ISLE HAUTE – THE “TALL ISLAND” (July 18/03)

“Beware of what you find on the Internet about the island,” historian Dan Conlin wrote when e-mailing recently. “A lot of people claim there is treasure on the island when there is meagre evidence, and making this claim attracts destructive and illegal treasure hunting.”

Conlin, the curator of marine history at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, undoubtedly speaks with authority when it comes to Isle Haute. In [1997] Conlin wrote a report on Isle Haute (Nova Scotia Museum Curatorial Report No. 90) covering the history of the island, which included island’s folklore and the various attempts to find the treasure said to be buried there.

Mr. Conlin has a long association with Isle Haute, visiting it first when he was a Boy Scout. He describes the island, which is visible from hundreds of miles of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick coastline as an arresting, mysterious landmark that “lies on the Bay of Fundy like an overturned canoe or the capsized hull of a sailing ship.”

On Conlin’s remark about the Internet, I searched and found 5,040 web sites devoted to or mentioning Isle Haute. Buried treasure was a topic in the dozen or so sites I scanned. However, the history of the island is more interesting than the efforts to find its mythical trove of pirate gold.

As Mr. Conlin points out in his report, Isle Haute (high island) was discovered by Samuel Champlain when he explored the Bay of Fundy in 1604. Champlain mentions the island in his journal which was published in 1613 and later republished in Acadienesis. Champlain gave the island its present name. Of course, the island was well known to native people. According to Silas Rand, the Mi’kmaq called the island Maskusetkik, a place of wild potatoes. A 1955 archaeological study refers to a 1724 gathering of Mi’kmaq and Maliseets on Isle Haute in preparation for a raid on the fort at Port Royal; thus it appears that the island was well-known and often used by native peoples.

While it appears to be distant, remote and mysterious, Conlin points out that a study of Isle Haute shows that it was once far from isolated. “In the days when everything moved by water,” Conlin writes, “Isle haute was at a cross-roads, where the Bay of Fundy splits, and was often visited by Europeans over long periods of time” when it served as a shelter and watering place.

Conlin says that Champlain or his crew explored the island, noting “many of the features that can still be seen today,” including its fresh water spring and salt water pond. The island was later charted by Des Barres, in recognition of the “significant amounts of trade and fishing taking place on the Bay of Fundy.”

In the mid-19th century shipping on the Bay of Fundy had increased to the point that a lighthouse was proposed for Isle Haute. First proposed in 1855, the lighthouse wasn’t constructed until 1878. The arrival of the lighthouse altered the island, Conlin writes. A mile-long road was constructed from the beach to the lighthouse, which apparently stood on the highest point on the island, and fields were cleared where cattle and sheep were raised and an unsuccessful attempt at fox farming was made.

Human occupation of the island ended in 1956 when the lighthouse was automated.

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