It is not a simple matter to find accurate, authenticated accounts of early aboriginals on the west coast of Newfoundland. The Micmac aboriginals were 'mainlanders', or transient 'Indians from Canada', who appeared in Newfoundland in the eighteenth century as permanent settlers. The main areas now occupied by the Micmac include the Bay St. George-Port au Port area, the Bay of Islands and the Northern Peninsula on the west coast, Glenwood and Gander Bay in central Newfoundland, and Conne River on the south coast. By the Indian Act of 1984, only the Micmac of Conne River were granted Indian status and recognized by the federal and provincial governments.
The Micmac historians' accounts of their visits and permanent settlement tend to differ from that of late twentieth century historians As well, earlier accounts frequently differ from those of later historians since reliable research information in the early decades of the twentieth century was scarce. Given these problems, it is difficult to determine exactly where the truth lies. There is good evidence, however, that the first permanent Micmac settlement occurred at Bay St. George during the early 1760s. The Micmac are part of the Eastern Algonquian Group which, in turn, are part of the Algonquian Linguistic Family. They may also be described as people of the Algonquian-speaking Eastern Woodlands native group with traditional territory in Atlantic Canada. The term 'Micmac' comes from 'nikmaq' meaning "my kin-friends", a form of greeting used by Micmac in the early seventeenth century which became associated with the people themselves (another form of which is 'Mi'kmag').
There were originally eight different Micmac groups scattered over what is now Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Eastern New Brunswick, and the Gaspe peninsula. These groups included the Gaspegeoag, Sigentigteog, Epigoitgag, Pigtogeoag, Onamag, Esgigeoag, Segepenegatig and Gespogoitnag. Since the Onamae Micmac occupied Cape Breton Island, it is likely members of this group first crossed the Cabot Strait to Newfoundland. It is also likely that this group first settled at Bay St. George. Micmac of Bay St George describe themselves as being part of the Micmac nation "whose territory extends from the eastern part of Quebec through the Maritime provinces and Newfoundland." Pastore maintains that the Newfoundland Micmac are an offshoot of a once powerful aboriginal people who numbered about 6,000 when Europeans first came to the New World. These people represented a second migration into what is now the Eastern Canadian region, the first migration having occurred before 10,500 years ago preceding a second advance of glaciers into the area. These people, who moved into the region between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, were hunters, fishers and food-gatherers.
When first contacted by Europeans, they obtained most of their food from the sea. After spending the winter in the interior they spent the spring catching, hunting, and trapping winter flounder, followed by smelt, alewives, salmon, trout, sturgeon, cod, plaice, striped bass, whiting, and eels. In Newfoundland waters around Bay St. George and Sandy Point, salmon, trout, cod, and eels would have been in plentiful supply as were birds, porpoises, and seals in season. Birds and eggs would have been a welcome addition to the Micmac diet. The story of the Micmac in Atlantic Canada and in Bay St. George goes back before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The fishery first brought natives and Europeans in contact in Eastern North America." Well before the end of the sixteenth century, Micmac and European traders met at established summer trading sites to barter furs. This happened in areas such as the Maritimes where the populations of natives including the Micmac were more firmly established than in Newfoundland. By 1600, Thule Eskimos (Inuit) had also advanced along the coast of Labrador and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
In 1611, the Jesuit Father Biard estimated that there were only 3,000 - 3,500 Micmac living at traditional sites in the Maritimes. It was reported that the population was dying quickly from diseases and starvation. Over-hunting on Cape Breton Island and elsewhere on the mainland had reduced the game available. It is likely at this point that the Micmac population had drastically declined in their home territories. As a consequence, it has been argued that the Micmac came to Newfoundland to make a new start in a land of relative abundance of natural resources. Another argument is that the Micmac came to Newfoundland from Nova Scotia to participate in furring for the French who also lived in the area. A third argument is that they came to Newfoundland to escape the intrusion of colonists who were mainly British. During the eighteenth century, Micmac living on the mainland, in what is now the maritime provinces and Quebec, were in an almost constant state of war with the British, but maintained generally good relations with the French.
In general, the Micmac collaborated with the French even after they arrived in Newfoundland, but they maintained their distance from the British. The treaty that the Micmac who settled in Bay St. George claimed to have signed in 1759-1760 was with the British military authorities in their homeland of Cape Breton Island. These factors forced some of the Micmac to sell artifacts in white towns near their traditional territory, and others to move out to more lucrative hunting grounds such as those found in Newfoundland.
The Micmac presence in Newfoundland must be examined from two perspectives: travel to and from Newfoundland without establishing encampments with any permanence, and travel to Newfoundland with the intention of establishing permanent settlements. Micmac historians maintain that the first permanent Micmac settlements in Newfoundland were in the Codroy Valley and at Bay St. George, but after the early nineteenth century, the hunting territory included almost the whole of the southern half of the island and also, later, the northern half. As white settlement increased in the Codroy, Bay St. George, and Bay of Islands areas during the eighteenth century, Micmac settlement increased in the relatively unsettled south coast. Not much is known about either aboriginal or European settlement at Sandy Point or in Bay St. George before the mid-eighteenth century. Micmac scholars and earlier historians argue that Indians were present at White Bear River on the south coast of Newfoundland in 1538, at Placentia Bay in 1594, and in Bay St. George in 1594.
There is no record as to whether these were Micmac from continental North America or native Beothuk Indians, and there is no real evidence that the village site ever existed. The presence of Micmac at Bay St. George, which was known to the Micmac as the place "where the sand is blown up by the wind," is thought to date back at least to the presence of Samuel de Champlain on the west coast of Newfoundland in 1604. Micmac believe that, their ancestors were already present when the European explorers first visited the coast in the early 1600s. As Europeans increased in number and used more land, the Micmac were squeezed into smaller and smaller areas in the bay with the principal settlement being at the Seal Rocks in the present-day St. George's. One of the earliest accounts of Micmac travel to Newfoundland was given in 1602 by Bartholomew Gosnold, an English explorer who encountered eight Indians in a Basque shallop off the coast of New England. Using a piece of chalk, the Indians are said to have described Placentia in Newfoundland and the coast around the community. Authenticated cases of similar sightings of Micmac around the coast, or of actual permanent or semi-permanent settlements in Newfoundland during the seventeenth century. however, are scarce.
The Micmac of Cape Breton had a long history of seasonal contact with Newfoundland before they moved here permanently. In particular, the Onamag Micmac of Cape Breton Island, thost specifically led by Jeannot Pequidaloucet called the Mirliquechi Micmac, had begun to look elsewhere to ensure their survival Newfoundland seemed to satisfy their needs in this regard, particularly the area to the west of Fortune Bay which they frequented to hunt, trap, and fish. It is generally agreed that the Micmac of Cape Breton Island was a maritime-adapted and seafaring group with sufficient skills to extern their range into the Magdalen Islands and as far east as St. Pierre and Miquelon. By the eighteenth century, the Micmac were able to maintain a presence in southern and southwestern Newfoundland Some scholars have concluded that southwestern Newfoundland could have been a regular part of the territorial range of the Cape Breton Micmac since prehistoric times.
In the absence of archaeological evidence to support such a conclusion, others are unwilling to concede more than a seasonal exploitation of Newfoundland. Nevertheless, Marshall concedes that the Micmac had the ability to venture as far as Newfoundland in their canoes before European technology became available to them. Some have argued that prehistoric travel was unlikely because the approximately 62 miles (100 km) of the Cabot Strait presented too difficult a challenge for birchbark canoes. It was only after the introduction of European sailing vessels, in particular the shallop, that the Micmac could attempt the voyage. It also is argued that, until the extensive incursions of European settlers into traditional hunting grounds and the subsequent depletion of wildlife resources on Cape Breton Island and elsewhere in the Maritimes, the Micmac had no strong reason to make the hazardous crossing despite the fact they were adept at handling the type of birchbark canoe designed for open water. There has been some speculation that the Micmac may have come across the Strait of Belle Isle as the Montagnais from Labrador had done.
The Strait of Belle Isle is nine miles (14 km) at its narrowest point and it could easily have been crossed either on the ice or by canoe in summer. While Labrador was some distance from the traditional Micmac territory, tribesmen occasionally crossed the St. Lawrence on hunting expeditions and on raiding parties against local Montagnais groups. There is no evidence that any of the Micmac continued on to Newfoundland, but, considering the ease by which the trip could be made, it is possible, . Speck, from research conducted in 1914 and published in 1922, states that the Micmac claim knowledge of Newfoundland from remote times.
They speak a language of their people from the period called "ancients". These people lived on the southern and western coasts before the eighteenth century. To corroborate this, they give old nomenclature of landmarks in various parts of the island in Micmac. Speck states the distance between Cape North of Cape Breton Island and Cape Ray was traversed by canoe in two stages. The first stop after 14 miles (22.5 km) was St. Paul's Island. The second traverse from there to Cape Ray usually was made at night when it was calmer. The canoes were guided by a huge beacon fire lit on the high barrens of Cape Ray by a crew of experienced men who went on ahead of the main party to prepare the way. 'Remote times' probably meant from around the end of the sixteenth century. Pastore states that it is certain the Micmac knew Newfoundland before 1650 but it is "probably erroneous" that, as oral tradition had it, they had been coming to the island since the fifteenth century. He considers it unlikely that the Indians of Cape Breton Island would have made the long, dangerous trip to Newfoundland for less compelling reasons than a scarcity of food. He says, furthermore, that, at the time of writing, there was no archaeological evidence to support the supposition of prehistoric Micmac travel to Newfoundland, for this or any other reason. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, the Micmac had begun to use small sailing vessels called shallops and the voyage from Cape Breton Island to Newfoundland became much more likely. After the beginning of the eighteenth century, there were several events indicating the presence of Micmac in Newfoundland.
From 1713 and the Treaty of Utrecht onwards, the English held sovereignty over Newfoundland but it is not known what became of the Micmac in Newfoundland in light of this Treaty. In the winter of 1727, a party of Micmac captured a Bostonian schooner in Port aux Basques Although only a small settlement of English and Jersey settlers existed at Sandy Point by the late eighteenth century, the incident must have created unease in the minds of isolated fishermen and their families. The Micmac of Cape Breton Island were enemies of the English in the Americas. Proof of this is the fact that small bands came from Nova Scotia, at various times during the eighteenth century, to assist the French in their war against the English in Newfoundland. The most significant reference to Micmac in Newfoundland was in 1705 when the French Governor, Subercase, of Placentia reported the appearance of a party of about 20 or more families including more than 100 men, women and children. The party had arrived overland from Bay St. George; they were familiar with the island, and they seemed well established indicating that they had probably been in Newfoundland for some time.
Eventually, in the Maritimes, one of the English military commanders was able to conclude some form of treaty with the Micmac in 1759-1760. Following this, Micmac scholars claim the commander attempted to negotiate peace with another of the more hostile Micmac tribes in the region. An Indian ambassador who helped in a successful negotiation was rewarded by the English with a sterile tract of land in Bay St. George, Newfoundland. He also was given permission to transport as many of his countrymen to Newfoundland as might be willing to accompany him. The old Sachem left his native land accompanied by a strong party of his followers. The band boldly launched out to sea "in their own crazy shallops or canoes (and) ...eventually reached St. George's Bay in safety." (The problem today with Micmac claims to land in the Bay St. George area is that there is no existing signed document proving this claim.30) When the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon were returned to the French in 1763, the event also was significant for the Micmac because they are believed to have long regarded these islands as extensions of their traditional hunting grounds. The first report of Micmac at St. Pierre came within months of the French re-occupation of the islands in 1763.
Various visitors to the area during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reported the presence of Indians. James Cook, for example, noted the presence of a Micmac village at Bay St. George in May of 1767. J.B. Jukes, employed as the Geological Surveyor of Newfoundland during the period May 18, 1839, to November 1840, also mentions the presence of "some Indians" in the St. George's area. Much of the geological evidence for coal in the Bay St. George region and other details of the land which Jukes and an Indian companion, Sulleon, later traversed in August and September of 1840, came initially from conversations with Indians he encountered in the Bay St. George region. In the late eighteenth century, Micmac settlements at Codroy and Bay St. George expanded around the south coast as far as Conne River. Micmac remained at Codroy until the 1940s and still remain in Flat Bay, St. George's, Port au Port Peninsula and other smaller communities in the region and along the Northern Peninsula. During most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Bay St. George, was the centre of the Micmac population on the island but by the middle of the century the population shifted. Archdeacon Wix, in his 1835 travels around the west coast of Newfoundland, makes several references to Micmac and other Indians in which he always portrays the Indians as of equal, if not higher, moral character than the Europeans with whom they associated. In describing the "acts of profligacy" practiced by certain white Europeans of the Bay of Islands, for example, he refers to the fact that Micmac Indians with whom he discussed the issue expressed horror and disgust at these acts. In referring to the European females. Wix encountered in these bays he says: "I met with more feminine delicacy, however, I must own, in the wigwams of the Micmac and Canokok Indians than in the tilts of many of our own people." It must be noted, though, that Wix was comparing the white Europeans in the Bay of Islands with the Indians, and not comparing the Europeans who occupied villages in the Bay St. George with the Indians. These Europeans he considered to be "most industrious, moral, cleanly people." The Montagnais Indians, who came from the Lower North Shore of the St. Lawrence River to exploit winter furring in the eighteenth century, frequented Newfoundland, and some remained and intermarried with the Micmac in Newfoundland.37 These were members of the Montagnais-Naskapi of the Northern Algonquian Group and also members of the Algonquian Linguistic Family. These could have been Chisedech, Oueneskapi or Oumamiouek, but more likely the Chisedech since they occupied the area near the coast of Labrador. They crossed the Strait of Belle Isle in the fall in shallops to hunt fur-bearing animals up and down the west coast. Speck postulates that the Micmac-Montagnais who occupied the southern and western coast of Newfoundland in the first two decades of the twentieth century were mixed offspring of Montagnais hunters from Labrador and Micmac from Cape Breton Island whose language at that time was Micmac. The Montagnais preceded the Micmac who visited and eventually settled "opposite Sandy Point" at St. George's and Barachois Brook in the early 1760s.
In February, 1813, His Majesty's ship, Rosamond, commanded by Captain Donald Campbell received orders to proceed to Newfoundland. Lieutenant Edward Chappell, in writing about the voyage, gives a vivid account of the Micmac at Bay St. George. He states that much of his information regarding the arrival of the first Micmac as settlers in Bay St. George came from two young male Indians "stretched at their full length before a fire". The event took place in 1813 at a Micmac village located on the shore of the Bay St. George near the present location of St. George's. Chappell's description of the of Micmac village and life there is of some interest in reconstructing conditions of more than 150 years ago. He says that the village was located along a stony beach a short distance from the "Main River" emptying at the head of Bay St. George. This could have been opposite the present-day Mattis Point. After crossing the Main River they found an old man busily employed in catching salmon at a small tributary of the river.
They found that the wigwams of the Micmac Indians were constructed of birchbark in a conical shape. At the top, an aperture allowed smoke to escape. Fires were made in the centre of the hut, and "deers-flesh" was suspended over it to dry for winter consumption-the same custom, he says, as practiced by the Laplanders and most of the "nomade tribes of North America." Great quantities of stinking fish and bones were lying scattered about the wigwams. Canoes and large fish stages were located around the grounds of the village.
Although some of the information and conclusions drawn by Chappell have been disputed by historians, he outlined two significant acts of the Micmac after they arrived in Newfoundland. These were described to him by Micmac villagers. The first was the appointment of the old Indian, the Sachem, who had guided the Micmac to Bay St. George, as their "Chief in perpetuity." The second, was that they "buried the sword" as a symbol that war had forever ceased between "their tribe and the English nation".
Chappell described the Micmac as "robust and tall" with amazing coarse features, very high cheek bones, flattened noses, wide nostrils, small eyes widely separated from each other, and thick black hair hanging perpendicularly from either temple." Their dress for the most part was obtained from the Europeans at Sandy Point in exchange for fish, oil, and furs; however, they still preserved a few originalities in their costume such as deer-skin sandals, embroidered red caps, and red cloth greaves in lieu of stockings.
Diseases were rare among the Micmac. Care and tenderness were shown by the young of the community towards the infirmed or aged. Old persons unable to walk or deprived of sight or hearing were regarded by the whole tribe as objects worthy of their attention The Indians demonstrated considerable skill with a lancet in bleeding, a popular treatment of the day, for a multitude of ailments. Although the Indians were excellent surgeons, especially in the way they treated cuts, ulcers and bruises, they appeared to lack any skill or knowledge with repairing dislocated joints. Their skills in medicine and remedies were thought by Chappell to be trifling, but he considered the need not to be very great since the climate produced few diseases. In general, the Micmac enjoyed excellent health.
Ephraim Tucker gives us insight into the role of shamans as doctors, finders of game, and prophesiers in Micmac culture in Newfoundland during the nineteenth century: ...When sick, they send me to one. Sagamore Memberton, a conjurer, who prays to the Devils, blows upon the party, cuts him and sucks the blood; he heals wounds in the same manner, applying a round slice of beaver stones, for which they present him with venison or skins. They consult the devil for news, who always answers doubtfully, and sometimes false. He also directs them where to find game when hungry, and if they miss, he excuses it by saying, that the beast changed place; but most times they succeed, which makes them believe the devil to be God. The conjurer when they consult, fix a staff in a pit, and invoke Satan in an unknown language, with so much pain till they sweat again: Then the wizard persuades the people, that he holds the devil fast with his cord, forcing him to answer; then he sings to his praise for his discovery, which is answered by the savages dancing and singing in a strange tongue; after which they leap over the fire, and put a pole out of the top of the cabin with something on it which the devil carries away.
Chappell described the lack of a civil government among the Indians at St. George's although the descendent of the original leader was still their chief. His mild and conciliatory manner, though, made him little more than a mediator, and the Indians did not pay much respect to his office. The heir apparent to the chief and other young men of the village had "forsworn the use of spirituous liquors", knowing the effect which it had on them. The Sachem occupied a square hut in the village with boarded sides while the others lived in wigwams. He otherwise lived exactly the same as did the other members of the tribe, including being part of the summer fishing and the winter hunting.
According to the young male informants who talked with Chappell at St. George's, the Micmac since their arrival from Cape Breton, frequently changed their abode to "different places within the limits of St. George's Bay." They had been at the present site for about nine years. There were ninety-seven Micmac in the village at the time and one hundred and twenty in the white population, mainly at Sandy Point.
Since that period, the Micmac have gradually assimilated into the white culture by intermarriage with the European settlers at Sandy Point, St. George's, and elsewhere in the bay. The race became so intermingled that, at the time of his visit, Chappell notes the number of pure Indians did not exceed fifty, exclusive of women and children. Actual numbers of Micmac in the Bay St. George area do not appear separately in recorded reports, except during the period 1788 and 1830. They fluctuated between 150 at the peak in 1794 and 66 at the low point in 1830.
The preferred encampment location of the first Micmac settlers in Bay St. George may have been near the present bridge across Harry's River at the beaches. A photograph taken by Miot, the French photographer who accompanied de Gobineau around Newfoundland in 1859 shows a Micmac located in this area with Mattis Point as the background. Here there was easy access to a plentiful supply of salmon from Harry's River, one of the largest rivers flowing into Bay St. George. Proximity to an abundance of fur-bearing animals and easy access to caribou on the tablelands, south and east of Steel Mountain, were other positive features
If an Indian village actually existed at Bay St. George in 1594 aboriginal settlers in the Bay St. George area would have enjoyed just over four hundred years of written history. This corresponds roughly with the period of written history of European ships and visitors coming to the area; or, approximately twice the span of the history of European settlement at Sandy Point.
An excerpt from the book: Turbulent Tides, A social history of Sandy Point
by Don Downer
Published by ESP Press