The Sites

The Vieux fort is located on Mount Pleasant, on the northeastern side of Placentia. It is called the Vieux fort because "vieux" is French for "old" and it is the oldest known fort in the area. It was formerly a Basque defence site. The French began building on the site immediately after they arrived here in 1662. During construction, the English were the only threat and invasion was not likely. Years later, when the political scene in Europe grew tenser, a new fort was built at Fort Louis. Unfortunately, to get to the dig, one must travel by boat. When the first French colonizing venture arrived in Placentia in 1662, they decided to build a fort to protect themselves. They looked around for a suitable site, and decided on this hillside, where the Basques had erected a small and simple defensive structure some years earlier. They took over the site, and built their own fort on the same area. We only have one map of the fort, dating to sometime in the 1670’s; it is unclear how accurate this map is at this point. We know that during its heyday in the 1670’s, the fort had at least thirty cannons.

The Site
Archaeological excavations at the fort have uncovered the remains of a stone building which is at least 11 meters long, and probably about 6 meters wide. The building is in good shape; the stone walls have been preserved to a height of 4 feet in places. The building is made of dry-laid stone, which means that it was assembled without using mortar. Using this construction method was a wise choice- mortar would have had to be imported or a kiln set up to manufacture it. In addition, Newfoundland’s climate is hard on mortar- the freeze-thaw cycles mean that mortar would have had to be constantly repaired. Interestingly enough, historians have long thought that the Vieux Fort would have been an insubstantial earthwork and timber structure, because the historical records do not indicate that a mason was present in Placentia at this time.

Artifacts Found
All of the artifacts uncovered from this structure indicate that it functioned as a house- we found lots of domestic artifacts like pots, pans, plates, cups and jugs. And considering that there are a lot of high-end, expensive, fancy artifacts, we suspect that this structure housed the officers rather than the regular soldiers. Regular soldiers could not have afforded the fancy decorative plates (decorated to look like imported Chinese porcelain), nor would they have spent money on the fancy hand-blown wineglasses that have been found at the site. The fort’s lifespan was comparatively short; it had fallen out of use ca. 1685. After they left this fort, the French military built a new fort at Fort Louis, which was begun in 1691.

Fort Louis is the second French fortification constructed in Placentia. Work began on the site in 1691. Fort Louis saw action soon after when a group of English ships attempted lay siege to the place. The English were unsuccessful in their attempt to take Placentia. The fort was situated here to stand guard over the gut in Placentia- in order for an enemy ship to attack the community (which was located on the east, or ‘back’ side of the beach) they would have had to sail right by the menacing guns of Fort Louis. Unfortunately, this low-lying site meant that Fort Louis was exposed to the weather. Another problem with Fort Louis’ location is that it was commanded by the hills to the north. That is, if an enemy wanted to take control of the fort, all they’d have to do is land troops further down in Freshwater, have them walk up the hill, and they could fire down directly into the fort. The French recognized this weakness, and so this led to the construction of Castle Hill (a redoubt), the Gallardin, and other batteries along these hilltops (La Fontaine Battery, Crevecoeur Battery, and several other unnamed military installations). Fort Louis, Castle Hill, and all the others were part of a unified defensive system meant to secure Placentia’s harbour. In fact you can see on old maps that there were pathways set up to link these fortifications together. The French used this fort until 1713, when it was handed over to the English occupiers. The English found it to be in poor repair, and began building a replacement fort (Fort Fred) in 1721. They were dissatisfied with having only one fort to protect the gut, and so they returned to this site in the 1740’s and began building a new fortification on top of the old French foundations. This fort was called the New Fort. You can see the foundations of buildings being exposed by archaeologists here- at present they are exposing part of what was the storehouse and the magazine.

The sole English fort in the area. In the final decades of French occupation, the fishery was proving to be not as reliable as the far more profitable fur trade that was taking place in New France (what is now Quebec). Wars were being fought in Europe and the colonies were being shuffled with little concern for the colonists (and even less for the natives). In 1713, England and France signed the Treaty of Utrecht. France was willing to give up their dilapidated capital to hold onto the rich offshore fishery and still valuable fur trade. The next year, during the French exodus of Placentia, one hundred families left and only three chose to stay.

The English military decided that Fort Louis, the fort they inherited from the French, was in dire need of repair. They decided that building a new fort would be cheaper. From about 1715 onwards, they dithered around, trying to get the money together to start construction. Construction did not begin until 1721. Most of the supplies (including stone) used to build Fort Fred were imported. Fort Frederick had a unique horseshoe-shaped battery. But by the 1740’s, the English military had decided that a fort on one side of the gut was not enough, and they began rebuilding Fort Louis again, but gave it a new name (the New Fort). Fort Fred was used until the military was withdrawn from Placentia in 1811.

A wall of Fort Frederick was unintentionally uncovered on July 19, 2002. The contractor contacted the archaeologists to inform them of their find. The Provincial Archaeology Office (which is responsible for regulating the care, conservation, and proposed developments of all archaeological sites in the province) was contacted, and provided advice on how work should proceed. In the end, the water main was diverted slightly to move it up and overtop of the wall. In this way, the archaeological remains were undisturbed, and the construction of the waterline was not delayed.

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