Reconciling Chignecto: The many stories of Siknikt

Anne Marie Lane Jonah

[Welcome to our summer series on Acadian history! We are very excited to be presenting this special four-week series, cross-posting on Unwritten Histories, Borealia, and  Acadiensis, and in collaboration with the Fredericton Regional Museum, the York Sunbury Historical Society, an Open Academy grant from the Royal Society, the UNB Departments of History and French, the New Brunswick College of Craft & Design, the Institut d’Études Acadiennes, and Historica Canada.

The blog series is the result of an exhibit on the history of the Acadian community of Pointe Sainte-Anne which will be opening this summer at the Fredericton Region Museum (FRM), curated by Dr. Chantal Richard of the UNB French Department, with Stephanie Pettigrew (PhD Candidate in History, UNB) as Research Director. These short essays draw upon a lecture series held in conjunction with the exhibit. – Editors.]

Anne Marie HS

Anne Marie Lane Jonah

Although many residents of and visitors to Atlantic Canada have seen, even at a glance, the National Historic Sites (NHS) of Beaubassin and Fort Lawrence, many fewer have visited, or have an inkling of the dramatic and tragic history of that place. Beaubassin, an Acadian village destroyed in 1750, and Fort Lawrence, built on the ruins of the village, occupy a ridge to the south east of the Missaguash River that today forms the border between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. (They’re behind the Nova Scotia visitor centre.) In the past few years, Parks Canada staff have been working to better understand and present the history of these places. As the work progressed, the idea took shape of creating a linked and coherent presentation of these sites and two others in the Chignecto region, Fort Beauséjour-Fort Cumberland NHS and Fort Gaspareaux NHS; making the landscape of the Isthmus of Chignecto central to the story.

Beaubassin, an Acadian community somewhat distant in its day from the alternately French and British capital at Port Royal/Annapolis Royal, had prospered for generations based on its agriculture and trade before its destruction. Knowledge of the site of the village had endured in local oral history, cherished by Acadians, some descendants of the villagers. In the early 20th century, the curious had gone searching for artefacts in the fields, and studies of the place were undertaken: history, archaeology, and genealogy. In 1991 a farmer grading a large section of his field to build a barn turned up archaeological objects by the thousands, bringing the site to greater attention. Still, it was not until 2005 that it was designated as being a site of national historic significance by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board and acquired by Parks Canada. From 2007 to 2010, Parks Canada archaeologist Charles Burke led public archaeology programs to study the remains of fort and village, bringing to light a large collection of artefacts, and inspiring tremendous attachment to and interest in the site, still essentially a field.

AnneMarie photo1

Parks Canada/2019. A view of the Tantramar Marsh form Beaubassin ridge, with the hard to make out Missaguash River.

Communicating the complex, truly tangled, history of Beaubassin/ Fort Lawrence remains a challenge. The military story of colonial wars has dominated the landscape and the narrative. The entire Chignecto region, one of the flashpoints for the tensions that resulted in the Seven Years’ War, was much more important in the colonial era than its current modest appearance indicates.[i] Early heritage protection efforts, beginning in 1902, focussed on Fort Beauséjour/Fort Cumberland NHS, a stone fortification that occupies a ridge across the Missaguash River from Beaubassin/Fort Lawrence. (Doubtless you are noticing the pattern of double names.) As the pet project of one the first and longest serving members of the HSMB, John Clarence Webster, the Chignecto region received some of its first designations.[ii] Nonetheless, more than a century later, as we began to piece the story together for Beaubassin/Fort Lawrence, what struck me was the unknown. The primary records contained ample evidence of an Indigenous role in this story that received scant mention in secondary sources or in the existing HSMB designations. Why, it had to be asked, were the Mi’kmaq and the Wolastukqiyik so invested in preventing this particular British incursion? This led me to the idea that this place wasn’t important because Europeans fought over it; but, they ended up fighting over it because it was important. What we as researchers need to address are the real reasons that this unusual landscape was important, and to whom.

The existing literature of the Franco-British colonial conflict tells the story of Chignecto roughly thus (if at all): In the spring of 1750, a force under the command of Charles Lawrence was sent by Governor Edward Cornwallis to secure the contested border at the Missaguash River.[iii] This river had become a border between the claims of the British and French empires, as the terms of the treaty of Utrecht in 1713 left room to interpret where the border should be. This was still under dispute after the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748. So, in April of 1750, as the British advanced up the Bay of Fundy toward the Acadian village of Beaubassin, built in territory considered by both the British and the French to be indisputably British, they saw that the village, home to some 700 people, burning. The Acadians, homeless, would be forced to relocate in territory claimed by the French on the west side of the Missaguash River. The Mi’kmaq were usually named as responsible for the fires, either solely, or with French soldiers, and the displacement of the Acadians as the motivation. Many French and British authorities at that time considered the actions of the Mi’kmaq in Beaubassin to have been entirely inspired by their missionary priest, l’Abbé Jean-Louis Le Loutre (1709-1772).[iv] Historians since have both demonized and praised Le Loutre for his role in this act of violence or resistance, but his role as the leader of the Mi’kmaq generally remains unquestioned, and so a deeper study of their actions at this time, unnecessary. (The preceding was much more text than the incident normally gets in most histories of the region.)

These events took place slightly less than a year after the establishment at Kjipuktuk of a new British capital for the colony they claimed as Nova Scotia. Indigenous responses to that new settlement, Halifax, with six times the settler population and four times the garrison of the former British capital of Annapolis Royal, were immediate, but multi-faceted. The communities farthest from the new settlement, in the territory still claimed by France, immediately went to meet the new British governor. In August of 1749 Jean Pedousaghtigh of Chignecto and three representatives of the Wolastukqiyik and Passamaquoddy renewed the 1725 Peace and Friendship treaty between the Wabanaki Confederacy and the British, agreeing to live peaceably with the new settlement.[v] At the same time the Governor at Quebec sent troops to territory that the French had claimed since 1713, the west side the Missaguash River on the Isthmus of Chignecto and the mouth of the Saint John River. Charles Deschamps de Boishébert, (1727-1797) the French commandant at the Saint John River, dismissed the Indigenous diplomatic efforts in a reassuring letter to his superiors. He believed that the Mi’kmaq and Wolastukqiyik who had gone to meet with Cornwallis were not actually chiefs, and their actions would have little consequence.[vi] In September of 1749, a larger group of Mi’kmaw chiefs, including those of Eskikewa’kik, the eastern shore of Nova Scotia, and Unama’ki, Cape Breton, met in Potolek to consider their response to the British actions. They, with the French Catholic missionary Pierre Maillard, wrote a letter to Governor Cornwallis which, in the version that was sent to Paris, they called a “Déclaration de Guerre.”[vii] The Mi’kmaq of Chignecto also sent wampum to the Huron near Quebec and the Wolastukqiyik at the Saint John River looking for support.[viii]

That fall and winter saw many Mi’kmaw acts of resistance to British expansion: attacks on British and New England ships at Chignecto, on settlers gathering hay at Canso, and others cutting wood across the harbour from the new settlement at Halifax, nullified the August 1749 treaty. Determined to assert his control of the colony, Cornwallis refused to meet further with any Mi’kmaq, as he felt that to do so would mean that he recognized them as a sovereign people. He did not. He then put in place a scalp bounty, declaring that he would see the Mi’kmaq eradicated.[ix] He sent troops to build secure positions at Piziquid (Windsor) and Chignecto. The resistance that the British encountered at Chignecto was sustained and effective. The Indigenous peoples present included Mi’kmaq of Siknikt,[x] Wolastukqiyik, and a group of about 50 Mi’kmaq from the village of Sipiknekatik (Shubenacadie) who had chosen to come with their missionary, l’Abbe LeLoutre. The other half of that community remained with their Chief, Jean Baptiste Cope.[xi]

When the British under Charles Lawrence arrived at Beaubassin in April of 1750, they were unable to land, observing that Acadians and Indigenous fighters were arranged behind the dykes along the river banks and that buildings in the village had been set on fire.[xii] The British were forced to land in the territory the French claimed. Lawrence argued with the French commander, Jean-Louis de LaCorne, but was unable to complete his mission. The British retreated to return with a superior force in the fall, then encountering a defence prepared for their return: “the Dyke where we found that the Indians had been very industrious in throwing up a Breast Work, and making loop holes with the Earth in order to defend themselves when attacked,” and a combined force of about two hundred “French and Indians.” A brief battle followed, with the British advance supported by the cannons of their ships.[xiii] There were lives lost on both sides, but within a few hours, the British had taken control of the south bank of the river and what was left of the village.

At this point in the narrative I find I have many questions that the colonial documents do not clearly answer, or the secondary sources do, but not satisfactorily. The sustained defence of the Mi’kmaq, and apparently some Acadians, caused me to see the significance of this event beyond a demonstration of the power of a troublesome priest, and by extension, French machinations in “British” territory. Although there is evidence that LeLoutre had been active in engaging the Mi’kmaq in the struggle, he was not able to direct or contain their actions on at least two occasions.[xiv] He had been active through the preceding winter in encouraging Mi’kmaq to interrupt British communications, however, many clashes took place in which he had no involvement. Although the Mi’kmaq were often allied with the French in specific engagements, they also often were not. Many researchers have described the missionaries as having had a large influence on the Mi’kmaq in getting them to participate in the wars, however, William Wicken argues that “both during and after 1744, missionaries encountered obstacles in trying to shape Mi’kmaq actions in ways consistent with French interests.”[xv] Each situation was independently negotiated and each district chief with his community members weighed each request for military aid and decided whether or not to support it. At Port Royal (Annapolis Royal) in 1710, circumstances led the Mi’kmaq to decide against participating in yet another defense of the French fort, although they had in 1707. In 1720, when a New England vessel was captured in the Minas Basin by the Mi’kmaq, the British governor accused the French and Acadians of encouraging the attack, contrary to the peace between France and Britain. The chiefs of Minas, Antoine and Pierre Couaret, responded to Phillips’ accusation of French and Acadian instigation, assuring him that the Mi’kmaq were entirely able to attack without any French involvement.[xvi]

In reviewing the colonial record, we find plenty of examples of independent Indigenous actions to help us understand their role as equally interested, if not more so, actors in events. The subsequent erasure of Indigenous agency and political will from this history is the result of processes both at that time, and in later scholarship. (For an egregious example, see the Wikipedia entry on “Father LeLoutre’s War.”[xvii]) In doing this work, I have reflected on how much of this erasure was the product of an era, a prevailing mindset, and how much intentional. As well as questioning the interpretation, we need to acknowledge the possible motives behind an interpretation that minimizes and dismisses Indigenous agency. It suited Cornwallis to see Mi’kmaw resistance as entirely the product of the manipulations of his old arch-enemy the French, rather than a valid defence of their land that he had orders to take. That view of events, seeing European intentions and claims as more valid than Indigenous, still pervades North American history, and stands in the way of reconciliation. It is a daunting task, but necessary, to re-evaluate received narratives, such as that of the events in Nova Scotia after the arrival of the British at Kjipuktuk/Halifax.

AnneMarie photo2

Sketch, ‘French soldiers firing on British supply vessel, ca 1755’ drawn in 1981 by the lamented Dusan Kadlec (1942-2018) to show the hostilities in the region prior to the fall of Fort Beausejour. He dated this illustration as 1755. Parks Canada/Dusan Kadlec.

As well as re-examining historic accounts, we also need to question our archaeological and curated historical collections. I am very lucky to work with archaeologist Sara Beanlands, who has studied Beaubassin with Parks archaeologist Charles Burke. Sara was struck by the absence of Mi’kmaw artefacts in the digs at Beaubassin ridge, seemingly contradicting our historic knowledge of the village, which contained a mission to the Mi’kmaq, and was established with trade with the Mi’kmaq as a major motivation. Where were the Mi’kmaq in the archaeology? To address this, Sara has been studying the Nova Scotia and New Brunswick archaeology collections as well as the Parks Canada collection. By combining information from these three collections, a new picture of the region, of millennia of Mi’kmaw use of the place, emerges. It also shows that the present border divides collections, research projects, and conversations.

Sara, Charles, and I can identify where the gaps and inconsistencies in the history and archaeology are. To interpret this, and to include it meaningfully in the exhibit that we are still developing, we are lucky to have the full support of the Northern New Brunswick Field Unit, and to benefit from new program funding for history within Parks Canada. This enabled us to work with the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq, in Nova Scotia and Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn in New Brunswick, and through them, to try to support the capacity in the Mi’kmaq community to recover some of this history. We are also working with interpretive planners Marc Bélanger and Marian Macaulay who help us to create an exhibit that creates space for questioning and conversing, rather than imposing a narrative. We are beginning to do something that feels, on the good days, like reconciling history. It isn’t easy for any of us, and it doesn’t always connect, but it has fundamentally changed how we approach our work. It is also, necessarily, slow history.

In a recent blog Christine DeLucia described the need for “slow history.” She wrote, “‘Fast’ history tends to detach from present-day communities’ extraordinarily complex knowledge systems, and from the slow, hard work of developing working relationships that can cast different light on seemingly familiar documents, objects, geographies, and interpretations.”[xviii] Fast history is exactly what public historians are pressured to produce when history becomes a product that advances ‘heritage’ and tourism objectives. One effect of the commitment to Truth and Reconciliation is the recognition of the need to slow down and build relationships with communities. In this process, I am seeing one way that this commitment benefits us all, and I am grateful to be part of it.

The Acadian community, who led the way in uncovering the history of this region, has worked for decades gathering stories and placing their ancestors in the landscape through monuments and mapping, the descendants of later Yorkshire settlers, likewise. So sharing these stories in a way that provides communities the chance to make personal connections with them, and engaging with Mi’kmaw communities and knowledge-keepers to share their stories and memories of this place will enrich all understandings of how it was lived and valued. And will help me to better contextualize that moment when Indigenous peoples rallied to protect it in 1750.

Anne Marie Lane Jonah is an historian with the Parks Canada Agency. She worked for eleven years at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada, Louisbourg, Nova Scotia before relocating to Halifax in 2014. Her current work supports the National Historic Sites throughout Atlantic Canada and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board.  She is also editor of the Journal of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society.

[i] A.J.B. Johnston, Endgame: The Promise, the Glory, and the Despair of Louisbourg’s Last Decade (Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2007) 55-58.

[ii] C.J Taylor, Negotiating the Past: The Making of National Historic Parks and Sites (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1990) 17, 55, 77.

[iii] For information on how contested this border was, see Jeffers Lennox, Homelands and Empires: Indigenous Spaces, Imperial Fictions, and Competition for Territory in Northeastern North America, 1690-1763 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017) Chapter five, “Acadia in Paris,” 172-211.

[iv] J.C. Webster, Journal of Joshua Winslow 1750, Historical Studies No. 2, Publications of the New Brunswick Museum (Saint John, 1936) 14; “A Journal of the Proceedings of the Detachment under My Command after Entering the Basin of Chignecto by Major Charles Lawrence, 1750,” in J.C. Webster, Journal of Joshua Winslow 1750, Historical Studies No. 2, Publications of the New Brunswick Museum (Saint John, 1936) 32-34; « Rapport de Monsieur de La Corne à Monsieur Desherbiers. Memaramkoué….1750 » Collection de manuscrits relatifs à la Nouvelle France, vol III (Quebec: A. Coté et Cie, 1884) 499.

[v] William C. Wicken, Mi’kmaq Treaties on Trial: History, Land and Donald Marshall Junior (University of Toronto, 2002)176-7.

[vi] Report on Canadian Archives, 1905, Part 2, Boishébert à M de la Galissonière, à Ecoupac, Rivière St Jean, le 26 août 1749, p. 290 (e-doc 932)

[vii] Document Inédits du Canada Français: Documents sur l’Acadie, Tome I, L’abbé H.R. de Casgrain (Québec 1888) « Déclaration de Guerre des MicMacs aux Anglais s’ils refusent d’abandonner Kchibouktouk (Halifax) » pp 17-19.

[viii] Report on Canadian Archives, 1905, Part 2, Bigot au Ministre, A Québec, 29 septembre, 1749, p 288.

[ix] Daniel Paul, We Were not the Savages (Halifax: Nimbus, 1993) 108.

[x] William C. Wicken, Encounters with Tall Sails and Tall Tales: Mi’kmaq Society, 1500-1760, PhD Thesis, Montreal: McGill, 1994, p 96.

[xi] Geoffrey Plank, An Unsettled Conquest: The British Campaign Against the Peoples of Acadia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001) 125.

[xii] Journal of Charles Lawrence 1750 (Webster) April 22

[xiii] Journal of Captain John Rous, September 6.

[xiv] Journal de ce qui s’est passe à Chicnitou et autres partie des frontières de l’Acadie depuis le 15 septembre 1750 jusqu’au 28 juillet 1751, Sieur de la Vallières, Report on Canadian Archives, 1905. Part 3. 324-325.

[xv] Wicken, Treaties on Trial, 369

[xvi] Législature de Québec, Collection des Manuscrits Contenant Lettres, Mémoires, et Autres Documents Historiques Relatifs à la Nouvelle France, Vol III (Québec 1884) pp 46-7; CO 217, 3, ff, 155-6, Antoine and Pierre Couaret to Governor Philipps, 2 Oct 1720; also L.F.S. Upton, Micmacs and Colonists, (UBC Press, 1979) page 199, note 41.

[xvii] and John Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire: War In Nova Scotia, 1710-1760 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2008).

[xviii] Christine DeLucia, On “slow history”: Decolonizing methodologies and the importance of responsive editorial processes,” OMOHUNDRO INSTITUTE OF EARLY AMERICAN HISTORY & CULTURE, Uncommon Sense—The Blog (March 22, 2018)

Featured Image: This map, A DRAUGHT of the ISTHMUS which joyns Nova Scotia to the Continent with the Situation of the ENGLISH and FRENCH FORTS & the Adjacent BAYS and RIVERS, was drawn at some point between 1751 and 1755. The sites marked “O” are captioned as: “Dykes levelled by the English from which the Indeans used to Fire at the Vesells as they came up the River Mesiguash” and the villages in red, all Acadian, are indicated as those “burned by the Indeans.” Those villages were burned in September of 1750, when the British took control of the region. (There is also an indescribable image of an Indigenous person shaking hands with a European, behind the cartouche.) This work is licensed for use under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike License.

Latest Comments

  1. Ray Blakeney says:

    Anne Marie. A very interesting story. There is a wealth of history in that NB/N.S. border area that has been under utilized by governments. It is the site of the only land battle in Nova Scotia/New Brunswick during the American Revolution. The combined histories of this area could be exploited by the Provincial and Federal governments in a large museum which could include a bus tour for tourists. Most Canadians and Americans have no idea that Beaubassin and the surrounding area had such an impact on the history of the times.We need to celebrate your work!

  2. Michael Williams says:

    Enjoyable read!!!

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