Saint John New Brunswick

Courtesy Image Committee, Fort La Tour

A Fort Worth Fighting For
With new image of Fort La Tour we can see how the fort looked when Lady La Tour bravely defended it in 1645

by M.A. MacDonald

   What would you have seen as you stood in front of Fort La Tour in, say, the early autumn of 1640?
   Several sources can help us picture this: the archeological "footprints" from foundation outlines left in the ground by the fort's main structure, contemporary documents, and modern replicas of similar 17th-century forts. Using all these, and more, it has been possible to create by computer a "virtual image" of La Tour's fortified trading post.
   The story of this fort and its people is one of the most colourful in Canada's history. Its site, too, is remarkable. Portland Point, on the harbourfront of Saint John, has been occupied for 4,000 years. Inhabitants have included Maritime archaic or Red Paint Indian people and the later ancestors of today's Maritimes first nations. Then, after the French period of La Tour's fort, came the New England settlement of Simonds Hazen and White. Later, the site was occupied by 19th-century shipbuilding and other industries, and finally the mound of a World War Il anti-aircraft battery.
   Over the years there have been many proposals for development of this site. While commemorating its other important heritage aspects, proposals have centered on the most dramatic period - that of Fort La Tour, when civil war raged between rival governors Charles de Menou, Sieur d'Aulnay, and Charles de St. Etienne, Sieur de La Tour.
   The struggle rose to a climax in the spring of 1645 with the valiant defense of the fort, in La Tour's absence, by Francoise Marie Jacquelin, his wife. After a fierce three-day battle the fort fell. D'Aulnay then broke his word to spare the garrison's survivors, and hanged them, forcing Françoise to watch, hands tied, with a rope around her neck. She died three weeks later; no one knows exactly how.
   According to the depositions filed by d'Aulnay's people afterwards, their own dead, the hanged men of the garrison, and the lady of La Tour were all buried inland, somewhere in back of the fort. D'Aulnay's Capucin priests said that Françoise was interred with evidence of her status, "so that she should be recognized." None of these graves has ever been found.
   Aquisition of an image of Fort La Tour as it stood in the mid-17th century has been considered essential for any progress on future development of the site. As they say, one picture is worth a thousand words. A computer-generated virtual image of the fort's gatehouse complex was commissioned by the Image Committee of the Fort La Tour Development Authority from an architect experienced in creating such imagery, Godfrey Halse of Halse Studios Inc. The gatehouse buildings were not only the fort's principal dwellings, but they also occupied the least disturbed area of the site. Other sections were confused by the constructions of later occupants.
   Let us go back in time, and suppose that a supply ship has just arrived from La Rochelle, to anchor offshore on the river side of the fort. It has brought a cargo of food, wine, ammunition and trade goods, and will load with a consignment of valuable furs - moose, beaver, otter, marten and dried or salt fish, perhaps even some of the local limestone deposits, to make up the weight.
   A boatload of the crew has just rowed ashore, to stand on the bank looking up at the gatehouse entrance. It is a fine fall day in the early 1640s. Two men, conversing, are coming down the cobblestone path. Behind them the grassy bank mounts up to a weathered palisade of sharpened logs. Off to the left a wheelbarrow and some woodworking equipment tan be seen, and at the right more tools lean against the palisade. The grass has begun to turn yellow, with a few russet weeds.
   At the top of the path, one side of the two-metre-wide maingate is ajar, and above it the viewers see La Tour's coat of arms emblazoned in red, black and silver: two lions, rampant, and on the shield between them three swan heads, with two scallop shells, one above and one below the shield. (These scallop shells, insignia of a pilgrim, would indicate to the onlooker that La Tour's ancestor to whom the arms were granted must have been on a major pilgrimage, perhaps to the Holy Land.)
   To the left of the gate rises a large one-and-half-storey building with a plank roof and gable end. It has a tall stone chimney, and its small-paned glass windows have shutters, in case of danger or bad weather.
    On the right of the gate is a lower building with a yellowtiled roof. To the right of this structure visitors glimpse a cannon emplacement with the cannon's mouth pointing out towards the harbour. (The cannon platform, not visible to visitors, stood on a 3.6-metre-square stone bastion with walls half a metre thick.) Through the half-open gate the arrivals can spot a roof of one of the fort's smaller buildings. Also visible is a tall flagstaff flying a white banner with gold fleurs de lys, the symbol of the royal power of France which La Tour, as a king's representative, was entitled to display.

Fort excavation site
In 1963 Norman Barka's team of excavators uncovered a room of Fort La Tour with a rock fireplace in the centre. Here, Anne Barka carefully records on graph paper the exact size, shape and location of each stone in the fireplace.

    Today, we can gain a good idea of the shape, extent and use of Fort La Tour's main buildings by consulting the archeological drawings of its two main excavators, J. Russell Harper, in 1955 and 1956, and Norman Barka in 1963.
   For instance, a substantial number of pieces of the buff-yellow roof tiles were found on the site of the right-hand structure. Mr. Harper also found the broken barrel of the cannon on the steps of the stone bastion.
   Mr. Harper's report, describes palisade trenches that ringed the hilltop of the Point, enclosing the fort's buildings, the most impressive of which stood on the westerly, river side, brow of the hill. He gives the dimensions of this great gatehouse complex as more than 20 metres by 10 metres. The larger section, the one to the left, extended back to form the main living quarters. Its large rooms contained two fieldstone fireplaces, one of them three metres wide, useful for both cooking and heating, with a hearth of yellow bricks. The men's dormitory, with bunk beds, was probably in the half-storey overhead, like the one Champlain describes in his account of his Quebec habitation.
    The smaller building of this complex, across a little flagstoned courtyard, contained workrooms and perhaps a kitchen, and there was a well here to ensure the fortified trading post's water supply.
    In addition to the bastion's broken cannon the excavators discovered a great many artifacts. As Dr. George MacBeath, then history curator of the New Brunswick Museum, later said, they had indeed struck a mother lode. They found fragments of two more cannons, numerous ,cannon balls, musket barrels and musket balls, a halberd head (that is, part of a weapon consisting of a long handle ending in a combined spearhead and battleaxe).
    There were also many items of daily life from widely different eras among them pottery dishes, bowls and jugs, knives, fish hooks, spear points, arrow heads, coloured glass beads, rolls of copper wire for snares, glass bowls and pottery pendants with raised heads of aboriginal men on them.
   A number of coins turned up during the digs, including a Louis XIII double tournois of 1620; and beside the remnants of a gatepost lay one of the great hinges on which one of the great doors had swung, and a 1.5-metre iron bar, which no doubt had served to lock them.
   We also know, not only from vestiges on the site, but also from contemporary accounts, that La Tour's trading post had a big central courtyard of about 18 metres by 20 metres, with a great central cross, and a plaque bearing the royal arms. Various buildings were ordered around it, including a chapel and probably quarters for La Tour's Recollet priests as well as a dispensary where the surgeon and apothecary presided (we know they were there because they had signed contracts, preserved in France, to serve La Tour for a term of years). Workshops, a blacksmith's forge, a bakery and the essential trade goods store completed the picture.
   At its height the population of Fort La Tour could have amounted to upwards of 70 people, including the priests, and the engages - tradesmen and soldiers, boatmen and fishermen, woodsworkers, stonemasons, cooks, blacksmith, and so on. There were a few women also: Jeanne, La Tour's daughter by his first wife, and Françoise Jacquelin, his second wife (Frenchwomen kept their maiden names in those days) as well as her waiting woman. There were probably several native women who were companions of members of the garrison. This was usual in any fur fort and is mentioned in French official reports of that era.
   The principal buildings of this fort were built of squared horizontal logs held in place by squared uprights, the whole erected on a masonry base. Others, especially the lesser buildings, were upright logs on wooden sifts, some also with a masonry base. A high palisade closed any gaps between the buildings, as the palisade trenches indicate, and La Tour's skilled stone masons had constructed courses of stones to carry off rainwater, as well as stone paths, many, as in the central courtyard, over a base of shale and gravel.
    The overall outside size of the fort was probably, about 38 metres, similar to that of the Port Royal habitation in Nova Scotia. Incidentally, the stone path in the virtual image is a photograph of an actual stone path in the fort, uncovered in the partial excavation of 1996, which was conducted by the archeology branch to confirm the coordinates of the fort's remains.
    Also consulted in the making of the virtual image were the drawings and photographs of two reconstructions of 17th century posts: Ste. Marie Among the Hurons (Ontario), and the Port Royal habitation (Nova Scotia), as well as Samuel de Champlain's own drawings of Port Royal and Quebec. The Port Royal habitation is considered to be the nearest in size and in construction methods to Fort La Tour - although their sites and ground plans are not similar. The history of Fort La Tour which, unlike the two other sites mentioned, has not yet been commemorated, is much more dramatic than either of them.
   One, often forgotten fact is that Fort La Tour fell to an enemy not just once but three times. Its first capture came on September 18, 1632, when the first, smaller version, recently completed, was taken by surprise by a certain Captain Andrew Forrester, the Scots commander for Sir William Alexander's colony of New Scotland/Acadia. It was restored to Charles La Tour, who had been absent in France, a few months later, when New Scotland was returned to France. The second fall of the fort was, of course, the famous one, when d'Aulnay took it. Its third capture occurred in July 1654, when New Englanders under Robert Sedgwick, advancing up the coast, captured, in turn Pentagouet, Fort La Tour, and Port Royal.
   After winning back some concessions from the English, La Tour married Jeanne Motin, the widow of his former rival, and together they had five children, three girls and two boys. They, in turn, would become the ancestors of many thousands of La Tour descendants, in Canada, the United States and elsewhere, with both French and English names.

M.A. MacDonald is chairman of the Fort La Tour Image Committee and author of Fortune & La Tour: The Civil War in Acadia. She lives in Saint John.