Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


The Micmacs [Mi'kmaqs] of Nova Scotia



[This text was written in 1898. For the full citation, see the end of the document.]

The Micmac tribe of Indians in Nova Scotia is of more historic than present importance. The following account of its customs and history was written by Dr. J. Bernard Gilpin, B.A., M.R.C.S., in 1877, and cannot well be improved upon for conciseness and completeness: "We find that as early as the sixteenth century the shores of Nova Scotia were frequented by fishermen of various nations, and in greater numbers than is usually supposed. Thus when Lescarbot, in 1609, gives us his minute descriptions of the Indians two or three generations must have then passed since the Iron Age had commenced its operations on the races of the stone period. Iron knives and axes, the steel and flint with its great powers of carrying fire everywhere, and coarse potteries and beads must have begun to modify their habits. The ancient arrow-maker must have ceased his art; the son must have used an axe foreign to his father, and the squaw commenced to ornament her skins with French beads instead of small shells. The first name by which they were called by the French is Souriquois or Sourique. This name seems almost identical with Iroquois, Arromouchiquois, and Algonquin.


It is probable the Micmacs, as we now call them, were a set-off from the great Algonquin race, who extended from Canada to the extreme west, but set off for so long a period of time as to lose a common dialect. While our Indians from the earliest date used the language common to Canada, they could not understand the Arromouchiquois, or those who lived in what is now called New Hampshire and Massachusetts. In the year 1609, the French living at Port Royal, Nova Scotia, estimated their numbers at between 3,000 and 4,000 souls. This included Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island. This, by the usual calculations, would make between 500 and 600 adult or fighting men. They were clothed in skins of bear, otter, beaver, and fox, and the larger skins of elk and deer. They had learned the art of softening and taking the hair off the larger ones. In summer their clothing was a girdle around their waists, on which was fixed a skin that went betwixt the legs, and was attached again to the girdle behind. A cloak of skins was hung around the neck, with a loose cape hanging back from the shoulder. Usually the right arm was exposed. In winter they made sleeves of beaver skins, tied at the back, and long hose of the same, tied to the girdle around the loins, and their feet were covered with a buckskin of untanned leather drawn into plaits in front - the present moccasin. The women wore the same dress, with the exception of a tight girdle around the cloak. In camp the men wore nothing but the waist leather. They had no covering for their heads, using the loose cape of their cloaks as shelter in winter.


The hair was worn long, cut short in front, and sometimes trussed on the top or behind by a feather or pin. For ornaments they seem to neither have been painted nor tattooed, but to have made strings of black, wooden beads, and pieces of white shells. The quills of the porcupine were also dyed with bright colours, and formed into plats and squares. The men cared but little about these things, but they wore knives at their breasts. These people, thus clothed, lived in movable wigwams, a conical tent made of birch bark, fastened around poles tied at the top, and at the bottom encircling an area of about twelve feet in diameter. During summer they pitched them at the seaside or on lake borders; in winter they retired to the forest. In the short summer they lived upon fish, and during the long winter when the fish had retired from the shore they hunted the elk and reindeer. They, when at war and expecting an attack, made a palisaded fort, by taking a square of living trees, thickening up the spaces with poles and brushwood, and leaving but one place of entrance, and building their camps or wigwams within it, thus contriving a rude fortification.


In a print of the period from Champlain, of the palisaded forts in Canada, the structure is much more elaborate, and built of hewn timber, but Lescarbot distinctly asserts that those Indians never felled trees, not even for firewood. The few household utensils they possessed were of wood, stone and horn, or bone. They had pots of a very coarse baked pottery, and stone axes and mallets, knives and gouges. Deers' horns and bone were also used; and from a recent deposit at Lunenburg we find copper knife blades and needles made from the native copper of the Bay of Fundy, hammered into shape. They also had the beautiful racquet or snow shoe, that has come down to us unaltered. These simple utensils, with their skins and furs, and the boat or canoe that transported them from sea-coast to lake side, formed all their wealth. They had already acquired the habit of smoking ; and though they did carve their pipes sometimes into forms of animals, yet the usual pipe was a stone hollowed at one end into a pan, into which they stuck a quill or hollow reed. In their wars they used clubs, bows and arrows, and shields, and lances or spears headed with stone. These wars were carried on with much forethought and energy. Membertou, the old Sagamos at Port Royal, brought men from Miramichi and St. John's River , and made a rendezvous with his own from Nova Scotia, at Grand Marian, before attacking the tribes that resided in what is now called Massachusetts . They brought home the heads of their enemies, which they embalmed and hung about their necks in triumph, but there is no mention of scalping.


As they had no letters they could have no laws, save traditions. The Sagamos usually settled all disputes. A man of many friends was unmolested, for he had many to avenge him, but a slave or a prisoner with no friends fared badly. Polygamy was allowed rather than practised; and though they had little regard for chastity yet there seems to have been no jealousy among them. Their care for their parents, fondness for their children, and general hospitality must make all amends. As regards religion, an obscure belief in some future state was their only creed, some medicine men their only priests. And now we can form some idea of these men of the stone period as they were about insensibly to fall beneath the iron age. A well-fed, light-footed, clay-red race, with beardless face and shock of black hair, fish and flesh eaters, reaping no harvest save from forest and sea, having neither letters nor laws nor settled habitations, yet either in friendship or war having relations five hundred miles at least with their neighbours on either side.


This ends the first stage, the stone period, or pre-historic age of the Micmacs. About two hundred and seventy years ago, or the beginning of the seventeenth century, the age of iron came down upon them. They came under the influence of the French, who held them for one hundred years, and whose kind and mild government may be called their French age. During this period they must insensibly have cast off their coats of skin and clothed themselves in woollen clothes. They ceased to war with themselves, they pointed their weapons with iron instead of stone, or exchanged them for muskets; but they still remained living in wigwams, wandering from sea to forest, and generally connecting themselves with the French fishing stations and ports, where they bartered skins and furs for bread and tobacco, and other things which they were fast learning to call the necessaries of life. We have no records of this period, but from incidental remarks from time to time of various writers, we learn that the kind relations existing from the first betwixt them and their masters never altered.


Thus, kindly and gently the French held the Micmacs for one hundred years. In 1710, Subercase, the French Governor at Port Royal , now Annapolis , surrendered it and all Acadia to the English. From that date French government ceased, as regards the Micmacs, from amongst them. The cruel Indian wars that had been raging for more than fifty years so near them that it has been said that there was no man of forty but had seen twenty years service on the borders of New England, were now to set in upon Nova Scotia.


After the conquest of Nova Scotia the English Governors held but feeble sway at Annapolis, and their out-ports at La Hêve, Horton and Canseau. The neutral French played into the hands of the openly hostile Indians, and they were both influenced by the French Governors of Quebec. The lives of the English Governors seem to have been perpetually harrassed by the Indians who were incited to their acts by emissaries, chiefly from Quebec. M. Gaulin, missionary (Letter from Placentia , 5th of September, 1711), boasts: "To take away all hope of an accommodation, he induced the savages to make excursions upon the English." During this same year an ambuscade of Indians destroyed the whole force of eighty men, killing outright thirty men, the fort-major and engineer, and making the rest prisoners. This happened twelve miles up river from the fort, and so encouraged Gaulin that he immediately invested the fort ( Port Royal ) so closely that the garrison could not appear upon the ramparts. This garrison is said to have lost in seven months, by sickness and sorties, 350 men. Surprisals also were made by the Indians on fishing vessels and fishermen on the sea-coast, at Yarmouth , at La Hêve, and at Canseau. Few people now imagine the terror of their name at that date, or fancy that a few scattered savages could do as much mischief. "Queen Anne may have the meadows, but we have the forest, from which nothing can drive us," was their open boast, as well as the reason of this power.


Their inroads seem to have been made with varying frequency from 1710 to 1761. They then languished for awhile; but when it was seen by the French that England, by the founding of Halifax , was in earnest in settling the Province. Annapolis was again invested by the Indians, and a sergeant and two men killed. Another missionary, not Gaulin, but La Loutre, the darkest figure of the many dark men that vexed the times, boldly led the assault of his French and Indians against the crumbling walls of old Port Royal, then defended by the veteran Mascarene, Unsuccessful, stained by the murder of Captain Howe, denounced by the French officers, and by his superior the Bishop of Quebec, he disappeared from the scene, tradition says to die a life-prisoner in an English fortress.


Dartmouth was also assaulted, and murders and robberies committed at Windsor and other parts. The Governors were of late in the habit of taking hostages for their good behaviour, which kept them quiet for some time. Haliburton says of these times: "The number and ferocity of the Indians, and the predatory habits in which they indulged, rendered them objects of great attention and concern to the local government." In 1761 a formal treaty of peace with the Indians was signed at Halifax, and the hatchet buried. Quebec having already fallen, the Treaty of Paris crushed for ever these bloody scenes.


My first knowledge of the Indians began in 1831. At that period they all lived in neat birchbark wigwams - a house was a very rare exception; and they all, both women and men, were clothed in coarse blue cloth. The men were in blue frocks with scarlet edges upon the shoulders and upon the arms. A scarlet or gay-coloured sash bound this to their waist, at the back of which hung a tobacco pouch of moose skin. They wore, also, knee-breeches and long gaiters of the same, blue, with the selvage edge left long, and ornamented with scarlet. The stocking was a long roller of blanket, wound from the toe to the knee. A silver brooch of the size of a large watch, usually held the frock at the neck; and the foot was covered by an untanned moccasin. The hair was worn very long. A beaver hat on great occasions, but usually a straw hat or red cap, surmounted a huge mass of unkempt locks.


The women wore a high-pointed cap of blue cloth, often ornamented with scarlet cloth and white beads; a short gown and petticoat reaching to the knee, with a gaiter trouser, and the selvage left loose to the ankle. In cold weather a blanket was worn over the head, and always brought square across the back. This pleasing dress, in which we recognize the hunting frock of all North America, whether it be the deer-skin shirt and leggings with the fringes of the far west Indians, or the frock of the old continental rifleman, we infer was their habit from the time they ceased to wear skins. The continual mention of coarse scarlet and blue serges by the French, the bales of blue cloth in the English treaties, and the bills of the same furnished to them by Government in our own times, are ample proof.


I have now brought the Micmac from his stone or pre-historic age and his French age to our own time, and it remains to give his present condition. Estimated in early French times at between three and four thousand souls, and that including Prince Edward Island, we find them at the next authentic record (Judge Monk's Return, 1808) as from three hundred and fifty to four hundred fighting men. This would make about two thousand souls, making a decrease of something more than fifteen hundred in two hundred years. In 1842, Mr. Howe returns them at fourteen hundred and twenty-five. The last census makes them 1706.


Their summer camps are still as of old. Clothed like ourselves, with a boot keeping the feet dry, and sleeping warm and dry, they cannot retain the old instinctive adhesiveness of race, or the ancient consumptions and palsies that formerly decimated them. Ever minding all these changes and these ceaseless influences on their moral and physical condition, we will describe the Micmac Indian of the present hour. His stature is below the medium ; slight, carrying his shoulders overhanging, forward, and high ; his limbs light, and extremities small ; the tibia or shin-bone well curved, but this curve is high in the bone and forward as well as outward ; and springing, as it does, from the high bony arch of a very clean instep, has the grace of fitness and beauty which is not found when the curve is neat the ankle and the instep flat. This beauty, which was formerly brought out by the tight gaiter and moccasin, the fisherman's heavy boot is fast destroying, and the loose trouser with its baggy knees hiding from sight. He is beginning to turn his toes outwards. Even the Indian squaw, who once stole so softly on you with her parrot-toed foot, fringed to the ground like her native grouse, now flaunts with outward toe a crimson-topped high-laced boot. He wears his hair cropped now, which brings still more in relief the small and narrowed skull, high and broad cheek-bone, high frontal ridges, and square, heavy jaw-bone of the red man, or Mongolian type.


If we look in the children and women, we find the oblique eye of the same race; but in the adult the continual exposure has caused the muscles of the orbit, drawing and puckering around the eye for its defence, to draw down the corners. The nose sometimes approaches to the Roman, but always has wide nostrils; the mouth large, with the upper lip convex, and the chin retreating. In the women and children the mouth is the worst feature, being large, unmeaning, and often open - the greater force in man giving it stronger expression. The eye is dark, oblique, and small, and rather intelligent than bright. The French called their colour olive. This now could scarcely be true. We miss the richness of the olive. The men were almost a clay yellow, and it is only in the women and young we find a reddish tint, or coloured lip or cheek."


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Source : G. Bernard GILPIN, in Canada. An Encyclopaedia of the Country, Vol. 1, J. Castell HOPKINS, ed., Toronto, The Linscott Publishing Company, 1898, 540p., pp. 241-245.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College