Physical History of the Annapolis Valley

Being a history junkie, it is very easy to get distracted while researching the Annapolis Valley. For thousands of years the Annapolis and Cornwallis Rivers were travel routes for indigenous Mi’kmaq peoples, and were likely used by the Acadians during their expansions eastward, away from Port Royale. I am fascinated with trying to find the physical history of these pioneers, settlers and native people.

My home sits next to the Number 1 highway, close to where the Old French Road and Great Western Highway ran. That is a story for another day, though. It is fascinating when one thinks of the pioneers and settlers that traipsed up this part of the Valley. I often wonder of the travel conditions these people endured. All you have to do (at least in the Wilmot and Aylesford Township areas) is walk 10 feet off of some secondary roads to see just how much marsh, swamp and bog there are on the Valley floor. A surveyor I know told some horror stories of what it was like trying to walk transepts to place markers…

Researchers in the local area understand that there really is no ‘love’ of our Annapolis Valley history, at least recently. Many local histories were written in the 60’s, especially around the Centennial. I haven’t seen anything new from these groups recently. Some communities still devote efforts to researching their history (Mount Hanley, for example), but these are rare.

The physical history of the Valley is fast disappearing, and I don’t believe anyone really cares. I have seen many houses destroyed in the past five years, including a Planter homestead in Greenwich built by the Pudsey family (~1765). It sat just off the 101 highway and for years I wondered if anyone would buy and fix the 250 year old house. The owners tried to sell it, then floored the price if someone would just move it. Finally, one sad day when we drove by, it was gone. When I took a chance and visited the site (I couldn’t find the family to ask permission to detect), I found that there were just a couple of hand-axed timbers on the ground with the tell-tale roman numerals, and a horrible amount of dry-rot. Sadly, the house had been doomed, and had likely been irreparable for decades.

The old highways are no more, the Old French Road is a whisper of a memory, with faint evidence on old maps and land grants. The original windings of the old Number 1 (any of the great roads) are very hard to find, especially since the 1930’s modernizations and paving. Names of locations and waterways change, sometimes frequently, often depending on the family who lived there. Some of my current research, trying to trace the old highway through Wilmot and Aylesford Townships, raises questions about original bridge locations. It is fascinating when researching the 1760s to 1780s land grants of the Aylesford Plain area that two ‘rivers’ are consistently referred to as Seven Mile River and Twelve Mile River. I have yet been unable to figure out miles from what or to where? Perhaps this refers to the river length?

There are no ancient trees anymore (or at least they are exceptionally rare) that would have existed during the Colonial period. There are stories of willows that witnessed the Acadian Expulsion in 1755 still standing at Grand Pre near the modern church, but this seems hard to believe. There are very few virgin Eastern Boreal Forest stands in the Valley (one possible in the Ravine at Kentville). It is possible there are some oak trees that still live (such as near Bishop Inglis’ homestead), and the odd tree away from the factory foresting apparatus. A few years ago I found a huge maple in a small hollow. Russ mentioned that the markings on the trunk could very well have been property marks. How old is impossible to tell. Still, even these ancient trees will soon be gone (relatively).

There are cellars still out there, buried deep in plowed fields, or forgotten amongst bushes and scrub. Some are the foundations of legitimate land owners, some of squatters. The massive majority of the original cabin locations, set up by pioneers on their grants while preparing the land for the homestead, are forgotten. There are artifacts that detectorists want to find in order to tell the story of those who came before. Sadly, there are also detectorists who profess to have a love of history who are more interested in finding and selling, the land owner never-the-wiser. I know some who do this but I won’t hunt with them.

Every river had a mill (saw and grist, sometimes) it seems. You can see remnant dams on these waterways, but most have also disappeared. I don’t know of any colonial-era mills that still exist in Nova Scotia. There are some locations that are known, but no remnants exist (such as Lunn’s Mill site in Lawrencetown).

Thankfully, the Valley is blessed with Colonial churches and cemeteries that still exist. Near my home is St. Mary’s Anglican and Old Holy Trinity near Middleton. There are homesteader grave markers hiding in fields, or used as door stops. There are amazing people working on preserving cemeteries of King’s County, but they can’t replace what has been lost. I shudder when I read William Inglis Morse (WIM) Graveyards of Acadie. There is a photo within of a farmer sitting next to a stairway built from gravestones…

The physical history is out there. Targeted or focused searches for much of our colonial history is problematic due to location inaccuracies of documented sites. Many times, I find sites purely by luck, or by noticing an area that just seems ‘different’. For example, lines of trees near a field, a random pile of stones, levelling of land, depressions, non-native plant species are all that is left. Hawthorns are pretty, and a real pain in the face when you are walking with your head down!

Do you know of old homestead locations that seem to have been forgotten?

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