Land Use History

An understanding of the historical land use within a watershed provides context that helps explain the causes of issues affecting the watershed today.  The following sections outline the historical land use both within the Pollett River watershed, and in the surrounding communities in both Westmorland County and Albert County.  Within the Pollett watershed this includes the communities of Elgin, Pollett River (or Forest Glen), and Kay Settlement.  Neighboring communities outside the watershed include: the village of Petitcodiac to the west; the village of Salisbury downstream a short distance below the confluence of the Pollett and the Petitcodiac River; and the communities of Colpitts Settlement, and Parkindale to the east.

The Maritimes have had human inhabitants for the last 11,000 years (Wicken 2002), though for most of that time precise cultural identities are impossible to determine today. By the early 1600’s, when Europeans arrived, much of the native population of coastal Atlantic Canada shared a common culture and language identifying themselves as the L’nuk, “the People”, and recognized by Europeans as the Mi’kmaq.  Traditionally, the Mi’kmaq lived in large villages along the coasts from April to November, and then dispersed during the winter, migrating inland to hunt moose and caribou. During this time physical impacts on the watershed were few compared to what was to follow.

The Mi’kmaq name for the Pollett River was Manoosaak’ (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, 2014), The English name for the river is reportedly a reference to Peter Paulet, a Mi’kmaq elder who lived near the mouth of the river (Hamilton, 1996), whose name suggests some Acadian cultural influence.  Presumably he was a member of the historical Mi’kmaq community that existed on the north side of the Petitcodiac River between the mouths of the Little & Pollett Rivers.  Ganong’s (1905) map of known First Nations villages and campsites includes this site at Salisbury located along the north bank of main stem of the Petitcodiac, near the head of tide between the mouths of Little River and the Pollett River.  A native leaving Beaumont (where there was another camp in the lower Petitcodiac estuary) could ride the 13 km per hour tidal bore upstream to Salisbury, greatly facilitating such travel (Petitcodiac Heritage River Committee 2000).  The importance of the Salisbury encampment was due to its location both at the head of tide and near the ends of a pair of portage routes leading to the Saint John River system. The more highly traveled of the two routes crossed from the main stem of the Petitcodiac River to the Canaan River (Ganong 1914) near what is now the Village of Petitcodiac, as doing so provided the best access to the upper St. John and on to the St. Lawrence (Petitcodiac Heritage River Committee 2000). The other route crossed from a tributary of the Petitcodiac, the Anagance River, to the Kennebecasis River (and from there to the lower portion of the Saint John River system).  In fact the name Anagance comes from Maliseet “Oo-ne- guncé” meaning portage (Ganong 1896), presumably a reference to the link provided by that tributary.

In the 1630’s the French began to make a serious effort to colonize Atlantic Canada, beginning to arrive in numbers significant enough to develop an enduring Acadian identity (Laxer 2006), at a fairly similar timeframe to the English colonies further south. By 1676 the first Acadian settlers arrived at Beaubassin, near the current Nova Scotia Visitor’s Centre along the Trans-Canada Highway at the New Brunswick border (Larracey 1985). Then, 34 years later in 1710, Acadians and Mi’kmaq in peninsular Nova Scotia fell under British control, which was subsequently formalized in 1713 under the treaty of Utrecht.  In 1751 Fort Beausejour was built at the border to protect Acadian communities in what is now New Brunswick from attack by the British. By this time the Acadian population near the Fort had grown to 1,541 people, with an estimated additional 1,100 spread out at Shepody and along the Petitcodiac and Memramcook Rivers (Larracey 1985). The Acadians built dykes and tidal control structures turning marshland along the lower Petitcodiac estuary into pasture, and established their settlements nearby (Wright 1955).  Their physical impacts on the Pollett River, what for them was a remote hinterland, were limited.

Ganong (1899) notes that like First Nations, the French made use of the Kennebecasis- Petitcodiac portage along the Anagance in order to maintain communication between Fort Beausejour and Acadian settlements on the lower St. John.  However the French route between the Canaan and the Petitcodiac to access the upper St. John was slightly different than the one favoured by First Nations, reportedly crossing overland to the Canaan from the North River, rather than the main stem of the Petitcodiac (Raymond 1891).  From there messengers from Fort Beausejour, and the Fortress of Louisbourg passed up along the St John to reach Quebec.

After the fall of Fort Beausejour in 1755, the British attempted to expel the Acadians, to open up land for English settlers. There is a record of an Acadian settlement, Village Victuare, located nearby in Salisbury, close to the Mi’kmaq encampment there (Ganong 1930).  It was documented in 1758 by British Major George Scott as he was forcefully removing Acadian families from the upper Petitcodiac (Scott 1758). The village appears to have been composed of approximately 10 homesteads, settled in about 1751, and was reportedly the largest Acadian village along the Petitcodiac upstream of Beausoleil Village, modern day Allison.  Ganong (1930) suggests that it is likely that in the wake of the expulsion, Acadians briefly occupied locations such as Fourche-à-crapaud at the mouth of Turtle Creek, and on the Coverdale (Little),  and Pollett Rivers in order to be near the head of tide and thus above the reach of English Ships. Major Scott apparently found the tidal bore on the Petitcodiac problematic during his raids in 1758, nearly losing two ships on one occasion (Pincombe and Larracey 1990).

The Mi’kmaq sided with the French (Wicken 2002), participating in the defense of Fort Beausejour, as well as the short guerilla war which followed its capture (Grenier 2008).  There were several reasons that Mi’kmaq in New Brunswick did so. Prior to the arrival of the British, native communities had already established trade networks with the Acadians for steel tools, weapons and other European goods (Walls 2010). Another source of friction was that the Mi’kmaq had begun to adopt Catholicism from the French, while the British were Protestants, at a time when such differences added fuel to conflicts.  Acadians also had had good relations with the Mi’kmaq in part because the lands Acadians occupied either complemented native use, as with fur traders, or were in areas that were marginal to native concerns as in the case of the Acadian farmers on the tidal flats (Mancke 2005).  English settlers on the other hand tended to seize land the Mi’kmaq valued, to clear the forest for agriculture (Francis et al. 2010).

The dates that various communities listed in Table 3-1 were first settled (where available) indicate how movement by English colonists into the upper reaches of the Petitcodiac River above the head of tide occurred first along the more easily accessible main stem. Many of the early dates coincide with the arrival of United Empire loyalists from the 13 colonies (late 1770’s – 1780’s).  After the arrival of the Loyalists, Mi’kmaq in what is now New Brunswick were moved off their lands and onto “reserves” (Walls 2010).  This was done partially to provide land to incoming settlers, and partially to punish the Mi’kmaq for aligning themselves with the French.

Subsequent generations of English settler families and those that arrived after them then pushed further up the Petitcodiac and into its more remote tributaries such as the Little River, and the Pollett River (Wright 1945). An early example would be John Colpitts, the eldest son of Robert Colpitts who had settled near Salisbury in 1783.  John Colpitts arrived from England as a teenager with his father, and had already moved on to develop his own homestead just a few years later, founding Colpitts Settlement on the Little River (Moncton Daily Times, Thursday August 26th 1920).

Forestry Practices

In 1811, when the first homesteaders (the Geldarts) arrived near what became Elgin, the area was described as unbroken wilderness, having no roads and extremely dense forest (St John Daily Telegraph October 14th, 1870).  Such early settlers cleared the land to allow for agriculture, locally consuming cordwood for fuel, and lumber to build their homesteads, while generating income by selecting marketable timber to send downriver to be sold for shipbuilding or export.  The latter became a significant aspect of the local economy.  Timber harvest in the Petitcodiac timber district as a whole grew from 260 tons in 1818 to 3,137 tons by 1836 (Wynn 1981), though this paled in comparison cutting in other more accessible portions of the province such as in numerous timber districts along the Saint John and Miramichi  Rivers where harvests taking place at the same time were in some cases an order of magnitude greater.

On the Pollett six or seven dams on streams and on the river itself would be simultaneously opened during the spring freshet to cause of surge of water that could carry logs cut over the winter to mills downstream (Jones et. al 1997), a practice which reportedly continued to supply the mill at Forest Glen (the community of Pollett River) up to 1947. During the early 1800s white pine was gradually culled from New Brunswick Forests to meet the demand for masts for the Royal Navy (Wynn, 1981).  The White Pines Act of 1722 established the requirement of a royal license to fell white pines with a diameter exceeding 24 inches unless they were privately owned, and in 1729 Parliament reserved all such trees to the government except those already in private hands before 1690 (Purvis 1999). Since New Brunswick came under British control well after that time, this exception did not apply at all to its forests. During the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars from 80 to 90 percent of all masts supplied to the Royal Navy came from Canada, mostly New Brunswick (Williams 1992). The Napoleonic blockade of the Baltic forced England to expand New Brunswick’s lumber production twentyfold, transforming an “undeveloped backwater” of 25,000 people to a bustling colony of 190,000 (Gordon 2014). Pines could still be found in 1850, but few of the magnificent trees the region was known for earlier in the century remained.  Spruce was more abundant, but the largest had also been cut.  Though there were not many extensive cutover tracts, by 1850 the character and composition of the forests in New Brunswick had been drastically modified over the course of just 50 years of harvesting.

The effects of this early economic activity were not limited to just the forests. By 1820 importation of food into New Brunswick was the rule rather than the exception, everything hinged on the timber trade, though there were warning signs of the danger of single source economy (DeMerchant, 1983).  James Robb, professor of Natural Science at Kings College in Fredericton (now the University of New Brunswick), was appointed Secretary of the Provincial Board of Agriculture when it was established in 1858.  He warned that timber harvesting was so lucrative that it distorted development, and that when the market in Europe declined, the farmer neglecting his homestead to work in the woods would be “surprised to find his fences down, his fields grown up with bushes, and both himself and his snug little clearing generally all gone bad”.  It was not just agriculture that was falling short of its potential.  In the years that shipbuilding boomed at St. John and other towns along the coast, even the fishing industry was neglected as men were drawn to the forest to supply wood (DeMerchant, 1983).

Elson (1962) reports that there were several dams on the Pollett during this time to provide power to sawmills.  He notes that one at the community of Pollett River/Forest Glen (Table 3-1) 16 kilometers above the mouth of the river, functioned for at least 150 years, which if accurate would be almost the entire period from early settlement up to his time of writing. Reportedly during much of that time it had no fishway and prevented Salmon from passing upstream.  Beyond that dam another sawmill dam was located near Elgin (Table 3-1), 28 kilometers above the mouth of the river and less than a kilometer below Gordon Falls.  Arguably with regards to salmon, the presence of that dam was rendered somewhat moot by the one below it. Aside from restricting passage, mill wastes were also a problem because at the time, other than burning, dumping into the river was one of the most common forms of disposal of sawdust, bark, and other waste (Department of Fisheries 1890).  Such material sometimes covered river bottoms, smothering spawning sites.  Despite the Pollett draining a larger watershed and being a longer river than the Little River, it is thought that following English settlement from the early 1800s to the 1970s, the Little River contributed more salmon smolts to the Petitcodiac than the Pollett did, due to the extent of human impacts on the Pollett (MacLeod 1973).

By 1876 the completion of the railway branch line, The Elgin, Petitcodiac, & Havelock Railway connected the Pollett watershed to Intercolonial Railway, eliminating transportation as a constraint on timber harvesting. According to Dawson (2005) it entered the watershed following what is today Route 905 (which already existed then as a road) heading east from Petitcodiac until arriving at the Pollett at Forest Glen (another name for the community of Pollett River), near where Sanatorium Rd now meets the 905.  From there it continued upstream, alongside the precursor of the modern 905 to Elgin.

The Chignecto Post in Sackville wrote of the railway opening on September 14th 1876, “Within a few months over 350 cars of lumber (which could not have otherwise profitably been put in the market) have been hauled over the railway. The estimated shipments of lumber per year is about six million.  Besides this there is ship timber from the virgin forests of Elgin, bark, sleepers, cordwood, country produce, local and passenger traffic.”  It goes on, “There is said to be enough timber in her (referring to the Elgin region) hills to keep the shipyards in Saint John busy for a century.”  How “virgin” the forests may have been is an interesting question given a population at that time (Table 3-1) of over 250 people in Elgin, plus hundreds elsewhere in the watershed and surrounding communities who had been there, in some cases for much of the previous 50 years.   Such things are relative however, given that, as noted previously, other more easily accessible portions of the Province, had experienced more intensive harvesting.  Eleven months later The Daily Times of Moncton noted on August 15th 1877 that “during the year a great quantity of ship timber has been got out at Elgin for consumption in Saint John.”

At that point the age of wooden ships was beginning to wind down however, causing a reduction in the scale of the demand for timber exports both as wood and manufactured into ships. By the end of the Crimean war in 1856, virtually all of the ships in the British Royal Navy were already fitted with steam engines, rendering masts irrelevant  (Evans 2004), and the conversion to iron hulls began within a decade thereafter.

A non-timber forest product that was commercially significant at the time was maple sugar.  In the 1840s the Colpitts family was already producing marketable surpluses, gathering enough sap to produce 6200 pounds of maple sugar (Albert County Museum 2015). By 1851 the annual output of maple sugar from Elgin Parish (which also included all of the forested upper reaches of the Little River, immediately  to the east of the Pollett) was approximately 80,000 pounds (Fellows 1980).

Agricultural Practices

As noted in the timber section, before crops could be planted settlers were faced with cutting and clearing the forest.  Stumps were often left a few years to rot, and crops were sown amongst them (DeMerchant, 1983).  In Perley’s (1857) Handbook of Information for Emigrants to New Brunswick, he suggests that “No emigrant should undertake to clear land and make a farm, unless he has the means of supporting his family for 12 months.” However, it was not just a matter of the financial resources of individuals. Since in the early 1800’s the province as a whole was not self-sufficient agriculturally, it is unlikely the communities along the Pollett River were either.  However, given the logistical challenges of transporting food to remote homesteads, it is doubtful that importation of food was as practical as in urban centres. More likely for the early settlers, subsistence agriculture was supplemented with food available from the forest and river.  In fact, Elson (1962) notes that the abundant supply of Salmon on the Pollett River was reported to have been one of the attractions for early settlers. This pattern had already been established a generation previously on the Petitcodiac River.  In 1783 while Robert Colpitts first crop at his farm just downstream of the mouth of the Pollett was ripening, his family’s main source of food was salmon (Moncton Daily Times, Thursday August 26th 1920).

By 1850 over 25% of the land in coastal Parishes such as Hopewell, Dorchester, and Westmoreland had been cleared for agriculture, and Sackville Parish had 16,000 of its 100,000 acres fit for cultivation. Of the eight remaining Parishes in Westmorland and Albert Counties, Elgin Parish was the only one at that time with less than 5,000 acres of cleared land (Wynn 1981).  What is more, in only both Elgin and Salisbury Parishes was the population density less than 5 people per square mile.  The quality of the land was not the issue however.  The Chignecto Post in Sackville on Thursday September 14th 1876 described Elgin as, “one of those richly dowered places to whose prospective growth no one need set a limit.  The climate, owing perhaps to being shut by her hills from the turbulent Bay of Fundy – is delightful.  Its reputation as a fruit growing district will someday rival the Valley of Annapolis.”  Hyperbole perhaps, as things didn’t turn out that way, but the upper Pollett valley did become and has remained agriculturally productive.

By 1871 the census results for Elgin Parish indicated that approximately 84% of the adults reporting an occupation, said that they were either farmers or farm laborers (Kanner, 1994).  In 1876 with the arrival of The Elgin, Petitcodiac, & Havelock Railway branch line, sale of cash crops in distant markets became a more viable option, with reports of potatoes being sent as far away as Boston in 1887 (Moncton Daily Times, Monday October 1887), and cattle to Saint John the following year (The Maple Leaf, Albert NB, Thursday October 18th 1888). Such ventures indicate that agriculture had reached the point where it was producing marketable surpluses.

Dawson (2005) shows that in 1878  the road network within the watershed looked quite recognizable to the modern eye, with roads of some kind already present along most of the routes that are significant enough to be paved today, though obviously these wouldn’t have been developed to that extent then. Still, given that in 1811 the watershed was described as roadless, this represented major change during the intervening 67 years.

The sawmill dam at Elgin may also have supplied power to the grist mill (Table 3-1).  As a means of grinding grains into flour this would have provided the community the ability to process food being grown locally to facilitate either consumption or storage, and added value to it as a cash crop to be transported to distant markets.

It was fortunate for settlers that agricultural productivity and transportation had improved since the ability of the growing population to supplement their diets with food from the river was diminishing.  As early as 1852, concerns were being expressed about noticeable declines in the once abundant salmon population on the Petitcodiac.  At the time it was presumed then to be a consequence of overfishing (Elson 1962).  But by the 1870’s the lack of fishways on the dams on the Pollett was acknowledged to be part of the problem.

Though productive, commercial agriculture did not change the Pollett valley in the ways that early enthusiasts had hoped. Between the First and Second World Wars most of the scattered farms above Gordon Falls were abandoned and allowed to revert back to forest (Elson 1962). Dawson (2005) shows that in 1878 the density of roads in that area was quite high (compared to today), some of which probably served those farms. The Elgin, Petitcodiac, & Havelock Railway was never very profitable, and went bankrupt in 1890.  It was sold to the government in 1918 and operated by the Intercolonial Railway until that later became part of Canadian National (New Brunswick Railway Museum 2014). Service ended in 1955 when the branch line from Petitcodiac to Elgin was shut down.

Mining Practices

A short lived lime burning operation provided agricultural lime for the use of local farmers.  It was extracted from a now abandoned limestone quarry west of the community of Pollett River (Goudge 1934).


In 1910 an earth and concrete dam was built just 10 kilometers above the mouth of the river as part of the Jordan Memorial Sanatorium.  This institution was established along the Pollett River at a community called The Glades, near Kay settlement, as part of a Provincial effort to treat tuberculosis (Elson 1962).  The fish passage built with the dam was destroyed in the mid 1930’s, and the dam became a barrier to fish passage until 1950 when a new fishway was built.  This dam has since been removed as have all of the other dams along the Pollett.

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29 Jan 2018