Welcome to Canso Islands and Grassy Island Fort National Historic Sites of Canada. One of the early European fishing ports in North America, Canso grew to be a thriving community of fishermen and merchants from New England.
Now you can discover the fascinating story of the people who lived here more than 200 years ago, before it became a casualty of the Anglo-French rivalry for North America when the French destroyed it in 1744.
European fishermen and entrepreneurs such as Nicolas Denys first came to the Canso Islands in the 1500s to fish and trade for furs. They built temporary shelters, wharves and fish flakes along the shores to salt and dry the abundant stocks of codfish. Archaeological evidence suggests that their Mi’kmaw trading partners had been coming to the islands for at least 1500 years before that.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, France and Britain struggled for control of North America. In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht transferred ownership of mainland Nova Scotia to the British, while the islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence remained French. Conflicting interpretations of the treaty left the ownership of the Canso Islands in dispute. New England and French fishermen both coveted the area for its abundant cod stocks. In 1720, Nova Scotia governor Richard Philipps, fearing attacks from the French at Louisbourg in Cape Breton, established a small garrison on Grassy Island and later built a simple earthen fort.
Despite the French threat, Canso prospered. By 1730, thousands of New Englanders were flocking to the islands each summer to fish. Shoreworkers, fishermen, soldiers and merchants lived and worked side by side. At its peak, the Canso fishery pulled in more than five million fish in a single season. The dried and salted fish were shipped to markets in Europe, America and the Caribbean, in exchange for a wide range of goods.
Not all of Canso’s trade was legitimate. New Englanders were forbidden to trade directly with the French colonies in North America. This led to extensive struggling between Canso and Louisbourg. Nevertheless, except for a few rich merchants, living conditions remained austere. Luxuries were few and the soldiers of the garrison subsisted without adequate food, shelter or clothing.
The Canso settlement was destroyed in the spring of 1744 by an expedition from Louisbourg. The following year, an army of New Englanders used the island as a staging point for their attack on the French fortress. After its capture, the French threat faded and the New Englanders withdrew from Canso.
The Grassy Island settlement never recovered from the French attack of 1744. Today, the island remains a treeless, windswept memorial to the thriving fishery that contributed so much to the prosperity of 18th-century Nova Scotia and New England.
Making The Most of Your Visit
The site actually consists of two separate sections: a Visitor Centre on the Canso waterfront and an interpretive trail on Grassy Island, 15 minutes away by boat. Allow half an hour to view the video and see the exhibits in the Visitor Centre. Allow an hour to take the boat trip and visit the island.
• Watch the nine-minute video, Grassy Island: The Forgotten Settlement, for an introduction to the island’s history.
• See a scale model of the island before the attack and life-size dioramas of an officer’s study, a tavern and a merchant’s parlour. Learn about the individuals and families who lived here in 1743.
• View an excellent display of 18th-century artifacts from Atlantic Canada. Try to find the items represented in the dioramas.
Services for Visitors with Special Needs
• The Visitor Centre and washrooms are wheelchair-accessible.
• The boat and interpretive trails are accessible with assistance.
• The video is captioned for those with hearing impairments.
Parks Canada manages one of the largest parks systems in the world. These diverse national parks, historic sites and heritage canals present the value of their heritage resources to all Canadians while protecting them for future generations.
While in the area, watch for the beaver symbol on highway signs. It will lead you to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Canada and Fortress of Louisbourg, Alexander Graham Bell, St. Peters Canal, and Marconi National Historic Sites of Canada.