Ilhavo Park: Fort William and the civil fort during the French raid of 1709

The City of St. John’s has a long human history and therefore has a long archaeological record dating back to at least the Maritime Archaic period ~3200-~5500 years ago. This antiquity is evidenced by the discovery of a Maritime Archaic biface near the Waterford River in the 19th-century.

With this history in mind, when the Provincial Archaeology Office (PAO) receives a land use application for within the city, particularly for downtown, an archaeological impact assessment is usually required. Thankfully, the PAO has a good working relationship with the City and they understand and support our goal of the protection of archaeological resources.

In 2003 the PAO received an application on behalf of the Grand Concourse Authority for the construction of a small park and monument that commemorated the cultural and historical influence of the Portuguese White Fleet on the City of St. John’s. The park was to be located at the intersection of Duckworth Street and Plymouth Road and it represents a partnership between the cities of St. John’s and Ilhavo, Portugal.

Ilhavo Park (Google Maps)
Ilhavo Park today
(Google Maps)
The area prior to development in 2003
The area prior to development in 2003 (Mills)

The PAO knew the area had archaeological potential because in 1993 Dr. Peter Pope with Memorial University of Newfoundland found portions of the late 17th to early 18th-century civil fort that was attached to Fort William directly across the street towards the Harbour (Pope 1993). Based on this knowledge the PAO advised the Grand Concourse Authority of the archaeological potential in the area and that an archaeological impact assessment was required.

The stage 1 assessment conducted by archaeologist Stephen Mills in 2003 identified…

Numerous cartographic sources dating back to the late-seventeenth century indicate that the area was within or adjacent to the military installations known as Fort William and Fort George (or Civil Fort) that date between the late-1690s and mid-eighteenth century. Residential occupations of the site date at least to the middle of the nineteenth century (2003:1).
A 1726 map of St. John's thought to have been made by M. de Saint Ovide de Brouillant. The whole map can be seen here:
A map of St. John’s thought to have been made by M. de Saint Ovide de Brouillan after he captured the city in 1709.  Fort William is in the upper right and a profile view of the fort is in the lower left. The whole map can be seen here.

Construction of Fort William depicted on the map above began in 1697 under the direction of Colonel John Gibsone and in 1705 it is described as having 40 guns and surrounded by ramparts and pallisades with a glacis descending from the parapet. There was a second fort surrounded by a pallisade on the southern flank of the fort intended for the defence of the town’s non-military inhabitants. This second fort, the civil fort, is visible in both the plan and profile view in the above map (Mills 2003: 8).

Fort William was attacked by the French in 1705 and in the winter of 1709. The English repelled the 1705 attack but on January 1, 1709, under the command of Joseph de Mombeton de Saint-Ovide de Brouillon, the French captured Fort William and demolished it along with the rest of the defences in the harbour before heading back to Placentia that same winter. The fort was rebuilt by the British in the summer of 1709.

By the 1740s, a battery with twelve 24-pounders was constructed just to the south of Fort William, near the same location as the civilian fort from the early eighteenth century. This southern fort came to be known as Fort St. George or simply Fort George. These forts were again captured by the French in 1762 and reclaimed by the English in the fall of the same year (Mills 2003).

By the last half of the 19th-century both forts were gone. At this time the area was being taken over by roads and dwellings. The dwellings in the area burned down during the 1892 fire but were rebuilt. By the first quarter of the 20th century however the area was devoid of homes (Mills 2003).

Late 19th or early 20th century shot of the wooden homes built Ilhavo Park. Left side, centre of photo
Late 19th or early 20th-century photograph of the wooden homes built at Ilhavo Park. Left side of photo. From a Memorial University photo collection

All of this information was gathered prior to the archaeological impact assessment which was conducted between October 10, 2004 and November 27, 2004.

A single east-west trench (Trench A) running some 45 meters in length and upwards of two meters wide was excavated to subsoil (up to 3.15m below grade) along the entire northern edge of the study area Two test pits were dug in the southern portion of the study area, both also to subsoil or bedrock. One (Trench C) was located at the eastern end and the second (Trench B) near the center of the southern edge.

Following testing the entire fill removal process was monitored constantly. When artifacts or features were encountered, mechanical excavation was halted, or redirected, to provide an opportunity to investigate the area by more traditional means (Aardvark Archaeology 2004:8).

Map of the Ilhavo archaeology site showing the location of features and test units
Map of the Ilhavo archaeology site showing the location of features and test units (Aardvark Archaeology 2004)

The late component of the site was concentrated in five cellars. Three of the five 19th-century cellars measured on average 4×3 metres and were about 60 cm deep. Cellar four was 6×4.5 m and 180 cm deep. The fifth cellar was 7×3 m and 150 cm deep. All of the cellars contained typical 19th-century artifacts including ceramics, smoking pipes and assorted glass.

Click on the picture to see a larger version.


The early component was first encountered about one metre below the surface in the southwest corner of the study area. The approximate dimensions of the intact portion of the deposit were about 2.7m north-south by 4m east-west. The deposit averaged about 30cm in thickness, but at the western extremity of the study area was up to 70 cm thick (Aardvark Archaeology 2004: 25).

Though a small area the early component of the site contained a tightly dated event falling in the late 17th to the early 18th-century.

The most numerous class of artifact at the site was tobacco pipe stem and bowl fragments. Thirty-five bowl fragments and 394 measurable stem fragments make up the collection.

Of the bowl and bowl fragments 23 are from the English West Country and date to 1680-1720; three are forms from the West Country or London and date to 1680-1710; one is definitely from London, dating to 1690-1720; three are from Exeter and date to 1680-1720. Several of the bowl fragments had maker’s marks on the heel or side of the bowl; these can be dated to 1692-1700. The average date for the pipe stems was 1679 which was thought to be earlier than the archaeological component.

Assorted pipe bowls
Assorted pipe bowls

Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Fifty-eight ceramic vessels were identified as coming from Europe including Spain, Portugal, the English ceramic centers of Totnes, Verwood and North Devon in Bristol/Staffordshire, the Midlands South and East Somerset, Beauvais, France and the Rhineland, particularly the Westerwald region of Germany. All the vessels could have been, and probably were, produced in the last decade of the seventeenth century and the first decade of the eighteenth century. Vessel 42, for example bears a sprig-moulded likeness of William III of England (1694-1702), precisely in the centre of the proposed date for the early component occupation. Notable, too, is the absence of English white salt-glazed pottery. It was introduced about 1715 and within a few years became one of the dominant ceramic types on English colonial sites. Its absence from Ilhavo Park supports a terminal date of prior to 1715 (Aardvark Archaeology 2004: 27).

Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Fourteen glass vessels – four wine bottles, two case bottles, three pharmaceuticals and five wine glass fragments were recovered from the early component at Ilhavo Park. All could have been produced during the proposed 1697-1709 period occupation and at least two of the wine bottles (Vessels 1 and 2) are specific to that period (Aardvark Archaeology 2004: 31).

Glass bottles and stemware from the early component at Ilhavo Park
Glass bottles and stemware from the early component at Ilhavo Park

In a recent conversation with Steve Mills he speculated that some of the artifacts they found may have been related to either the 1705 or 1709 French raid, including a broad ax and what may be the “business end” from a ballista dart!

Click on the picture to see a larger version.

He also pointed out that they found a large iron hinge. These three artifacts were near where the ditch to Fort William was located and a sally port (also called a covered way) in the ditch which led into the fort. The hinge may have come from the sally port door or the gate to the civilian fort. Saint Ovide de Brouillan mentions going through the “covert way” or covered way to gain access to the Fort William ramparts. The broad ax, harpoon/ballista blade and hinge could be the only military-related artifacts found associated with Fort William and the civilian fort and the French raids on St. John’s. While this is all speculation it is certainly within the realm of possibility.

The Ilhavo Park site consists of two datable components. The later component is made up of five cellars thought to have been dug after the Great Fire of 1892 and refilled when the houses above them were torn down after World War II. The older component appears to be part of a much larger midden that was up to 70 cm thick in places and contained a typical assortment of smoking pipe stems and bowls, ceramics and glass vessel fragments. The archaeologists interpreted the material as a midden of domestic refuse deposited between 1697 and 1709 by residents of the civil fort. This component appears to continue to the south and west beneath Duckworth Street and probably to the north beneath Plymouth Road.

The recovery of all this material and information from this small area would have been lost under the blade of a bulldozer without PAO’s requirement for an archaeological impact assessment. This process is in place to ensure the protection of Historic Resources in the province and Ilhavo Park is a good example of how the system works.

Thanks to Steve Mills for comments on a draft of this blog and for sharing his photos.

Aardvark Archaeology 2004  Archaeological Investigations at Ilhavo Park (CjAe-53) Duckworth Street and Plymouth Road, St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Mills, Stephen 2003  Historic Resources Stage 1 Assessment Ilhavo Park, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.

Pope, Peter 1995  St. John’s Harbour area Archaeological survey.

2 thoughts on “Ilhavo Park: Fort William and the civil fort during the French raid of 1709

  1. Fascinating, as always.
    I was intrigued at the mention at the start of this piece of the face that the record extends well beyond the better-known period of history that’s occurred since the Europeans but down permanent stakes in the place. Much of what we see reported is, of course, on that period but it’s interesting to note that work has been done on the pre-contact period as well. I wonder just how much of a degree of permanency existed regarding settlement around the harbour over time. I imagine that the relative isolation from the elements coupled by the closeness of various food sources was as much an asset in those times as it was for the Europeans and imagine that occupation was higher than one would expect by random chance.
    I was equally fascinated by the possible projectile but wonder if there’s any possibility that it was not really there for military reasons but was instead ‘re-purposed’ for some fishing or other naval duty and just found its way there by chance.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      Honestly, I don’t think the precontact peoples made much use of St. John’s or most of the Avalon for that matter. Of the more than 430 known archaeology sites found on the Avalon, just 38 have some kind of precontact component.
      There has been very little precontact material culture found in St. John’s, what has been found could fit in one hand.

      With regard to the projectile, that object is identical to Basque whaling harpoons found in Red Bay, Labrador dating to the first half of the 16th century. It is more likely the object was used in that manner than a Ballista. Steve and I were just speculating on the possible uses of the ax, hinge and, most likely, harpoon head.

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