Parks Canada holds hundreds of historical and archaeological sites in trust for the Canadian people. One of the brightest stars is the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. By the time the French first settled Louisbourg, Cape Breton Island (then Isle Royale) had served for years as the base of the colonial cod fishery operating in the Grand Banks. The town soon became a commercial hub, trading dried cod for goods imported from Europe and the Caribbean. In 1758, the English besieged the Fortress for the second time. Without a strong navy to patrol the surrounding waters, the fortress fell to a British army force supported by 150 ships. The British made sure Louisbourg would never again serve the French empire by destroying the fortress.
Two centuries later, the Government of Canada began a massive project to reconstruct one-quarter of Louisbourg so Canadians and visitors from around the world could experience life in a French colonial outpost of the 1740s. Years of research buttress the creative living history program at Louisbourg. Archaeology began in 1961 as a prelude to reconstruction, with former coal miners providing much of the labor. The archaeologists recovered roughly four and one-half million artifacts by the time digging ended in 1979, totaling about one-fifth of all the artifacts owned by Parks Canada. They have also uncovered and recorded traces of many eighteenth-century buildings, gardens, streets, and fortifications. Historians have collected and studied seven hundred fifty thousand pages of documents and more than five hundred historical maps and plans. The research at Louisbourg has opened an unrivalled window into the past.
Today, the Fortress comes to life each spring and costumed actors “take up residence” in sixty-five reconstructed buildings along commercial avenues and the busy waterfront. Visitors walk among Louisbourg’s soldiers, merchants, fishermen, musicians, servants, mothers and their children, and experience life in the colonial town and fort almost firsthand. More than thirty-five years of archaeological research have made possible this world-class heritage experience. At Louisbourg, visitors see the artifacts, discover the ways that historical archaeologists pieced together their stories, and experience the stories acted out before them. The stories lead the visitors through time, revealing a history of Anglo-French colonial rivalry and the vagaries of a northern maritime economy built on the cod fisheries and trade.