New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Wigwams and Dwellings of the Gaspesians

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From the blog at

Chrestien Le Clercq was a priest working in the 1600’s to convert the Gaspesians to Christianity. Gaspesia was what he called the Gulf of Saint Lawrence region, and the Gaspesians were the Mi’kmaq. He produced a book about his experiences when he returned to France and his detailed observations are often quoted by historians. His observations were authentic and come directly from the 17th century.

William F. Ganong translated Le Clercq’s book into English in 1910 and published it as New Relations of Gaspesia, With the Customs and Religion of the Gaspesian Indians, and this post includes the part about the construction of the wigwam.

Mikmaq Encampment

Mi’kmaq Encampment, ca. 1801

Library and Archives Canada

This blog post presents the usual problem, that some of the vocabulary about First Nations would be unacceptable today. I know that this translation faithfully reflects the original French, because W.F. Ganong would not have done it in any other way. I also believe that Chrestien Le Clercq was a right-minded witness to what he saw. It was Le Clercq, after all, who related the story which appeared in this blog on September 24, 2014, entitled “Which of These Two is the Wisest and Happiest?,” and his closing paragraphs in today’s blog show similar empathy and respect for the Mi’kmaq people. All considered, I have left Le Clercq’s vocabulary as found, it being a true representation of the 17th century.

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Wigwams and Dwellings of the Gaspesians

Since these people live without society and without commerce, they have neither cities, towns nor villages, unless, indeed, one is willing to call by these names certain collections of wigwams having the form of tents, very badly kept, and just as badly arranged.

Their wigwams are built of nothing but poles, which are covered with some pieces of bark of the birch, sewed one to another; and they are ornamented, as a rule, with a thousand different pictures of birds, moose, otters and beavers, which the women sketch there themselves with their paints. These wigwams are of a circular form, and capable of lodging fifteen to twenty persons; but they are, however, so made that with seven or eight barks a single one is constructed, in which from three to four fires are built. They are so light and portable, that our Indians roll them up like a piece of paper, and carry them thus upon their backs wheresoever it pleases them, very much like the tortoises which carry their own houses. They follow the ancient custom of our first fathers, who remained encamped in a place only so long as they found there the means of subsistence for their families and their herds. In the same manner, also, our Gaspesians decamp when they no longer find the means to subsist in the places where they are living; for, having neither animals to feed, nor lands or fields to cultivate, they are obliged to be almost always wanderers and vagabonds, in order to seek food and the other commodities necessary to life. It is the business of the head of the family, exclusively over all others, to give orders that camp be made where he pleases, and that it be broken when he wishes. This is why, on the eve of departure, he goes in person to trace the road which is to be taken, and to choose a place suitable and ample for the encampment. From this place he removes all the useless wood, and cuts off the branches which could be in the way. He smooths and opens out a road to make it easy for the women to drag over the snow on their toboggans, the trifle of furniture and of luggage which comprises their housekeeping outfit. He marks out, also all by himself, the plan of the wigwam, and throws out the snow with his snowshoes until he has reached the ground, which he flattens and chops out in pieces until he has removed all the frozen part, so that all of the people who compose his family may lodge in the greatest possible comfort. This done, he then cuts as many poles as he considers suitable, and plants them in a circle around the border of the hollow which he has made in the earth and the snow—always in such a manner, however, that the upper ends come together in a point, as with tents or belfrys. When this is finished, he makes preparations for hunting, from which he does not return until the wigwam has been completely put in order by the women, to whom he commits the care thereof during his absence, after assigning to each one her particular duty. Thus some of the women go to collect branches of fir, and then they place the barks upon the poles; others fetch dry wood to make the fire; others carry water for boiling in the kettle, in order to have the supper ready when the men return from the hunt. The wife of the head of the family, in the capacity of mistress, selects the most tender and most slender of the branches of fir for the purpose of covering all the margin inside the wigwam, leaving the middle free to serve as a common meeting-place. She then fits and adjusts the larger and rougher of the branches to the height of the snow, and these form a kind of little wall. The effect is such that this little building seems much more like a camp made in the spring than one made in winter, because of the pleasing greenness which the fir keeps for a long time without withering. It is also her duty to assign his place to each one, according to the age and quality of the respective persons and the custom of the nation. The place of the head of the family is on the right. He yields it sometimes, as an honour and courtesy to strangers, whom he even invites to stop with him, and to repose upon certain skins of bears, of moose, of seal, or upon some fine robes of beaver, which these Indians use as if they were Turkey carpets. The women occupy always the first places near the door, in order to be all ready to obey, and to serve promptly when they are ordered. There are very great inconveniences in these kinds of wigwams; for, aside from the fact that they are so low that one cannot readily stand upright in them, and must of necessity remain always seated or lying down, they are moreover, of a coldness which cannot be described, whilst the smoke which one is necessarily obliged to endure in the company of these barbarians is something insufferable.

All these hardships, without doubt, are not the least of the mortifications which are endured by the missionaries, who, after the example of Saint Paul, in order to be all things to all men so that they may gain these people to Jesus Christ, do not fail, despite so many discomforts, to work without ceasing at the conversion of these poor pagans.

[Le Clercq then tells the story that appeared in this blog on September 24, 2014, entitled “Which of These Two is the Wisest and Happiest?” Continuing thereafter:]

…, I assert, for my part, that I should consider these Indians incomparably more fortunate than ourselves, and that the life of these barbarians would even be capable of inspiring envy, if they had the instructions, the understanding, and the same means for their salvation which God has given us that we may save ourselves by preference over so many poor pagans, and as a result of His pity; for, after all, their lives are not vexed by a thousand annoyances as are ours. They have not among them those situations or offices, whether in the judiciary or in war, which are sought among us with so much ambition. Possessing nothing of their own, they are consequently free from trickery and legal proceedings in connection with inheritances from their relatives. The names of Sergeant, of attorney, of clerk, of judge, of president are unknown to them. All their ambition centres in surprising and killing quantities of beavers, moose, seals, and other wild beasts in order to obtain their flesh for food and their skins for clothing. They live in very great harmony, never quarrelling and never beating one another except in drunkenness. On the contrary, they mutually aid one another in their needs with much charity and without self-seeking. There is continual joy in their wigwams. The multitude of their children does not embarrass them, for, far from being annoyed by these, they consider themselves just that much the more fortunate and richer as their family is more numerous. Since they never expect that the fortunes of the children will be larger than those of their fathers, they are also free from all those anxieties which we give ourselves in connection with the accumulation of property for the purpose of elevating children in society and in importance. Hence it comes about that nature has always preserved among them in all its integrity that conjugal love between husband and wife which ought never to suffer alteration through selfish fear of having too many children. This duty, which in Europe is considered too onerous, is viewed by our Indians as very honourable, very advantageous, and very useful, and he who has the largest number of children is the most highly esteemed of the entire nation. This is because he finds more support for his old age, and because, in their condition of life, the boys and girls contribute equally to the happiness and joy of those who have given them birth. They live, in fact, together—father and children—like the first kings of the earth, who subsisted at the beginning of the world by their hunting and fishing, and on vegetables and sagamité, or stew, which was, in my opinion, like the pottage which Jacob asked of Esau before giving him his benediction.

[Sagamité: An Indian word for a sort of porridge, made mostly of boiled corn, but including other ingredients.]


Written by johnwood1946

April 15, 2015 at 3:19 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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