Port-Royal Nova Scotia: The Little Habitation was Established in 1605

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Port-Royal National Historic Site, location of the Habitation at Port-Royal which is a replica of the original French colonial settlement.

It would be the oldest continuous European settlement in North America outside of Florida, if the Yanks…er, Brits, hadn’t burned it to the ground.

In 1603, a Frenchman by the name of Pierre Dugua de Mons was granted a charter for thousands of square kilometres of land in present-day Canada and the north-east US, where he was to develop the fur trade with the natives and establish a colony. The first colony was set up by de Mons – and his lieutenant, the explorer and map-maker Samuel de Champlain – in 1604 on the island of St. Croix in the Bay of Fundy. The next year, the colony was moved to the mainland, to a place called Port-Royal. There they built a small village, or Habitation.

In those days, royal charters for thousands of square kilometres of land in the New World could change hands at the King’s whim, and by 1607, de Mons had fallen out of favour of the royal court, and his charter was revoked. Lacking the financing to keep the colony afloat, most of the settlers sailed back to France, leaving Port-Royal in the hands of a local Mi’kmaq chief named Membertou. By 1610, de Mons had his charter back, and he dispatched his partner, Sieur de Poutrincourt, with a small group of colonists back to Port-Royal. There he was greeted warmly by Membertou, who had kept the place just as the French had left it.

For the next few years, the little colony struggled along, and children born there became the first Canadians. However, in 1613, the English colonists at Jamestown, preparing to mark their own sixth winter in the New World by starving to death, sent a raiding party, led by a man named Samuel Argall, to steal what they needed to get through the winter from the scattering of French settlements along the north-east coast. If, in the process, they could send the French packing back across the Atlantic, so much the better.

The Argall party sailed into Port-Royal in November 1613. Finding most of the inhabitants away on a hunting trip, the Brits-slash-Americans looted everything of value from the village and burned it down. Without a home to call their own, the French settlers drifted into the surrounding woods, where they basically took up the life of their native friends.

The Habitation at Port-Royal may likely have disappeared into history, if not for a woman named Harriet Taber Richardson, a native of Massachusetts, who, in the 1930s, spent her summers in the Port-Royal area. Upon learning the history of Port-Royal, the story goes, Taber Richardson was so appalled by what her ancestral countrymen had done, she started a movement to have Port-Royal restored, kicking in thousands of dollars of her own money to get the ball rolling.

The Canadian government rebuilt the Port-Royal settlement in 1940. It now stands as a National Historic Site, under the stewardship of Parks Canada.