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When Europeans arrived in Atlantic Canada five centuries ago, they came across a people who had lived on the land for thousands of years. Occupying areas from Newfoundland down to future Boston, archeological evidence and oral histories would date the Mi’kmaq to the Atlantic area for as long as 10,000 years.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Mi’kmaq would spend the spring and summer on the coast, and then move inland during the fall and winter. Sea and land mammals and shellfish provided much of what the Indigenous needed, from nutrition and tools to dwellings and clothing. The timber in the area allowed them to build canoes and snowshoes and this reliance on the environment created a reverence in their culture for it.
Everything began to change with the arrival of European explorers, fishermen and traders. While there is the legend of Earl Henry Sinclair arriving in Nova Scotia in 1398, staying for a year and leaving, this is purely speculation with nearly no evidence to support it. I did an episode on it, one of my first, which you can find on my website. In 1497, Giovanni Caboto, also known as John Cabot, claimed Cape Breton Island for England, beginning the age of colonization. In the first century of contact, between 1500 and 1600, the Mi’kmaq would lose half their population. Prior to European contact, the Mi’kmaq numbered about 35,000 people. By 1620, that number was down to 4,000. Interestingly, the oral history of the Mi’kmaq said that people would come to their land on floating islands, and that a legendary spirit had travelled across the ocean and found blue-eyed people. The fur traders changed how the Mi’kmaq lived, changing them from a society that focused on hunting and gathering to one focused on trapping and trading furs.
This episode is not about the Mi’kmaq and their history and culture though, but I wanted to give context to the Mi’kmaq people who lived in the area for so long before Europeans. This episode is about the Mi’kmaq War, also known as the Indian War, the Anglo-Micmac War and Father Le Loutre’s War. For six years, the Mi’kmaq and the French fought against the English in Nova Scotia, changing the region forever. There is a lot to this war, but I wanted to focus on the Mi’kmaq part in it for the most part.
The British had captured Port Royal in 1710 as part of the Conquest of Acadia. The British had used Mohawk to track Mi’kmaq and kill them and in 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht is signed, ceding French Acadia to England. The land claims of the Mi’kmaq were completely ignored. The mistreatment of the Mi’kmaq by the English would continue for the next several decades. The British continue to create new settlements and in 1720 the Mi’kmaq begin to harass settlers and traders on the frontier, with several farm animals killed. In November of that year, the British demanded 200 pounds of pelts as payment for damages and four Indigenous hostages as a guarantee of good behaviour. Four hostages are then sent to the English, with the belief they will be released when the 200 pounds of pelts are paid. However, when payment is made the English do not release the hostages. In 1721, the Mi’kmaq and their allies send a letter of ultimatum to the Governor General of New England demanding the release of the prisoner and the withdrawal of the English from new settlements on the Kennebec River. The English respond to this by kidnapping Father Sebastian Rasles of the Jesuits, who had encouraged the Mi’kmaq to resistance the English encroachment on their land. The Wabanaki respond to this by capturing nine families and releasing them all except five men who they saw as compensation for the English kidnappings. All of this will escalate into Father Rasles War, but this episode is not about that, but the war would come to an end in 1728.
The British had agreed not to establish settlements in Nova Scotia without consultation of the Mi’kmaq. Within a few decades, the British completely went back on this treaty.
Around the latter-part of the 1740s, the British made a big effort to settle Protestants in the region, and gain more English control over Nova Scotia and New Brunswick considering the refusal of the Acadians to swear an Oath to the British Crown. This would lead to an armed response from Acadians. The Mi’kmaq, who had seen their numbers plummet since the arrival of Europeans, saw the arrival of 3,229 people in Halifax in the first years of the community as a threat to their land, since that number exceeded their number for the entire region. At the time, there were 2,500 Mi’kmaq and 12,000 Acadians.
The establishment of the Town of Halifax on June 21, 1749 is seen as the beginning of this conflict, as the British soon started to build other settlements. In only a few short years, Halifax, Bedford, Dartmouth, Lunenburg and Lawrencetown were established. A year and a half after establishing Halifax, the British would build fortifications in all the major Acadian communities. The British then demanded that the Acadians swear an unconditional oath to the Crown and on Sept. 18, 1749, 1,000 Acadians signed a document that was delivered to Edward Cornwallis, Governor of Nova Scotia, stating they would leave the country before ever signing an oath. Cornwallis did not care, and he continued to push for the Acadians to not only swear an oath, but to reject the Catholic faith and accept the Protestant Anglican Church. In addition, they had to accept by Oct. 25. This would begin the expulsion of the Acadians, which would result in half of the Acadian population of Nova Scotia being deported, with the British seizing homes, land, and livestock. Children were separated by family, and the long-term effects of this would be the movement of Acadians to other parts of the continent, and to France, as well as to future Louisiana.
Going back a bit, we reach Aug. 19, 1749 and the first conflict of the Mi’kmaq War. It was on that day at Canso, Nova Scotia that William Clapham and his men were attacked by the Mi’kmaq. The Mi’kmaq were able to seize the vessel and took 20 prisoners, 16 of which were returned to the British. A month later Sept. 18, the Mi’kmaq ambushed and killed three British men at Chignecto, losing seven of their own in the brief skirmish.
For the Mi’kmaq, their stake in this battle came from the founding of Halifax, which they felt was a violation of their land rights that they had made under treaty with the British. On Sept. 24, 1749, the Mi’kmaq formally wrote to Governor Cornwallis and proclaimed their ownership of the land and their opposition to the founding of Halifax. Less than a week later, on Sept. 30, the Raid on Dartmouth would occur. A group of 40 Mi’kmaq raided a sawmill at Dartmouth, killing four workers and wounding two. While it may seem at first that the Mi’kmaq attacked six unarmed men, historians believe that the woodcutters were better armed than the Mi’kmaq. The British responded to this with an order on Oct. 2, stating under a proclamation by Governor Cornwallis that:
“All officers civil and military and all his majesty’s subjects or others to annoy, distress, take or destroy the savage commonly called Micmac, wherever they are found.” The proclamation also offered bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq men, and the capture of women and children.
For Cornwallis, the raid was used as justification for a proclamation that he had wanted to put forward for a while. The British party sent out to find the Mi’kmaq would cut off the heads of two Mi’kmaq and scalp one.
Two companies of rangers were raised led by Captain Francis Bartelo and Captain William Clapham, and they moved through the land looking for Mi’kmaq. It should be noted that the following year, Cornwallis increased the bounty and at it is known at least three youth were killed in 1752 under this bounty, and one scalp was taken.
On Nov. 27, 1749, 300 Mi’kmaq, along with Maliseet and 11 Acadians began the siege of Grande Pre. The fort was commanded by John Handfield and the Indigenous and Acadian militia were able to kill the guards who began shooting at them. They then took Lt. John Hamilton hostage, along with 18 soldiers under his command. For the next week, the force kept siege of the fort before breaking off their engagement, taking their prisoners to Chignecto. It would be two years before the prisoners were released after a ransom was paid.
After the winter had passed, Governor Cornwallis would respond to the siege by having the Gorham Rangers march to Windsor to establish a blockhouse at Fort Edward and seize the property of the Acadians who took part in the seize. This march would result in the Battle of St. Croix on March 20, 1750. The Rangers had begun their march two days previous and reached the Acadian Village of Five Houses at the St. Croix River. All the houses were deserted but the Rangers saw Mi’kmaq hiding in bushes on the opposite shore. The Rangers opened fire and before long the Rangers would take refuge in a sawmill and two houses, suffering three wounded men, including Gorham. A request for reinforcements was called for and two days later they arrived, with two field guns, forcing the Mi’kmaq to withdraw. Gorham continued his march to present-day Windsor and forced the Acadians to dismantle their church. Fort Edward was built in place of the church.
On Sept. 3, 1750, Ranger Gorham led 700 men to Chignecto, meeting the Mi’kmaq and Acadians who opposed to landing. A total of 20 British were killed, along with several Mi’kmaq, who were overwhelmed by the invading force of British troops. They retreated, burning their crops and homes in the process.
A month later Chief Etienne Batard and a group of his Mi’kmaq disguised themselves as French officers and called Edward How, a member of the Nova Scotia Council, into a trap. In the trap, How was wounded and died less than a week later.
Also, in October 1750, the first raid on Halifax would occur. The Mi’kmaq would attack the British, taking six prisoner and keeping them for five months. Attacks would occur again in 1751 with two attacks on blockhouses, killing roughly four men in total.
Halifax was not the only major community to be raided multiple times. In July of 1750, the Mi’kmaq killed seven men who were at work in Dartmouth to establish the new community. In August of that year, 353 people arrived from England to settle at Dartmouth and begin the new community. In September, the Mi’kmaq attacked, and five residents were killed. A month later, another eight men were attacked when they were out in the woods, one was killed and seven were taken prisoner. On March 26, 1751, the Mi’kmaq attacked and killed 15, wounding seven and taking another six captives. Two days later, the Mi’kmaq captured two more people. On May 13, 1751, a force was led by the French, consisting of 60 Mi’kmaq and Acadians to attack Dartmouth. A total of 20 settlers were killed and several prisoners were taken. Buildings were destroyed and the British killed six Mi’kmaq warriors. The British would refer to this event as the Dartmouth Massacre.
The London Magazine would state about the attack, and this should be taken with a grain of salt considering the view of the Mi’kmaq by the British and it is likely much of what I mention here may not have happened but it gives a glimpse into the war from that time. It states:
“A letter has been received from Halifax that the Indians in the French interests have perpetrated a most horrible massacre at Dartmouth, across the harbour from Halifax, when they killed, scalped and frightfully mangled several of the soldiery and inhabitants. They spared not even women and children. A baby was found beside its father and mother, all three scalped. The whole place was a scene of butchery, some having their hands cut off and some their insides ripped open, others their brains dashed out.”
Were people killed in Dartmouth? Yes, but was there this level of butchery? In my perspective it is unlikely, and it is more likely things were embellished by the British.
In retaliation, the British sent several armed companies to Chignecto and several French were killed, and hundreds of acres of crops were destroyed by the British. Dartmouth then had a wooden palisade erected around the town. The attacks would also cause the growth of Dartmouth to suffer initially. No new settlers would come to Dartmouth for the next 30 years, and of the 353 initial settlers, half remained in the community two years later. By 1763, only 78 settlers remained in the community.
By 1752, Mi’kmaq attacks increased along the coast near Halifax, which resulted in fishermen staying in port rather than going out. The Mi’kmaq would deal with attacks of their own. In July of 1752, a few New Englanders captured, killed, and scalped two Mi’kmaq girls and a boy near Port La Tour, Nova Scotia. A month later the Mi’kmaq attacked two ships, the Friendship and Dolphin, taking 21 prisoners they were able to ransom. Throughout that summer, the British were suffering in the war, their colony was near bankrupt and Acadians were leaving in droves. The lack of money, along with the loss of three Ranger leaders including Gorham, resulted in the British disbanded the companies and combined the remaining men into one company. On April 21, 1753, with the reduction in Rangers, a resolution was passed requiring all British subjects in Nova Scotia between the age of 16 and 60 to serve in the militia.
On Feb. 21, 1753, nine Mi’kmaq warriors attacked a British vessel at Country Harbour. Along with other Indigenous, they drove the ship to shore and killed two of the British, taking another two captives. A few weeks later, the two British prisoners killed six Mi’kmaq and escaped. In response to the killing the Mi’kmaq, Chief Jean-Baptiste Cope and his Mi’kmaq attacked another British schooner, killing all nine of the British men on board. There was one Acadian who was the pilot of the ship, who the Mi’kmaq took to shore and let go, after which they sank the ship.
Halifax and Dartmouth were attacked throughout 1752 and 1753 by the Mi’kmaq. One man was killed outside Fort Sackville in September 1752, followed by three British being killed near to Halifax in 1753. In Dartmouth, the five families living in the community refused to farm out of fear of leaving their picketed wall. On Oct. 1, 1753, Governor Hobson wrote to the Board of Trade stating, “At Dartmouth there is a small town well picketed in, and a detachment of troops to protect it, but there are not above five families residing in it, as there is no trade or fishing to maintain any inhabitants, and they apprehend danger from the Indians in cultivating any land on the other side of the pickets.”
The British, not apparently realizing that taking land from the Mi’kmaq was a big reason they were being attacked, made plans to establish a settlement called Lunenberg without negotiating with the Indigenous. This was in direct violation to a treaty they had made earlier with the Indigenous. Governor Peregrine Hopson was told that 300 Mi’kmaq were nearby ready to attack upon the arrival of any settlers for the new settlement. In June of that year, 1,400 German and French Protestant settlers arrived, protected by the British Navy and a unit of soldiers, along with a unit of rangers, established the village. Ironically, within six months the residents of that new village rebelled against the British and declared their own republic before the British arrived and restored order and captured the rebellions.
By 1754, some Acadians were choosing to just defect to the British rather than leave the region. That same year, the British established Lawrencetown, again without talking the Indigenous. A large band of Mi’kmaq and Acadians left in late April on a march from Chignecto and arrived in mid-May at Lawrencetown. They began to fire upon the village and four settlers, and two soldiers were killed. By August, the raids were continuing, reaching a point where the settlers could not leave their houses.
Things would begin to turn against the French as the British began attacking ships coming from France to supply the French in the war. By the end of the summer of 1755, the British were in control of much of Nova Scotia and the French had been forced to retreated repeatedly, eventually surrendering Louisbourg. The pushing out of Acadians soon increased, eventually seeing the burning of Chignecto to prevent their return. The Bay of Fundy Campaign would see 12,000 Acadians deported from Nova Scotia over the course of nine years beginning in 1755. During this expulsion, the Mi’kmaq were led by French Officer Deschamps de Boishebert, along with Acadians, in a guerrilla war against the British who were now very much in control. The year 1755 is the end of the Mi’kmaq War but attacks would continue for years afterwards, as part of the French and Indian War, which ran from 1754 to 1763. During this war, the Mi’kmaq would conduct various raids, including killing 13 soldiers at Fort Edward in April 1757, then killing two men and taking two prisoners soon after at Fort Cumberland. Raids of Halifax would also continue but without the French as major allies, they were not able to hold back the growing influx of settlers from England into Nova Scotia.
The Halifax Treaties would be signed between 1760 and 1761, consisting of 11 treaties between the Mi’kmaq and the British, effectively ending the hostilities between the Indigenous of the region and the British. A burying of the hatchet ceremony was held on June 25, 1761 near present-day Spring Garden Road, Halifax.
As can be expected, in a situation that would be repeated over and over again, many of the British commitments were not delivered on, with the most notable one being the guarantee that the Mi’kmaq would have the same rights as other British subjects. The Mi’kmaq honoured their parts of the treaty, which included not molesting British colonists, to use the law courts to resolve conflicts and to have nothing to do with the French. The Halifax Treaties did not stipulate the surrender of Mi’kmaq territory, but it did not return any territory taken by the British or settled on without consent. The Mi’kmaq likely expected that the British would negotiate for land but after the American Revolution, Loyalists began to arrive in huge numbers and the Mi’kmaq attempted to enforce their treaties, sometimes choosing to do so by force, including a battle between the British and the Mi’kmaq in July 1779 when a Mi’kmaq was killed and 16 were taken prisoner. As the Mi’kmaq saw their military power in the region wane and the number of settlers increasing at the start of the 19th century, they made urgent appeals to the British to honour the treaties, which included presents to the Mi’kmaq in order to occupy their land. The British responded with offers of relief but told the Mi’kmaq that they had to give up their way of life and settle on farms, and their children had to be sent into British schools to be educated.
The Mi’kmaq would have settlements into the 20th century, including just outside of Halifax where they had lived for generation. On Dec. 6, 1917, the Halifax Explosion occurred, and a blast wiped out the community of the Mi’kmaq who had lived there. White settler landowners had been trying to remove the Mi’kmaq from their settlement for years and after the explosion, the Mi’kmaq were moved away from the area and the settlement was not rebuilt, allowing it to be taken over by white settlers.
The Mi’kmaq War had long been over, but even in the 20th century and beyond, they were still seeing their land taken from them.
Information comes from Muniskw.org, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, When You are In Halifax,