New Brunswick·Roadside History

Sleepy N.B. hamlet was once a powerful military post known as Fort Jemseg

If you drive through Lower Jemseg, 66 kilometres east of Fredericton, you could easily miss a flight of old, moss-covered stairs leading up to a stone monument overlooking the St. John River. But Moncton historian and educator James Upham says this is a spot worthy of pulling over for a closer look.

All that remains of Fort Jemseg is a stone monument at the top of a decaying flight of roadside stairs

close up of stone monument with plaque on snowy day
This monument, unveiled in 1929, overlooks the St. John River and marks a spot in New Brunswick that has been fought over by the British, French and the Dutch. (Khalil Akhtar/CBC)

If you drive through Lower Jemseg, 66 kilometres east of Fredericton, you could easily miss a flight of old, moss-covered stairs leading up to a stone monument overlooking the St. John River.

But Moncton historian and educator James Upham believes it is a spot worthy of pulling over and a climb worth making.

In 1929, Fort Jemseg was recognized as an historic site in Canada, and a monument was unveiled to mark what Upham said used to be a powerful military post and "one of the most strategically important places in the province of New Brunswick."

"This actually is, was and has been one of the most sought after, fought over and desired locations in New Brunswick," he said. "From here you actually can command pretty much the entirety of this narrows in the St. John River."

black and white photo of woman on steps leading up to stone monument
This undated photo for the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick shows a woman on the steps that lead up to the monument unveiled in 1929, where Fort Jemseg used to stand. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick/P93\Q\14)

All that is left of Fort Jemseg is the monument and plaque, which reads: "Built in 1659 by Thomas Temple during the English possession of Acadia, as a trading post. Ceded to France in 1667. In 1676 captured by a Dutch expedition under Captain Jurriaen Aernoots, who named the country New Holland, claiming possession for the Prince of Orange."

Location, location, location 

Standing next to the monument, Upham said that when people hear "fort" in a name, they might imagine the impressive stone structures at Fort Beauséjour, near the border of Nova Scotia.

But Fort Jemseg was nothing like that, he said. It was closer to a ramshackle, wooden stockade "shack."

It was the location that made it significant.

"If you stand here and you look, you can almost picture a small wooden warship with its cannons pointing over," Upham said. "At one time the [building] on that hill would have been one of the most powerful military structures in the province."

view of river from stone monument
Standing at the top of the hill, Fort Jemseg had a view of the St. John River. Upham said from there, 'You actually can command pretty much the entirety of this narrows in the St. John River.' (Khalil Akhtar/CBC)

Many communities in the vicinity gained importance by virtue of their location, not only Fort Jemseg.

Across the river is Gagetown Island where you can still see the ruins of the Mount House, a stone mansion Upham believes was built by Loyalists. Nearby is Gagetown, which was also an important site for the European nations who wanted to rule.

"Jemseg, Gagetown, and the hill the Mount House is on all offer control of the same location and were occupied by different groups at different times over that period for that reason," Upham said.

Upham tells the story of Lt. Col. Joseph Gubbins, a senior British officer who arrived in New Brunswick in 1810, according to the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.

In the lead-up to the War of 1812, Gubbins determined that if the forces in western New Brunswick fell, they should pull back to the Mound House.

"Even in 1811,1812, which is not really that long ago, people are looking at this as being a militarily significant point — as being a spot from which you actually have an enormous amount of influence on what goes on around the Maritimes."

'What it commemorates and what it doesn't'

For Upham, the plaque at the mouth of the Jemseg River tells even more about the history of New Brunswick by what it leaves out.

close up of old red plaque on stone monument
The plaque unveiled in 1929 details the significance of Fort Jemseg to the European nations that fought over it, but does not mention the Indigenous history of the area. (Khalil Akhtar/CBC)

Many monuments, like the one at Fort Jemseg, were built at the beginning of the 20th century.

"What they wrote down and the way they wrote it down also tells us a lot about how they thought about the world."

Upham said the fact that the inscription on the plaque begins in 1659 with Thomas Temple, an Englishman, tells readers "what they consider to be the story of this place."

black and white photo of three men, one in a top hat, standing in front of stone monument
In this photo from 1929, Premier J.B.M. Baxter, Lt. Gov. H.H. MacLean and Dr. C. Webster, chair of Historical Sites and Monument Board, take part in the unveiling of the monument at Fort Jemseg. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick/P155\21)

It ignores the fact that Jemseg is based on a Wolastoqey name for the area, "Ah-jim-sek," which means "picking up place" according to an interactive map of Indigenous place names created by the Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqn.

"There's a massive Indigenous population that has existed in New Brunswick for thousands of years," Upham said.

map with pop up box showing Indigenous place name
An interactive map created by Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqn Inc., a non-profit that represents Mi'kmaw communities in New Brunswick, shows the name Jemseg comes from the Wolastoqey name "Ah-jim-sek" which means 'picking up place.' (

"Trying to put this filter over top of it that says, 'Well, actually, it only started when Thomas Temple showed up in 1659,' this doesn't do us any good. It completely ignores vast chunks of reality."

Waterways were the internet of the 1800s

Situated by the St. John or Wolastoq River, Fort Jemseg also is in close proximity to Grand Lake and the river and creek systems it connects to, making it a prime spot for communication.

"This spot, though, happens to be a sort of a central node in a network that actually would have functioned semi-similarly to the way that the internet now works," Upham said.

"This was a spot that connected very, very widely disparate locations, communities and individuals."

Two hand-drawn maps of Jemseg area from 1702 and 1765
These hand-drawn maps of the Jemseg area, one from 1702 and the other from 1765 show how the area changed hands many times between the French, English and even the Dutch. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick/P211-11929/P211-11917)

"People just moved around and we are sitting in the centre of a massive trade network, an absolutely massive and gigantic trade network."

While the old mossy steps that lead to a decaying stone monument may look kind of boring, Upham said the stories that are connected to the area are anything but.

stone stairway covered in moss leading up to a monument
The stairs and the stone monument are all that remain of Fort Jemseg, located in Lower Jemseg on the Jemseg Ferry Road. (Kelley Petley/Google Maps)

"A hostile warship was sitting within an actual stone's throw of where we are right now … this place has been fought over by the French, by the English, by the Dutch. It's been raided by pirates. It's been through all kinds of really wild and crazy stuff."

For anyone who visits, there is even a cannonball fixed to the top of the monument, Upham said, "which may very well have been fired at the fort." 

Roadside History columnist James Upham takes us to the site of Fort Jemseg, where European nations fought for control.


Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for more than 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please email:

with files from Khalil Akhtar