Port-Royal was one of the first European settlements in North America, leaving a lasting legacy on the area that can still be felt today.
When French merchant and explorer, Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Mons, and his cartographer, Samuel de Champlain, scouted for an area to settle in 1604, they originally chose the island of Saint Croix in the river between Maine and New Brunswick. However, after a particularly harsh winter on the island, during which half of the 79 colonists died of scurvy, de Mons realized he needed to find a more sheltered location that also offered a reliable source of water, farmland and wood.
Port-Royal, Nova Scotia
The colony was relocated to Nova Scotia to the head of what would later be called the Annapolis Basin. Champlain declared that the site was “the most suitable and pleasant for a settlement that we had seen.” They called the spot Port-Royal, in recognition of the French king who had granted de Mons a monopoly on the area’s fur trade, and it became the first European settlement north of Florida.
History of Port-Royal
Under the direction of Jean de Biencourt, who led the expedition after de Mons returned to France, Port-Royal was built in the summer of 1605, resembling the fortified farm hamlets that could be seen in 1600s France. The buildings were laid out in a rectangle with:
- homes for the men;
- storage and work areas;
- and cannons overlooking the ramparts.
Surrounding the habitation were:
- gardens for vegetables;
- a fish pond; and
- a water-powered mill on the nearby Allains River.
The Mi’kmaq people, who had lived in the region for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the colonists, welcomed the French and a friendship and alliance was formed.
Biencourt and Champlain never forgot the hardships they had experienced on St. Croix and worked to make entertainment a regular part of life at Port-Royal. This included a theatrical performance titled The Theatre of Neptune in New France and founding the now famous Order of Good Cheer (l’Ordre du Bon-Temps in French), which saw the men enjoying lavish meals and festivities through the winter of 1606-1607. The Order is still active to this day.
Despite its success, Port-Royal’s future as a permanent settlement was cut short when the French king revoked de Mons’ monopoly. In the fall of 1607, the colonists returned to France, leaving the habitation in the hands of their Mi’kmaq allies. Champlain, meanwhile, set off along the St. Lawrence River on a new expedition to settle a new habitation called Quebec.
Today, the Port-Royal National Historic Site of Canada features a reconstruction of the settlement’s early 17th- century buildings, including the distinctive, closed-in quadrangle known as the Habitation. Visitors can step back into the earliest days of French exploration to gain an impression of the place where these early settlers lived.
Xplorers: a fun new way for kids ages 6-11 to explore the Port-Royal Habitation. Complete at least 5 activities in the booklet and become an official Port-Royal Xplorer with a certificate and a special limited edition souvenir! The program is FREE with regular admission.
Photo credit: C. Reardon