Islands and that at least some Europeans were becoming “well acquainted” with the area. Coupled with the presence of Mi’kmaq “in great number,” this suggests that Mi’kmaq and Europeans were engaged in a regular trading relationship within the Eastern Shore Islands area in the 17th century. This is further supported by the presence of the “Baye de Toutes Isles” on so many early maps.

There is an absence of formal documentation about human activity along the Eastern Shore in the early colonial period. This makes fragments and hints like those in Denys’s book all the more important. We may never locate the remains of a formal trading post, but a close reading of early colonial documents can bring to light aspects of the past that have so far gone unremarked. There is more to the Eastern Shore Islands than “spots beautiful and pleasing.”

Click here to read the full text of Nicolas Denys’s The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America, translated to English by W.F. Ganong of the Champlain Society in 1908. The extract about the Eastern Shore Islands appears on pages 156–157.

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