First Level Assessment- Land use History of the Pollett River Watershed
As noted in the forestry section the population of New Brunswick quintupled in a matter of just a few decades to meet the needs of both the Royal Navy and merchant fleets for naval stores in response to the Napoleonic blockade of the Baltic (Wynn 1981b). While a lucrative trade, this distorted development, shifting what had been a Province with little more than subsistence agriculture into an export driven economy, while simultaneously adding numerous mouths to feed.
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).
About the same time that the Geldarts arrived in Elgin, in 1811 Joseph Gubbins reported in his Journals of his travels through the area that settlers on the Paulet (Pollett) told him that “From some unaccountable cause no salmon had been known to frequent a small river called the Paulet, which falls into the Petitcodiac, until one of the inhabitants brought a few and put them into it, since when it has been as well supplied with them as any other” (Gubbins 1980).
This description of events is improbable. The Pollett River and the Little River are recognized as the two primary salmon spawning streams in the Petitcodiac headwaters (McLeod 1973). Given that Kay Settlement was only settled in 1803 and Elgin not until 1811 there would have been few observers along the Pollett river prior to 1811, and not much time depth upon which for them to base such an assessment, having only been there just several short years. It seems more plausible there may have simply been several bad years for salmon returns on the Pollett (for whatever reason) in approximately the 1790s, just as settlers began to occupy the area.
There is even a plausible explanation for why salmon returns to the Pollett in the 1790s would have been poor, and then progressively rebounded. As noted above, in 1783 while Robert Colpitts first crop was ripening near Salisbury, he was reportedly feeding his family mostly salmon. That could mean something like ~100 salmon. Colpitts was not alone. After the end of the American Revolution, the arrival of the Loyalists suddenly caused the human population in New Brunswick to triple- swelling from 5,000 into 16,000 people in a little over a year- between 1783 and 1784 (Wynn 1981a).
Assuming Colpitts and his family were not unusual, then it is easy to imagine that returning salmon on the Petitcodiac got over fished at that time and so didn’t make it back to the Pollett in significant numbers – despite being seen (and eaten) on the main stem- pretty much as described. The historic population of inner Bay of Fundy Atlantic salmon is estimated at 40,000 returning adults (COSEWIC 2006a), of which the Petitcodiac accounted for 20%. This means that historically on average the Petitcodiac was home to approximately 8,000 returning adult salmon during any given year. Therefore, as few as 50 newly arrived Loyalist families along the Petitcodiac, with few agricultural crops and perhaps each eating something like 100 fish per year, could rapidly consume approximately 60% of the salmon population- making returning salmon a lot harder to find as far upstream as the Pollett.
Then, as agriculture downstream along the main stem of the Petitcodiac became more productive, farmers there became more self sufficient (and perhaps grew tired of eating salmon). Once dependency on fishing salmon declined, salmon stocks could have naturally rebounded, because more fish made it back to the Pollett. Meanwhile, those “stocking” the Pollett credited themselves for “introducing” salmon to the Pollett, which was what they then reported to Gubbins during his visit in 1811.
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 1981b). 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 1). As a means of grinding grains into flour this would have allowed the community to process food grown locally to facilitate consumption or storage, and added value 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). The human population in the region had continued to grow, with the 1851 census recording 193,800 people in New Brunswick (Bollman and Clemenson 2008), more than 12 times as many as had been present in 1784 (and 38 times as many people as compared to 1783). Even if each of these people were eating fewer salmon, increasing numbers took a toll. In addition to over-fishing, by the 1870’s the lack of fishways on the dams on the Pollett was also 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 profitable, and went bankrupt in 1890. It was sold to the government in 1918 and operated by the Intercolonial Railway until that 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.