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McNabs History: Section 2-3

McNABS ISLAND, Halifax Co, Nova Scotia: An Historical Overview

Brian Kinsman / Parks and Recreation Division, NS Dept of Natural Resources: April '95



Wandering bands of hunters and their families began to arrive in Nova Scotia soon after the last ice age ended approximately 13,000 years before present (B.P.). These early Indians may have migrated through New Brunswick before entering Nova Scotia along the Isthmus of Chignecto. Some archaeologists have also suggested that the first peoples of Nova Scotia migrated directly from the eastern seaboard of the United States to Nova Scotia across a land bridge that once connected the two and which is now far beneath the sea.

Discoveries at Debert, located on the Bay of Fundy some 110 kilometres north of McNabs Island, indicate that a paleoindian culture was established there as early as 10,600 B.P., and was representative of a much more widespread Maritimes Paleo-Indian presence dating 10,600 - 11,000 years ago. For several thousand years after 10,000 B.P., however, there were only scant traces of humans in the Maritime Provinces, leaving much unknown about these "first" people.

Archaeological sites in the vicinity of McNabs Island provide evidence of prehistoric and historic occupations of the metropolitan area since the retreat of the glaciers 10,000 years ago. Artifacts found at Dartmouth, Hartlen Point, the Esson site, Lake Micmac and Lake Charles, as well as several historic sites, attest to the long and varied occupations of the shores of Halifax Harbour.

One popular seasonal home for the Micmacs along the Atlantic coast was located just opposite McNabs Island in what is now Dartmouth. In addition, the Indians had frequently used McNabs Island for hunting and fishing, as evidenced by the large shell middens found there. Archaeological work on one midden has dated the site to the Middle Ceramic period, prior to about 1600 B.P.

The arrival of Europeans in Nova Scotia created many challenges for the Micmac Indians. Although they had inhabited Nova Scotia for over 10,000 years, the Indians were soon forced from many of their traditional camping and hunting grounds by an ever-growing influx of settlers.

The growth of European settlements at Halifax and Dartmouth resulted in increasing hostilities between the Micmacs and the settlers. About 1760, the government decided to deport the Indians to McNabs Island (known as Cornwallis Island at that time) in an effort to prevent the hostilities from worsening.

On the island the Indians camped on a northeasterly point of land, still called for them Indian Point. Tradition recalls that the Indians on Cornwallis Island took part in a number of attacks on Dartmouth. In one such raid five settlers were killed.

Over the years, animosity between the two groups faded. The Indians found Halifax and Dartmouth to be good markets for their handicrafts while the settlers, bolstered by their growing numbers, no longer felt threatened. In time, the Indians were allowed to reoccupy their old camping grounds at Dartmouth, although until the mid-1800's, some continued to reside on Cornwallis Island.

Raddall notes that Father Louis Peter Thury, the first recorded missionary at Chebucto, worked among the Indians there. Following his death about 1699, the Indians buried his body on the shore of Chebucto, possibly on Cornwallis Island. When Diereville visited Chebucto in 1699, three Micmac Chiefs took him to Thury's grave.


In 1497, while searching for a shorter, westward, sea route to the Far East, John Cabot reached the rugged and inhospitable shores of present-day Newfoundland and Cape Breton. Although Cabot did not discover the much sought-after western passage to Asia, his journey was not an entire failure.

Impressed with Cabot's descriptions of immensely rich fishing grounds, English fishermen came to the fishing banks off Newfoundland, and later Cape Breton, in increasing numbers. During the early years of the sixteenth century English, French and Portuguese fishing fleets dominated an extensive international fishery off Newfoundland. By the latter half of the century England controlled this fishery, forcing the French and Portuguese to more remote areas, such as the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the coast of what is now Nova Scotia.

By the latter half of the seventeenth century England had established more or less permanent fishing stations along the coast of Newfoundland. France, however, relied on seasonal fishing stations at Gaspé and Canso and along the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia. One such station on the latter coast was established during the 1690's at Isle de Chibouquetou, later to become known as McNabs Island.

In 1699, a French botanist named Diereville visited New France to collect plants for the Royal Gardens. During a trip to Isle de Chibouquetou, Diereville noted that the once-thriving fishing station there had been abandoned. He described the deserted building as being:

... half as long and quite as wide as the Mall in Paris, built on a fine beach [Maugher Beach] along the River [Halifax Harbour], and at a distance which permitted the water to pass under it at high tide and carry away the refuse of the cod.
The station had been manned by a considerable number of French fishermen who had established themselves there in the name of a company (Compagnie de la pêche sedentaire de l'Acadie) which did not prove profitable. In the spring of 1699, most of them deserted and sailed to Boston in a bark that had arrived from France with supplies for the year. Although the fishing station was abandoned, the island was not, for Diereville found Indians there.

As England and France struggled for control of North America, France began to realize the strategic significance of the great natural harbour at Chibouquetou. Accordingly, DeLabat, the French military engineer for Acadia, was sent from Port Royal to Chibouquetou in 1711 to prepare a plan for a French settlement and fortification there. DeLabat ignored the present site of Halifax, marking it simply as "Coste Boisee," or wooded coast. Instead, the proposed settlement was to be situated on Isle de Chibouquetou, on a hill overlooking the abandoned fishing station described by Diereville a dozen years earlier (Figure 3). DeLabat also recommended that a series of fortifications be constructed to guard the harbour against attack. The main fortress was to be located on the opposite side of the harbour from the settlement, near where York Redoubt now stands. Batteries were also to be constructed near the abandoned fishing station to protect the beach and on what are now Lawlor Island and Point Pleasant in order to control movement in and out of the harbour.

Before DeLabat's planned settlement and fortification could be constructed, however, England and France signed the Treaty of Utreacht in 1713, formally ending the War of Spanish Succession. Under terms of the Treaty, France ceded mainland Nova Scotia to England. With the loss of Chibouquetou, the French were then forced to rely on Cape Breton Island as a base from which to protect that great inland waterway, the St. Lawrence River. It was on Cape Breton, therefore, that construction began in 1719 on the French fortress which was originally intended to have been built opposite Isle de Chibouquetou. That fortress was called Louisbourg.

The English, like the French, did not initially recognize the strategic significance of Chebucto. Not until the capture of Louisbourg by New Englanders in 1745, and the subsequent use of Chebucto Harbour as an assembly point for an unsuccessful relief expedition sent from France in 1748, did England decide to occupy and fortify Chebucto.

The following year, 1749, saw the founding of Halifax by an expedition led by Colonel Edward Cornwallis. The early settlers, heavily dependant upon the fishery as a source of both food and income, found Chebucto Island (renamed Cornwallis Island in honour of the founder of Halifax) ideal for drying their fish, as the French fishermen had before them.

An early plan of Halifax Harbour completed shortly after the founding of Halifax and apparently based on a 1749 manuscript by surveyor Mosses Harris, identifies several interesting features on Cornwallis Island (Figure 4). The beach, long-used for drying fish, was named Deadman's Beach, perhaps to signify some tragic incident that occurred there. On the northwestern side of the island was located the "Watering Hole" where countless ships had not doubt replenished their water supplies. Other descriptive names include "Gull Point," "Little Beach," "Red Island," and "Lobster Hole." Extensive shell middens later found in the vicinity of the Lobster Hole attest to the many occasions in which Indians had feasted upon the abundant lobsters and shell fish found there. Red Island was so named for its red bluffs.

In addition, the words "Cap. Rouses" are shown at the northern end of Cornwallis Island. The location and wording of this inscription indicates that Captain Rouse (or Rous) apparently maintained a residence or place of business on Cornwallis Island either before, or immediately following, the founding of Halifax.

Other practical uses were also being made of Cornwallis Island. For many settlers their most prized possessions were the few head of livestock which they owned. Some, afraid that their animals would either fall prey to wild beasts or become lost in the unexplored wilderness, left their livestock to roam in relative safety on Cornwallis Island. Unfortunately the island did not ensure complete protection, for on December 27, 1749, several men were charged with unlawfully killing cattle on Cornwallis Island.

Others saw Cornwallis Island as a convenient source of wood for their thriving settlement. Trees cut on the island could easily be floated to the shores of Halifax where they might supply timber for the many buildings under construction or provide warmth during the long winters. This practice appears to have become too widespread, however, for in 1752, Richard Bulkely, Secretary to the Governor and editor of the Halifax Gazette, issued a public warning against the cutting of wood on Cornwallis Island, which at this time belonged to the Crown.

On July 25, 1752, Governor Cornwallis granted Cornwallis Island to three of his nephews, Henry, James and William Cornwallis. In granting the island in this manner, Cornwallis raised the ire of many settlers. Martin, in his Story of Dartmouth, quotes a letter written in 1757 by a Halifax settler to a Boston Merchant:

... he [Cornwallis] gave to his family the very best island in the harbour of Chebucto, called Cornwallis Island, which in my opinion should be given in small farms to the many settlers of Halifax, instead of cooping them up on a small isthmus.
The nephews never occupied their island.

At this time several people were employed in the fishery business on the island and perhaps as many more were attempting to farm there. Of those involved in the fishing business, the principles were Captain Mauger (or Maugher), Captain Cook, Mr. Bradshaw, and the previously mentioned Captain Rouse. In all, thirty-two men and one female over the age of sixteen were engaged in the fishery on Cornwallis Island.

Both Captain Rouse and Captain Mauger were important men of early Halifax. Captain Rouse, in addition to his involvement with the fishery, played a leading role in the early military affairs of the colony. During the seige of Louisbourg in 1745 Rouse so impressed Pepperrell, the New England Commander, that he received a commission as Captain in the Royal Navy. In 1754, he was appointed a member of Her Majesty's Council for Nova Scotia, the governing body of the colony. The following year Rouse commanded the naval segment of the expedition against Fort Beausejour. Rouse took part in the second seige of Louisbourg in 1758 and in the following year played a prominent role in Wolfe's assault on Quebec City. It was from Rouse's ship, the Sutherland, that Wolfe issued his last orders before ascending the heights of Abraham.

Captain Joshua Mauger was one of the most colourful figures in the life of early Halifax. In addition to his involvement in the fishery, Mauger was variously engaged as a merchant, distiller, victualler, slave trader, smuggler and privateer. Between 1749 and 1760 he was also the largest shipowner in Halifax. Mauger was granted the beach on Cornwallis Island, so named for him, in 1752 and used it for curing fish, and had buildings erected there for that purpose.

Thomas Raddall, in his novel Halifax: Warden of the North, describes one of Mauger's successes as a privateer which occurred in 1757 during the Seven Years War:

The sharp man Mauger was quick to fit out a schooner, the Musquito, which brought the first prize into Halifax, a Dutch merchantman caught laden with French goods. The methods of Mauger's crew were worthy of the owner. Suspecting money hidden aboard, they put thumbscrews on six of the Dutchmen and a passenger to make them tell. As one of these unfortunates was dancing under the torture, Mauger's second mate took hold of the man and skipped merrily up and down the deck with him, while a privatersman played a hornpipe on the fiddle.
Governor Cornwallis confronted Maugher on several occasions regarding the latter's dubious business endeavours with little apparent success.

In 1760, Maugher left Halifax never to return. By now a rich man, he returned to England, his Nova Scotian interests in the capable hands of his lieutenants. In 1768, he was elected to Parliament for Poole, a seat he retained with only a brief interruption until 1780.

In 1758, Cornwallis Island was once again granted to the Cornwallis family at which time the name of Edward Cornwallis was also added. The grant and allotment included all of the island with the exception of Maugher Beach, which had been acquired by Joshua Mauger.

By an order-in-Council, dated May 20, 1758, the boundaries of the Township of Halifax were settled and included "the Islands called Cornwallis [McNabs] Island, Webb's [Lawlor] and Rous' [Devils] Islands."

In 1756, England and France had formally declared war on each other, even though hostilities had actually begun two years earlier in North America. While the outcome was soon evident following a succession of England victories at Fort Beausejour, Louisbourg, Quebec and Montreal, a small setback at St. John's in 1762 greatly alarmed the citizens of Halifax.

In the excitement which followed the capture of St. John's by the French, Nova Scotia's governing body, the Council of Twelve, decided to increase the defences of Halifax. A signal station was planned for Big Thrumcap, at the southern tip of Cornwallis Island, while on July 21 two hundred men of the Provincial Regiment began clearing the heavily timbered land at the northern end of the island so that an artillery battery could be constructed. Cooler heads soon prevailed, however, and the order to construct a battery was rescinded within a week of its proclamation. The area cleared for the battery became a popular location for playing quoits, a game similar to horseshoes.

In 1766, Richard Bulkely purchased a lease on Cornwallis Island. Other leases were also let about this time, including one to Peter McNab. McNab, a native of Scotland, was a merchant who employed a number of men in the fishery business at Maughers Beach.

Another lessee was Jacob Horn, a German who had fought under Wolfe at Quebec. Following the English victory there, Horn is said to have returned to Halifax on snowshoes. He built a house on Cornwallis Island, where Ives Point Battery was later constructed, and made an attempt to farm. Finding the island inconvenient, on account of the difficulty in getting cattle and produce off, Horn gave up his possessions there and received a grant on the mainland. Peter McNab II later used Horn's house until he moved to the home built by his father at the head of McNabs Cove.

At this time there was also a brickyard on the island. Piers quotes from an inspectional report dated May 29, 1761, relating to the fortification of Halifax Harbour:

Clay for making Bricks will become a very necessary Article, and is to be found in several places, particularly Cornwallis Island, where there were Bricks formerly made ....
Hewitt claims that about 1782, a brickyard was operating at Green Hill (south of present-day Fort McNab) by a man named Murphy.

In 1773, Joseph Peter, an agent for the Cornwallis family, offered the island for sale. It was to be several years, however, before anyone was willing to pay the exorbitant price of 1,000 Sterling.

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This Internet version of McNabs Island: An Historical Overview is provided by the Federation of Nova Scotia Naturalists (FNSN) as a contribution to the park planning process.