The Belfast Historical Society
Belfast Historical Society:
President: Hazel Davies
Vice President: Donald MacTavish
Treasurer: Doreen Huestis
Secretary: Audrey Shillabeer
The Society meets at the Croft House (134 Lord Selkirk Park Road, Belfast) six times a year: 7:30 p.m. on the 4th Thursday of Sept., Oct., Nov.,
April, May and June. Interesting speakers. Everyone is welcome. Lunch for all. Membership: $10. Donations much appreciated.
The general objectives of the society are defined in the Constitution as:
1. To promote and encourage an interest in the history of the Belfast District.
2. To identify, collect, and preserve historic documents, artifacts, and information of local interest and significance.
3. To cooperate with the Prince Edward Island Heritage Foundation in collecting and preserving materials of province-wide interest.
The specific objectives of the society are defined in the Society Constitution as:
1. To do research into the history of the Belfast District, and to share the findings of this research through the publication of pamphlets, books, a regular newsletter to be sent to the members of the Society, and by other appropriate means.
2. To hold at least six general meetings of the Society each year, at each of which there shall be some program, such as a guest speaker or a discussion of the history of the local area.
3. To encourage in young people, by cooperation with the schools and other means, an interest in the history of the local area.
4. To gather and record unwritten stories and information that exist only in the memories of the older people.
5. To commemorate historic events by appropriate ceremonies.
6. To mark in a suitable manner sites of historic interest, or to make recommendations to proper authority respecting the marketing of the same.
7. To work toward a local museum which will house objects and documents collected.
The Belfast Historical Society operates the:
Selkirk Heritage and Cultural Centre
134 Lord Selkirk Park Road
Belfast PE C0A 1A0
(902) 659-2209 (seasonal: mid-June to mid-September)
email: firstname.lastname@example.org (seasonal)
Facebook: Belfast Historical Society
History lives here. We have it in our blood. We speak it, we sing it, we dance it--and we share it.
Over 200 years ago—and about 50 years apart--two separate communities of settlers landed here at Belfast Cove (of the larger Orwell Cove) on Prince Edward Island, Canada. Each group of settlers enjoyed strong familial, religious, and community connections within their respective group before and after arrival. Each found refuge, abundant seas and fertile land with rich wooded areas. Each party was welcomed and helped by the aboriginal peoples; the Mi’kmaq. But, for the Acadian settlers and Lord Selkirk’s settlers, two very different stories emerged.
The Belfast Historical Society celebrates the history of the early inhabitants of Belfast, P.E.I. and works to preserve it--and present it--to locals and visitors alike. To this end, the Belfast Historical Society maintains and operates the Selkirk Heritage and Cultural Centre where you will find the ancient Acadian / Scottish cemetery (a designated heritage site); the historic Belle River Church of Scotland (1876); and an interpretive centre called Croft House. Croft House--a relatively new structure-- is built in the style of a Scottish Crofter’s cottage, and it houses a reception area, site history, artifacts, a growing collection of genealogical records from many of the families of the original Scottish settlers; and a gift shop full of interesting clan treasures. We also sell books of local and relevant history, five of which we have published ourselves.
Belfast History Overview:
The earliest inhabitants of this resource rich area were indigenous peoples: the Mi’kmaq. The larger Mikmaw territory in Eastern Canada was and is divided into 7 districts. P.E.I. – or Epekwitk, sometimes spelled Abegweit, ("cradle on the waves") as the Mikmaw people called it—is one of those districts. Mi’kmaq were semi-nomadic and enjoyed the seasonal bounties of the island-- including the Point Prim area. Subsequent immigrant groups found the Mi’kmaq to be friendly and helpful.
The first group of settlers to Belfast on P.E.I. (Pointe Prime on Île St. Jean—as the French called it) was the French-speaking Acadians from "L’Acadie" (specifically the Truro area of modern Nova Scotia). The Acadians were fleeing persecution and choosing not to swear allegiance to the British crown as was required in the settling of accounts in the old and new worlds during Europe’s Seven Years’ War.
It is important to understand that French Acadians saw--and still see--themselves as very different and separate from the French in the motherland of France. Indeed, Acadians had left France long ago because of disastrous events, lawlessness and the burden of high taxes. Historically in the new world, they did not necessarily want to side with the French leaders of church and state sent directly from France to administer their lives; rather, as pragmatic farmers in frontier settlements, they preferred relationships with the English, the French or the indigenous tribes as their needs required. They are also distinctly different –then and now--from the Québécois in Québec.
As for our Acadians at Pointe Prime (Belfast), their story here only begins with their hurried flight from the English in Nova Scotia. Their lives there and here were full of political insecurity. Disastrously for the Acadians, France dictated that they were not to become fishermen at Pointe Prime, but rather, they were to clear the forests and farm successfully and in sufficient quantities to feed the larger and very important French Fortress of Louisbourg on Île Royale (now Cape Breton Island).
Farming was not an illogical focus to the Acadians from the fields of Truro, but during the 1750s, Pointe Prime was plagued with bad weather and infestations of mice. In those years, a flood of Acadian immigrants (from L’Acadie to Île St. Jean) experienced crop failure after crop failure resulting in a lack of food for livestock and an untenable shortage of seed. These were desperate times. L’Abbé Jacques Gerard of St. Paul Parish at Point Prime reports to France: "Our refugees in general do not lose courage, and hope by working to be able to live; but the nakedness which is almost universal and extreme affects them sore; and I can assure you that several will be unable to work this winter for lack of implements. They cannot protect themselves from the cold either by day or by night. . . ."
And things only got worse. The Grand Dérangement of 1755-59 (the English Deportation of the Acadians from Atlantic Canada) dashed all Acadian dreams of settlement on this island-- at least for the time being. Sickness and death plagued deportation vessels with fully ½ the 3000 deportees dying enroute to France. Almost unbelievably, even more tragedy ensued for our Pointe Prime Acadians when the ship to which they had been assigned, the Duke William, sank off the coast of England—so near its destination of France. But for four men and Father Gerard who survived the sinking—and two Pointe Prime families who had been put upon a different ship--all of our Pointe Prime Acadians perished.
Over time, many other deported Acadians--- finding they still felt little affinity for, or connection to, life in France (or other places to which they had fled) --returned to Atlantic Canada and, for our story, to P.E.I where they settled this time in the west of the Island. You will find deep and rich examples of their pride and culture in your travels here on the Island.
In the Belfast area, anglicized names of the early French-speaking communities remind us today of their earlier presence: Point Prim (La Pointe Prime); Belle River (La Belle Rivière); Pinette; and Flat River (La Rivière Platte). But when you visit the ancient cemetery here at the Selkirk Cultural and Heritage Centre, think of the hardships that these particular Acadians endured on these very grounds; understand their conviction, their hopes for community, their love of family, their industriousness, their religious faith; and know too, their courage--as Father Gerard has documented.
The Selkirk Settlers:
At the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War and with the Treaty of Paris, "Acadia" in Atlantic Canada and Quebec fell under British rule. In the 1770s, the whole of Prince Edward Island was divided into 67 "lots" of which 66 were awarded to British Lords and Ladies in a "lottery." By 1803, Lots 57 and 58—80,000 acres including Point Prim—were owned by Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk.
Lord Selkirk was a learned man and a wealthy man. He imagined a model Scottish village in British North America for Scots facing overpopulation against finite resources in the Hebrides. Earlier, Scottish men, women and children had emigrated to the new world (many to the Carolinas), but Selkirk’s vision of a larger scale settlement started with his approaching of prosperous and adventurous Highlanders to emigrate; nearly 800 from the Isle of Skye, Wester Ross and Uist signed on and paid passage as Selkirk’s Settlers.
Selkirk had crafted a plan for his settlements, and prepared for them. After commissioning three fine sailing ships—Polly, Dykes and Oughton--, Selkirk and his settlers set sail in June of 1803.
The Polly was the first of these ships to arrive when it landed at Belfast Cove (part of the larger Orwell Cove) on August 7th, 1803. By the time Selkirk arrived (he, on the Dykes) the first settlers had fashioned a temporary village of wigwams.
Selkirk moved quickly to divide up his lands with many of the settlers buying acreages in 50, 100, and 150 acre lots. From his diary, we learn of Selkirk’s prices:
"I stated to [Rev. Dr. Angus MacAulay] the proposed prices: ¼ dollar per acre for back lands, one dollar for front—2 dollars for old cleared grownup ---marsh or clear land, so far as can be given, 5 dollars—these I am given to understand are considerably below current prices when land is sold. J. Stewart has sold a good deal at 10/, but allowing installments. Some lots at Pownal Bay were sold at that price 7 or 8 years ago".-- Diary of Lord Selkirk August 14th 1803
On site in our interpretive centre (the Croft House), we have a copy of these early transactions of land conveyances.
Soon, the Scottish settlers began the work of clearing the land, planting potatoes and grain crops between stumps and preparing for winter. In contrast to the Acadian experience, the weather in the early 1800s was cooperative and the mice far fewer in numbers: the Scottish settlers fared well. Lord Selkirk tells us that within a year, the settlers were self-sufficient.
Because they fared well and since they were on an insular island, the Scots have generally –for decades--stayed put. In fact, two hundred and some years later, many area families count themselves as descendants of Selkirk Settlers. One can see their proud names on rural mailboxes throughout the area: MacRae, MacLeod, MacDonald, MacLean, MacPherson, Beaton, Cameron, Gillis, Morrison, Murchison and Ross to name but a few. The Selkirk Settlers ensured an enduring Scottish culture on P.E.I.
The Belfast story is of two groups of settlers. Each group settled on the same fertile land near diverse and plentiful woods and next to abundant seas. Each group was as industrious and resourceful as the other. Each had strong familial ties, strong religious faith, proud histories . . . and great hopes for the future.
Come to the shore where they each arrived. Stand atop the red cliffs and feel the ocean breezes as they would have. Walk among the simple graves and feel the anguish of losses. Warm to songs of glory. Hear pipers fill the air with ancient memories. History lives here. Come feel the stories.
Because there are still such strong connections to this land, we at the Croft House collect genealogical records of Belfast families. Many of our visitors--having heard nothing but the words "PEI and Polly"-- arrive at our doorstep thirsting for stories of their ancestors. We have a comfortable work space for you to pour through family trees.
If you wish to contribute your family record including copies of photographs, please place information sheets in plastic sheet protectors and place in a white labeled binder and mail to:
134 Lord Selkirk Park Road,
Belfast PE Canada
Be sure to refer to resources and to include your contact information for your folks who will find you --their kin. To date we have 39 binders from Belfast families.
During our bi-centennial celebration in 2003, familial and clan connections were again made with Scotland when a contingent of Prince Edward Islanders traveled to Skye and Raasay in June and a contingent of Skye Islanders came to Belfast in August. On both sides of "the pond", concerts, plays, readings, dancers, and hauntingly beautiful pipers captivated all who attended. A re-enactment of the landing of the Polly at Belfast Cove made the event even very memorable.
On August 7th of 2011, we will once again host a "Polly Day" – a day of entertainment involving musicians and other artists from Skye and PEI. Hope to see you there! Visit this page and the Belfast Historical Society on facebook for information and details as they are announced.