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Permian to Present 11: Land in the 1700s and 1800s

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

In the last three editions of ‘Permian to Present’ we looked at aspects of PEI’s forests and wildlife hundreds of years ago, before European settlement. In each case, I noted that extensive land clearing during the 1800s removed forests and extirpated wildlife. Today, let’s quantify that.

Although the Island was visited by Jacques Cartier in 1535 and Basque (southwest European) fishermen during the late 1500s and 1600s, the first permanent European settlement wasn’t established until 1720. Early settlements were limited in scope, clustered near coastal areas and salt marshes. Those marshes (Photo 1) were important sources of finfish, shellfish, waterfowl, edible plants, and essential ‘marsh hay’. (You can read a more detailed account of the cultural importance of Island salt marshes in the Habitats and Ecology category of my blog).

Photo 1: Salt marsh

Two decades later, the European population on PEI – including both itinerant fishermen and permanent residents – was just 440 people and the area of land under cultivation was estimated to be in the neighbourhood of 1,000 acres, including marshland. By 1752, the population had grown to more than 2,200 but it seemed that not much more land was being cultivated, with the estimate still in the range of 1,000 acres. The newcomers to PEI remained clustered along coastal areas, with every farm having access to saltwater resources.

The settlers’ land clearing was neither their only nor their major impact on the landscape: escaped fires burned large areas. Some of the fires of the mid-1700s devastated areas from Mount Stewart east to St. Peters, and from Naufrage to East Point. Today, I find differences in vegetation in these areas that I attribute at least partly to these historic fires. Despite nearly four decades of settlement and land clearing, PEI’s forests and wildlife remained largely intact at the time of the deportation of Acadians in 1758, another sad chapter in the Island’s history.

The most detailed map of the period was completed by surveyor Captain Samuel Holland in 1764-65 (Photo 2). The orientation of many of today’s property lines, roads, and county lines – as well as many modern-day place names – are all legacies of this work more than 250 years ago. Holland accurately mapped the cleared land of the time which totalled just over 10,000 acres, less than 1% of PEI. One of my favourite historical quotes comes from Walter Johnstone more than 50 years later. In 1822, he described the Island as “…one entire forest of wood; all the exceptions to the truth of this, literally are not much more, even including the present clearances, than the dark spots upon the moon’s face…”.

Photo 2: The Holland map of PEI, 1764-65.

By the mid-1800s, population and land clearing were both expanding rapidly. In the 50 years between 1830 and 1880, the number of settlers more than tripled from 32,000 to nearly 109,000 (Photo 3). The rate of land clearing was double that pace, with the area of ‘improved land’ increasing more than sixfold over the same period (from an estimated 95,000 acres to 597,000 acres, Photo 4). The true area of impact – including settlements, burned areas, and roads – would have been greater still.

Photo 3: Population

Photo 4: Improved land

By the start of the 20th century, PEI’s population was the highest it had ever been, and forest area was its lowest, with less than one-third of the Island still wooded. Even this small remaining area had been cut over and burned, often several times. It’s thus no surprise that many of the Island’s larger native mammals are no longer present and our forests don’t match the quality of those originally described.

In the next editions of Permian to Present, we’ll look at some of the animals that have been introduced to PEI, and then move on to how our Island landscape changed throughout the 1900s.

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Very interesting. Thank you for sharing this.

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I’m glad you’re enjoying the information 😊.


Feb 01, 2023

How very interesting Kate ! P.E.I is my birth province but I now live in Montreal .Thank you for all this information.

Replying to

I’m glad you’re enjoying the information! 😊

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