It is interesting to note early place names in Isle Madame and their evolution over time.
For example, with the founding of Ile Royal (Cape Breton) in 1713, most community names were given a religious connotation, and the Virgin Mary was a favourite reference. Isle Madame was variously referred to as Ile Notre Dame, or Ile Sainte-Marie.
Later, when France followed a more secular course, Ile de Maurepas became the designation, Maurepas being the name of a noble French family. This, however, received no support from either permanent or seasonal residents and was dropped.
The title “Madame” was probably a reference to the sister-in-law of King Louis XIV, one Madame Charlotte Elizabeth of Bavaria. What we know today as Arichat was widely referred to as Nerichak, a Mi’kmaq word and this continued until the fall of Louisbourg in 1758.
Most Mi’kmaq names were changed when Europeans began to settle the area. Before Port Toulouse became St. Peter’s, the Mi’kmaq had named it Unama’ki. When the French arrived early in the 17thcentury, they designated it St. Pierre but this name lasted only until 1669. When the French recolonized the area in 1714, it became Port Toulouse.
Relations between the Mi’kmaq and the French were always harmonious. The Mi’kmaq accepted the name; their version of it was Potlotek.
In the early 1700s, there were two principal harbours on Isle Madame, one at Nerichak and the other at Petit de Grat, a name which meant Little Fishing Base. In 1714 when Gabriel Samson and Jeanne Martin were the first Europeans to settle at Petit de Grat, the name was well established.
Where did the name Cape Breton come from? There are at least three viable possibilities: the eastern tip of the island was referred to as “c bretoes” by the Portuguese; the French version was Cap Breton; for the English, it was Cape Breton. Eventually this latter term came to apply to the entire island.
Secondly, the term “Breton” is quite ubiquitous in the history of the island. Perhaps this is because of the prominence of French fishermen from the Brittany area.
Third, in the southwestern region of France in what is, in fact, Basque territory, is a port called Cap-Breton. Undeniably the Basques were numerous in the fishery of Cape Breton. It would not be the first time a place on this side of the Atlantic was named for a place on the other side.
It is also interesting to follow population trends in the first half of the eighteenth century, trends which show Petit de Grat as the dominant community on Isle Madame. Up to 1745 the population at Petit de Grat fluctuated between 150 and 200. The census of 1716 showed 122 inhabitants at Petit de Grat and 55 at Nerichak.
Then with the British conquest of Isle Royal in 1745, villages were all but abandoned, but following the French reoccupation in 1749, Petit de Grat, as well as Arichat and Port Toulouse, experienced a population resurgence. Several thousand colonists returned to the area, some 500 scattered among Petit de Grat, Arichat, and Port Toulouse. In fact, in the 1750s, Petit de Grat was the second largest community in Ile Royal, second only to Louisbourg.