Early Explorers and the Bringing of Christianity to the Mi’kmaq

We are fortunate that quite early on explorers and colonisers began to write things down about the Mi’kmaq which have survived. They are mentioned here and there in various travel accounts from the Fifteenth to the Seventeenth Centuries and from those brief descriptions, such as you read in Verrazano, you get the idea that different groups, Mi’kmaq or not, had quite different personalities and exhibited various forms of behaviour. This was discussed an an earlier blog post.

A French explorer, former soldier and coloniser called Nicolas Denys (1598? – 1688) came to New France, long called Acadia, in 1632 as a coloniser, and indeed he set up settlements in a variety of places. He was extremely impressed by the process of reclaiming tidal salt marshes and turning them into agricultural land of unimaginable productivity. (Many of you might be familiar with the vast Acadian Tantramar Marshes near Sackville, New Brunswick.)

Beausejour and the Tantramar Marshes – Photo by R. Porter, c. 1975

His years in Acadia were marked by bitter struggles with other self-interested colonisers, administrators and adventurers that greatly limited his success. There is a good summary of his time in Acadia in this brief Wiki article.


His greatest contribution however if to be found in his writings which were published by the Champlain Society in 1908. These books are very rare and can only be accessed in big libraries. However, the Nova Scotia Museum in 1979 published a selection of what he had to say about the Mi’kmaq and called it Concerning the ways of the Indians: Their Customs, Dress, Methods Of Hunting And Fishing and their Amusements. When I bought my copy, produced by photocopying, it cost .50 cents. Today, if you can find it on the internet, the same little 30 page booklet costs over $100.00!!! Do not despair though, because a copy is available to read if you go to


You can even print it page by page and obtain a readable copy.



Christianising the Mi’kmaq

Long before the coming of the Europeans the Mi’kmaq had developed a spirituality based on what we now call animism – the belief that all of Nature, animate and inanimate, possessed an intrinsic spirit with which it was possible to communicate. This gave the aboriginals a very close and intense relationship with their surroundings which was based on respect and restraint in its exploitation. Christianity would seek to destroy that, but being a relatively young religion itself, could never hope to eradicate these instincts from the essential make-up of the aboriginals. One may be sure that even after conversion, the guiding spiritual instincts of these people were thousands of years older than the Christian mythology.


The Catholic Project

Catholic priests would have accompanied the Basque fishermen in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and would no doubt have made contact with the local aboriginal population in order to begin missionary work, no matter how limited in scope and time frame.

During the French Period on the Island, from 1720 – 1758, there was a great deal of missionary work on the Island which was directed first at the French Acadian settlers and their superiors and probably at whatever encampments of Mi’kmaq that were in the area of their ministrations. We know that at the time of the Deportation there were churches at Malpeque, Port la Joye, Tracadie, Pointe Prime and Saint Peter’s Harbour. What I don’t have access to at the moment is information about how intensively the work of the French colonial priests was directed at salvation of the Mi’kmaq.

Upon the return to the Island of those Acadians who had one way or another escaped deportation, the Catholic Church began their missionary work with the Mi’kmaq on Lennox Island in 1800. There is an important manuscript called A History of the Roman Catholic Missions of Prince Edward Island Planned to Coincide with Bishop McIntyre’s Jubilee in 1885, assembled by Rev. Alfred E. Burke, who was then Bishop McIntyre’s secretary. Missing sections, such as the Christianising of Lennox Island, were in recent years found by Georges Arsenault, Earle Lockerby and Reg Porter, and added to the material preserved in the Public Archives.

This is the account given of the beginnings of missionary work among the Mi’kmaq:

The first record that we have of Lennox Island as the seat of all Indian Missions is in a letter from Monseigneur Plessis, then Titular Bishop of Canathe and coadjutor of Quebec. It is dated Quebec, 24 June 1801, and is addressed to the Abbé de Calonne, then missionary in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. He says:

“Your excellent project of taking upon yourself the spiritual care of the Magdalen Islands, Malpec and the Indians, whom you hope to collect and settle upon Lennox Island, cannot but meet with the approbation, indeed I  may say, the applause and admiration of your superiors. These Indians are probably descendants of pupils of the late Mr. Maillard, one of the most virtuous and hardworking missionaries that we have in Canada. Doubtless the sooner you carry your design into execution, the better. From the idea I have formed of your talents, I do not think that, at the age of sixty the study of Mic mac will be beyond you”.

When Mgr. Plessis then Bishop of Quebec, visited Prince Edward Island in July 1812, he made mention in his diary of the Indians of Lennox Island, who came over to Malpec to receive the sacraments, and who for confession, addressed themselves to the Abbé Painchaud, as he spoke their language.


The Catholic Church had a foot in before the Protestant missionaries arrived later in the century and appeared to have been so successful in their work that the Parish of Saint Anne was established, and a fine Gothic Revival church built in 1895.

The author of the section on Lennox Island in Burke’s book goes on to describe what life was like there at that time:

After the purchase of the Island and its conveyance to the Indians, it was surveyed throughout by the late Mr. Alexander Anderson of Bedeque, and was found to contain thirteen [hundred] and twenty acres. Independently of the general survey, the different locations for the Indians were laid off at the same time. The Island was found to possess a great variety of soil; rich land ready to yield fine crops, a large deposit of brick clay, gravel beds, marshes on which grew much salt hay and valuable area of fine peat. A great variety of fruits  may be gathered upon Lennox Island, strawberries, raspberries, black and red, gooseberries, blueberries, huckleberries, bush cranberries and choke cherries abound, while out on the sand hills adjacent are found quantities of cranberries and fox berries, and in  some parts the bake apple, peculiar to high latitudes. The woods on the Island is chiefly spruce, but there are some few groves of birch.

Owing to the scarcity of bark, canoes are not used so much as of yore – indeed there are only two or three on the Island and not one remains of the ancient pirogues or dug out logs. The braves own three fine sail boats and several  oyster boats and dories.

The Mic Macs of Prince Edward Island are gradually giving up their nomadic habits, only two families left the reserve last year and there are now thirty two houses on the Island.  Those who have remained steadily upon their farms are, naturally much better off today than those who have wandered hither and thither in search of pastures new.  The reserve at Lennox Island is the largest Indian reserve in the Province; those at Morell and Mount Stewart, containing only two hundred and four and one hundred acres respectfully. These reserves were purchased by the Aboriginal Protection Society in 1870.

Here is the map of Lennox Island taken from Meacham’s 1880 ATLAS of PEI which shows the distribution of settlement on the Island and some indication of the use of the land.


Silas Rand and the Baptist Missionary Work

Silas Tertius Rand (1810-1889) was a Baptist minister who took up the cause of converting the Mi’kmaq to Christianity. He turned his attention to Lennox Island but, to his distress, made little inroads in the Catholic community already established there.

Rand was a remarkable man in many ways, displaying the natural instincts of an ethnologist in studying and recording the ways of the Mi’kmaq. He is believed to be the first to tell the story of Glooscap. He was also a linguist of skill, studying their language, assembling a grammar and producing a dictionary. He translated parts of the Bible into the Mi’kmaq language using the Latin alphabet, unlike the French who had expensively developed a complicated system of symbols to write in MicMac.

In 1850 Rand wrote a fascinating book called A Short History of Facts Relating to the History, Manners, Customs, Language and Literature of the Micmac Tribe of Indians in Nova-Scotia and P. E. Island. It is essential reading for anybody studying these peoples.

Rand – Micmac History, Manners Customs and Literature 1850

There is also a most interesting biography of Rand was written in 1899 called Rand and the Micmacs by Jeremiah S. Clark. It was the first book on the subject published on the Island. It is available in pdf format and I include it here.

Clark – Rand and the Micmacs 1899

In the book, filled with the story of Rand’s struggle, both professionally and as a missionary, there are highly informative passages such as these that give you an idea of how the Mi’kmaq had progressed along the desired path of British Civilisation:

And now what is the condition of things at the present day? Why the whole New Testament, with several books of the old, viz. Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, – In Micmac, and the Gospel of John in Maliseet, the language of the St. John Indians, as they are sometimes called, have been published. Scores of the Indians have learned to read them, hundreds have heard them read; they know everywhere now that there is such a book as the Bible. Scores of copies have been distributed among them, and the priests are powerless to prevent it. Furthermore, numbers have given evidence of having received the truth of the Gospel in the love of it, and by their consistent lives and triumphant deaths, have given proof of the reality of the grace they professed to have received. And mark the change which has taken place in the condition of the tribe in respect to civilization since we began our labours, and as the direct result ot our labours. To what else is all this to be ascribed? Certainly it has not been achieved by the Roman Catholic Church, because it has been achieved in spite of that church. The old dress both of men and women has been discarded, and that of the white people adopted very generally; you can no longer tell an Indian by his dress.

Comfortable houses and all the appearance of civilization [my emphasis], are continually to be met with. Everywhere there is a determination to obtain learning, and to learn the English language. Indian children to some extent attend the English schools which are now open to all, and many adults have mastered the mysteries of reading Micmac, one at least now living, after forty years of age who never went to school at all. I have, within the last three or four years, seen Indians all the way from Tobique, Fredericton, St. John, The Restigouche.

Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton; in all these places I have distributed copies of the Scriptures and of a small volume entitled “A First Reading Book in Micmac and English;” and in all these places I have found intelligent Indians who could read them, and have been most kindly and cordially received and listened to by them, as I read and preached and prayed and sang hymns to them in their own tongue; and I have scarcely met with what deserved the name of opposition.

(Clark p 35)


I can’t help but wonder if this tattered and stained circa 1860 photo of Mi’kmaq people probably at Rocky Point, represents the Catholic and Baptist descriptions of their life without the gloss and sparkle. I have never been able to find any pictures of the neat homes they talk about.

Circa 1860 photo, probably by Henry Cundall.  Reg Porter Collection


The Reality of the Matter

The story of the Mi’kmaq on the Island during the 19th Century is sordid and degrading. It was the earnest hope of many politicians that they would soon succumb to disease and drink and die out so that they would cease to be a tiresome presence and a budgetary and land problem. This did not happen and the Mi’kmaq are still with us, trying, with Federal assistance, and token Provincial support, to make a go of it as a People and as members of the greater Island community.

This article, “Indians and Islanders: The Micmacs in Colonial Prince Edward Island”, by L. F. S. Upton that appeared in Vol. VI, No. 1 Autumn of 1976 in Acadiensis tells a devastating story of Nineteenth Century Island Politics and the Mi’kmaq. To understand the present status quo you need only read this powerful assessment of what transpired during those years. It is devastating and makes you wonder if things can ever improve as far as the Mi’kmaq and their future are concerned.

Upton – Indians and Islanders – The Micmacs in Colonial PEI – Acadiensis

Of everything I have read of the Nineteenth Century condition of the Mi’kmaq peoples, this is the most truthful and the most painful.



Burke, A. E., editor, A History of the Roman Catholic Missions of Prince Edward Island Planned to Coincide with Bishop McIntyre’s Jubilee in 1885, typescript in two versions at the Public Archives, and a complete and restored unpublished illustrated transcription by Reg Porter which will soon be available on this blog in pdf format.

Denny, Alex et al., “Nova Scotia Micmac Aboriginal Rights Position Paper,” The Micmac News, Vol. 5, No. 12A, Sydney, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, 1976.

Denys, Nicolas, Concerning the ways of the Indians: Their Customs, Dress, Methods Of Hunting And Fishing and their Amusements [1672], The Nova Scotia Museum, Halifax, 1979.


Hoffman, Bernard Gilbert, The Historical Ethnography of the Micmac of the Sixteenth And Seventeenth Centuries, PhD Thesis, University of California, 1955. PDF of typescript from the Library of Indian and Northern Affairs, Canada. Scanned June 2012.

Tuck, James A., Maritime Provinces Prehistory, Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1995

Upton, L/ F. S., “Indians and Islanders: The Micmacs in Colonial Prince Edward Island”, Vol. VI, No. 1 Autumn of Acadiensis, 1976.

Upton – Indians and Islanders – The Micmacs in Colonial PEI – Acadiensis