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Our History

The Passamaquoddy (Peskotomuhkati)

image of Passamaquoddy rowing a canoe

Long before the Van Horne era, the island was an important summer camp for the Passamaquoddy First Nations. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Passamaquoddy inhabited this island after the retreat of the glaciers 13,000 years ago. Qonasqamkuk, now known as St. Andrews, was an important meeting place & sacred ceremonies by the Passamaquoddy were held there. Passamaquoddy Bay was known for its abundance of fish, particularly pollock, hence the Passamaquoddy people were known as the Peskotomuhkati - 'Fishers of Pollock.'

There are three distinct self-governing Passamaquoddy communities within the tribe's ancestral homeland. Two communities are located in Maine (Pleasant Point and Indian Township) and the third is located at St. Andrews New, Brunswick. Each community is separated by geography but the people continue to maintain close political, social and kinship ties.

The centuries old cultural history of the Passamaquoddy is continued today in their artistry in basket making. When Europeans arrived, basketry helped the Peskotomuhkati people maintain cultural continuity, while also providing them with trade goods that European settlers needed. The weavers of today, most of whom reside in Maine are continuing to keep the rich traditions of the Passamaquoddy people alive with this heritage art form. We have a sample of their works on display on the Island.

John Hanson (1739 -1820) 


John Hanson and his family were the first known European settlers who lived on Chamcook Island, Passamaquoddy, Nova Scotia from 1778-1784. Chamcook Island is now known as Ministers Island and is now part of New Brunswick, Canada. 


In 1777, as a citizen of Gouldsboro, Maine, and loyal to the Crown of Great Britain after having fought with Wolfe at Quebec, John Hanson was obliged to leave his home to avoid enforced patriot conscription. Escaping in an open whaleboat with his son-in- law, Ephraim Young, they sought habitation in Nova Scotia. Based on Hanson's military record with the British Militia at Quebec in 1759, they received a "Ticket of Location for 500 acres" on Chamcook Island, Passamaquoddy from Governor Parr of Nova Scotia as this parcel of land was considered part of Nova Scotia at that time. 

During 1777 and 1778, they moved their large families and resided on the island for six years labouring to clear and improve the land. In 1783, Captain Samuel Osborn, British Navy arrived in St. Andrews to protect its citizens from Americans and Indians. In 1784, upon establishment of the colony of New Brunswick, "Tickets of Location" were no longer recognized. Settlers were obliged to petition their new governor, Sir Thomas Carleton, for land grants. In August 1784, Osborn petitioned for Chamcook Island and other town grants. In March 1785, Hanson and Young applied for their land grant but were denied. In 1785, Chamcook Island was granted to Osborn. Hanson and Young were granted land in nearby Bocabec and had to start land settlement anew. In 1786, Reverend Samuel Andrews arrived in St. Andrews and in 1791, Osborn sold Chamcook Island to Andrews for 250 pounds and returned to England. Chamcook Island remained in the Andrews family until 1889 until it was bought by Sir William Van Horne. 

Parson Andrews 


The island was granted to Captain Osborn by King George III for services rendered during the American War of Independence. Sometime between 1788 and 1791 the Rector of St. Andrews, Reverend Samuel Andrews formerly from Wallingford, Connecticut acquired ownership of the island from Captain Osborn. Andrews paid 250 pounds for the Island. This sale wasn't without some controversy as the earlier loyalist settlers of the island, claimed that they had forfeited ownership as a result of some trickery and intimidation. All of this adds a certain amount of intrigue to the early loyalist development of the island. 

At some point between 1788 and 1791 Reverend Andrews built the small stone cottage on the Island that is still there today. Thereafter it acquired its informal designation as Ministers Island. The Rector is remembered to have laboured by horse and buggy along treacherous winter roads and trails to visit parishioners in the outlying areas. With the tide covering the bar a large part of the day, getting on and off the Island, and even coming into town for regular church service, would not have been the easiest task. Perhaps for this reason Andrews spent about half his time on the mainland. 

Except for a brief interlude between 1798 and 1841, Ministers Island remained entirely in the Andrews family until 1891, when a part of it was sold by Edwin Andrews, great grandson of Reverend Andrews, to that celebrated Canadian, Sir William Cornelius Van Horne. Parson Andrews' house became the home for various farm managers over the years. 


Sir William Van Horne 


Sir William Van Horne began his railway career as a telegraph operator for the Illinois Central Railway in 1857 and worked his way up from ticket agent to train dispatcher, then Superintendent of Telegraphs and finally to Division Superintendent. He was successful in rebuilding and consolidating several US based railways and in 1881 he was enticed to undertake the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). In September 1885 Van Horne became CPR Vice-President. Within four years he was elevated to the position of President. He became Chairman of the CPR Board in 1899 and he resigned in 1910. 

Van Horne was flamboyant, outspoken and multi-talented. His interests were legend as was his sophistication. He had a passion for art and he dabbled in architecture. Incredibly, while the CPR's contract with the government dictated completion of the road within a decade, Van Horne - through sheer determination - found ways to finish it in five. Even more remarkably, once Van Horne had completed the CPR, he operated it and, despite the economic malaise for most of the 1880s and 1890s, made it into a paying proposition. Surely, the Canadian Pacific's role as an instrument of Canadian nationalism would have followed a different course, had Van Horne not been at the helm. 


Van Horne purchased part of the island in 1890. He continued to buy other parcels with the last piece being purchased by his daughter Addie after Sir William's death in 1915. He constructed a summer estate on the site which included Covenhoven - a 50-room summer home with walls constructed from sandstone cut from the shore, a windmill, leading edge gas plant, carriage house, garage, circular bath house and farm buildings. The centrepiece of the agricultural buildings is the livestock barn, a massive two-story timber structure with a hipped gable roof, which was home to Van Horne's thoroughbred horses and prized herd of Dutch belted cattle. 


In its day, the Island and Van Horne's activities were a major tourist draw for St Andrews and played a major role in the economic development and support of the region. Indeed he was single-handedly responsible for attracting many of his wealthy friends who came and made St Andrews their summer homes and established St Andrews as Canada's first and oldest seaside resort. Van Horne's engagement of Edward Maxwell, the renowned Boston and Montreal Architect in the creation and design of Covenhoven and the large agricultural barn set the stage for Maxwell's shaping of many of the magnificent buildings in St Andrews that charm visitors and tourists today. 


Given its connection to the very roots of Canada, Ministers Island is a story well worth preserving for present and future generations. It's a story worth supporting financially given its potential to pay back in increased local pride, tourism and economic development.

Through his business travels he collected works of Velazquez, Hals, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Constable and Turner as well as many modern works. In addition to his painting, Van Horne was recognized for his collection of and expertise in Japanese porcelain and pottery. The majority of his art collections now reside in the Montreal Museum of Fine arts with a smaller number still residing on the Estate on Ministers Island. 

In his time on the island Van Horne practiced his skills in the arts being both an excellent violinist and artist in his own right. The Bathhouse on the Island was his artistic retreat serving as a studio and source of inspiration. Van Horne was a serious collector and had a passion for art. 

The centrepiece of Van Horne's agricultural buildings is the livestock barn, a massive two-story timber structure with a hipped gable roof, which was home to Van Horne's thoroughbred horses and prized herd of Dutch belted cattle. The historic barn was designed and constructed in 1899 by Edward Maxwell and Sir William Van Horne. The barn is an integral part of the Island summer estate and reflects the importance Van Horne attached to both architecture and agriculture. Its most prominent features are the two twin silos that are capped with conical roofs and Maxwell's signature asymmetrical ventilators, giving them the appearance of renaissance turrets.  

Post Van Horne 


1958 the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada rejected Covenhoven as an historic site and the island was put up for sale. It was listed for $80,000 including 500 acres, all of the buildings and a working farm producing 200 tons of hay and enough oats to feed 100 head of cattle. In 1960, after a failed last-ditch attempt by locals to keep the island from falling into American hands ,it was sold to an Ohio syndicate that planned to turn it into a semi-private club for shareholders and their friends and acquaintances. 

In 1967 after numerous financial problems, the island, its buildings and all of the treasures housed therein, was sold again to real estate developer, Norman Langdon a resident of Maine. This was after, yet again, an attempt to have the provincial government recognize the island's potential as a park development in conjunction with an historical complex. Langdon envisioned a significant cottage development on the island and proceeded to sub-divide the land. Langdon sold three lots to other parties. He invested over $300,000 in renovations. Numerous buildings on the site were removed and poor quality repair work on other buildings left them in poor condition. 


In 1977 it was announced that the island and all the furnishings would be put up for auction. Local activists attempted to halt the proceedings and lobbied the Provincial government who had been in talks with Langdon to buy the property to step in. In March the Province declared Ministers Island a provincially protected site. In August the deal was finally done at a cost of $855,000. 

In 1978 Parks Canada National Historic Sites and Monuments Board recognized the island's Shell Midden noting the importance of the site to First Nations history. In 1996 Parks Canada National Historic Sites and Monuments Board designated the island a National Historic Site. 


In 2008 the provincial government of New Brunswick signed a long-term lease with the island’s current operators The Van Horne Estate on Ministers Island Inc. (VHEMI) which is a volunteer, not-for-profit charitable body representing the local communities who believe strongly in the provincial and national importance of the Island. 

In 2016, after major weather damage to the iconic Van Horne barn, the local community, the Government of New Brunswick and the Federal government all came together and worked with the VHEMI board to secure funding for restoration work. 


In 2017 the VHEMI board, with the help of funding from Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and the New Brunswick Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture, developed a bold new business plan to establish Ministers island as a leading tourist destination on the Fundy coast and Charlotte County. Implementation of this plan has continued since then with a thrust of developing the island buildings and trails while offering expanded cultural and heritage themed visitor experiences that reflect the full scope of the island's history and inhabitants.  

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