Last week, we took a walk on the two-dimensional side and had ourselves a cursory look at the cartographic history and evolution of Prince Edward Island. This week we’re going to continue along this line by examining the main toponymic (place name) shifts in Island history, another very valuable approach to gaining a better understanding of the past. It’s also a good way to bring those of you unfamiliar with Prince Edward Island further up to speed, before I start getting into more detailed posts.
Over the years, Prince Edward Island has accumulated a variety of names, despite the fact that it was often entirely omitted from early maps. These names can be categorized as either a) official names or b) nicknames. Naturally, PEI’s nicknames far outnumber its official names; however, we’d be here all day if we tried to touch on each of them, so to save on time we’re only going to focus on the official names, of which there are only four. So while you guys make yourselves a nice cuppa something hot, I’ll tune up the flux capacitor, and then we’ll hit the road in my imaginary DeLorean.
Ready? Let’s go!
The first official name for Prince Edward Island that we have on record is the Mi’kmaw word “Epetwitk” (when anglicized it became “Abegweit”). It might be hard to believe, but there was once a time when the Island was not an island at all. Prior to 5000 years ago when PEI finally attained island status, it had actually been attached to the mainland (ie Nova Scotia & New Brunswick) by a land mass that is referred to as Northumbria. At this time, the Island was part of one of the seven districts of the Mi’kmaq along with Pictou, Nova Scotia. Together, they were known as Epetwitk aq Pitukew’kik. So who were the Mi’kmaq? And where did they come from? Well they were – and still are – an aboriginal group that calls the Maritime region home, and have done so for many thousands of years. Where they come from, however, is more difficult to answer. Many Mi’kmaq in PEI believe their ancestors sprung out of the Island and have always lived here, while archaeology hints that they migrated to the Martimes from the eastern United States a few thousand years ago. That said, this is neither the time nor the place to open that debate; suffice it to say that the Mi’kmaq can rightfully claim to have given Prince Edward Island its first known name.
But what exactly does Epetwitk mean? Well, the best translation we have is “lying in the water”. One of the things we know about the Mi’kmaq is that they had an affinity for naming things by description, and thus they called the Island how they saw it: a place that, for all intents and purposes, looked very much like it lay in the water. It is important to note that, despite the arrival of Europeans to this area about 500 years ago and the subsequent anglicizing to Abegweit, along with a very European name change, the Mi’kmaq of Prince Edward Island have always called, and continue to refer to the Island by that first name of Epetwitk.
ILE ST. JEAN
When Europeans first started showing up around Prince Edward Island, they probably didn’t realize that it already had a name; and if they did, then they likely didn’t care for the Mi’kmaq nom de choix. Whatever the case, it needed one that sounded nice to them. While we don’t know the person responsible, our best guess is that they were French, since the next official name we have on record is Ile St. Jean (in English: St. John’s Island), very likely named in honour of St. John the Baptist of biblical fame. Many believe that this unknown individual was Jacques Cartier, who dropped anchor somewhere along PEI’s north shore in July of 1534 and claimed what he saw for France. The only problem, though, is that Cartier had no idea PEI was even an island, believing it to be part of the mainland, and thus he wouldn’t have known to include “ile” in the name.
So if it wasn’t our bon ami Cartier, then who came up with Ile St. Jean? Well, we do know that in the 1500s PEI was apparently a stopping place for French mariners active in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, so unfortunately it could have been any number of creative people. The answer is probably out there somewhere, scrawled in an obscure log book in an archive, or tucked away in an attic in a dusty trunk. What we can say is that name Ile St. Jean had a pretty short life span when compared to Epetwitk, lasting only 200 years or so, with only around fifty of those years featuring any kind of French occupation. And then it changed.
Well, marginally anyway.
ST. JOHN’S ISLAND
Despite the fact that the French crown had possession of the Island from the 1500s through to the mid 1700s with only a couple instances of loss of ownership in between, nothing was ever really done with it until someone had the brilliant idea to convince some of the Acadians living in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to relocate here around 1720. The idea was to settle the Island and to farm it in the hopes that it would be a bread basket for the main French stronghold of Louisbourg in present day Cape Breton. Anyway, once a few Acadian families set up shop, more followed suit. Communities were established at various locales around the Island, and for the most part they managed to make a go of it, despite a few plagues and crop failures, and forest fires, and immigration booms that put a strain on resources. It was these booms that offered a foreshadowing of what was to come for the Island’s Acadians, caused by their counterparts in Nova Scotia fleeing a 1755 deporation orchestrated by the British. Sure enough, in late 1758 the British came knocking, rounded up most of the Acadians in PEI, put them onto ships, and sailed them to far flung places (the Thirteen Colonies, France etc.) in what is known as the Expulsion. (Side note: Unfortunately, many Acadians were lost at sea when their transports were caught in nasty mid-Atlantic storms. We’ll look into this more in a future post.)
Following the forcible removal of the Acadians, the Island was taken over by the British with their victory in the Seven Years’ War. Either they really liked what the French had done, or no one creative was around at the time, because the Crown simply anglicized Ile St. Jean to St. John’s Island. Then it was annexed to Nova Scotia, and Samuel Holland was sent over to survey it for future settlement.
PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND
Many people don’t realize that PEI was actually governed as a part of Nova Scotia for a period of six years until 1769, when it attained status as its own colony. With this new status came its very own government, which included a cast of delightfully colorful characters led by the Island’s first governor, Walter Patterson.
I’m not going to get into a discussion of Walter Patterson right now, because he’s going to get his very own post at some point. For the moment, let’s just say that, of all of the politicians in Island history, he may just be the most colorful of the lot, and my personal favorite by FAR. I have to single him out here, however, because he does have a role in PEI’s toponymic history. You see, in 1780 Patterson decided that there were altogether too many “St. John’s” in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, whether they be cities, rivers etc. It was simply too confusing, and so to remedy this, he forwarded to his superiors in Britain an act to change the name of St. John’s Island. His choice? Well, given his Irish roots, New Ireland seemed like a fine name to him. The Crown, however, felt differently, a) because the name had already been taken, and b) because Patterson was only allowed to petition for acts, not legislate them. But his superiors were not opposed to the idea of a name change, and instead offered up New Guernsey and New Anglesea as possible alternatives, both of which just weren’t appealing to the colonists here. So St. John’s Island hung around for another twenty years.
In early 1799 (February 1, to be precise), the name issue was finally put to rest when royal assent was granted to a bill that renamed St. John’s Island “Prince Edward Island” in honour of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, Commander of British Forces in North America, and father of the future Queen Victoria.
There are a couple of funny things about this choice. One is that Prince Edward never once stepped foot on the Island (although he did offer up some suggestions for fortifications); the other is that he advocated the re-annexation of the Island to Nova Scotia, something the Island’s colonists probably did not realize, or they would most likely not have been amenable to the name change.
Anyway, it’s 215 years later and “Prince Edward Island” is still going strong. And I don’t own a DeLorean…yet
PEI History Guy
September 28, 2015 at 8:30 pm
Excellent blog! Can’t wait for the story about the political intrigue and the land question. I would like to know how and who named the area now known as Greenwich. That’s where my family is from.
September 29, 2015 at 10:03 am
Thanks for stopping by! As you can see, the site has been a bit dormant as of late — my apologies, it’s been a hectic summer. I hope to get some new material up in the next little while; in the meantime, however, I thought I’d look into your question about Greenwich. I consulted my go-to resource (Geographical Names of Prince Edward Island by Alan Rayburn), which states that the name first appeared on maps beginning in 1794, and was so called after Greenwich in London. He doesn’t cough up any individuals responsible for it, but more than likely the name was bestowed by early British settlers to the area.
September 29, 2015 at 12:01 pm
Hi History Guy – Thanks for your reply. I also saw that explanation in Geographical Names .. I also know that Lot 40 was granted to George Spence and John Mill, London merchants, and to Lt. George Burns in 1765 before the famous Lottery. Apparently Spence and Mill had spent some money establishing a fishery at St. Peter’s Bay and the Crown wanted to reward their efforts. Burns served in the Honor Guard at the coronation of King George III and those officers were granted land in British North America in appreciation for their participation. Burns received a share of Lot 40. George Spence sent his son, John Russell Spence, over to the Island to look after his affairs. Because of the problems the Proprietors faced in settling the Island, including the American Revolution, John Russell Spence did not have much luck on the Island. He tried selling off the land he controlled, including 300 acres to my ancestor, Charles Sanderson, in 1786, but ended up in financial difficulty. He mortgaged the land he had left and defaulted on the mortgage. The local magistrate seized the land and sold 8,633 acres, including the Greenwich Estate, to another London merchant named William Bowley on 28 Sep 1791. Apparently Bowley moved to the Island with his family and may have settled at Greenwich as a pond there is named after him. Bowley had purchased more Island land beginning in 1788 and was involved with John Cambridge and also purchased debts owed by other Island speculators. So, my guess is that it was either John Russell Spence or William Bowley who named the Greenwich Estate.
October 1, 2015 at 11:04 am
Sounds like a plausible explanation to me!