The Grassy Island settlement

Canso Islands National Historic Site

As early as 1600, French fishermen came to Canso, which teemed with abundant stocks of codfish. They built wharves, fish flakes, and temporary shelters along the shores of the Canso Islands. 

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain and France struggled for control of North America. By 1720, the French fishery had largely been driven from Canso, and replaced by a bustling settlement of fishermen, merchants, shoreworkers, and soldiers from New England and the British Isles. Grassy Island was the hub of this new fishery, which flourished until it was attacked by the French in 1744.

Faintly visible terraces, cellar pits, and scattered rubble mounds are all that remain of the houses, storesheds, and workshops that were destroyed in the French attack.

Grassy Island - illustrated map

The Grassy Island settlement

  • 1: The Trevett property

    John Trevett was a fish merchant who shared a large house with his neighbour. A low, stony mound with two cellar pits marks the site of the house, while close to the trail is the property’s stone-lined well. At its bottom, archaeologists found a shiny brass button, perhaps lost by Trevett as he leaned over to retrieve the bucket.

  • 2: The How property

    Edward How was the most important merchant living on Grassy Island. His property contained a wood-frame house, several outbuildings and the island’s largest wharf.

    The remains of stone foundations, chimney bases, window-glass fragments, and other debris were found, confirming historical accounts of a large two-storey residence with surrounding storehouses, animal shelters and a garden. Archaeologists discovered that How had greatly exaggerated the size of the property’s main structure, in a claim for losses which he had filed with the British authorities after the French attack of 1744. This building had two adjoining wings. The deep cellar under the east wing has formed a sizable depression in the ground. Between the wings lay a sheltered courtyard paved with cobblestone.

    The excavation revealed many interesting details of life in the How household:

    • Fragments of fine ceramic and glass objects were dug up. These came from as far afield as China, Turkey and Europe, and reveal the extensive trade links developed by the island’s merchants.
    • A brick hearth was also discovered in the main building. This was used for brewing beer in a copper cauldron for household consumption.
    • The excavation of a trash pile behind the house yielded a number of interesting items, which included the remains of a dog, perhaps the family pet. Numerous food scraps were found, ranging from the bones of cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens, to seal bones and oyster shells.

    How also had three storehouses built between the house and the wharf, two of which were used to house military supplies.

  • 3: The Elliot property

    A small plot adjoining How’s property was owned by John Elliot, a fish merchant. He had been active in the Canso fishery since 1722.

    The property was used for processing cod. Split and salted fish were laid out to dry on crude wooden tables called “flakes”. They were built in rows separated by narrow paths worn down by the workers who dried the fish. Elliot’s flakes sloped down to the beach. Their remains are still visible, consisting of five long, parallel ridges. When archaeologists dug them up, they found fragments of bottles, jars and clay tobacco pipes used by shore workers for drinking and smoking on the job.

  • 4: The Cosby property

    This property was owned by Anne Cosby, widow of a former garrison commander on Grassy Island. Although the remains of a large house are still visible, archaeologists concentrated on two smaller structures closer to the shore:

    • Now no longer visible, traces of a crude wooden shack were unearthed, along with several bottle and jar fragments dating from the 17th century. The shack was probably a temporary summer shelter for French fishermen who would have used the gravel spit below for drying fish.
    • Down by the shore, a deep depression in the earth bank yielded the remains of a simple wooden shed with a stone-lined cellar. Artifacts found at the site consisted mainly of wineglass, mug and bottle fragments, broken clay tobacco pipes and a homemade gaming piece chiseled from porcelain. The shed may have been one of eleven taverns which served soldiers and shore workers on the island.

    On the gravel spit embracing the tidal pool below, a battery of guns was erected to cover the harbour entrance. Barracks were also built for the soldiers of the garrison, but were miserable, waterlogged accommodations.

  • 5: The Aldridge property

    Owned by Captain Christopher Aldridge, commander of the garrison in 1743, this property contains the remains of a large house, still visible near the trail. Sloping down to the shore are five parallel ridges resembling Elliot’s fish flakes. Aldridge would appear to have been involved in the commercial fishery, contrary to military regulations.

  • 6: The Heron and Jephson properties

    Two adjoining plots on the island’s south side were owned by Patrick Heron and John Jephson, both officers of the garrison. They lived in a large duplex near the fort. Captain Heron was acting commander of the garrison during the French raid of 1744. Originally built thirty metres from the eroding cliff, the foundation of Heron’s house is now perched on the edge. Archaeologists dug up a number of objects, including segments of a fine earthenware plate, and the remains of a musket. A large fragment from an exploded shell was also retrieved from Heron’s cellar, no doubt the result of the French naval bombardment of the island. To the east of the house, an open field now marks the site of a large vegetable garden.

  • 7: Fort William Augustus

    Built in 1724, the fort mounted several cannon along the south wall overlooking the harbour passage. A powder magazine and two barrack buildings stood within the fort’s walls. These were joined together by fences of sharpened wooden stakes, or pickets, and formed an inner line of defense. The fort’s original entrance is still visible in the northwest wall.

    According to garrison records, the fort soon fell into disrepair and was virtually abandoned by the time of the French attack.

  • 8: The garrison church

    Between the fort and the wharf lies the largest man-made terrace on the island. This was the site of a large building, possibly the garrison church which served both the military and civilian populations of Grassy Island.

The fall of Canso

Shortly after the declaration of war between England and France in early 1744, a flotilla departed from the French fortress of Louisbourg. Its mission was to attack the Grassy Island settlement and destroy the fishery at Canso. After a brief bombardment, Captain Heron surrendered the island. The French attackers then plundered the community and burned down all the buildings.

The remains of the settlement have survived practically undisturbed since that fateful day.

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