A look at the 19th-century atlas that 'defined' P.E.I.

·7 min read
Full map of P.E.I. as shown on Meacham's Atlas. (IslandImagined - image credit)
Full map of P.E.I. as shown on Meacham's Atlas. (IslandImagined - image credit)

James Hubbard Meacham was a savvy Canadian entrepreneur looking to make a killing on a very trendy business: Map-making.

In the late 1870s, Meacham and his partner, Clement Allen, set up a publishing company in his home province of Ontario that would be dedicated to making county atlases, books of maps that were in vogue in North America for about a decade.

"We're talking about the 1870s, the period of growth after the American Civil War," Island historian Reg Porter said. "The interest in moving to uninhabited parts of the country, both in the U.S. and Canada — people wanted to know what the country looked like."

Meacham's team of surveyors and illustrators produced maps of counties in Ontario and Nova Scotia.

But it was in 1880 when the company published what was perhaps its finest work: A full atlas of Prince Edward Island that gives modern audiences a glimpse at how the Island looked 150 years ago.

"These huge maps [show] every property, every mill, every bridge, where there was wilderness, where there was marsh — everything was indicated in the most astonishing detail," Porter said. "It's almost as if 100 years before their time, they had aerial photographs to work from."

Porter, who has done extensive research on the story of Meacham's Atlas, some of which can be found in his blog, said it captured a pivotal time in the history of the province.

"The atlas defined the province of Prince Edward Island in a way that no other province has been defined before, since. It represented every square of P.E.I.," Porter said.

IslandImagined
IslandImagined

"Although so many things have happened, and there have been so many businesses, fisheries have developed and farming and so forth. But when we look back 100 years, I think that represented perhaps, the high point, the end of the climb up the mountain for the Island to define itself in its topography."

Here's a look at some of the details that can be found on the map.

New landholders

P.E.I. had joined Confederation just a few years before the atlas was produced.

Less than half a decade before that, the province wasn't too different from how it looked in 1764, when surveyor Samuel Holland set out to make what Porter calls the "perfect British colony," dividing the land into 67 lots, giving it to landlords who ran it as a sort of feudal fiefdom.

"Nobody really owned their property, but they paid rent to landlords," Porter said.

However, a wave of revolutionary sentiment that began in Europe in the mid-1800s would soon turn things on their head in P.E.I.

"By the time the 1840s come, there was trouble all over the world," Porter said. "In Europe especially there were revolutions where people were revolting against aristocratic control. And here on the Island, those European revolutions were reflected when tenants began to fight with their landlords."

IslandImagined
IslandImagined

That period of turmoil would last until the 1870s. The large estates were divided into individual farms as the more progressive landlords made concessions to the gentry.

That change is reflected across Meacham's maps.

"All the land that used to belong to landlords and which we can see in older maps, is now land belonging to specific people, their names are there, and the number of acres that they have are indicated as well. And where there's still land open for settlement, it belongs to the government."

Migration and conflict

The names in the maps also tell the story of the massive influx of settlers arriving on P.E.I. from the British Isles in the decades following the expulsion of the Acadians.

"When you study various lot maps, you find that they're completely filled with Scottish names. You go to another place ... and you're surprised to see that half and half are Irish names, and the others are French names."

IslandImagined
IslandImagined

Lot 1 in Prince County is a good example. Most of the lot being divided between Acadians, who settled the area in 1799 to get away from their landlords, and newly arrived Irish settlers.

Coexistence wasn't easy.

"There are all kinds of conflicts and troubles because the Acadians were unhappy the Irish were invading their world. The Irish are aggressive," he said.

"There's one particular story, which was told in the centennial booklet printed in 1899, about how an Acadian and an Irishman had a tremendous fight. The Irishman took a wooden shovel and smashed it on the Acadian's head. But he didn't hurt him or injure him very much. That went down as a legend, and the man afterwards was nicknamed ... 'the Shovel Splitter.'"

Lennox Island and the church

In the 1870s, the Aborigines' Protection Society purchased Lennox Island on behalf of the local Mi'kmaq. It was the first reservation in the country to be fully owned by its Indigenous people.

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IslandImagined

Porter said the Meacham depiction of the island is very detailed. One thing that immediately jumps out is the church, which in 1895 would be replaced by the current St. Anne's Parish building.

"When you reach the island, on your left was the Catholic church, there was a Catholic school and on your right there was a Catholic cemetery," Porter said.

"It shows the determination of the Catholic church to establish itself extremely prominently on Lennox Island. Now, there had been other Christians, the Baptist especially, who had wanted to convert the Island Mi'kmaq. But all of their efforts ... failed. It was the Catholics who succeeded."

A second detail is harder to notice, but may also be telling of the relationship between the church and Indigenous peoples in the 19th century: Some homes on the map are represented by squares and others by triangles.

Porter believes that indicates the surveyor's distinction between the Mi'kmaq who lived in wooden houses and those who lived in wigwams.

IslandImagined
IslandImagined

"This was a time when the Catholic church was encouraging the Mi'kmaq to get rid of their old ways, and to start dressing like Westerners, and to start living in wooden houses, which for 10,000 years they had never done," he said. [Some] hold out and continue to live in wigwams. And they will do so into the 20th century."

Charlottetown

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IslandImagined

The grid for Charlottetown had been planned many decades before Meacham's Atlas was published. But the city did not start growing immediately.

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IslandImagined

In fact, Porter said almost half a century after the city had been laid out there were still tree stumps everywhere and a big swamp on Great George and Euston streets.

"It was a mess. But in time, this would change very rapidly," he said.

After the 1840s, the city's population boomed. By the time Meecham arrived in Charlottetown, the city was looking similar to how it looks today.

"Charlottetown is filled up with names of property owners, of stores. The railway is there, City Hall is there, the Legislative Assembly is in Queen Square, there's a great big market building, there is a big post office," Porter said. "It's a thriving, exciting city, full of activity, full of growth, full of money."

Towns and the railway

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IslandImagined

The establishment of the P.E.I. Railway in the 1870s also changed things outside Charlottetown, with communities across the Island which were once isolated now linked to the port city and, as such, to the rest of Canada.

"All kinds of things could move from the ports of Charlottetown, right up eventually to Tignish and Souris," Porter said.

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IslandImagined

While P.E.I. had to be rescued from bankruptcy by the federal government after it financed the railways, these along with improved communications from the telegraph lines did eventually lead to a growth spurt for some small communities in the Island.

"Summerside, which was on nobody's mind at any time suddenly appears because it's a perfect place for a port," Porter said. "Victoria, which nobody had ever planned in, which didn't appear on on anybody's maps suddenly appears and is laid out in a grid system, about the same time in the middle of the century."

Factories started to spring up on the landscape. Some, such as the new fish and lobster canneries set up shortly after the technology was invented, were illustrated in the atlas.

"Meacham is a critical point in the development, the economic development of the Island," Porter said. "And also the development of the topography, because everything changes. The country is filled with little villages."

After completing the P.E.I. atlas, Meacham went on to make his fortunes in the county atlas market in the U.S. He wouldn't be able to accomplish much else: He was killed in a hunting accident in 1887.

IslandImagined
IslandImagined
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