Three Miles From What?

Charlottetown Harbour, Prince Edward Island.
Charlottetown Harbour, Prince Edward Island. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Canada‘s smallest province, Prince Edward Island, has three nicknames, which is more than any other province can claim. It is known as “the Garden of the Gulf,” “the Cradle of Confederation,” and “the Cradle in the Waves.”  The cradle has rocked too sharply at times.

The famous Canadian sailing ship Marco Polo was wrecked on Cape Cavendish (see my post of April 17).  The S.S. Queen Victoria, which took the Canadian delegates to the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, was lost in a hurricane on October 4, two years later.  By coincidence the worst storm of all was also on October 4, but in 1851, when many American fishermen lost their lives off Charlottetown.  Estimates range from 150 to 300 lives.

The storm is known in history as the “Yankee Gale.”  There were more than 100 American fishing vessels off the north shore of Prince Edward Island when a freak storm suddenly blew up.  It lasted from Friday afternoon until Sunday evening, when watches on the shore could see 70 fishing vessels wrecked on the beaches and sand dunes.  Nearly all of them were from the New England states.  The bodies of a great many victims were never recovered, but 70 were buried in various cemeteries along the shore.

The real cause of the disaster was not the storm, but the lack of a clear-cut fishing agreement between the British North American colonies and the United States.  The situation had been confused since the War of 1812.  In 1818, it was agreed that Americans could fish outside the three-mile limit of Newfoundland and the Maritimes, but the problem was “three miles from what?”   The Americans said the treaty meant three miles from the winding of the coast, so that they could fish inside the wider bays.  Newfoundland and the Maritimes claimed that it meant three miles from the headlands, and American fishing vessels entering that boundary were taken into custody.  When the storm struck Charlottetown on October 4, 1851, the American fishing fleet tried to ride it out rather than risk running into the harbour.  The result was the great loss of life.

There was so much anger on both sides that Britain sent a number of Royal Navy ships to patrol the fishing grounds.  There was even a danger of war.  The dispute was settled by the Elgin-Marcy Treaty signed in 1854 which gave Canada a beneficial reciprocity treaty with the States, and the Americans better fishing rights (see my May 16 post).

To read more about this storm, I suggest visiting the Fishermen’s Voice and the Mocavo Blog.


  1. It is always interesting to me to notice how people like to get as close as possible to the limits laid down no matter if it is at land or sea. Guess they like the challenge!


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