Nicolas Denys (1598? – 1688) was a French aristocrat who became an explorer, colonizer, soldier and leader in New France. Today, he is perhaps best known for founding settlements at St. Pierre (now St. Peter's, Nova Scotia), Ste. Anne (Englishtown, Nova Scotia) and Nepisiquit (Bathurst, New Brunswick).
Early years in France
Early years in Acadia
When Cardinal Richelieu authorized a stronger French presence in the New World, he commissioned Isaac de Razilly to be lieutenant-general of Acadia and Nicolas Denys accompanied the expedition as one of de Razilly’s lieutenants. The expedition set sail in 1632 with 300 hand-picked men, supplies, six Franciscan missionaries and Nicolas’ brother, Simon.
They founded a colony at the LaHave River where Denys worked in shore fishery, lumber and fur trading – a good foundation of experience to prepare him for life in the New World. French administrators, including nearby Port Royal's lord, the Sieur Charles de Menou d'Aulnay, thought little of the colonists’ reclaiming tidal marshlands. Denys was very impressed with the “great extent of meadows which the sea used to cover and which the Sieur d'Aulnay has drained”. It was this extensive system of dikes and drainage sluices (called aboiteaux) that set his colony apart from any others. It allowed the colonists to reclaim land that the Mi'kmaq nation had no use for. This greatly aided peaceful co-existence with their neighbors, and Mi’kmaq trade, friendship and intermarriage was and is an immensely important part of the Acadian identity and heritage.
When Denys came in 1632 the natives were already using iron kettles, axes, knives, and arrowheads, but few had firearms. Before the use of kettles natives used hollowed out tree trunks in which to boil their unsalted food, dropping in hot stones to heat the water. Possessing kettles, the natives were free to move anywhere and became more mobile, changing their habitations often. Denys had remarked on excessive hunting in his diaries. Moose, formerly in great numbers on Cape Breton Island, had been exterminated by natives hunting with muskets. There were no longer any moose on Prince Edward Island and the caribou were in reduced number. Alcohol, however, not over-hunting, was a major cause of the native decline.
When de Razilly died in December 1635 the colony broke up and Denys returned to France. In 1642 he married Marguerite de Lafitte in France, but soon took his new family across to his adopted lands of Acadia.
Denys served as a witness to one of the most unfortunate chapters of early Acadia’s history: the rivalry between the Lords d’Aulnay and Charles de Saint-Étienne de la Tour, his bitter rival, and the dissipation of efforts to grow the colony. La Tour had also claimed royal permission to ply the fur trade in the American Northeast. His rival outposts were in often-open hostility with the budding d’Aulnay colony, competing for resources and markets. Decades of sparring led to bloodshed. In the Spring of 1643 La Tour led a party of English mercenaries against the Acadian colony at Port Royal. His 270 Puritan and Huguenot troops killed three Acadians, burned a mill, slaughtered cattle and seized 18,000 livres of furs. D'Aulnay was able to retaliate in 1645 by seizing all of La Tour’s possessions and outposts while La Tour was drumming up more support for his cause in the English port city of Boston. Denys’ letters and journals give vivid descriptions of the drama.
Once he secured rights to his own lands in Acadia through the Company of New France, Denys continued to seek his fortunes now as the Governor of Canso and Isle Royale (now called Cape Breton Island). Denys founded settlements at St. Pierre (now St. Peter's, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, home of the Nicholas Denys Museum), Ste. Anne (Englishtown, Nova Scotia) and Nepisiquit (Bathurst, New Brunswick).
His 'fortunes' had some reversals, however. Sieur Emmanuel le Borgne, a rival with holdings at Port Royal, seized his properties by armed force in 1654 while Denys was at Ste. Anne. Later in 1654, King Louis XIV officially recognized Denys’ claims to the property lost to le Borgne. Le Borgne was thereby commanded by royal decree to restore them to the rightful owner.
The Denys Family made their home in St. Pierre, Isle Royale and dwelt there in relative calm until the Winter of 1669, when Nicolas’ home and business were consumed in a fire. Denys relocated his family to Nepisiquit (Bathurst, NB), just south of the Gaspé Peninsula. It was there that he turned his efforts to writing.
Denys died in 1688 at Nepisiquit (in the outskirts of Bathurst New Brunswick), a town of his own creation. During his tenure in the New World, he appears to have offered more stability of governance than those other royal appointees around him. Perhaps his greatest legacy is his writings about the lands and peoples of Acadia, especially Description géographique et historique des costes de l’Amérique septentrionale: avec l’histoire naturelle du païs, two volumes written in 1672, after he retired to Paris. Because of this work, he remains the main informant on the conditions of Acadia for the years from 1632 to 1670.
Denys' daughter, Marguerite, married her cousin, James Forsyth, who was a captain in naval and land expeditions. Marguerite and James had their own daughter, Margaret, who in turn married another cousin, Walter Forsyth, a regent of the University of Glasgow and titular Baron of Dykes. Their children inherited from their mother's family the shipping and private armed vessels which were their part in the Forsyth and Denys enterprises on the seas, the same extending even to the French and British Americas and Indies. The Forsyths were in alliance with the Normans of France, favoring the Stuart cause in Scotland, and opposed to English control.
- Historical Biographies, Nova Scotia: Nicholas Denys (1598-1688)
- See http://www.blupete.com/Hist/BiosNS/1600-00/Denys.htm among others, although http://www.porttoulouse.com/html/the_denys_story.html isn’t as confident of this date.
- John Mack Faragher, A Great and Noble Scheme (WW Norton: New York, 2005), p. 43
- Nicolas Denys, The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America, ed. and trans. William F. Ganong (Champlain Society, Toronto, 1908) pp. 123-124
- Faragher, pp. 16-17 and throughout
- later compiled into his work Geographical Description. See below.
- Sauer, Carl Ortwin. Seventeenth century North America. (Berkeley: Turtle Island, 1980), pp. 94-96
- http://www.blupete.com/Hist/BiosNS/1600-00/Denys.htm for the marriage and return voyage, but http://www.porttoulouse.com/html/the_denys_story.html is more authoritative about the number and names of children resultant from the marriage.
- Denys, throughout.
- Denys, pp. 98-99
- See a translation of the letters patent given by King Louis IV to Sieur Denys in Denys, p. 61
- Nicholas Denys Museum
- Denys' compilation of 1672 was translated in 1908 by the Champlain Society's Dr. William F. Ganong: The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America