ISLE MADAME GEOGRAPHY


Isle Madame is an island located at the southern most tip of beautiful Cape Breton Island, in Nova Scotia, on Canada's east coast. Isle Madame is made up of four main communities; Arichat, West Arichat, D'Escousse, and Petit De Grat. The island is about 7 miles wide and 10 miles long. Paved roads criss-cross the island, showcasing the 12 beautiful interior fresh-water lakes, as well as the picturesque coastline with it's many inlets and islands.

By land, Isle Madame is located one-half hour from the Canso Causeway, and approximately three and a half hours from the Halifax International Airport. By sea, Isle Madame is 5 miles from the historic St. Peter's Canal, gateway to the world famous Bras d'Or Lakes, the largest salt water lake in the world. The island is located where a yachter could easily set sail for the Gulf of St. Lawrence or make their way along the east coast of Canada and the United States, or venture to any points beyond.


ISLE MADAME HISTORY


Not long after Columbus crossed the Atlantic for the first time French, English, and particularly Basque fishermen began using Isle Madame as a summer base for their North Atlantic Fishing and whaling expeditions. One of the greatest attractions of Isle Madame in that early period of European exploration was the immense herds of walrus that invaded the shores of Isle Madame on fairly regular basis. Walruses were slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands on the shores of Isle Madame both for the ivory of their tusks and the oil that was rendered from their large deposits of fat.

Even once the last walrus had vanished from the shores of Isle Madame the seas around Isle Madame continued to yield a sufficient bounty to justify a continued European presence. In time a number of the Basque fishermen, who had been using Isle Madame as a fishing station for generations, chose to settle permanently. While they were eventually assimilated, through intermarriage with their Acadian neighbors, their family names, Goyetche, DesRoches, Baccardax, and Josse (Joyce) may be found in Isle Madame to this day.

Apart from the Basque presence, the first permanent settlement on Isle Madame occurred during the French regime at Louisbourg. During this time two French merchants, D"Aroupet and Hiriat, turned Petit de Grat into a major fishing and smuggling center. In fact, many French and British officials of the time estimated that there was a greater volume of goods moving through Petit de Grat then through Louisbourg itself. Some indication of D'Aroupet's relationship with his employees can be discerned from the fact that his name is still used in Petit de Grat as a curse word.

While some of Isle Madame's Acadian families, notably the Gerroirs, LeJeunes and Doirons, settled in Isle Madame during this period, most of Isle Madame's population was composed of French fishermen brought to Isle Madame by Hiriat and D'Aroupet. After the fall of Louisbourg in 1758 virtually all of these early settlers left Isle Madame. Most of the ancestors of Isle Madame's present day Acadian population arrived in the years after the Fall of Louisbourg. Families such as the Boudrot's (Boudreaus), Samsons, Martels (Martells), Dugas',DeCoste, Bouchers, Petitpas, Vigneau's, Fougeres, Marchands, Poiriers, and Landrys were settled in the Port Toulouse (St. Peter's) area at the time of the Fall of Louisbourg. After being forced off their land many of these families spent years in exile or hiding in the woods before finding their way to Isle Madame. Other families such as the Forets, the Theriots (Theriaults), the Babins, the LeBlancs, the Forgerons, the Bellefoutaines, the Lavandiers, the Meuniers, and the Richards were expelled from Old Acadie, that is the Bay of Fundy region, in the Great Expulsion of 1755 and like the families mentioned above made their way to Isle Madame after a number of years in exile.

Many of these early settlers lived in conditions just barely above the subsistence level. Unable to hold public office, vote, teach or attend school or even own land due to Nova Scotia's anti-Catholic penal laws they lived at the mercy of the local authorities. This was mainly the local fish merchant, Charles Robin, a French Anglican from the Channel Islands. Robins fishing and trading operations extended around the Gulf of St. Lawrence region and Arichat was his headquarters. Fishermen on Isle Madame sold all of their fish to Robin and so he was able to control the price. Robin also owned the only store, meaning that all fishermen were forced to purchase their goods from him at prices he set. Given his monopoly position it is not surprising that Robin exploited the Acadian fishermen of Isle Madame to the limit of their endurance. Robin was followed by other Jersey merchants including the Janvrins, the Levescontes, the Gruchys, the Huberts, the Jeans, and the Moores. Many of these firms continued to exploit Isle Madame's fishermen until well into the twentieth century. The Robin firm did business at Robins in Arichat until 1910. The Levesconte operation in D'Escousse only closed its doors in early 1930's.

Fortunately for Isle Madame's rapidly expanding Acadian population Nova Scotia's anti-Catholic laws were abolished in 1784. By 1786, the population of Isle Madame had increased to such an extent that Arichat was assigned its own resident Catholic priest making it the second oldest Catholic parish in Nova Scotia. At the time of its creation the parish of Arichat took in all of Eastern Nova Scotia, PEI, and the Memramcook Valley of New Brunswick.

This newfound prosperity in the spiritual realm was mirrored by a growing material prosperity. Even before the turn of the century Simon Foret of Arichat was able to open a tavern on the Arichat waterfront. Pierre Babin, ancestor of all the Babins of Isle Madame, built and sailed his own vessels. As the nineteenth century unfolded such prosperity became the rule rather than the exception. By this time it was becoming increasingly obvious that Arichat was going to be one of the major ports in Atlantic Canada. Sitting at the entrance to the Strait of Canso, which was itself the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Arichat was ideally suited to act as a stop over place for vessels headed to the Canada's. As well Arichat was well suited to act as a base for merchants engaged in the so-called triangular trade in which North Atlantic fish was exchanged for Caribbean rum and molasses and European manufactured goods. To these geographic advantages was added the fact that Arichat possessed one of the largest and deepest harbors on the Eastern seaboard of North America.

This particular combination of advantages ushered in an age of unparalleled prosperity on Isle Madame. Around the shores of Isle Madame, particularly in West Arichat and D'Escousse, ocean going vessels were constructed in record numbers by the same Acadian fishermen who had been oppressed by Charles Robin. In Arichat alone in the 1830s upwards of 60 vessels a year were being constructed. Five forges were needed to supply the metal work necessary for these vessels. By 1867 over 400 listed Arichat as their homeport, hundreds more sailed out of West Arichat, D'Escousse, and Petit de Grat. So many Spanish, French and American vessels visited Arichat in those years the governments of those countries maintained consular agents at Arichat to look after the affairs of their nationals. By the 1860s Arichat could boast two high schools, a cathedral, two Protestant churches, a grand court house, 24 large wharves, several lawyers, several doctors, a Masonic temple, several hotels, up to four bars, and a newspaper. Needless to say, this activity attracted a good deal of immigration to Isle Madame. Several families including the LeNoirs, the Hureaus, the LeBruns, the Murys, the Covins, and the Franks migrated directly from France and were quickly absorbed into the local Acadian population. Other families such as the Davids and Lindens first popped up on Isle Madame when their forbearers jumped ship in the Strait of Canso, swam ashore and met and married local girls, thereby assimilating into the Acadian majority. One group that did not assimilate readily was the Irish immigrants to Isle Madame. In Arichat such families as the Flynns, Hennessys, Barrets, Powers, Phalens, Maddens, and Tyrrels long maintained their separate Irish identity. Indeed Arichat's St. Paddy's day celebrations were judged to be the most exuberant east of Montreal. In Rocky Bay the Kellys, Doyles, Wilsons, Dunns, Kehoes, O'Hearns and Keatings were even more devoted to their Irish heritage and succeeded in producing what is today the most distinctly Irish community in Cape Breton. Indeed up until the Second World War the ancient Irish language was still to be heard in Rocky Bay.


The preceding profile of Isle Madame is offered to you and posted with permission and courtesy of the Isle Madame Visitor Information Site at



© Lucie LeBlanc Consentino
Acadian & French Canadian Ancestral Home
1998 - Present




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