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The Road to Canada

Dedicated to my wife


without whose loving support this book would not have been possible


to the memory of

my great-great-great-great-grandfather,

Private William Moran, 104th Regiment of Foot

(late the King’s Orange Rangers and the King’s

New Brunswick Regiment),

who died at Kingston, Ontario, on January 12, 1814,

while on active service,

having made the winter march to Canada,

and two of his sons,

Private John Moran, 104th Regiment of Foot,

who also made the winter march to Canada,


Boy and Private William Moran, 104th Regiment of Foot



Chapter One
Establishing the Route: The Beginnings to 1760

Chapter Two
Planters, Rebels and Loyalists: 1760 to 1785

Chapter Three
Wars and Settlement: 1785 to 1824

Chapter Four
Border Crises and Resolution: 1824 to 1845

Chapter Five
British Strategy Vindicated: 1845 to 1870


Historic Sites to Visit


Illustration Credits

Selected Bibliography


Arrival of a detachment of the 63rd Regiment at the temporary barracks at Petersville, the first stop on the Great Communications Route and now part of Canadian Forces Base Gagetown. ILN UNB


“It has been said, with truth, that the history of human civilization has been determined and controlled by great rivers.”

— William O. Raymond,
The River St. John

At noon on Monday, April 12, 1813, a long column of infantry stopped to wash the mud off their legs before marching smartly into the garrison at Kingston, Upper Canada. The 104th Regiment of Foot had left Fredericton, New Brunswick, fifty-two days and over 1,128 kilometres earlier. The march through the wilds of northern New Brunswick in the dead of winter and then along the banks of the St. Lawrence River to Kingston was accomplished without loss of life. One soldier wrote that the men had “marched on snowshoes in one of the severest winters ever known … undergoing hardships unequalled by any regiment in service during the war.” After they passed Quebec, the weather broke; then they “marched a part of the distance through mud, water and slush, knee deep.” They had come to help save the Canadas from invasion. The march of the 104th became the best-known movement of troops along the Grand Communications Route through New Brunswick, but it was only one of many; until the late nineteenth century, this route formed the backbone of the French and then the British empires in North America.

Today, many people are familiar with the importance of North American rivers such as the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi, but few realize that until quite recently the St. John River was also an important route joining the Atlantic to the hinterland of the Continent. This route ran from the mouth of the St. John River on the Bay of Fundy to the junction with the Madawaska River at Edmundston, up the Madawaska northwards to Lake Temiscouata, and on over the Grand Portage to the St. Lawrence River at Rivière-du-Loup; the British came to call this the Grand Communications Route. Until the advent of railways and steamships, from November to April, when ice closed the St. Lawrence River, it was the only secure way for the French and then the British to reach Canada.

The St. John River system was used for personal travel and trade and by hunting and war parties long before the arrival of the Europeans in the seventeenth century. When French kings began exercising control over Acadia through their governor in New France, the route gained strategic significance in the European struggle for empire. While the preferred method of transportation was by ship, sea communication between Acadia and New France was not possible during the winter months. The only way to pass messages or dispatches or to move troops between the two places during the winter was over the Grand Communications Route, and it was used regularly during the rest of the year by couriers and small parties. The French also made extensive use of the branch route from the St. John River through Lake Washademoak, along the Canaan River, and over the Petitcodiac River portage to communicate with Fort Beauséjour, Louisbourg and Port-Royal.

Following the conquest of Acadia and New France in the mid-1700s, the British inherited the route, but for a time they could also use the easier path from Montreal via the Richelieu River, Lake Champlain and the Hudson River to the ice-free port of New York. The American Revolution, however, thrust the Grand Communications Route into prominence once again, and the British made a concerted effort, not just to control it, but to improve it to accommodate sleighs and wagons. The vague definition of the border between Maine and New Brunswick in the 1783 Treaty of Paris made this very difficult. The American interpretation of the boundary placed parts of the Grand Communications Route inside their territory, threatening its integrity, and therefore the British settled Loyalist regiments along its path to help provide security. The route proved its value during the War of 1812, when troops urgently needed to defend Canada, including the 104th, moved over it during the winters of 1813 and 1814.

After the War of 1812, disbanded British regiments settled along the upper St. John River to protect the route from American incursions. The route proved its importance again during the winters of 1837-1838 and 1838-1839, when it was used to move much needed reinforcements to Canada following the outbreak of rebellion. The Maine-New Brunswick border controversy reached its highest period of tension during the Aroostook War of 1839. Fortunately, open conflict was avoided, and the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty placed the whole route firmly in British territory. Indeed, the British sacrificed the lumber and agricultural riches of Aroostook County, Maine, in order to retain the Grand Communications Route. This strategic goal was validated almost twenty years later during the American Civil War, when the Trent Affair of November, 1861 brought Great Britain and the United States to the brink of war. In the winter of 1861-1862, to deter the American invasion expected in the spring, the British sent the largest-ever reinforcement of troops to Canada along the Grand Communications Route.

Following the peaceful resolution of the Trent Affair and the signing of the Treaty of Washington in 1871, the military importance of the Grand Communications Route faded. However, the route itself remained in use. Roads and railways followed its path from Saint John to the St. Lawrence River and continued the link between the Maritimes and Central Canada. Today, anyone who drives along the Trans-Canada Highway between Rivière-du-Loup and Fredericton is following the Grand Communications Route, which played such a central part in the colonial history of Canada.


The Grand Communications Route. During the French period, the main route ran between Rivière-du-Loup and Fort Beauséjour. Secondary routes led towards Old Mission Point, on the Bay of Chaleur; the forts at the mouth of the St. John River (Saint John); Isle St. Jean (Prince Edward Island), Isle Royale (Cape Breton Island); and Port-Royal (Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia).

Chapter One

Establishing the Route:
The Beginnings to 1760

“I sent a letter to Count Frontenac by a canoe which was going to Quebec.”

— Joseph Robineau de Villebon, governor of Acadia, Fort Nashwaak, September 20, 1698

The story of the Grand Communications Route begins with the end of the last ice age. When the first people arrived in what is now New Brunswick, between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, they found a system of interlocking rivers that was marvellously suited for transportation. The central feature was the St. John River. Rising in northern Maine, the St. John flows approximately 725 kilometres to the Bay of Fundy, with few obstacles. The first, the Reversing Falls at the mouth of the river, could be negotiated at high tide or bypassed using a portage. While there were rapids at Meductic (now flooded), the only other impediment was at Grand Falls. Here, the St. John River plunges twenty-three metres and then rushes through a two-kilometre gorge. This obstruction could be bypassed only by a portage. Then, once the rapids at the mouth of the Madawaska River at Edmundston (or Little Falls) were passed, the way was clear up the Madawaska to Lake Temiscouata. From there, two series of rivers and small lakes led to Trois Pistoles on the St. Lawrence River. Later, a portage road was cut from Cabano to give a more direct route to St. André and later to Rivière-du-Loup. All told, the route from Rivière-du-Loup to Saint John was approximately 515 kilometres, about 435 kilometres of which were by water.

In addition to providing a route from the south shore of the St. Lawrence River to the Bay of Fundy, the St. John River system has a number of branches that give access to the whole area. North of Grand Falls, the Grand River-Wagan portage route led to the Restigouche River and the Bay of Chaleur. Below Woodstock, at Meductic, an important portage route led west to the Eel River and, by a series of portages, to the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Machias rivers in Maine. At Oromocto, a route along the Oromocto and Magaquadavic rivers gave access to the St. Croix and rivers in Maine. A little further downstream, the Lake Washademoak-Canaan River-Petitcodiac River route led to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

The Natives of the region developed birch bark canoes about 3,000 years ago. These craft weighed only about forty-five kilograms and could carry four adults. Capable of being paddled or poled and easily carried over portages, they were ideally suited for their function. With their canoes and river systems, the first people of New Brunswick had a transportation network that was the equal of modern roads.

When French explorers arrived in the early seventeenth century, four main groups of Native people lived along this system. All were of Algonquin stock and appear to have arrived in two distinct migrations from the west. The first were the Mi’kmaq, who lived in eastern New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. It is thought that they arrived via the St. Lawrence River and the Gaspé, but parts of the Grand Communications Route may have been on their migration path. Later, the related Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot peoples moved in from the southwest. Their tribal boundaries were well defined by the river watersheds, with the Maliseet living along the St. John River, the Passamaquoddy around Passamaquoddy Bay and the St. Croix River, and the Penobscot further south in the area of the Penobscot River in Maine.

Archaeological evidence shows that the Grand Communications Route was used for trade, hunting, fishing and war. Maliseet and Mi’kmaq legends testify to a history of warfare, but, while the First Nations of New Brunswick were fierce warriors, they do not appear to have fought amongst themselves. The common enemy of both the Maliseet and the Mi’kmaq were the Mohawk, who lived at that time along the St. Lawrence River in the area of Quebec City and Montreal, although they later withdrew into what is now upstate New York. Mohawk war parties came down the route from the north, while Maliseet and Mi’kmaq war parties travelled up it. Perhaps the best known war story tells of Malabeam, who saved her people from a Mohawk war party by luring them to their deaths over the waterfall Checanekepeag — the Destroying Giant — at Grand Falls.


Micmac Indians Poling a Canoe Up a Rapid, Oromocto Lake, New Brunswick (1835-1846), by Richard Levinge. The birch bark canoe, developed about 3,000 years ago, enabled Native people to travel easily over the interlocking systems of lakes, rivers and portages in what is now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Maine. NAC R9266-302

Fear of the Mohawk led the Abenaki to build the first known fortifications along the Grand Communications Route at Edmundston; another fort was at the important Maliseet village of Meductic, and indications suggest that there was one at Aucpac, on Hartts Island, above Fredericton. Along the lower river, forts were located at the mouth of the Nerepis River and on Navy Island, which is now under a pier of the St. John Harbour Bridge. The Mi’kmaq had forts at Richibucto and at Old Mission Point near the mouth of the Restigouche River. These defensive forts, which offered shelter to the local inhabitants when threatened by attack, were simply built but effective. Dr. W.F. Ganong describes the one at Meductic as having a central cabin surrounded by a ditch and parapet that was topped with a palisade. The fear of attackers must have been strong, for the Maliseet had only stone tools with which to dig the ditch and to cut and shape the trees for the stockade. Mohawk raids into the St. John valley continued until the 1660s.


The Maliseet fort at Meductic. A: council place; B: church site; C: camping place with wigwams; D: fort site; E: graveyard. “Beginning of portage” is the head of the Eel River portage route to the Penobscot River system in what is now Maine. The site was inundated by the Mactaquac headpond in 1967. W.O. RAYMOND, THE RIVER ST. JOHN

The established patterns of life began to change in New Brunswick in the early seventeenth century. On June 24, 1604, the feast day of Saint John, a French exploring party led by Sieur Pierre Du Gua de Monts entered the Saint John harbour. Their arrival marked the start of the French colony of Acadia, which would last until 1755. Unlike the British colonial period that followed, the first hundred and fifty years of European occupation were rough and tumble, characterized by almost constant fighting. Ownership of Acadia changed hands several times, and as it changed, so did the importance of the Grand Communications Route.

After a disastrous winter on St. Croix Island, de Monts moved his settlement to Port-Royal in the Annapolis Basin. This colony, in what is now Nova Scotia, struggled on until 1613, when Captain Samuel Argall of Virginia destroyed it. In 1621, James I of Britain gave Sir William Alexander a grant that included peninsular Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, which he named Alexandria. As part of his plan to colonize the region, he sold baronetcies to Scottish gentry for £1,350. This settlement scheme faltered, and when the Treaty of St. Germain returned Acadia to France in 1632, the Sieur Isaac de Razilly led the first group of new colonists to the area.

Acadia was really a business venture of the Company of New France, similar to the Company of One Hundred Associates that controlled the colony at Quebec. Both companies were under the influence of Cardinal Richelieu. When de Razilly died in 1635, his authority as lieutenant-governor in Acadia passed to Sieur Charles de Menou d’Aulnay, who had accompanied him from France. Sieur Charles de Saint-Etienne de La Tour contested this transfer of power. Remaining in Acadia after Argall’s conquest, he, too, had been named lieutenant-governor of Acadia. D’Aulnay’s grants included the rich fur-producing area of the St. John River valley, at the mouth of which La Tour had built his fort. At the same time, La Tour’s grant included Port-Royal, where d’Aulnay had his base. D’Aulnay and La Tour became bitter rivals, and a period of Acadian civil war ensued. The rivalry ended in 1645, when d’Aulnay captured Fort La Tour, hanged the garrison, destroyed the fort itself and built a new fort on the west side of the harbour, ...

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