A FORT ON BOOT ISLAND (May 3/16)

In a prospectus for a proposed fox farm, dated December 31, 1914, Boot Island is described as a “300 acre island in Minas Basin” that is “isolated, yet accessible.”

Writing about the few Acadian place names remaining in Kings County, Dr. Watson Kirkconnell mentions that Boot Island is erroneously named due to some unknown New England Planter not understanding French. “Warped out of the original French,” says Kirkconnell, “is todays ‘Boot Island,’ for the Acadian L’Isle au Bout, i.e. the island at the end (of Long Island, in the Grand Pre area.)”

In Sods, Soil and Spades, an examination of the Acadians of Grand Pre and their dykeing legacy by J. Sherman Bleakney, Boot Island is referred to several times. In the book is a 1946 photograph of Boot Island showing old dyke walls of Acadian origin. Dr. Bleakney notes that Boot Island is now (in 2004) half the size it was in 1760. Another map, reproduced in A Natural History of Kings County, show that around the year 1780 Boot Island was still attached to the mainland.

One of the interesting things about Boot Island, I wrote in a 2005 column, is that various families lived and farmed there. In interviews conducted when I wrote the column several surnames were mentioned as being associated with the island; these were the Cards, Allens, Biggs, McGregors and Hutchinsons. In his book, Dr. Bleakney refers to the island having several resident families: A severe storm in 1913 “provided impetus for the families residing there to move to the mainland,” Bleakney writes.

You now have a historical overview of sorts on Boot Island: Dyked and farmed by the Acadians when it was attached to the mainland; shrinking in size due to being ripped and ravaged by destructive storms and ceaselessly battered by the tides; mistakenly believed to be referred to by the Acadians as boot shaped; touted as an ideal area for a fox farm (which never really got going, by the way); and farmed until fairly recent modern times until (possibly) the ongoing shrinking of the island made agriculture difficult.

Then there’s another side of Boot Island, a side little known. In a paper written in the 1730s, and published in Great Britain in 1748, Boot Island was recommended as an excellent site for a British 200 man fort, a fort suitably situated to defend the entire region against potential French threats. Titled the State of Trade in the Northern Colonies Considered (subtitle With An Account of their Produce and a particular Description of Nova Scotia) the paper examines the potential of the Minas area, actually takes a benevolent tone discussing the Acadians settlements, and ultimately suggests that fortifying this area would be of considerable benefit in protecting the province. “Minas is so situated as to have a short and easy communication with the extreme parts of the province, being within a days march of Chebucto (Halifax) …. and not much farther by land from Annapolis.”

As we know, a British fort was never built on Boot Island. It was given careful consideration at the time, however. The paper describes Boot Island as perfect for a fortress, noting that it is the “most proper place, if not the finest in the world, on account of its natural situation, an island about a quarter of a mile long, that commands the mouth of the (Gaspereau) river.”

Further, says the study, the island has no firm land “within a mile of it,” making a fort there difficult to attack; and as well, a fort on Boot Island would “command the prospect of Minas Basin so that no (enemy) vessel can come and go undiscovered; and if it is regularly fortified, might be defended by 200 men against the whole force of Canada and the Nova Scotians.”

What eventually transpired was fortification on a major scale at Halifax instead of Boot Island and elimination of the French threat to Nova Scotia by the capture and eventual destruction of the fort at Louisbourg. This removed any need for a fort in the Minas Basin at Boot Island.

Today the Boot is designated as a National Wildlife Area and is a major nesting area for several varieties of birds. Looking at it nestled in the mud flats of Minas Basin, it’s difficult to believe it was once farmed by the Acadians or that any consideration was given to building a military fortress there.

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