New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Indian Routes of Travel in New Brunswick

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Maliseet Canoe

Maliseet Men and Canoe, ca. 1863

New Brunswick Museum

This blog posting is from William F. Ganong’s A monograph of historic sites in the province of New Brunswick, as found in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, second series, 1899-1900.

This is the introduction to one section of Ganong’s paper, where he sets out lists of Mi’kmaq and Maliseet portage routes in New Brunswick. It is well written and authoritative, as are all of Ganong’s works. The paper deals with inland portage routes, and therefore concentrates upon the light-weight canoes which were typical for that use. It excludes the larger and different canoes that were used by the Mi’kmaq for travel along the seacoasts.

Some of the accompanying maps were colour-coded, or highlighted using a combination of ink and pencil. None of these features are reproduced in the online versions, unfortunately.

Indian Routes of Travel in New Brunswick

The Indians of New Brunswick, like others of North America, were, within certain limits, great wanderers. For hunting, war, or treaty making, they passed incessantly not only throughout their own territory but over that limit into the lands of other tribes. The Indian tribes of Acadia have never, within historic times, been at war with one another, but they joined in war against other tribes and mingled often with one another for that and other reasons. In facilities for such travel our Indians were exceptionally fortunate, for the Province is everywhere intersected by rivers readily navigable by their light canoes. Indeed, I doubt if anywhere else in the world is an equal extent of territory so completely watered by navigable streams, or whether in any other country canoe navigation was ever brought to such a pitch of perfection, or so exclusively relied upon for locomotion. The principal streams of the Province head together curiously in pairs, the country is almost invariably easy to travel between their sources, and a route may be found in almost any desired direction, features which come out well in the accompanying map of New Brunswick, showing the Indian routes of travel (Map No. 12.) But it was not only this fortunate arrangement of the rivers which made travel easy, but also the way in which the Indian adapted himself to it by the construction of his exquisite birch canoe, a craft which has excited the admiration of all writers from Champlain to our own day, and which is a constant delight to all of us who know it well. A Maliseet canoe, which will carry four persons, weighs less than a hundred pounds, and draws but a few inches of water. On the shallow rivers it is used but partly loaded, and then it draws not over three or four inches, and needs a channel of less than two feet in breadth. A skilled canoe man, with a light pole of nine feet in length, can force such a craft up the swiftest of rivers, surmounting rapids and even low falls, guiding it with the greatest nicety among rocks and with exactness into the deepest places. If the water is too shallow in places for even it to float, the Indian covers its bottom with “shoes” or splints of cedar, and thus drags it unharmed over the wet stones. Finally, when the head of the river is reached, he turns it upside down over his head, allowing the middle bar, on which it exactly balances, to rest across his shoulders, and then trots off over the portage path.

The rate at which the Indians could travel upon the rivers depended upon the character of the river channel, its amount of descent, and whether smooth or broken by falls, upon the height of the water, and especially upon whether they went with or against the current. Up such a river as the Tobique they can go but twenty miles a day, though more on a spurt, but they can descend it at the rate of sixty or more miles a day. When the St. John is at freshet height, they could descend a hundred or more miles a day, but could ascend only a fraction of that distance against it. The Indian couriers employed to carry dispatches between Quebec and Nova Scotia in the last century often made remarkable speed. Thus Morris, on his map of 1749, states that they passed from Chignecto to Quebec by the St. John and Ouelle in seven days, a statement almost incredible. Dénonville states that they went by the Riviere du Sud to Port Royal in eight days, which is easier to believe when we recall the swift current of the St. John in spring.

The different rivers of the Province differ considerably in the amount of descent from their heads to the sea, and in the freedom of their channels from falls and rapids. Thus the St. John, from every point of view the most important of our ancient routes of travel, although it has a considerable descent, and hence usually a rapid current, is remarkably free from obstructions, the Grand Falls and some rapids above the Allagash being the only real impediments to continuous canoe navigation. Of the other rivers, all of those in the more level parts of the province, particularly those in the great central and eastern carboniferous area, have but little descent and have cut smooth channels from the soft sandstone rock. Such are the Kennebecasis, Petitcodiac, Washademoak, Salmon River, Oromocto, Richibucto, and the Lower Miramichi. Again, the Restigouche, though flowing in a hilly country, has not a great descent, less than 500 feet, and has cut for itself a smooth channel in the soft limestone rocks. On the other hand, the rivers of Charlotte, flowing with considerable descent over hard rocks in shallow valleys obstructed by glacial drift, have rough channels, with many rapids and falls. This is yet better marked in the south branch of Tobique, the Nepisiguit, Upsalquitch, and Little South West Miramichi, which rise in an elevated region of hard rocks, and thus have a large descent usually much obstructed by falls and rapids. In these respects the hardest of all of our rivers for navigation is the Little South West Miramichi, which falls twelve hundred feet, and has several bad falls and very numerous rapids. The Nepisiguit is also a rough river. Green River is continuously rapid, though with a few small falls, while the Madawaska is very smooth and the St. Francis is intermediate. It is clear that in selecting their routes of travel, other things being equal, the rivers of least descent and fewest obstructions would be chosen, even in preference to those somewhat shorter. For this reason, no doubt, the Restigouche has been a favourite from early times.

Another difficulty which the canoemen on all of these rivers must face is the low level to which they often fall in summer. Low water, when it cannot be avoided, is met by the Indian in the way already mentioned; he protects the bottom of his canoe by wooden splints and drags it unhurt over the wet stones. But this method is not only slow and laborious, but there are times in exceptionally dry seasons when some of our rivers usually navigable become quite impassable. We cannot, however, judge of these conditions in this respect in prehistoric times by the present, for, as a result of clearing away the forest, many of our rivers in the best settled districts no doubt fall now much below the level they maintained when their valleys were wooded. This is not only confirmed by analogy with other countries, but is illustrated by a comparison of the levels of those rivers flowing today from the wooded parts of the province with those in the settled districts. The former will carry abundant water, while the latter are nearly dry. There are differences in this respect, too, according as the rivers have lakes upon them, storing water, or not. Of course, the degree to which a river held its water up in summer, was an important factor in determining its value as a route of travel. It would be true also that the freshet season in spring, or occasional times in summer and autumn, would allow streams to be navigated which at ordinary times would be impassable, and probably there were portage routes used at such times which could not be ordinarily reached. When the water was low, too, the seacoasts could in some cases be made part of such a route, as from the St. John to Petitcodiac, or from near Bathurst to the St. John, via the Restigouche.

No doubt, an Indian in selecting his route of travel to a given point, where more than one offered, would average up, as a white man would do, the advantages and drawbacks of each for that particular season, taking account of the length of the routes, amount of falls and portaging, the height of the water, etc., and his decision would be a resultant of all the conditions and would be different in different seasons. It is not easy to understand why so many routes from the St. John to Quebec were in use, unless some offered advantages at one time, others at another.

Between the heads of the principal rivers were portage paths. Some of these are but a mile or two long—others longer. Some of these portages are still in use and uninfluenced by civilization. A good type is that between Nictor Lake and Nepisiguit Lake, which I have recently seen. The path is but wide enough to allow a man and canoe to pass. Where it is crossed by newly fallen trees the first passer either cuts them out, steps over them, or goes round, as may be easiest, and his example is followed by the next. In this way the exact line of the path is constantly changing, though in the main its course is kept. No doubt some of those paths are of great antiquity. Gesner states that one of the most used, that between Eel River Lake and North Lake, on the route from the St. John to the Penobscot, had been used so long that the solid rocks had been worn into furrows by the tread of moccasined feet; and Kidder quotes this and comments upon it as probably the most ancient evidence of mankind in New England. A somewhat similar statement is made by Monro as to the Misseguash—Baie Verte portage. I have seen something very similar on the old portage path around Indian Falls on the Nepisiguit, but I am inclined to think it is the hob-nailed and spiked shoes of the lumbermen which have scored these rocks, and not Indian moccasins; and it is altogether likely that this explanation will apply also to the case mentioned by Gesner, whose over-enthusiastic temperament led him into exaggerated statements. In New Brunswick, the lines of regular travel seem to have involved exclusively the rivers and the portage paths between their heads, and there is no evidence whatever of former extensive trails leading from one locality to another through the woods, such as are well known to have existed in Massachusetts. The difference in the distribution and navigability of the rivers amply explain this difference. It is not, of course, to be supposed that the Indians never departed from these routes; in their hunting expeditions they undoubtedly wandered far and wide, and especially in the valleys of the smaller and navigable brooks. Moreover, they undoubtedly had portages used only on rare occasions, and also at times forced their way over between streams where there was no regular route, but in general the main rivers gave them ample facilities for through travel from one part of the province to another, and they had no other method. The birch canoe was the universal vehicle of locomotion to the New Brunswick Indian; it was to him what the pony is to the Indian of the West.

The labour of crossing the portages was always severe, but the Indians took, and take, it philosophically, as they do everything that cannot be helped. While canoe travel in good weather, on full and easy rivers, is altogether charming, it becomes otherwise when low water, long portages and bad weather prevail. We obtain vivid pictures of its hardships from the narratives of St. Valier, and from several of the Jesuit missionaries.

Since many of the portage paths are still in use by Indians, hunters, and lumbermen, their positions are easy to identify, and many of them are marked upon the excellent maps of the Geological Survey. Many others, however, have been long disused, and have been more or less obliterated by settlement, or by roads which follow them, and these are not marked upon our recent maps. I have made a special effort to determine the exact courses of these portages before they are lost forever, and where I have been able to find them by the aid of residents, I have given them on the small maps accompanying this paper (Maps No. 2-11.) All portages known to me are marked upon the map of New Brunswick, in the Pre-historic or Indian period accompanying this paper (Map No. 12), and their routes of travel are in red on the same map. The lines show how thoroughly intersected the province was by their routes. This map does not by any means mark all of the navigable rivers, but only those which formed parts of through routes of travel. The relative importance of the routes I have tried to represent by the breadth of the lines, the most important routes having the broadest lines.

Many of the most ancient portages had distinct names, but I have not recovered any of these. Kidder gives as the ancient Indian name of the Eel River-North Lake Portage, the name Metagmouchchesh (variously spelled by him), and I have heard that more than one was called simply “The Hunters Portage” by the Indians, possibly to distinguish the less important ones used only in hunting from those of the through routes. When Portages are spoken of at this day they are usually given the name of the place towards which they lead; thus, a person on the Tobique would refer to the portage at the head of that river as the Nepisiguit, or the Bathurst Portage, and on the Nepisiguit, he would speak of it as the Tobique Portage. This usage seems to be old, and perhaps is widespread. Thus Bishop Plessis, in his journal of 1812, speaking of the portage between Tracadie and Tabusintac Rivers (the latter leading to Neguac) says (page 169): “We reached a portage of two miles which the people of Tracadie call the Nigauek Portage, and those of Nigauek the Tracadie Portage.”

The situations of many of the old portages are preserved to us in place names. Thus we have Portage Bridge, at the head of the Misseguash; Portage Bank, on the Miramichi, near Boiestown (not on the maps); Portage River, on the Northwest Miramichi, also as a branch of the Tracadie, also west of Point Escuminac, and also south of it; Portage Brook, on the Nepisiguit, leading to the Upsalquitch; Portage Lake, between Long and Serpentine Lakes; Portage Station, on the Intercolonial Railway, Kingston Creek, at the mouth of the Belleisle, was formerly called Portage Creek. Anagance is the Maliseet word for Portage; and Wagan and Wagansis, on the Restigouche and Grand River, are the Micmac for Portage, and a diminutive of it. Portage Island has probably a different origin, as I have elsewhere shown. The word Portage, as applied to a road, however, by no means implies that there was formerly a portage path in that vicinity; for it has been adopted by lumbermen, and is applied by them to the roads over which they haul their supplies to the lumber camps, and in this sense it occurs several times upon our best maps, and is thus used in some books. Moreover, the first roads built by the whites between rivers were called Portages; thus we have the Avery portage from Nashwaak to the Miramichi, and the Brown portage, from Shikatehawk to Miramichi.

Very important testimony upon the location of ancient portage routes is given us not only in the works of Champlain, Lescarbot, Denys and others, but especially by the, (for its time) very fine map of Franquelin-DeMeulles of 1686, reproduced in the preceding monograph of this series, page 364. In many cases, it shows portage-routes by connecting the rivers by a continuous line, as may readily be seen by comparing it with a modern map, or with Map. No 12 in this paper.

The most important of the Indian routes of travel were along the sea-coasts and along the St. John River, and the latter was even more important than the former. I shall accordingly treat it first in detail, and then pass to consider its communication through its branches with the important inhabited basins, the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Petitcodiac, Miramichi, Restigouche, St. Lawrence, at the same time considering the communication of these basins with one another. I have tried to make the following list complete, and think I have missed very few, if any, of the portage routes. [This blog posting does not include this list and other commentaries.]

The remarkable ease of communication of the St. John River with the other rivers has attracted attention of every writer from Champlain, Lescarbot and Denys down to those of the present day. It is really a most remarkable fact about this river, that, stretching away through the centre of the great New Brunswick-Maine peninsula as it does, it should send navigable branches into such close and easy communication with every other river system in that peninsula.

Map 2

Map 2. The Meductic-Eel River Portage

Map 3

Map 3. The Eel River-Chiputneticook Portage

Map 4

Map 4. The St. Croix-Cobscok-Machias Portage

Map 5

Map 5. Portages from the St. John to the Penobscot via the Baskahegan

Map 6

Map 6. The Kennebecasis-Petitcodiac Portage

Map 7

Map 7. The Petitcodiac-Washademoak Portage

Map 8

Map 8. The Richibucto-Salmon River Portage

Map 9

Map 9. The Gaspereau-Cains River Portage

Map 10

Map 10. The Bay du Vin-Kouchibouquac Portage

Map 11

Map 11. The Tobique-Nepisiquit Portage


Map 12.


Written by johnwood1946

March 9, 2016 at 9:24 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Another great post! Thanks for taking the time to put all this information together!

    Jesse Saindon

    March 13, 2016 at 8:04 PM

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