St. John harbor bridge
St. John harbor bridge seen from the south bank of the St. John River (author Thomas Triple, license CC BY SA 3.0)

Located at the mouth of the St. John River, the city of Saint John (68,000 inhabitants) is renowned for its reversible falls due to the strong tides of the Bay of Fundy which reverse the course of the river. But the history of the site itself is just as remarkable. At the western limit of the port of Saint John, on the south bank of the river, is Fort Charnisay National Historic Site of Canada and between the port bridge and the Grand Quai, on the north bank, is the archaeological site of Fort La Tour. These are 17th century French forts on both banks of the river. No doubt, this is a highly strategic location that had to be defended at all costs to control access and traffic to the interior of the continent, therefore New France. However, yesterday’s enemies were not always what we think…

In 1631 Charles de Saint-Etienne de La Tour had just been appointed governor and the King’s lieutenant general in Acadia. He built a fortified trading post at the mouth of the St. John River, which he named Fort Sainte-Marie (better known as Fort La Tour). He was anxious to exploit, before the British, this territory considered the richest in furs of all Acadia. Despite the looting of the fort, the following year, by a Scottish group, La Tour continued to ensure the profitability of this fur trading post, while attracting colonists. In 1638, he had to deal with a formidable competitor, Charles de Menou d’Aulnay, also appointed lieutenant general of the King in Acadia. The strong rivalry between these two men of strong character quickly degenerated into armed struggle. In 1645, d’Aulnay stormed the fortified post, in the absence of La Tour, despite the fierce resistance of its defenders. He then restored and strengthened the post with a view to pursue a flourishing commercial activity. What happened to the fort afterwards remains largely unknown. At present, remains of Fort La Tour are buried on the archaeological site which has undoubtedly not yet revealed all its secrets. But let’s go back to 1645…

The forts on the south shore

Cairn and plaque designating Fort Charnisay
Cairn and plaque designating Fort Charnisay National Historic Site of Canada (author Hantsheroes, license CC BY SA 3.0)

D’Aulnay built yet another fortified trading post, Fort Charnisay, the first on the south bank of the St. John River. In 1698, Joseph Robinau de Villebon, governor of Acadia, erected Fort Saint-Jean at the same location, where he moved the seat of his government. The latter was the first military fort built on the site. However, it was dismantled shortly after Villebon’s death, around 1700, by the new governor of Acadia, Jacques-François de Monbeton de Brouillan who considered the fort badly located. Consequently, all dismantled materials were moved to Port-Royal where he settled. In 1749, Fort Saint-Jean was restored and renamed Fort Ménagouèche by Lieutenant Charles Deschamps de Boishébert. It was of strategic importance to prevent the British from settling at the mouth of the St. John River, while the limit of French Acadia was set in the Chignecto Isthmus. But in June 1755 everything changed abruptly…

The British had just taken over the isthmus of Chignectou and were now in a position to directly threaten Fort Ménagouèche that Boishébert was forced to destroy. However, he was able to continue fighting amid the settlers of the region where many Acadian refugees had flocked. The last fort built at this location was British Fort Frederick in 1758. It too had a hectic life, but that’s another story…

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