Fredericton‘s architectural heritage and unique character evolved alongside its designation and growth as the Provincial Capital of New Brunswick. The city’s landmark buildings are a direct result of its governmental, administrative, and educational status, while its picturesque setting along the beautiful St. John River adds to its charm.
The river, originally known as Wolastoq (the beautiful river), and its valley have long been inhabited by the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) people. They spent their summers on the islands near the river’s sweeping curve, which featured meadows, berry bogs, salmon pools, and small brooks. Their descendants continue to maintain a strong community in the city today.
French geographer Samuel de Champlain attempted the first permanent European settlement of New France. His expedition “discovered” the river mouth on St. Jean Baptiste Day, June 24, 1604, and named it ‘la Riviere St. Jean’. Although the Wolastoqiyik welcomed them warmly, the explorers did not find a suitable place for settlement and moved on to the ill-fated settlement of Ile St. Croix.
From 1692 to 1698, French commander Joseph Robineau de Villebon built and occupied Fort St Joseph as the Acadian capital where the Nashwaak and John Rivers meet. The remote location, 60 miles upriver from the sea, was considered a deterrent from attack by ship. Although it withstood a British attack in 1696, the fortified French capital eventually relocated across the Bay of Fundy to Port Royale, in present-day Nova Scotia.
In 1732, a small group of French Acadians fleeing British advances in Nova Scotia settled along the river’s bend, naming the community Pointe Ste-Anne. A 1733 census listed 15 families and 83 people, but the settlement was abandoned by the late 1750s when American Rangers arrived to establish British sovereignty in the area. Unfortunately, none of the Acadian buildings remain in the city today.
Fredericton’s story truly begins with the arrival of the Loyalists in October 1783. The first winter was harsh, with early and severe snowfalls. Many died during the brutal winter of 1783/84 and were buried in what became the Loyalist cemetery, still located on the south bank of the Saint John River.
The Loyalists, who had fought for King George III in the American War of Independence, were granted separate colonial status for the newly named colony of New Brunswick by 1784. Colonel Thomas Carleton became the first Governor in 1785 and chose St Anne’s Point as the capital, as it provided better protection from potential attack by American adversaries than the port city of Saint John.
Carleton renamed the new settlement “Fredericktown” to honor King George III’s second son, Frederick. In 1786, Captain Dugald Campbell, a member of the British regiment stationed there, surveyed and laid out the original Town Plat of streets and lots in a typical grid pattern. This gives credence to Fredericton’s claim as one of the oldest “planned” cities in the Commonwealth. The street names reflect the British and Loyalist influences, with names like Queen, King, Brunswick, George, and Charlotte.
The designation as a British colonial capital necessitated the construction of a governor’s residence and a legislative assembly building, as well as the establishment of a significant military presence to protect and assert sovereignty over the region.
The provincial capital was also designated as the center of higher learning, leading to the establishment of the University of New Brunswick and, later, the Provincial Normal School.
Provincial Normal School. Photo from the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Taylor Collection.
Similarly, the Anglican Church selected this location for the bishopric and the subsequent construction of Christ Church Cathedral, which is said to have set a new standard for Cathedral construction in North America.
Fredericton’s architecture, ranging from the earliest and simplest Loyalist vernacular dwellings to the most extravagant Victorian mansions, serves as our most direct connection to the social and economic conditions of the past and how they have shaped this remarkable city.
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