New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Raymond Writes About the Lives and Customs of the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet People

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Raymond Writes About the Lives and Customs of the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet People

There are several articles in this blog describing the lives and customs of the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet people, including observations by the earliest explorers and priests. Not much has been presented from W.O. Raymond’s writing, however.

William Odber Raymond was a New Brunswick Anglican priest. One of his distinguishing characteristics was his unabashed love for the Saint John River, which led him to research and write about New Brunswick history. He was no ordinary hobby writer, and his books and essays were firmly based on documentary sources.

One of Raymond’s major works was a History of the River St. John, A.D. 1604-1784, published in 1905, and today’s blog includes excerpts from his Chapter 1 about the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet during the early years of white contact.

These excerpts are not comprehensive. This is one source, among others. I have also edited the excerpts.


Mi’kmaq or Maliseet Baskets, 19th Century

From the McCord Museum


Vengeance for a death, in 1605.

In the year 1605 Pennoniac, one of the chiefs of Acadia, went with de Monts and Champlain as guide on the occasion of their voyage along the shores of New England and was killed by some of the Indians near Saco. Bessabez, the sagamore of the Penobscot Indians, allowed the body of the dead chief to be taken home by his friends to Port Royal and its arrival was the signal of great lamentation. Chief Membertou was at this time an old man, but although his hair was white with the frosts of a hundred winters, his eye was not dim. He decided that the death of Pennoniac must be avenged. Messengers were sent to all the tribes of Acadia and in response to the summons 400 warriors assembled at Port Royal. The Maliseet joined in the expedition. The great flotilla of war canoes was arranged in divisions, each under its leader, the whole commanded by Membertou in person. As the morning sun reflected in the still waters of Port Royal the noiseless procession of canoes struck the French spectators with wonder and astonishment.

Uniting with their allies of the River St. John, the great war party sped westward over the Bay of Fundy and along the coast till they reached the land of the Armouchiquois. Here they met and defeated their enemies after a hard-fought battle in which Bessabez and many of his captains were slain, and the allies returned in triumph to Acadia singing their songs of victory.

Father Biard wrote about the making of a wigwam for an encampment.

“Arrived at a certain place, the first thing they do is to build a fire and arrange their camp, which they will have finished in an hour or two; often in half an hour. The women go into the woods and bring back some poles which are stuck into the ground in a circle around the fire and at the top are interlaced in the form of a pyramid, so that they come together directly over the fire, for there is the chimney. Upon the poles they throw some skins, matting or bark. At the foot of the poles under the skins they put their baggage. All the space around the fire is strewn with soft boughs of the fire tree so they will not feel the dampness of the ground; over these boughs are thrown some mats or seal skins as soft as velvet; upon these they stretch themselves around the fire with their heads resting upon their baggage; and, what no one would believe, they are very warm in there around that little fire, even in the greatest rigors of the winter. They do not camp except near some good water, and in an attractive location.”

The growing and storage of corn.

When Champlain first visited our shores the Indians had only stone axes to use in clearing their lands. It is to their credit that with such rude implements they contrived to hack down the trees and, after burning the branches and trunk, planted their corn among the stumps and in the course of time took out the roots. In cultivating the soil they used an implement of very hard wood, shaped like a spade, and their method of raising corn, as described by Champlain, was exactly the same as that of our farmers today. The corn fields at the old Meductic Fort were cultivated by the Indians many years before the coming of the whites. Cadillac, writing in 1693, said: “The Maliseets are well shaped and tolerably warlike; they attend to the cultivation of the soil and grow the most beautiful Indian corn; their fort is at Medocktek.” Many other choice spots along the St. John River were tilled in very early times, including, probably, the site of the old Government House at Fredericton, where there was an Indian encampment long before the place was dreamed of as the site of the seat of government of the province.

Lescarbot, the historian, who wrote in 1610, tells us that the Indians were accustomed to pound their corn in a mortar (probably of wood) in order to reduce it to meal. Of this they afterwards made a paste, which was baked between two stones heated at the fire. Frequently the corn was roasted on the fire. Yet another method is thus described by the English captive, John Gyles, who lived as a captive with the St. John River Indians in 1689: “To dry the corn when in the milk, they gather it in large kettles and boil it on the ears till it is pretty hard, then shell it from the cob with clam shells and dry it on bark in the sun. When it is thoroughly dry a kernel is no bigger than a pea, and will keep years; and when it is boiled again it swells as large as when on the ear and tastes incomparably sweeter than other corn. When we had gathered our corn and dried it in the way described, we put some of it into Indian barns, that is into holes in the ground lined and covered with bark and then with earth. The rest we carried up the river upon our next winter’s hunting.”

Living by the chase.

Although the Indians living on the St. John paid some attention to the cultivation of the soil there can be no doubt that hunting and fishing were always their chief means of support. In Champlain’s day the implements of the chase were very primitive. Yet they were able to hunt the largest game by taking advantage of the deep snow and making use of their snow-shoes. Champlain says. “They search for the track of animals, which, having found, they follow until they get sight of the creature, when they shoot at it with their bows or kill it by means of daggers attached to the end of a short pike. Then the women and children come up, erect a hut and they give themselves to feasting. Afterwards they proceed in search of other animals and thus they pass the winter.”

Adept at reading signs in the forest.

One of the most striking Indian characteristics is the keenness of perception by which they are enabled to track their game or find their way through pathless forests without the aid of chart or compass. The Indian captive, Gyles, relates the following incident which may be mentioned in this connection:

“I was once travelling a little way behind several Indians and, hearing them laugh merrily, when I came up I asked them the cause of their laughter. They showed me the track of a moose, and how a wolverine had climbed a tree, and where he had jumped off upon the moose. It so happened that after the moose had taken several large leaps it came under the branch of a tree, which, striking the wolverine, broke his hold and tore him off; and by his tracks in the snow it appeared he went off another way with short steps, as if he had been stunned by the blow that had broken his hold. The Indians were wonderfully pleased that the moose had thus outwitted the mischievous wolverine.”

Making utensils from natural sources.

The early French writers all notice the skill and ingenuity of the Indians in adapting their mode of life to their environment. Nicholas Denys, who came to Acadia in 1632, gives a very entertaining and detailed account of their ways of life and of their skillful handicraft. The snowshoe and the Indian bark canoe aroused his special admiration. He says they also made dishes of bark, both large and small, sewing them so nicely with slender rootlets of fir that they retained water. They used in their sewing a pointed bodkin of bone, and they sometimes adorned their handiwork with porcupine quills and pigments. Their kettles used to be of wood before the French supplied them with those of metal. In cooking, the water was readily heated to the boiling point by the use of red-hot stones which they put in and took out of their wooden kettle.

Courtship and marriage. Many early writes spoke on this subject, and this differs from some other accounts.

Baird relates that a certain sagamore on hearing that the young King of France was unmarried, observed: “Perhaps I may let him marry my daughter, but the king must make me some handsome presents, namely, four or five barrels of bread, three of peas and beans, one of tobacco, four or five cloaks worth one hundred sous apiece, bows, arrows, harpoons and such like articles.”

Courtship and marriage among the Maliseets is thus described by John Gyles: “If a young fellow determines to marry, his relations and the Jesuit advise him to a girl, he goes into the wigwam where she is and looks on her. If he likes her appearance, he tosses a stick or chip into her lap which she takes, and with a shy side-look views the person who sent it; yet handles the chip with admiration as though she wondered from whence it came. If she likes him she throws the chip to him with a smile, and then nothing is wanting but a ceremony with the Jesuit to consummate the marriage. But if she dislikes her suitor she with a surly countenance throws the chip aside and he comes no more there.”

A hard life for women. The women did all of these things, but I cannot verify that the men treated them as Raymond describes.

An Indian maiden educated to make monoodah, or Indian bags, birch dishes and moccasins, to lace snowshoes, string wampum belts, sew birch canoes and boil the kettle, was esteemed a lady of fine accomplishments. The women, however, endured many hardships. They were called upon to prepare and erect the cabins, supply them with fire, wood and water, prepare the food, go to bring the game from the place where it had been killed, sew and repair the canoes, mend and stretch the skins, curry them and make clothes and moccasins for the whole family. Biard says: “They go fishing and do the paddling, in short they undertake all the work except that alone of the grand chase. Their husbands sometimes beat them unmercifully and often for a very slight cause.”

But women are everywhere the best managers.

Pierre Biard writes of the Micmacs: “They care little about the future and are not urged on to work except by present necessity. As long as they have anything they are always celebrating feasts and having songs dances and speeches. If there is a crowd of them you certainly need not expect anything else. Nevertheless if they are by themselves and where they may safely listen to their wives, for women are everywhere the best manager, they will sometimes make storehouses for the winter where they will keep smoked meat, roots, shelled acorns, peas, beans, etc.”

A Justice story, as told by John Gyles.

“While at the Indian village (Meductic) I had been cutting wood and was binding it up with an Indian rope in order to carry it to the wigwam when a stout ill-natured young fellow about 20 years of age threw me backward, sat on my breast and pulling out his knife said that he would kill me, for he had never yet killed an English person. I told him that he might go to war and that would be more manly than to kill a poor captive who was doing their drudgery for them. Notwithstanding all I could say he began to cut and stab me on my breast. I seized him by the hair and tumbled him from off me on his back and followed him with my fist and knee so that he presently said he had enough; but when I saw the blood run and felt the smart I at him again and bade him get up and not lie there like a dog told him of his former abuses offered to me and other poor captives, and that if ever he offered the like to me again I would pay him double. I sent him before me, took up my burden of wood and came to the Indians and told them the whole truth and they commended me, and I don’t remember that ever he offered me the least abuse afterward, though he was big enough to have dispatched two of me.”

Who owns this land?

Many years ago the provincial government sent commissioners to the Indian village of Meductic on the St. John River, where the Indians from time immemorial had built their wigwams and tilled their cornfields and where their dead for many generations had been laid to rest in the little graveyard by the river side. The object of the commissioners was to arrange for the location of white settlers at Meductic. The government claimed the right to dispossess the Indians on the ground that the lands surrounding their village were in the gift of the crown. The Indians, not unnaturally, were disinclined to part with the heritage of their forefathers.

On their arrival at the historic camping ground the commissioners made known the object of their visit. Presently several stalwart captains, attired in their war paint and feathers and headed by their chief, appeared on the scene. After mutual salutations the commissioners asked: “By what right or title do you hold these lands?”

The tall, powerful chief stood erect and, pointing within the walls of the little enclosure beside the river, replied: “There are the graves of our grandfathers! There are the graves of our fathers! There are the graves of our children!”

To this simple eloquence the commissioners felt they had no fitting reply, and for the time being the Maliseets remained undisturbed.


Written by johnwood1946

December 7, 2016 at 8:10 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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