Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres was born in 1721, probably in Switzerland. He came to North America after studying at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. In 1756 he was commissioned Lieutenant in the Royal American Regiment and took part in the 1758 siege of Louisbourg. He continued to serve as an engineer and surveyor, and in 1763, was tasked to survey and make charts of Nova Scotia’s ports and harbours. With a staff of 20 or more, he began the work that would take ten years to complete. He returned to England in 1774 and embarked on the production of the charts that would comprise the Atlantic Neptune, a hydrographic atlas of the coast from the St Lawrence to New York. It was issued in four sections between 1777 and 1784.
The Atlantic Neptune was his most lasting endeavour, but his career was many-faceted. He became one of In Nova Scotia’s largest landowners with properties in many regions of the colony including present-day New Brunswick. In 1764, he built his home in Upper Falmouth known as Castle Frederick, the site of a former Acadian farm, where he lived for ten years. When he left for England, his mistress, Mary Cannon, with whom he had six children, remained at Castle Frederick and managed his estates. These included lands in the Tatamagouche area, where he established some Foreign Protestants from Lunenburg, and at Minudie, where Acadians who had returned after the Deportation became his tenants, farming the area knowns as the Elysian Fields.
The American Revolution brought an influx of Loyalists to Nova Scotia, and in 1784, Cape Breton became a separate colony where some of the refugees could be settled. DesBarres, who had advised the British government about the island’s resources, became its Lieutenant Governor. He arrived there in January 1785 with his English wife, Martha Williams, and two children. He established his capital at the head of Spanish Bay, naming it after Lord Sydney, the Home Secretary. He drew up elaborate plans for the town, which were only partially completed, but survive in the present downtown area. The settlers included not only British troops and Loyalists but also people whom he had personally sponsored.
DesBarres’s governorship was fraught with difficulties from the start, as provisions for the settlers were inadequate. Disputes soon erupted. DesBarres vied with the military for control of government supplies, which were provided for the Loyalists but not for the settlers he had sponsored. He received a reprimand from Lord Sydney for attempting to establish a whaling industry and for undertaking expenditures without consultation with Britain. Some of the more powerful citizens disliked his heavy-handed style of governing, and petitions were sent to England for his dismissal, supported by Nova Scotia’s Governor Parr. DesBarres was recalled to Britain, and in 1787, he surrendered his office to his successor.
DesBarres claimed and eventually received payment for his expenses in Cape Breton but was anxious to obtain another colonial appointment. In 1804, at the age of 82, he became Lieutenant Governor of Prince Edward Island. Here again disputes arose, and in 1812 he was recalled and returned to Nova Scotia, where he lived for a time in Amherst before moving to Halifax. It is said that he celebrated his 100th birthday by dancing on a tabletop. He died in 1824 at the age of nearly 103, and was buried in Halifax beside his wife Martha, who had given him eleven children.
When DesBarres brought his wife to Cape Breton, he broke off relations with Mary Cannon. She continued to manage his estates until 1794, when DesBarres replaced her with a new agent. He found that Cannon had run up a large debt in his name and was having an affair with one of the employees at Castle Frederick. She and her children would receive nothing on his death. His children by Martha Williams were his heirs, but his lasting legacy was his Atlantic Neptune.