Paddling Through History: The Portage Routes of Siknikt/Chignecto

In researching the history of the Tantramar it’s easy to overlook the period before European settlement. From the mid 1600s onward we have a variety of records to help chart the way. But what about the years that went before? The area was inhabited by the Mikmaq for hundreds, more likely thousands of years; yet there is comparatively little material evidence of their occupancy.

This can be explained in part, because of their small population, and further that Mikmaq history was passed on orally. Occasionally a stone artifact, perhaps an arrow head or axe is unearthed; jolting us to the fact that others once lived here. Fortunately, there are additional sources that provide us with an understanding of the Mikmaq heritage.

Visitors frequently comment on the large number of Amerindian place names not only on the Tantramar, but throughout New Brunswick. There is a reason for this. From the earliest days, the French settlers relied on Mikmaq guides to assist in the exploration of what was for them, virgin territory. Quite naturally, the Mikmaq used their own names for rivers and other waterways. These had been passed down over the centuries. The names stuck and soon began appearing in written records and on charts. The Mikmaq were good geographers and in the absence of maps as we know them, they used place names as landmarks. Many of these remain as accurate descriptors of the landscape.

In addition, we are indebted to early missionaries, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, for saving the Mikmaq language. Several have also left behind detailed accounts of Amerindian society. Much of our knowledge of early Mikmaq life and folklore may be traced to the writings of Rev. Silas Rand (1810–1889). In addition,both explorers and traders recorded their impressions of Mikmaq life. The most comprehensive of these accounts is that of Nicolas Denys (1598–1688). Thanks to a revival of interest in Mikmaq language and history; both subjects are now taught in some schools. Accordingly, there is today a heightened awareness of the lost years before European settlement.

By way of example, it has been established that the Mikmaq had a well developed system of local government. The present Maritime Provinces were sub-divided into eight distinct districts. One of these was Siknikt, from which the contemporary place name Chignecto is derived. Its boundaries included present day Albert and Westmorland Counties in New Brunswick and Nova Scotias Cumberland County.

From the standpoint of communication, Siknikt was of considerable importance, as it marked the convergence of several transportation routes; including a link by sea with another Mikmaq District Abegweit, or as we know it, Prince Edward Island. Thanks to the research of Dr. W.F. Ganong we have a map of New Brunswick showing the network of canoe/portage routes that connected all sections of the province. The word portage is of French origin and refers to a trail where canoes and provisions were carried from one waterway to another. Significantly, the word still forms part of over twenty place names scattered throughout New Brunswick.

Fifty years ago, almost to the day, on May 16, 1952, through traffic on what is now Highway 106 (then the main route between Sackville and Moncton) was either held up or encouraged to take an alternate route. The reason was a ceremony scheduled at Frosty Hollow for 3:30 that afternoon. Fortunately, the event was covered by C.W. Moffatt, then editor of this newspaper.

He found the weather to be unusually cold for mid-May a bone chilling wind swept over Frosty Hollow. But this did not prevent a large crowd from gathering to witness the unveiling by the Historic Sites and Monument Board of Canada, of a cairn to mark the site of an early Mikmaq/Acadian portage. Regrettably, the individual most responsible for the event, Dr. J. Clarence Webster, of Shediac, a former chair of the Board was not present. Although he died two years before, the inscription on the memorial tablet was his composition. Alice Lusk Webster, his wife and their son Dr. William Webster were in attendance. This was especially appropriate, as Mrs. Webster shared her husbands keen interest in local history.

Presiding over the ceremony was Rev. Father Clement Cormier, president of St. Joseph’s University in Memramcook. In his remarks, Father Cormier recalled an incident from family history. During the early 1750s, one of his ancestors, Pierre Cormier, then 16 years of age, frequently travelled the ancient portage route between Memramcook and the Acadian village at Weskak (Westcock). The reason for his travels was to court his wife-to-be, Ann Gaudet, who lived at Weskak. He concluded: This memorial will not only link the present and the past, but also serve as a symbol of the cooperation between the Mikmaq, French and English who once quarrelled over this territory and who now live in harmony.

Remarks then followed by Rev. Father Rene Beaudry, professor of History at St. Joseph’s and Dr. D.G.G. Kerr, head of the Department of History at Mount Allison University. Father Beaudry pointed to the happy choice that the two area universities were taking part in the ceremony. He noted that the institutions were located very near the respective ends of the portage route. Father Beaudry stressed the importance of this particular portage as part of a communications link not only for the Mikmaq, but for those who [came after them].

The country that does not recognize its history is left rootless and lost was the keynote of an address by Dr. D.G.G. Kerr. He lauded Dr. J. Clarence Webster for his wisdom in making certain that this important historical site was marked. We are accustomed he continued to seeing sites of famous buildings, fortresses and battlefields so honoured. But what picture is more familiar to us all, from our earliest reading of Canadian history, then that of an Indian moving swiftly along a forest trail, such as this was, carrying his gear and canoe The history of transportation, as exemplified in its earliest stage by this portage, is a most important part of the history of Canada.

The unveiling of the monument then took place. The honour fell appropriately to Dr. Alfred G. Bailey (1905–1997), Professor of History at the University of New Brunswick, and provincial representative on the Historic Sites and Monuments Board. In addition to his being a well known historian, Dr. Bailey was also a noteworthy poet and founder of the Fiddlehead Magazine, one the oldest literary journals in the country. His monumental study on Amerindian society: The Conflict of European and Eastern Algonkian Cultures is still recognized as authoritative.

. The narrow isthmus of Siknikt/Chignecto was of particular significance to the Mikmaq. It was their custom to spend winters in the interior where they could take advantage of forest shelter and the availability of game. In the spring they transferred to encampments nearer the seashore. Travelling by canoe, they utilizied the numerous portages abovementioned.

Of the canoe it has been written: An exquisite example of form and function, {it} is inextricably entwined with Canadas history. The canoe was comparatively simple to construct, but brilliant in design. A frame of wooden ribs was covered by the lightweight bark of the birch. The latter was perfect building material, since it was both waterproof and resilient. The joints were held together by tree roots cut in thin strips and sealed with spruce resin. A canoe was easy to repair; becuase if damaged, raw materials were usually close at hand. So seaworthy were they, that the Mikmaq used canoes to cross both the Bay of Fundy and Northumberland Strait.

Virtually unchanged for thousands of years, the canoe also proved to be ideal for travelling inland rivers such as the Petitcodiac, Memramcook, Tantramar, Missaguash and Aboujagane. Note that the names of these five waterways may be traced to the Mikmaq language. Linking these rivers were many well travelled portages. The example commemorated on May 16, 1952 connected Beaubassin with the Memramcook River.

During the course of French settlement this portage was an essential part of the communications link between the two colonies of New France and Acadia. For well over a century, France and Britain fought for control of the Isthmus that today connects two provinces and prevents mainland Nova Scotia from being an island. A casual glance at the map is sufficient to confirm the strategic importance of this small neck of land.

With the completion of Fortress Louisbourg in 1719, dispatches between Quebec and Louisbourg frequently passed this way. Following the final British conquest, the portage continued in use until the first road linking the Memramcook Valley with the Tantramar was constructed. Later when the Intercolonial Railway was built, it roughly paralleled the route of the portage.

Dr. W. F. Ganong in a paper given before the Royal Society of Canada commented: In facilities for travel [the Mikmaq and Maliseet] were exceptionally fortunate, for New Brunswick is everywhere intersected with rivers readily navigable by canoe. The principal streams of the province head together curiously in pairs and a route may be found in almost any direction.

The ancient portage route memorialized at Frosty Hollow in 1952 was of strategic and economic importance to both the Mikmaq and those who immediately followed them. Thanks to the research and insight of historians such as Dr. J. Clarence Webster and Dr. W.F. Ganong we can in our imagination, paddle through an important chapter in the early history of this region.