Are There Islands on the Marsh?

If asked to explain the word island, some readers might recall a definition from Nelson’s School Geography: a land mass entirely surrounded by water. A dictionary search will reveal that it can also mean an elevated piece of land surrounded by marsh. There are several examples on the Tantramar and nearby marshes: Spectacle, Dixon, Estabrooks and Huston Islands. Another, Dorchester Island, has already been the subject of a Flashback. Today, let’s take a look at three others, Cole’s, Sunken and Tonge’s Island.

Cole’s Island is located east of Sackville on the Trans Canada highway. While seldom used today, the name was well known in the late 1930’s when the site was selected for a new CBC transmitting station, now Radio Canada International. The name may be traced to an early landowner, Jonathan Cole, a native of Rhode Island. The Cole family was part of the New England Planter migration to this area in the 1760s.

Sunken Island, on the south side of the High Marsh Road, was also mentioned briefly in a Flashback column on the famous Saxby Gale of Oct 4–5 1869. It’s called Sunken Island because the land is below the level of the marsh. One section is a bog and those who venture there may be in danger of sinking in the marsh mud. During the course of the Saxby Gale, Sunken Island was covered with haystacks, sleepers, fences, telegraph poles, gates, boards and other articles used by farmers on the marsh…

Tonge’s Island, can be seen from the Trans Canada Highway as one travels toward Amherst. Look to the right immediately after crossing Beauséjour Ridge and you’ll see a small cluster of trees and buildings between Fort Beauséjour and the Missaguash River. Depicted on early French maps as Ile de la Vallière, it is referred to today as Tonge’s Island.

On Oct. 24, 1676 the Governor of New France, Louis de Baude Frontenac (1622–1698) awarded Michel Leneuf de la Vallière (1640–1705) a tract of land 10 square leagues in area to be known as the seigniory of Beaubassin. To picture the full extent of the grant, it may be described as roughly bounded by a line drawn from the mouth of the Petitcodiac River, overland to Shemogue; down the coast to River Philip and from there northwesterly to Chignecto Bay.

When La Vallière took up his land he found that Jacques Bourgeois and family had already settled on the Isthmus at what later became the village of Beaubassin; today’s Fort Lawrence. He then established his headquarters across the Missaguash River from Bourgeois, naming the rise in the marsh Ile de la Vallière. Although La Vallière did not realize it at the time, he had settled on the geographic center of the French colony of Acadia.

La Vallière was born in Trois-Rivières where his father was governor of the town. Sent to France for his early education, he returned home in 1657. By 1666 he was in Ile Royale (Cape Breton) serving with the famous trader, author and governor Nicolas Denys (1598–1688). He later married Denys only daughter, Marie. They had a family of eight children.

In 1675 he was named commandant of Acadia; succeeding to the governorship of the colony in 1683. He lived the first year at Port Royal, returning to Ile de la Vallière for the remainder of his term. He was to be succeeded in 1687 by François-Marie Perrot (1644?-1691). Thus, for a brief period, Ile de la Vallière was capital of Acadia. Following his term as governor, LaVallière returned to Québec, entrusting the seigniory of Beaubassin to his future son-in-law Claude-Sébastian de Villieu.

In the National Archives of Canada there is a report entitled Beaubassin ou Chignitou et la Baye Verte. Written by Jacques de Meulles the Intendant of New France from 1682 until 1686, it provides insight concerning both the seignior and the seigniory of Beaubassin. In the autumn of 1685, de Meulles, on an official visit to Acadia, was shipwrecked on the southeastern coast of present day New Brunswick. Thanks to some Mi’kmaq guides he was rescued and taken by canoe and portage across the Isthmus to Ile de la Vallière. Here he was received by the Governor of Acadia in person. Unable to return to Québec, de Meulles was forced to spend the winter with his host on the Isthmus of Chignecto.

Of Michel Leneuf de la Vallière de Meulles wrote: In the course of his residence he has, through his own enterprise, induced most of the inhabitants in the district to settle there. He has built a mill at his own expense [actually there were two — a saw mill and grist mill]. During the period that he was in command in Acadia, he was so highly considered that it was deemed a pleasure to take up lands on his seigniory. In the years that followed, Ile de la Vallière and Beaubassin were to be razed three times by the British and New Englanders — in 1696, 1704 and 1751. Today, there is little left beyond a few tell-tale mounds and the occasional unearthed artifact to remind us of the onetime capital of Acadia.

Following expulsion of the Acadians in 1755, a portion of the old seigniory of Beaubassin was granted to Winckworth Tonge (1727–1792). As a consequence, Ile de la Vallière became known as Tonge’s Island. The new owner was an army officer who had served as assistant engineer in the siege of Fort Beauséjour. In addition, Tonge acquired large landholdings in Nova Scotia’s Hants County. Elected MLA for Cumberland in 1759, he was to later switch ridings, representing first Kings and then Hants County. In 1773 he was named Naval Officer for Nova Scotia.

This position was important, as Tonge had responsibility for regulating shipping between Nova Scotia and overseas ports. Consequently, he was often involved in controversy, both with successive governors and the business community. Never one to back away from conflict or debate; his son, William Cottnam Tonge, inherited similar qualities. The latter followed his father’s footsteps in Nova Scotian politics and is regarded as the forerunner of Joseph Howe. For more than a decade the younger Tonge was the unofficial leader of the opposition and a thorn in the side of the governing establishment.

In order to trace the history of Tonge’s Island through to the present, it is necessary to delve into the family history of subsequent owners. Winckworth Tonge sold his lands on the Isthmus of Chignecto to a Loyalist settler from Norwich, Connecticut, Eliza Freeman. In turn, the property was purchased by another Loyalist, Titus Knapp (1757–1828) a native of New York. Upon his death, Tonge’s Island passed to his wife Catherine Dixon Knapp.

Later the property was inherited by her granddaughter Catherine Knapp Brown, who married her second cousin, Daniel Dixon Brown, on July 4, 1840. Many generations later, in 1961 it was sold to its present day owners, the Soontines family. Thus for some 120 years, historic Tonge’s Island remained in the Brown family! Today, a descendent of Catherine Knapp Brown, Geraldine Brown Wolfe of Moncton, has in her possession, a fine mahogany drop-leaf table. This table was brought by Titus Knapp to New Brunswick following the American Revolution. A valuable antique, it is a lasting reminder of the longtime ownership of the Knapp-Brown family of this island on the marsh.

The heritage of Tonge’s Island was placed in perspective by one who knew it well — local historian and author Will R. Bird.

He wrote: On a sunny afternoon, when the soft winds unceasingly stir the long marsh grasses, it takes little imagination to again picture the prosperous orchards and gardens of Beaubassin. To see in fancy, their thatched cottages, clustered about their beloved church, to hear children at play, and see ever and anon, a farmer pause in his duties to turn an anxious eye seaward, or scan the forest borders for unwelcome visitors.

Rich in romance, steeped in legend, colored by crimson memories, the Isthmus of Chignecto holds no more precious ground than that rise in the marshlands, shadowed by the grass-grown ramparts of old Fort Beauséjour — Ile de la Vallière or Tonge’s Island.

(I am indebted to Lee Lowerison for suggesting this topic. Special thanks are extended to Geraldine Brown Wolfe and Dick McLeod for their assistance.)