Land of the Red Soil: A Popular History of Prince Edward Island

My first visit to Prince Edward Island was during the summer of 1979. I longed to return and in the summer of 2015 I attended a family wedding in the northwest village of Tignish. The drive there from Charlottetown gave me a tour of the island that I had never experienced, as my 1979 visit centred on the capital and Cavendish Beach. When I looked around my library for books on island history, I found Land of the Red Soil: A Popular History of Prince Edward Island by Douglas Baldwin. This short history of 183 pages covered the first islanders, the Mi’kmaq and the colonial flip-flops between the English and French. From Ile St. Jean to St. John’s Island to Prince Edward Island, the Acadians who lived there suffered the most as there was a constant order from the English to evacuate them for fear where their loyalties lay.

Settlers found an island wholly uncleared. Those who were lured to settle hoped to find small towns with stores and schools, yet had to build everything themselves:

“Most British immigrants were not prepared for the Island wilderness. The land had to be cleared of trees, stumps and rocks; homes had to be built and crops planted before winter; and virtually no one on the Island could advise them. Progress was agonizingly slow. The British government generally ignored Prince Edward Island in favour of its other North American possessions.”

It was very hard for the Crown to persuade people to live on the island, especially since living conditions were already established in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, where the land was more fertile and the settlers there at least had the opportunity to own the land they were working. Prince Edward Island was a colony carved up into 67 lots or townships which the settlers could only rent, not own. It was not worth the extra effort to work on substandard soil for land you would not have the possibility of calling your own. Talking about the land, in a section on island geology, Baldwin wrote “Geologists use glacier spoors to establish when and where the glaciers existed” but for the life of me I can’t find out anywhere what a glacier spoor is.

Early island elections were fraught with violence. I had an idea about the threatening atmosphere come voting day when Baldwin started a sentence with “The most infamous election brawl took place in 1847…” The most infamous? You mean there were several? Baldwin continued with “Election violence the previous year…” and wrote about fights during by-elections, which even led to deaths. The glorious gory days of early Island voting.

One chapter was devoted to Confederation and the island’s important role in the creation of Canada. The Charlottetown Conference took place in 1864, and it only came about as a reaction from a united Upper and Lower Canada towards a proposed Maritime Union.

Baldwin concluded the revised and updated edition (from 2000) with short sections in the final chapter on the Confederation Bridge and about the growth of Japanese tourism. Land of the Red Soil was brief and perhaps suited for a public library in southern Ontario, however when I was on the island I saw larger histories which would have satisfied my deep interest for detail.

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