G’day there!

Welcome to the second week of Mi’kmaq History Month! As you’ll recall, last Wednesday we took a look at the lifestyle of Mi’kmaq people on the Island in the period before European contact. And so today, I thought we’d carry things forward and have a go at the next phase; namely, contact with Europeans. I’ve a feeling that this post could get a bit lengthy, so we’d best get started.

As I previously alluded (both last week, and way, way back in one of my first posts on this site), it is commonly accepted that the first recorded contact between Mi’kmaq on the Island, and Europeans, came in the form of Jacques Cartier in 1534. We’ll have a more in-depth go at that further down; however, I thought I would begin by addressing less conventional contenders to the claim (as briefly as I can), which have developed over the years but for which, to the best of my knowledge, there exists nothing in the way of solid proof.


As archaeological excavations have determined, Norse peoples (Vikings) journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean as early as the 10th century AD. They put in at present-day Newfoundland, and established at least one settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, at the northernmost tip of the province. Discovered in 1960 and named at UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, it ranks as the only confirmed site of Norse settlement in North America (other such sites continue to be investigated).

Since the discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows, first the site, and now the Atlantic Canadian region as a whole, is believed to be the location of “Vinland”, a territory to the west of Greenland that figures prominently in both the Saga of the Greenlanders  and the Saga of Erik the Red. They describe the discovery and attempted settlement of Vinland, an effort that was largely thwarted by a people referred to as Skraelingar, now believed to be an early Inuit group.

Of course, the Vikings were explorers, and many have contended that they ventured beyond their settlement and south into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (and perhaps even further south than that), which could easily have brought them to, among other places, Prince Edward Island. Sadly, however, no physical evidence of such a presence has ever been unearthed here, and this theory, as it pertains to the Island anyway, remains just that.

Prince Henry Sinclair

There seems to be a growing number of people who believe that, 100 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he was beaten to the punch by a Scottish/Norwegian nobleman, the Early of Orkney and Baron of Roslin, Prince Henry Sinclair (St. Clair). Sinclair was born about 1345, and a body of supposed evidence claims that in 1398, he voyaged across the Atlantic and made landfall at Chedabucto Bay in Nova Scotia. Opinions differ as to why he apparently made the journey, with some contending that he was secretly a Templar Knight, or working on their behalf. A narrative of the journey, written a couple of years later by two Italian brothers (Zeno), supposedly describes a number of places that match with certain locations in Nova Scotia, and elsewhere, although its authenticity remains a point of contentious debate.

While a number of academics have dismissed the notion as rubbish, some fringe theorists have taken the whole thing a step further, and postulate that Sinclair was actually Glooscap, who in Mi’kmaq mythology figures prominently as the Creator. It was Glooscap who was said to have given birth to everything (including Prince Edward Island, his pillow), and to have brought the Mi’kmaq, among other things, fire, and the knowledge of good and evil. So did Sinclair venture across the Atlantic? Did he land on the Island? And was he indeed Glooscap incarnate? I won’t say any more on the matter – if you’d like to investigate for yourself, the literature is out there.


Much more rooted in historical fact are the adventures of John Cabot, or Giovanni Caboto. A sailor and explorer of Italian extraction, Cabot was born around the mid 15th century in Genoa. In 1497, he headed an expedition on behalf of the English crown in a bid to discover a western route to Asia. His ship, the Matthew, made landfall on the east coast of North America in June, although the location of said landing varies widely and includes Cape Breton, the Nova Scotian mainland, Newfoundland, and Maine. And, as some have claimed, Prince Edward Island.

Wherever he landed, Cabot claimed what he found for England, and made a return journey (to North America) the next year. The evidence would suggest that this time he was operating on the east coast of Canada. So did he come to the Island, and encounter the Mi’kmaq here? The jury’s still out on that one, although no doubt he would have been a fan of Cabot Beach Provincial Park.


Last but not least, we come to the Basques. Indigenous to southeast Bay of Biscay, in an area that today includes parts of Spain and France, they gained notoriety for their seamanship and fishing ability. It was these two characteristics that, in the early part of the 16th century, brought them into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, along with Portuguese counterparts, for the purpose of fishing and whaling. Their modus operandi  was to set up fishing stations, which they frequented throughout the summer months before taking off before the ice set in for the winter. It was a practice that continued into the early 17th century.

The Basques were known to have encountered the Mi’kmaq – but did they encounter the Mi’kmaq on the Island? It is contended that Basque fisherman established fishing stations here during their time in the Gulf, a notion that seems entirely plausible; but as with the Viking theory, no physical evidence of such activity has been found.

Whew – that was a whirlwind.

What we do know for certain is that the Breton explorer Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) did make contact, and we have the proof to back that up. In the vein of Cabot and Columbus, in 1534 he was dispatched across the Atlantic, under the order of King Francis I of France, to uncover a passage to Asia, in addition to gold and other riches. He found nothing of the sort; but what he did find was Prince Edward Island.

On the evening of either the 29th or 30th of June, Cartier, having sailed deep into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, sighted land. According to his account of the voyage, the next day he sailed in a westerly direction along what would today be the Island’s North Shore. He put in at a number of places, and took careful note of the geography he encountered, summing it up as “the fairest land ’tis possible to see” (a stark contrast to Newfoundland, which he felt was more like “the land God gave Cain”). As he moved west, he eventually came to Malpeque Bay, which is where he describes coming across “Indians” in canoes. It’s difficult to say who was more surprised to see whom, but according to Cartier, these “Indians” got the hell out of dodge. The next day, however, he did attempt to reach out, which amounted to the planting of a stick flying a woollen scarf, with a knife attached to it. Then he upped anchor and sailed off. At some point, Mi’kmaq in the area likely came to check out the strange offering. And that, as far as recorded history goes, marked the beginning of contact on the Island.

So to Cartier goes the honour of “discovering” Prince Edward Island and the Mi’kmaq who resided here. He claimed the whole of it for France and would in fact make two return trips to the Gulf, which would see the exploration of the St. Lawrence River and the attempted establishment of a colony at Quebec; however, he does not appear to have displayed any further interest in exploring the Island. Neither did the French crown. For nearly two hundred years after his “discovery” (186, to be precise), they did nothing with it. Absolutely nothing.

With the coming of the 17th century, Mi’kmaq in other  parts of the Maritimes would have begun to see great changes as the French did begin to actively move into what they named ‘Acadie’ (Acadia), specifically Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. It was a period that also saw the beginnings of what would become an intense tug of war for control of the region between France and Britain. Over on the Island, however, not much changed; in fact, we were largely ignored. There were two trumped up proposals to establish trading and fishing colonies here, one in 1653 by Nicholas Denys, and the other in 1663 by Sieur Francois Doublet. Neither man followed through.

Quelle suprise.

It wasn’t until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which ended hostilities in the War of the Spanish Succession (Queen Anne’s War), that the French crown, its possessions in Acadia largely ceded to the British and reduced to the Island (then Ile St. Jean) and Cape Breton (Ile Royale), began to take us seriously. But don’t be too flattered – it had little other recourse.

The crown’s logic was simple: It now had two islands to its name. Ile Royale was the perfect location for a new stronghold, dubbed Louisbourg; but Ile Royale just wasn’t very fertile, at least not enough to support the fortress. Ile St. Jean, on the other hand, was, and so the French crown began to redirect its efforts. Acadian farmers in British-held territory were encouraged to relocate to the Island, and in 1720 about three hundred were recruited to establish our first permanent European settlement.

From the get-go, Acadians on the Island continued the good relations that had already been established elsewhere with the Mi’kmaq throughout the 17th century, and the two groups were more than content to peacefully coexist. There was trade, alliances, and even intermarriage, and certainly the Acadians benefited from the knowledge of the land gleaned from their aboriginal counterparts. Of course, hindsight tells us that the very presence of the Acadians was disrupting a long-established way of life for the Mi’kmaq; however, as relationships go, it was about as good as could be had, and seems to have been built on mutual respect for one another.

Mi’kmaq relations with the British, however, could not have been more different.

Following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Britian had gained control of a large swath of Acadia; however, the British crown made very little attempt to settle it, and its presence there was so small that many Acadians were able to continue living in the area, unmolested. This changed drastically with the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession, which once again saw Britain face off against France in North America. In 1745, Britain invaded and secured control of Louisbourg, only to return it at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.

The conflict was followed by a period of unease throughout the 1750s, until tensions between the two warring nations flared up again in the Seven Years’ War. This time, Britain was full to the brim with hostile intent and looking to expand its colonial holdings on the North American continent, and to take control once and for all by whatever means necessary. The end result? Victory, and the total cessation of Canada by the French to the British in 1763.

Unlike the French, the British took an immediate interest in the Island (now St. John’s Island), and quickly made plans to colonize it. They had already dealt with a large percentage of the Acadian population by means of expulsion, and may have attempted to eradicate the Mi’kmaq, who’d allied with France, by providing them with small pox-infested blankets, and placing bounties on their heads. For the many Mi’kmaq still on the Island when Britain formally moved in, they suddenly found themselves deprived of their traditional territory, rendered to the status of squatters on land they’d occupied for thousands of years. And then, by and large, the British simply chose to ignore them for the rest of the 18th century, and for much of the 19th. Left to fend for themselves in a world now changing at a terrifying pace, they inevitably began to fall through the cracks.

And that’s where we’ll pick up next week.


PEI History Guy

P.S. – Apologies for the long-winded rambling.

P.P.S. – To those who celebrated it, a belated, but happy, Thanksgiving!