Did Masonry Exist in Nova Scotia in 1606?

Harvey R. Doane

In 1827, two men—eminent American geologist, Dr. Charles T. Jackson and Francis Algers—who were conducting a mineralogical survey of Nova Scotia, uncovered a stone on which the figure 1606 appears quite prominently and with a symbol inscribed above the date. The symbol had suffered to some extent from exposure to the elements but was still decipherable enough to be identified by those who saw it as the square and compasses traditionally associated with Masonry.

The stone was about 2 1/2 feet long and two feet wide and was of the same type of hard iron stone common to the area where it was discovered.

The location of the find was at Granville opposite Goat Island and about 30 feet from the shore. That was part of the land cleared and settled by a French expedition under Samuel de Champlain and Sieur de Monts in 1605 and which was the first known permanent settlement by Europeans north of the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1939, the Canadian government reconstructed the fort and habitation from the original descriptions and engravings in Champlain's work and the writings of Lescarbot, and it has become a national historic site inspected annually by thousands of visitors to Nova Scotia.

There have been several efforts by Masonic writers and historians to record the story of the find and the subsequent unfortunate loss of the stone by the Canadian Institute of Toronto. In most cases those efforts have been directed to the question of the authenticity of the symbol on the stone and whether or not it was related to the Masonic fraternity.

This article is to review some of arguments presented and hopefully to focus attention on what might have been the first record of Masonry in North America.

In History of Freemasonry and Concordant Orders published in 1907 by the Fraternity Publishing Company of Boston, one chapter deals with "Early Masonic History". It was written by Sereno D. Nickerson, 33 degree, Past Grand Master and Recording Grand Secretary of Massachusetts.

He quotes a letter dated June 2, 1856, from Dr. Charles T. Jackson of Boston to J. W. Thornton in which Dr. Jackson tells of finding the stone in 1827 while conducting a mineralogical survey of Nova Scotia. He describes it as having "the Masonic emblems, (square and compasses) and had the figures 1606 cut in it." He points out later in the letter that he intended to send it to the Old Colony Pilgrim Society of Plymouth, Mass., but that he was persuaded by Thomas C. Haliburton to leave it with him. On a subsequent visit to Nova Scotia, Jackson learned that Haliburton, by now Judge Haliburton, still had the stone but had forgotten how he had come by it. A photograph of the stone accompanied the letter. Brother Nickerson states that the photograph shows the stone to have been "rudely cut and much worn by time and weather, but still quite distinct." A copy of the photograph appears on Page 440 of the book.

Brother Nickerson continues his article by first identifying Thomas C. Haliburton as the author of "Sam Slick" and a Nova Scotia lawyer who became Chief Justice of Common Pleas in 1829 and a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in 1840. Haliburton later moved to England, became a member of Parliament and died in England in 1865.

Back in 1829, just two years after the discovery of the stone and its delivery to Haliburton, he published a volume titled, Historical and Statistical Accounts of Nova Scotia. That work includes reference to the stone discovered by Dr. Jackson. The description of the stone is the same as given by Dr. Jackson in his letter of June 1856, but is in much greater detail and with careful attention to the effects of the weather in the inscription during the 200 plus years it had been exposed to the elements. However, Haliburton was writing with the stone in his possession, whereas Jackson was quoting from memory 29 years after making his discovery.

The two writers differ in their assumptions of what the stone was intended to signify. Jackson believes it to be a gravestone even though no name appears on it. Haliburton thought it to be a memorial of the year in which the French settlers of the Annapolis Basin first cultivated the soil. This latter assumption is very much in agreement with that of the author of an 1827 newspaper article, which is referred to later in this article.

Another prominent Masonic writer and historian who apparently gave some extensive and careful study of the story about the "stone" was the Hon. J. Ross Robertson of Toronto. Illustrious Brother Robertson was the Minister of Agriculture in the government of Canada and a Past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Canada in Ontario.

In his History of Freemasonry in Canada published by George A. Morang & Company in 1900, he refers to it at some length in Chapter 7 of Volume I. His research and findings were completely ignored by Henry W. Coil in his Masonic Encyclopedia, but it is evident that Robertson gave the matter considerably greater attention than did any of the other writers whose work I reviewed. Many of his statements deserve attention.

He comments upon the lack of documentary evidence of some of the early history of the stone and although he shows a picture in which the symbols are quite evident, he says:

"It would doubtless be travelling upon uncertain ground...to assert that the pieces of trap rock found in 1827 on the shore of an island in Annapolis Basin, Nova Scotia, with the figures '1606' and the square and compasses indented thereon, is evidence of craft life at that period, for such statements up to the present are outside the proofline."

He goes on to give a complete description of the finding of the stone and a transcript of the letter from Dr. Jackson to Thornton. He also confirms that the letter is in the archives of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

It is also interesting to note that he does conclude, "It is not likely that the emblems, although Masonic in design, had anything whatever to do with craft Masonry."

His article deals at some length with the story of the loss of the stone and confirms that it was sent to the Canadian Institute in Toronto by Sir Sanford Fleming and that it remained on display for several years in the old building of the Institute. When a new building was constructed at the corner of Richmond and Clary Streets the stone was given to the contractor to be inserted in the wall (presumably an interior wall with the indented side visible). The contractor apparently followed out his instructions but when covering the wall with cement and plaster, failed to leave the stone as intended but covered it. A diligent search in later years failed to uncover it.

Another reference to the stone is found in a letter from a "gentleman at Annapolis" to a friend in Halifax and dated September 1, 1827. It appears in the September 27, 1827,issue of The Nova Scotian, the leading weekly newspaper of that time in Nova Scotia.

The letter writer was obviously an enthusiastic student of the history of Annapolis and the Granville Shore where the first permanent European settlement in North America was made. His September 1st letter was apparently one of a series published by the paper, but this letter is about two stones in his possession and which were found on or near the Granville Shore. One of the stones is the one discovered by Dr. Jackson earlier that same year.

His description of the stone coincides with that by Judge Haliburton in 1828 and by Dr. Jackson in 1856. They all agree in giving the dimensions as 2 1/2 feet long and two feet wide. Also, they all state that it was of the hard iron stone common to the area and that it was not what masons called dressed but rather quite smooth on one side, a condition typical of the iron stones of Granville Mountain. They all say that the stone was engraved with the square and compasses of a Freemason with the year 1606 in large deep figures.

The writer of the letter has a different explanation of the purpose for which the stone was prepared. He gives in some detail the story of the discovery of the Annapolis Basin by de Monts in 1604 and the return of the expedition in 1605 after spending the winter at St. Croix.

In 1605, they began construction of the buildings at what is now known as Annapolis Royal but which de Monts named Port Royal. In the expedition party was a prominent Frenchman named Sieur de Poutrincourt who during the first visit in 1604 was so favourably impressed by the beauty and advantage of a piece of land about two leagues west of Port Royal that he persuaded de Monts to grant it to him. Poutrincourt and de Monts returned to France in the fall of 1605 but returned the next summer and Poutrincourt immediately cleared his land and planted winter grain.

It was at this location more than two centuries later the stone was found and the letter writer contends that he believes it was prepared by, or for, Poutrincourt to mark the site of the first cultivation of Acadia.

This conjecture is supported by a passage in the Journal of Lescarbot, a French lawyer, poet, and playwright, who was part of the expedition in 1606 and who wrote in great detail about the expedition and about the piece of property marked out by his friend Poutrincourt for his own home and fields.

This "gentleman at Annapolis" is not identified, but it wasn't Dr. Jackson. He was the discoverer of the stone and the letter writer says, "In my last letter I mentioned to you the report of some persons in the neighbourhood having accidently found the monument left by those who visited the county in 1604." He goes on to say that he now has the stone which, apparently, he obtained subsequent to his first letter.

It is possible that the "gentleman of Annapolis" was Thomas Haliburton because Dr. Jackson says that he was persuaded by Haliburton to give the stone to him. However, Haliburton was living in Windsor and practising law there in 1827. He was not a resident of Annapolis writing a series of letters to the newspaper of the day. Some further research may turn up the identity of the rather talented letter writer.

The letter writer deals at some length with the question of authenticity and as part of his comments in that regard, he states:

"When we consider the great antiquity of the description, we are at first induced to doubt, whether it has not been made subsequent period; but a close inspection soon removes all scruples about its authenticity. the interior of the figures have suffered in the same unequal manner with the surface, the 1 is still as deep as we may suppose it to have been originally, but the 0 is worn down about one half and the upper of the letter 6 nearly as much."

The late Dr. R. V. Harris, an eminent Masonic historian, had an interesting theory about the stone. He submitted it in a paper which he presented at meeting of the Canadian Masonic Research Association in Toronto on November 15, 1955.

He said, "The theory that the stone might commemorate the establishment of a Lodge of Freemasons had virtually nothing to support it..." He then went on to say, "The theory that the stone marked the last resting place of one of the settlers would seem to have more to support it than any other. It was apparently found in or near the burying ground shown on Champlain's map of the settlement...." Later in the paper he said, "We learn from Lescarbot's New France that among the settlers were numerous joiners, carpenters, masons, stonecutters, locksmiths, workers in iron, tailors, wood sawyers, sailers, etc., who worked at their trades."

Dr. Harris then pointed out that during an exploratory voyage to Cape Cod one of the settlers was wounded and after being brought back to Port Royal died on November 14, 1606. He says further that,

"At that time the carpenters of France had their own mystery or trade guilds, worked on lines somewhat akin to operative Masonry and using the square and compasses as their emblem. It would seem that the stone marked the grave of a member of a French trade or craft guild, who died in 1606, and to this extent the stone may be regarded as the earliest known trace of Freemasonry in the New World."

It is necessary to deal at this point with the treatment of the subject in Coil's Masonic Encyclopedia, even though any reference to Coils' treatment gives it more credibility than it deserves.

The approach by Coil is so biased it is obvious to a reader that Coil had formed an opinion about the stone without any basis for his position and then proceeded to write about it on the assumption that it was a hoax.

Let us first look at some of the people who would have had to be involved in the conspiracy if it were, in fact, a hoax.

  1. Dr. Charles T. Jackson of Boston, the discoverer of the stone. He was an eminent chemist and geologist who found the stone while carrying out a mineralogical survey of Nova Scotia.
  2. Thomas C. Haliburton of Windsor, Nova Scotia, Chief Justice of Common Pleas in Nova Scotia, later a Justice of the Supreme Court and still later, a Member of Parliament in England. He was a distinguished jurist and writer who is best remembered for his stories about "Sam Slick."
  3. Sir Sanford Fleming, C.E., an engineering genius who is credited with the invention of the World Time Zone system and with the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway through the rockies to the Pacific coast. He was one of the great men of the world in the 19th century. He saw the stone several times and wrote about it.
  4. Sir Daniel Wilson of Toronto, President of the Canadian Institute of that city who accepted the stone on behalf of the Institute and who later referred to it in a paper, "Traces of European Immigration in the 17th Century."

It is inconceivable that these men of prominence with a variety of interests, living at great distances from each other, and without Masonic backgrounds would have conspired to produce a stone bearing an emblem identified as being the square and compasses. To what purpose would they have participated in this alleged hoax? There isn't any evidence that Dr. Jackson ever met Sir Sanford Fleming or Sir Daniel Wilson. It is also doubtful if Haliburton and Wilson were known to each other but Haliburton and Fleming were probably well acquainted.

Coil also asks, "Why was the stone not deposited as usual in some museum or even presented to a Masonic Grand Lodge?"

Jackson's original intention was to send it to the Old Colony Pilgrim Society, Plymouth, Mass., but he was dissuaded from doing so by Haliburton who asked for it. Jackson gave it to Haliburton who kept it until his son, R. G. Haliburton, sent it, through Sir Sanford Fleming, to the Canadian Institute of Toronto that it might be placed in the museum of the Institute.

Neither Jackson nor Haliburton were Masons but both identified the markings as being a Masonic symbol. Apparently they were both concerned about its preservation and thought first about a museum rather than a Masonic Grand Lodge. It is quite possible that neither of them knew what a Grand Lodge was or where to find one.

The stone was never handled carelessly, as stated by Coil. In fact, Jackson says in his letter dated June 2, 1856, to J. W. Thornton, president of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, that "he now has it carefully preserved."

In his article, Coil ignores any writings by those who examined the stone and who recognized the carving as representing a square and compasses. He quotes only those who expressed some doubt about its authenticity based on a examination of copies of a picture of the stone.

The writer of the letter to The Nova Scotian had made a careful examination of the stone and despite early doubts was subsequently satisfied as to its authenticity.

Coil also states that "the square and compasses emblem was not in use until more than a century after 1606." However, there is evidence that statement is not correct. One such piece of evidence can be found on Page 137, Volume X, of the Minutes of the Plymouth Colony records. it refers to a package of goods sent from Cooper's Hall, London, England, in March 1654, and with a hieroglyphic marking of a square and compasses. Elsewhere in this article there is reference to a statement by Dr. R. V. Harris that such a symbol was used by the carpenters of France before 1606 for their own mystery or trade guild.

The carelessness which resulted in the loss of the stone is regrettable. It would have been interesting to have had the stone examined by present-day experts in the study of such artifacts with the advantages of modern equipment to assist them. Although that satisfaction is not to be ours, we must accept the fact that the stone did exist and that it bore an inscription considered at the time to resemble the square and compasses identified as a symbol of Freemasonry.

My inclination is to support the interpretation by the late Dr. R. V. Harris that the inscription was that of the emblem used by a trade guild of carpenters, some of whom were part of the body of French settlers who settled Port Royal during the years 1605 and 1606.

Perhaps someone with access to information about the emblems used by the trade guilds of that day will be able to confirm or disprove this conjecture, but until then, I must consider the "Annapolis stone" as the earliest evidence of Freemasonry on this continent.

This article was prepared by Ill. Bro. Harvey R. Doane, Past Sovereign Grand Commander of the Supreme Council of Canada, A.A.S.R. and has been excerpted from The Northern Light, September 1982.