Founding of Louisbourg

Following territorial losses in Canada as a result of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), which ended the War of the Spanish Succession, France chose to establish a new fortress at Louisbourg, on Cape Breton Island, to protect its North American interests.

Summary of Event

The terms of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) Utrecht, Treaty of (1713) required France to give up its claims to Newfoundland and Acadia (the southern part of present-day Nova Scotia) to Great Britain. French-British conflicts[French British conflicts]
British-French conflicts[British French conflicts] The treaty further forced all French inhabitants of these areas to leave within a year. In response, the French government at Versailles began looking for a resettlement location that would not only accommodate its banished French colonists but also ensure a continued French strategic and economic presence in North American New France. [kw]Founding of Louisbourg (1713)
[kw]Louisbourg, Founding of (1713)
French Canada
British Canada
[g]Canada;1713: Founding of Louisbourg[0390]
[c]Colonization;1713: Founding of Louisbourg[0390]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;1713: Founding of Louisbourg[0390]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1713: Founding of Louisbourg[0390]
Monbeton de Brouillan, Joseph de
Verville, Jean-François de
Verrier, Étienne
Pitt, William, the Elder

During the summer of 1713, an expeditionary force, under the command of Joseph de Monbeton de Brouillan, known as Saint-Ovide, embarked from Placentia, Newfoundland, to Cape Breton (the northern island of present-day Nova Scotia) in search of a suitable location for the new French colony. Saint-Ovide’s orders from Versailles were to find a location that would not only provide a good harbor for reestablishing the French fishing trade lost in Newfoundland but also support the building of a new fort to safeguard against further threats from England. Saint-Ovide’s search led him to what was known as English Harbor, on the eastern coast of Cape Breton. The harbor had been used by French and English fishermen since the late seventeenth century; however, no major settlement had ever been erected there. With the coming of winter and the pressure to establish a new port and fortification, English Harbor became an attractive final choice for Saint-Ovide. By November of 1713, the population of the new colony numbered nearly five hundred.

In the tradition of other New Breton harbors that had been given names of saints by French fishermen, Saint-Ovide renamed English Harbor as Port Saint-Louis in honor of France’s patron saint, Louis IX (1214-1270). The following year, France’s King Louis XIV (1638-1715) changed the name to Louisbourg in his own honor; he also renamed Cape Breton the Isle Royale, in recognition of what the king wanted to be understood as the reestablishment of French rights to North America.

The attractiveness of Isle Royale as a new permanent settlement lay in its location. France had depended heavily on the fishing industry that the former colonies in Newfoundland had provided; Isle Royale’s fishing waters offered a lucrative alternative. Another geographic asset was the island’s sailing distance from France; it offered the shortest link between the French Atlantic ports and the North American continent, which would make it quicker to supply the colony with needed materials and soldiers. Finally, Isle Royale would serve a strategic purpose: It lay at the entrance of the St. Lawrence River, St. Lawrence River, Canada[Saint Lawrence River] the river that provided access to the French strongholds of Quebec and Montreal and other settlements in the Canadian interior.

Beyond Isle Royale’s economic and strategic advantages, Saint-Ovide also saw the practical advantages of the island’s location. Wildlife, forests, and mineral wealth would enable the inhabitants of the area to meet most domestic needs to sustain a port at Louisbourg. Isle Royale did not, however, provide the best advantages for farming. Scarce arable land and the short growing season would limit the island’s agricultural production. Still, this limitation was mitigated by the strategic and economic advantages of the island, and Port Louisbourg and the rest of Isle Royale seemed to be the best choice for a new French colony.

Between 1715 and 1717, both French governmental and colonial officials began rethinking where to establish the administrative center of Isle Royale, debating the advantages of Port Dauphin over Port Louisbourg. While several issues surrounded the debate, the major concern was the defense of each location’s harbor. Port Dauphin had more advantages as a defensible harbor than did Louisbourg. While initial debates gave the favorable nod to Port Dauphin, however, Port Louisbourg continued to expand its thriving fishing business while remaining the island’s judicial center. By 1717, Louisbourg’s economic success outweighed the military considerations of Port Dauphin, and the government decided to make Louisbourg the administrative center for that part of New France.

Louisbourg’s harbor, though less defensible than Port Dauphin, could accommodate a greater number of ships. Moreover, the locale had sufficient stone for construction of ramparts to fortify what would become Fortress Louisbourg and its garrisons. The key figure behind the construction Architecture;military of Louisbourg’s fortification works was Jean-François de Verville, an engineer who had been a veteran of numerous fortification siege campaigns throughout Europe since 1704. Verville began his work in 1720 with designs for a town protected by fortified walls. Verville had been instructed by Versailles to control building costs by fortifying the city only from surprise attack by land.

Verville had had plans to construct a much more elaborate defensive structure, typical of those built in Europe, but this was not to be. The view from Versailles was that invasion of Louisbourg from the shore would be difficult, because the open beaches surrounding the fort would make invaders easy targets. Thus, limited defenses would be enough to repel attackers from that direction. Verville was later replaced in 1725 by a short succession of other architects, the most notable being Étienne Verrier, whose influence would redefine the ultimate layout of Fortress Louisbourg. By 1741, the town had become completely enclosed by walls containing more than four hundred large guns and cannon and supporting a population of nearly two thousand.

The strength of Fortress Louisbourg was put to the test during the European War of the Austrian Succession (also known as King George’s War by European colonists living in North America). In 1744, when word of the war reached the governor of Louisbourg, the Marquis de Duquesnel, he launched a campaign to retake the land in Acadia that had been lost to England thirty years earlier. Duquesnel’s movements, although unsuccessful, alarmed the British in New England, who in turn mounted an invasion force of more than four thousand troops to take Fortress Louisbourg. The British were intent on destroying any further advances by the French in North America.

The expedition, under the command of William Pepperell of the Virginia colony, set out from Boston on March 24, 1745. Ironically, an army of British colonists from Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey managed to sneak past Fortress Louisbourg’s cannon under the dark of night and launch, the next morning, a successful surprise attack against the fort’s southern battery; this was the very surprise the fort had originally been planned to deflect. Using captured French cannon, Pepperell’s troops began bombarding the main fort and town. Aided by British warships that blockaded Louisbourg’s harbor, the siege of the mighty fortress lasted more than one month, with the British ultimately claiming victory. English control of the fort lasted until 1748, when Louisbourg was returned to France as a condition of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle Aix-la-Chapelle, Treaty of (1748)[Aix la Chapelle, Treaty of] ending the War of the Austrian Succession.

Louisbourg Louisbourg, Siege of (1758) would once again be attacked by the British in June, 1758, during the French and Indian War. French and Indian War (1754-1763) Again, a British siege of one month forced the French to surrender on July 26, leaving one thousand French soldiers dead within the fortress walls. With the second seizure of the fort by the English, Louisbourg fell permanently into British hands. On directives from the British prime minister, William Pitt the Elder, orders were given to begin demolishing Louisbourg in February, 1760. On October 17, 1760, a final explosive blast brought down the fort’s last remaining wall.


While the loss of the French and Indian War (1754-1763) officially brought an end to French colonial ambitions in North America, the loss of Fortress Louisbourg perhaps best symbolized the end of France’s New World colonial ventures. As a fortification, Louisbourg stood out as a symbol of French might across the Atlantic. Many had pronounced the fort an astonishing accomplishment. France had hoped to make the fort a counter against British power in North America, but that goal failed. Without a fortified front line to protect the entrance of the St. Lawrence River, France would give up control of the Canadian interior to Britain. That loss would bring an end to the French fur trade, which had been an important mainstay of France’s colonial economy. Furthermore, having lost control of the fishing waters along Cape Breton, France would have no viable Atlantic fishing industry, and it would become more dependent upon foreign imports to feed its people.

Further Reading

  • Chartrand, Rene. French Fortresses in North America, 1535-1763: Quebec, Montreal, Louisbourg, and New Orleans. Toronto, Ont.: Osprey, 2005. Provides a detailed examination of the defenses of the largest fortified French cities in Canada.
  • Johnston, A. J. B. Control and Order in French Colonial Louisbourg. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2001. A good, detailed source about the founding and development of Louisbourg through its first siege in 1745.
  • Moore, Christopher. Louisbourg Portraits: Five Dramatic, True Tales of People in an Eighteenth Century Garrison Town. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland and Stewart Books, 2000. Describes living conditions of five people who lived at Louisbourg.

War of the Spanish Succession

Treaty of Utrecht

Development of Great Britain’s Office of Prime Minister

War of the Austrian Succession

Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle

French and Indian War

Seven Years’ War

Siege of Louisbourg

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