The History of the Newfoundland Mi'kmaq
In what is now Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, a part of the Gaspé Peninsula and eastern New
Brunswick, the Aboriginal people who greeted the first European visitors to their coasts were the
Mi'kmaq (Micmac). Human occupation of this region extends back to more than 10,000 years ago,
during which time its Native inhabitants adjusted to dramatic climatic change, significant
technological development, and the arrival of new groups from the south. None of these things,
however, would have as great an effect upon Aboriginal people as the coming of strangers from
Europe. In the century after John Cabot's 1497 voyage to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Mi'kmaq
would trade furs for copper kettles, woolen blankets, iron knives, and the other products of early
modern Europe, as well as shallops (small sailing vessels) to carry the new goods to other Native
peoples throughout the Gulf and as far south as New England. During this period, if not earlier, the
Mi'kmaq reached the island of Newfoundland.
Scattered references in English and French historical records suggest that during the 17th century
(1600-1700), Mi'kmaq families hunted, fished, and trapped from Newfoundland's southwest coast
to Placentia Bay. Travelling back and forth between Cape Breton and Newfoundland, these Mi'kmaq
incorporated the island of Newfoundland into what one researcher has aptly called a "domain of islands" (Martijn 1989).
The question of the nature of Mi'kmaq relations with the French, with the English, and with the
Beothuks is a contentious one. The French, who long fished off Newfoundland's coasts, were
sporadically at war with the English from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th
century, and it has been argued that French authorities brought the Mi'kmaq over from Cape Breton
as allies in the war with England. This is clearly not the case. The Mi'kmaq who came to
Newfoundland did so of their own accord, and only after their arrival on the island did the French
ask for their assistance. Not surprisingly, Mi'kmaqs had fought for years against English settlers in
It has also been alleged that the French paid a bounty to the Mi'kmaq to collect Beothuk heads. This
charge also does not hold up under close examination. French records reveal no indication of such
a bounty; rather, it is probable that as the Mi'kmaq presence on the island increased, the Beothuks,
as they did with European settlers, avoided the Mi'kmaq. (In this regard it should also be noted that
Mi'kmaq oral tradition includes examples of friendly relations with the Beothuks, including the
belief that the Mi'kmaq provided a haven for refugee Beothuks.)
The question of the nature of Mi'kmaq occupancy of Newfoundland during the 17th and early 18th
centuries is another controversial question. Mi'kmaq oral tradition holds that the Mi'kmaq have
continuously occupied the island since prehistoric times and that this original population was later
joined by a group from Cape Breton. Other authorities argue that Mi'kmaq occupation of the island
was not permanent until the 1760s (Bartels and Janzen 1990). These authors contend that, while
Mi'kmaq from Cape Breton hunted, fished and trapped in Newfoundland on a seasonal basis from
a very early date, during the 1760s, the "insensitivity and indifference" of the British, combined with
their "resistance to Mi'kmaq demands that a Roman Catholic priest be appointed to serve their spiritual needs" were the most powerful factors influencing a group of Cape Breton Mi'kmaq, led
by Chief Jeannot Pequidalouet, to take up permanent residence in Newfoundland (ibid., 86). Martijn
(1989), however, cautions that we are imposing our own ideas of how and where people lived
centuries ago when we employ terms such as the "Cape Breton Mi'kmaq" or "Newfoundland Mi'kmaq" for early historic Native people. Rather, Martijn argues, the period was a time when a
group of Mi'kmaq sometimes lived and hunted in what we now call Cape Breton and sometimes that
same group exploited the resources of what we now call Newfoundland. Both islands, in other
words, were part of the group's traditional territory. Indeed, given the movement back and forth
between these two islands until the beginning of the 20th century, perhaps this is the best way to
think of the ancestors of today's Newfoundland Mi'kmaq.
For Mi'kmaq everywhere, however, the defeat of the French by the British, and the loss, in 1763,
of all French territory in North America (except for the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off
Newfoundland's south coast) were traumatic experiences. When there were two imperial powers
fighting for control of the continent, the Mi'kmaq were valued--and subsidized--as military allies
of the French. With the loss of those subsidies and the decline of the fur trade in the northeast, the
Mi'kmaq of the Atlantic region faced a grim future. That was particularly true in the
Maritime provinces where British settlers occupied the lands and waters which had once been
Mi'kmaq. For those Mi'kmaq living in Newfoundland, however, the late 18th century and much of
the 19th century was a kind of "Indian summer", a period when the Newfoundland Mi'kmaq were
able to hunt, fish, and trap in the interior of Newfoundland--a region then relatively unknown by
Newfoundlanders of European ancestry.
Mi'kmaq Camp, Sydney, N.S., 1857.
Mi'kmaq families were still
travelling back and forth between Cape Breton and Newfoundland in the middle of
the 19th century.
"Micmac camp. Sydney, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia" photographed by
Paul-Émile Miot in 1857. Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada/coll
With the demise of the Beothuks in the early 19th century, Mi'kmaq trappers and hunters expanded
their range from the southern region of the island to include much of the interior of the main portion
of the island. Mi'kmaq camps were to be found in St. George's Bay and the Codroy River in the
southwest, White Bear Bay and Bay d'Espoir on the island's south coast, and Bonavista Bay, Gander
Bay, and the Bay of Exploits in the northeast. In 1857, Newfoundland census takers recorded
Mi'kmaq families in St. George's Bay, Codroy River, Grandy's Brook (on the south coast), Conne
River, Bay d'Espoir, and in the Bay of Exploits.
At the beginning of the 19th century, a British naval officer indicated a Mi'kmaq village of about
100 people in Bay St. George, and by the 1830s, Newfoundland missionaries were referring to a
Mi'kmaq village in Conne River of about the same size. It is possible that the number of Mi'kmaq
living in Newfoundland at any one time in the 19th century was about 150 to 200 people, but
population figures for Native people in this era must be regarded with caution. It is not at all clear
that European observers took into account the fact that families moved seasonally between home
villages, hunting territories, fish camps, and traplines. Census-takers, too, were not always reliable,
nor is it likely that they could always win the trust of Native informants.
Newfoundland Mi'kmaqs ranged throughout the interior of the island, trapping beaver, otter, fox,
lynx and muskrat which they exchanged for guns, knives, flour, tobacco, and other things which they
could not make. Although families laid claim to specific trapping territories, hunting for meat,
especially caribou (an essential part of Mi'kmaq diet), was open to all.
Although the major portion of the Mi'kmaq food supply consisted of the fish and game of the
country, and the bulk of the people's income came from trapping, other activities were also
important. For example, the Mi'kmaq's intimate knowledge of the interior meant that they were in
great demand as guides for explorers and sportsmen. William Cormack's 1822 expedition across
Newfoundland to search for the remnants of the Beothuks has been lauded as the first traverse of the
island by a white man, but it could not have been done without his guide, a Mi'kmaq named
Sylvester Joe. Significantly, the two encountered Indians in the interior several times during their
journey. After Cormack, missionaries such as Edward Wix, geologists such as J.B. Jukes, Alexander
Murray and James P. Howley, and sportsmen and naturalists like the noted J.G. Millais, all relied
upon Mi'kmaq guides.
Joe Jeddore, a Mi'kmaq guide.
From J. G. Millais, Newfoundland and its Untrodden Ways
(London: Longmans, Green, 1907) facing 202.
Mi'kmaq knowledge of the country served them in other ways, as well. In the 1850s the colonial
government hired Mi'kmaq guides to survey a route for a telegraph line which was to run the length
of the island from St. John's to Port aux Basques. After the line was completed in 1856, Mi'kmaqs
were retained as repairmen. Because Newfoundland's ice-bound northern coasts prevented delivery
of the mail in winter, the government decided in the 1860s to hire Mi'kmaq men to deliver the mail
overland through a network of trails reaching the northern communities. In the 19th century the
interior of the island was essentially a Mi'kmaq preserve and nothing illustrates this better than the
decision by governments, geologists and sportsmen to rely on Mi'kmaqs to lead them through
That situation, however, would change with a growing population of European descent and with
greater intrusion by this larger society into the interior. Perhaps the greatest threat to the Mi'kmaq
way of life was the completion of a railway across the island in 1898. Now, for the first time, it was
possible for large numbers of settlers and sportsmen to have quick access to the huge interior caribou
herds. By all accounts the slaughter was appalling. Population figures for the caribou stocks can
only be approximations, but it is estimated that the herds fell from 200,000-300,000 in 1900 to near
extinction by 1930. The effect on the Mi'kmaq was catastrophic. Caribou meat had always been
a mainstay of the Mi'kmaq diet, and with the decline of the herds it became much more difficult for
families to live in the interior and to follow traplines. As a result, the 20th century brought new
challenges and new hardships for the island's Native people.
By the beginning of this century, the woods and barrens of the interior were becoming more
crowded. Where once only Mi'kmaq had travelled, now there were settlers hunting, trapping, and
fishing for salmon, and sportsmen and market hunters taking an increasing toll of the declining
caribou herds. In 1905, the Newfoundland government gave the Anglo-Newfoundland Development
Corporation a huge amount of land in the interior and a site on the Exploits River (Grand Falls)
where the company built a large, modern mill. Logging crews not only cut over the country, they
also accelerated the destruction of the caribou by killing them for meat.
Reuben Lewis, a Mi'kmaq leader in the early 20th century, with
Souliann and Ben Stride.
From J. G. Millais, Newfoundland and its Untrodden Ways
(London: Longmans, Green, 1907) facing 213.
Mi'kmaq culture as well as their economy came under attack in the first half of the 20th century.
The Mi'kmaq had been Roman Catholics since the end of the 17th century and Newfoundland's
Mi'kmaq had maintained their ties with the church through visits to French priests in St. Pierre, off
Newfoundland's south coast, and to Cape Breton, especially for the July 26th feast of St. Anne. It
is probable that as long as contacts between the church and the Mi'kmaq were brief and seasonal,
the impact upon day-to-day life would not be traumatic. Things would change, however, with the
arrival in the early 20th century of a priest at St. Alban's, near Conne River. His attempts to
eradicate "pagan" beliefs and practises, his high-handed dismissal of a Conne River leader, and his
attempts to ban the use of Mi'kmaq created a resentment that persists in the community today.
Perhaps even more destructive to the Mi'kmaq way of life, however, was the decline of the world
market for furs. A downward spiral of fur prices began in the 1920s and accelerated in the world
depression of the 1930s. Although some Mi'kmaq were able to find work as loggers in the 1930s,
the period was one of real hardship for most. World War II, however, brought a measure of
improvement for some Mi'kmaq, as it did for many other Newfoundlanders. Some men joined the
Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit as loggers, while others took jobs with the Bowater's
pulpwood operations working in the Conne River area.
Nonetheless, in the 1950s and 1960s the living standard of Conne River appears to have fallen below
that of their neighbours. While no one actually starved, in 1958, as one authority noted, "only 30 per cent [of Conne River's people] were functionally literate" (Jackson 1993:168). Newfoundland's
Mi'kmaq received no federal benefits during this period because, when Newfoundland joined
Canada in 1949, the Mi'kmaq were not recognized as "status" Indians. In the 1960s and 1970s,
however, Newfoundland Mi'kmaq were a part of a general movement by Aboriginal peoples
throughout North America to reclaim their rights as First Nations. This might have been expected
since the Newfoundland Mi'kmaq were experiencing some of the same difficulties encountered by
Native people elsewhere. For example, older Mi'kmaq today from the west coast recount how their
neighbours stigmatized them as "Jackatars", and how some people hid their Native ancestry for fear
of ridicule. In Conne River, the flooding resulting from the massive Bay d'Espoir hydroelectric
project and the construction of new roads to the south coast further depleted the caribou hunting and
fur trapping of the region. Partly in response to these factors, the people of Conne River elected a
chief and band council in 1972; a year later Mi'kmaq from the entire province came together in an
organization called The Federation of Newfoundland Indians, the purpose of which was to achieve
recognition by the Federal government. In the 1970s, the Innu and Inuit split from the Federation
to form their own organizations. While the Conne River community achieved federal status under
the Indian Act in 1984, the quest for federal recognition for Mi'kmaq outside Conne River continues.
© 1998, Ralph T. Pastore
Archaeology Unit & History Department
Memorial University of Newfoundland