Adam Allan (1756-1823) was a Loyalist soldier, surveyor, and poet. He did not make his living as a writer and his dabbling in poetry was chiefly a hobby. His literary output was thus small and little of it survives, making his reputation somewhat obscure. Nonetheless, he is notable for being among the first New Brunswick-based authors and his work provides one of the earliest literary portraits of the province. His best-known work, the poem “A Description of the Great Falls of the River St. John,” paints a vivid picture of one of New Brunswick’s natural wonders and the feelings of awe, beauty, and terror it inspired in him. Allan’s life and career shed light on the cultural milieu of the Loyalists who settled New Brunswick in the late eighteenth century.
Allan was born in Dumfries, Scotland. Little is known of his youth, but he is referred to as an “educated gentleman” by the nineteenth-century scholar Jonas Howe – and, indeed, his creative output shows a knowledge of classical and contemporary literature (Howe 36). This indicates that he likely came from a family of some standing and received an education. Allan immigrated to North America in 1772. Where he settled is unclear, but following the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War (1776-83), which saw him take up arms for the Crown as a Loyalist, he enlisted in a Maryland-based unit, indicating that he may have lived there. Allan eventually joined the Queen’s Rangers, a Loyalist grenadier regiment. He became an officer in the Highland portion of the corp. with the rank of lieutenant. The Rangers saw action in several notable battles and earned a fearsome reputation for their fighting prowess, but, in the end, they were on the losing side of the war.
Following the Patriot’s victory, those who remained loyal to the Crown were compelled to remove themselves to Britain’s remaining colonies in the north. After their discharge, many former Queen’s Rangers resettled in what was then called “Nova Scotia.” The influx precipitated the creation of the new province of New Brunswick with a largely Loyalist settler population and administration. Allan opted to establish himself in this new province, and in 1785 was among the first Loyalists to be granted land at St. Anne’s Point, soon to be the site of the colonial capital, Fredericton. That same year he married Mary Clarke (1765-1851), the daughter of a prominent Loyalist family that settled in Maugerville, a small community about fifteen kilometers east of Fredericton. Their marriage lasted until his death and produced nine children, four sons and five daughters (“Harold Markham Military Collection”).
Allan found employment as a road surveyor for the newly formed colonial government, another sign that he was an educated man, but his career was interrupted by the outbreak of another war in 1793, this one between Great Britain and revolutionary France. New Brunswick was far from the European battlefields, but war clouds seemed to be gathering closer to home. Bitter feelings lingered between Britain and America in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, and the activities of American surveyors along the upper Saint John River stoked fears that Washington meant to lay claim to territory that was vital for communications with the Canadas. Furthermore, the French were seeking to use American ports for French privateer activity against British ships, raising the possibility of America joining the conflict against Britain. War was ultimately averted because America had no interest in becoming embroiled in a European conflict, but the threat of war and fear of annexation prompted Britain to take steps to secure its North American possessions. Much of the border between New Brunswick and America was poorly defined, sparsely populated, and scarcely defended. In response to the perceived threat of an attack, London created a new army corp., the King’s New Brunswick Regiment, which existed from 1793-1802. It was largely made up of local recruits committed to colonial defense. Allan was among those enrolled in the regiment, again with the rank of lieutenant, and in 1797 was placed in command of the garrison stationed near the Grand Falls. It was there that Allan wrote his most notable literary work.
The Grand Falls of the Saint John River, located in today’s Victoria County near its namesake town, is a natural waterfall where the river drops down twenty-three meters (seventy-five feet) into a tumult of rock, water, and mist. It makes for a magnificent sight and has long captivated the imagination. To the Indigenous Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) people, the falls is known as “Checanekepeag,” which translates to “destroyer place,” and loomed large in their myths and legends (Hall). In one of their origin stories, the falls was once the site of a dam made by giant beavers, but it was destroyed, and its builders killed, by the great hero Gluskap who sought to make the river more navigable to humans. Another legend (although its authenticity is subject to some debate), concerned a Wolastoqiyik woman named Malobeam (or Malobiannah) who was captured by an invading band of Mohawk warriors. The invaders compelled her to lead them to her village, but she used her familiarity with the river to trick her captors into going over the falls, sacrificing herself to save her people. When the Europeans arrived in the 1600s, the Grand Falls also left an impression on them. The French erected forts there to secure the passage of the river and in 1686 the Monsignor de Saint-Vallier, the second Bishop of Quebec, visited and noted the clamour of the “grand-sault” and the mists it produced, which warned mariners of its dangers.
Allan provides one of the first cultural impressions of the falls from a British perspective in his two-stanza poem. In doing so he displays yet more evidence for his being educated and widely read, as he makes several references to classical history and mythology. The poem is framed as a “heroic couplet,” an older form of poetry that was falling out of fashion, but its tone is closely aligned with the Gothic style of the budding Romantic movement then coming into vogue. In the opening stanza, Allan rendered the awe inspiring and destructive power of the falls with great effect:
A placid river, gliding easy on
To its dire fall o’er a large bed of stone
Into an abyss-dreadful-even to thought,
Where caves immense by whirlpools are wrought
And where large trees by annual freshets brought
Are by incessant motion ground to naught.
See, where obstruction checks the torrent’s way
The parts announced by a vast mount of spray,
Where, as the sun its daily course pursues
Reflects an arch of the most beauteous hues,
Combining elegance with scenes of horror,
From the dread gulph of never ending noise
Resembling that where devils but rejoice,
Its waters rush like lava from the pits
Of famed Vesuvius and Mount Etna’s lips
Foaming with rage. It forward presses on
From fall to fall o’er vertigated stone
Tween banks stupendous; seeming to the eye
An eagle flight, when towering to the sky. (Allan)
Allan’s impressions were of awe and terror, as the destructive power of the falling water and rocks reduces floating tree trunks to mulch. The feelings of terror are amplified by his poetic linking of the falls to hell and to the famed Italian volcanoes Vesuvius and Etna, both important in classical history and mythology. Still, he allows that there is also loveliness to be found in the falls. This is expanded in the poem’s second and final stanza where Allan presents a winter scene at the falls that paints a picture of frozen serenity and beauty:
The falls too most gorgeously appear
Since purer waters aid its bold career
Strong banks of ice contract its former bounds,
And under ice its echo hollow sounds.
Around the verge, what curious objects rise
To feed the fancy and to feast the eyes—
Pilasters, arches, pyramids and cones,
Turrets enriched with porticoes and domes
In artless order, formed by surge and spray,
And crystalline garnet hues their rich array
A dazzling cascade ground throughout the whole
Strikes deep with pleasure the enraptured soul! (Allan)
While the picture Allan presents of the falls can seem rather contradictory, it may be that he was speaking for the feelings of many Loyalists. These were a people who were adjusting to life in their new home, finding it both beautiful and, at times, strange and threatening. Allan’s poem gave these conflicting emotions and anxieties literary life.
Allan first put “A Description of the Great Falls of the River St. John” to print in 1798. That year the newspapers The Royal Gazette and The Saint John Gazette announced the publication of a volume, printed in London, containing Allan’s poem and a much larger literary project, namely his translation (from the Scotch dialect into modern English) of the play The Gentle Shepherd (1725), a popular pastoral comedy by the older Scottish writer Allan Ramsay (1686-1758). Allan’s efforts did not further ingratiate the play with English speaking audiences, though, nor did it win over Ramsay’s admirers, who preferred the original Scotch. It seems Allan also added a scene of his own composition to the play’s fourth act, and a few songs as well, which likely did not endear him to purists. Nonetheless, his poem of the falls was appreciated, and the volume is notable for being among the first literary works to reference New Brunswick. It was the only work that Allan published in his lifetime to have survived.
Afterwards, Allan wrote creatively only for his own amusement, and chiefly, it would seem, to relieve the monotony of fort life. He remained an officer in the King’s New Brunswick Regiment until it was disbanded in 1802, during which time he also commanded a garrison at Presque Isle, near modern Hartland, Carleton County. Once his military commission ended, Allan never again donned a uniform, even when war did break out between America and Britain (1812-1814). He spent the rest of his career as a Crown land and road surveyor. He evidently prospered in that position, as at various times he owned plots of land in Fredericton, Woodstock, and Pokiok in the York County parish of Dumfries (named after his Scottish home). It was there, on a plot consisting of over 500 acres, that Allan and his family made their home and where he lived until his death in 1823 at the age of sixty-six. Death was not quite the end of Allan’s literary career, however, as in 1845, twenty-two years after his passing, his son Jacob had his collected poetry published in England. Sadly, no copies of that volume are known to be extant.
Allan was an amateur author and poet who wrote chiefly for his own amusement rather than to make a living, thus his output was small and much of it lost to time. Nonetheless, his status as one of the first New Brunswick-based writers makes him noteworthy, and the content of his work reveals much about the cultural milieu the Loyalists inhabited. Allan’s poem of the Grand Falls shows that these newcomers had mixed feeling about their new home, being at once apprehensive and enraptured with it. Likewise, the style Allan employed showed that New Brunswick was connected to literary developments in the wider Atlantic world, and his affinity for Ramsay indicates that there was a significant attachment to British literature and culture. In this regard, Allan was a notable representative of early New Brunswick’s Loyalist culture, his work showing the cultural forces that influenced the development of New Brunswick literature that followed him.
David L. Bent, Spring 2021
University of New Brunswick
Bibliography of Primary Sources
Allan, Adam. The New Gentle Shepherd: A Pastoral Comedy (To which is Annexed, A Description of the Great Falls of the River St. John, in the Province of New Brunswick). London: Printed for W.J. and J. Richardson by H.L. Galabin, 1798. https://www.worldcat.org/title/new-gentle-shepherd-a-pastoral-comedy/oclc/9498217.
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Hall, Jason. “River of Three Peoples: An Environmental and Cultural History of the Wəlastəkw / Rivière St. Jean / St. John River from c. 1550 – 1850.” Diss. University of New Brunswick, 2015.
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---. The River St. John and Its Poets. 2nd printing, enl. Sackville, NB: Tribune Press, 1947.
Raymond, W.O. “Progress of the Woodstock Settlement: Something About John D. Beardsley, Michael Smith, and Lieutenant Adam Allan.” The Dispatch [Woodstock] 18 September 1895. Comp. Wallace Hale. https://archives.gnb.ca/exhibits/forthavoc/html/Raymond51.aspx?culture=en-CA.
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Wallace, W.S. MacMillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Toronto: MacMillan, 1963.