Pre-Confederation Writers and Poets


  1. Background and Context
  2. What to Expect in the Literature
  3. Featured Authors
  4. Further Reading
  5. How to Cite

Background and Context

New Brunswick has long been in the literary vanguard, as some of the earliest literature written in present-day Canada was composed in the province. Pre-Confederation writing in New Brunswick covers a period stretching from the early-16th to the late-19th century. However, habitation in what is now present-day New Brunswick predates recorded history by thousands of years. Long before European exploration of the region, the First Nations peoples of New Brunswick comprised the Maliseet along the Saint John River, the Mi’kmaq on the east coast, and the Passamaquoddy in the southwest around Passamaquoddy Bay. Rich in an extensive oral tradition, the First Nations peoples of New Brunswick did not have a need for written history and – with the exception of Mi’kmaq hieroglyphic writing – did not develop a system of writing.

After having established contact with Europeans in the 16th century, many First Nations were made dependent upon European technology, exploited for colonial economic interests, and exposed to European diseases. This resulted in a loss of much early First Nations culture and heritage. What remains of the history of the period is to be found in Indigenous oral stories (see New Brunswick First Nations Story) and in European narratives, the latter largely empty or uninformed of the culture of North America’s Indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, these narratives are important, for no matter how biased, prejudiced, or uninformed, they provide us with the earliest descriptions of the land and people of New Brunswick.

Though the first Europeans to have visited New Brunswick were likely Vikings based out of L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, the earliest known European record of New Brunswick landfall dates to Jacques Cartier’s first voyage to North America in 1534. In July of 1534, Cartier visited and named Chaleur Bay between northern New Brunswick and the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec. In many ways, Cartier’s Voyages (his memoirs of visitation) tell us as much about European beliefs and attitudes as they do about the land and people of New Brunswick. Still, Cartier’s meticulous descriptions of the land and wildlife he encountered, and especially his accounts of trading with the Mi’kmaq and Iroquoian peoples he met, are indispensable to understanding the province’s early history.

Cartier never established a permanent settlement in what is present-day New Brunswick, but he was integral in charting a course for future exploration and colonization of Canada and New Brunswick. In 1604, seventy years after Cartier’s first voyage, Samuel de Champlain visited Passamaquoddy Bay and set up camp at St. Croix Island. French settlement throughout the Maritimes soon followed and the French colony of Acadia, which encompassed all of present-day New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and parts of eastern Quebec and northern Maine, came into being.

For more than one hundred and fifty years, Acadians were the predominant non-indigenous peoples in New Brunswick. The British conquest of Acadia in 1710, however, eventually led to the Expulsion of the Acadians from their homeland in 1755. The tragic experience of the Expulsion (known in French as Le Grand Dérangement) has subsequently formed the basis for a rich literature, but in 17th and 18th centuries, very little poetry or prose was composed in the region. Though Acadia was a culturally vibrant colony where folklore, mythology, music, and a distinctive cuisine developed, the harsh and demanding realities of settler life and a colonial history marked by war meant that a significant body of literature was not to develop in New Brunswick until the 18th century.

Though settlement continued during the early British colonial era in the New Brunswick region, it was not until after the American Revolution that the next significant population increase occurred. In 1783, the year that the American Revolution ended and the United States of America was founded, thousands of Loyalists – American refugees loyal to the British Crown – arrived at the mouth of the River St. John, an area that was then a part of the colony of Nova Scotia. These new settlers were predominantly British, but also included German, Dutch, and black Loyalists, the latter of whom faced discrimination and racism from the colonial government after arriving. In total, more than 14,000 Loyalists arrived in what would soon be the colony of New Brunswick. In 1784, the Loyalists successfully petitioned the colonial government for the creation of a separate province of New Brunswick. Its new capital would be Fredericton (formerly Fort Anne), which was chosen because its inland location made it less vulnerable to American invasion from the South. The following year, Saint John (formerly Parrtown) became the first incorporated city in what is now Canada.

In addition to establishing a new, separate colony, the Loyalists, some of whom were wealthy and educated, brought with them the economic and intellectual resources necessary to found a thriving print culture in the province. Significantly, John Ryan founded New Brunswick’s first newspaper, The Royal St. John’s Gazette and Nova-Scotia Intelligencer, the same year he arrived as a Loyalist in Saint John in 1783. Another significant Loyalist to have arrived in 1783 was Jonathan Odell, whose poetry established the beginnings of a Loyalist literary tradition in the province. Adam Allan was another Loyalist whose poem “Grand Falls” is an early poetic description of the New Brunswick landscape. Many of the other important pre-Confederation writers in New Brunswick were the descendants of Loyalists, including James De Mille, Oliver Goldsmith, and William Leggett, while others were not, such as Peter John Allan and Martin Butler.

This module will illustrate how perceptions of New Brunswick changed over time. Cartier’s observations were those of a visitor and thus provide little more than we would expect from a tourist in a strange land. As settlement takes root, however, the written record changes noticeably, as does the language of writers. Place (in this case New Brunswick) ceases to be an abstract entity (a mere shape on a map) and starts to acquire personality and dimension of its own. What was the record of temporary visitors like Cartier and Champlain becomes the record of settlers who delight in their home and write with the passion and care of close observers. An idiom or language sovereign to place – that is, a language that reflects the particularity of seasonal changes, landscape, and social circumstance (work, demography, and history) – becomes more and more evident as settlers plant themselves in New Brunswick soil. As Canadian poet Margaret Atwood so shrewdly observed, the land becomes personal when we start burying our ancestors in it. So does the language of New Brunswick’s early written records reflect this evolution of the personal.

What to Expect in the Literature

Jacques Cartier’s Voyages and John Gyles’ Memoirs of Odd Adventures provide valuable insight into early European attitudes toward Indigenous peoples in New Brunswick. Marked by a sense of entitlement to the lands that others occupied, the colonizing attitudes on display in Cartier and Gyles are offensive today. That said, it is important to read and study those early accounts, not only as history but also as shapers of colonialist attitudes sustained even to the present day.

The writings of pre-Confederation authors are markedly different in subject and tone from the works that appear later. Indeed, there is very little in this module’s texts that code them as “New Brunswick.” William Leggett’s “The Harp of Brunswick” suggests the reason for that: namely, that a sense of New Brunswick as a distinct place has not yet materialized. Thus, many authors – chiefly Jonathan Odell, Adam Allan, Oliver Goldsmith, and, despite his awareness of the fact, Leggett himself – address New Brunswick in the language and imagery of other places. As settlement becomes more established in the province, though, so does a literature that is distinctly New Brunswick, beginning with the imagery found in Peter John Allan’s work.

Readers will note that many of the authors in this module are not only intensely political, but also likeminded in their pro-British imperialism, hostile to those outside of it (whether Indigenous peoples or American revolutionaries), and Christian in outlook (primarily Protestant). Many of the writers are Loyalists or descendants, and thus inheritors of a conservative, class-based ethos. The exception to this is Martin Butler. His difference in political philosophy is reflected in his work, but he is also the exception that proves the rule, his life made difficult by his otherness. Again, the now-dated, pro-British sympathies of the time should not be discounted, for those sympathies shaped the political attitudes in New Brunswick – and the hegemony against which Acadian, Irish, and working-class writers in the province would later react.

Featured Authors

  1. Jacques Cartier
  2. John Gyles
  3. Jonathan Odell
  4. Adam Allan
  5. Oliver Goldsmith
  6. William M. Leggett
  7. Peter John Allan
  8. James De Mille
  9. Martin Butler

Further Reading

Bailey, Alfred G. The Conflict of European and Eastern Algonkian Cultures, 1504-1700. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1969.

Bell, David G. Early Loyalist Saint John: The Origin of New Brunswick Politics, 1783-1786. Fredericton: New Ireland P, 1983.

Condon, Ann Gorman. The Envy of the American States: The Loyalist Dream for New Brunswick. Fredericton: New Ireland P, 1984.

Davies, Gwendolyn. “Loyalist Literature in New Brunswick, 1783-1843.” New Brunswick at the Crossroads: Literary Ferment and Social Change in the East. Ed. Tony Tremblay. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2017. 19-43.

Fingard, Judith. “The 1820s: Peace, Privilege, and the Promise of Progress.” The Atlantic Region to Confederation: A History. Ed. Phillip A. Buckner and John G. Reid. Toronto, ON: U of Toronto P, 1998. 263-83.

Ganong, William F. A Monograph of Historic Sites in the Province of New Brunswick. Ottawa: Royal Society, 1899.

Hannay, James. History of New Brunswick. Saint John: John A. Bowes, 1909.

Leavitt, Robert M. Maliseet and Micmac: First Nations of the Maritimes. Fredericton: New Ireland P, 1995.

MacDonald, M.A. Rebels and Royalists: The Lives and Material Culture of New Brunswick’s Early Settlers, 1758-1783. Fredericton: New Ireland P, 1990.

MacNutt, W.S. New Brunswick, A History: 1784-1867. Toronto: Macmillan, 1963.

Raymond, W.O. The River St. John: Its Physical Features, Legends and History from 1604-1784. Saint John: J.A. Bowes, 1910.

Richard, Chantal. “Emergent Acadian Nationalism, 1864-1955.” New Brunswick at the Crossroads: Literary Ferment and Social Change in the East. Ed. Tony Tremblay. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2017. 45-72.

Vincent, Thomas B., ed. Narrative Verse Satire in Maritime Canada 1779-1814. Ottawa, ON: Tecumseh Press, 1978.

Webster, J. Clarence. An Historical Guide to New Brunswick. Fredericton: New Brunswick Government Bureau of Information and Tourist Travel, 1947.

Wright, Esther Clarke. The Loyalists of New Brunswick. Fredericton: Wright, 1955.

How to Cite

Use of material in the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English is restricted to scholarly, research, or educational purposes only. Use should include appropriate citations. The following citation is an example of how a researcher should cite the author pages for Martin Butler:

Tremblay, Tony, James William Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell. “Martin Butler.” New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English. Fredericton: UNB Libraries, 2020.

The following citation is an example of how a researcher should cite the module pages for the Pre-Confederation Writers and Poets, the module within which Butler appears:

Tremblay, Tony, James William Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell. “Pre-Confederation Writers and Poets: Background and Context.” New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English. Fredericton: UNB Libraries, 2020.