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A Legendary Man – Chief Membertou

Jan 31, 2017

In 1604, two French ships sailed along the coast of what would become Acadia.  An expedition consisting of a diverse group of adventurers and entrepreneurs were embarking on an adventure that would help shape a country and a culture.

Several years before this historic day, a man by the name of Pierre De Gua des Monts wanted to mount an expedition to the new world to create a colony.  A successful merchant, he was also a Protestant who had fought for  Catholic King Henry in the war and, although did not share a religion with him, was well respected by the crown.  In 1603, King Henry granted des Monts exclusive rights to colonize lands in North America between the 40 degree and 60 degree latitude.  King Henry also granted des Monts the monopoly on the fur trade in all of these territories and named him the Lieutenant General for Acadia and New France.  In return, des Monts promised to bring 60 new colonists per year to grow the crown’s colonies in the New World.

Bust of Pierre Du Gua de Mons in Quebec City by Hamilton MacCarthy.

With rights secured, des Monts went about raising funding for his expedition, starting a small company of backers and recruiting brave adventurers to join him on his journey.  By the time the ships were ready to set sail, he had rounded up 79 settlers, and had other explorers who were willing to brave the wilds to explore the New World.  Amongst them were several men who would become very well known historical figures.  Samuel de Champlain was the Royal Cartographer, and later would establish many of the settlements that helped found New France.  The Baron Jean de Biencourt de Poutrincourt was another member of the expedition, granted permission to join the expedition with an eye to starting settlements, and it was he who obtained the arms and soldiers to defend any settlements that were built.  Also on the expedition was Marc Lescarbot, a very prolific writer who would go on to write some of the most famous chronicles of New France that would be translated in several languages.

After fighting their way through the many challenges they faced on their crossing, the Expedition rounded into Passamaquoddy Bay and landed their ships on the small island they named Île Ste.-Croix on June 26, 1604.  This was not the first time that French settlers had attempted to settled in these areas.  Most of those settlements, established by Jacques Cartier, failed miserably and ended up with the settlers returning to France.  De Gua des Monts and his group were determined to make things work.  They chose the island for it’s defensibility from other Europeans.  European fishing had been heavily done along the coast of this area from the late 1500’s, and they were wary of the possibility of attack – especially by the English.  Unfortunately for the group, they didn’t choose an ideal location to spend the winter.  The island was sandy, not well suited to growing crops.  What farming that was done was done on the mainland, and food and other resources such as firewood and water were transported from the mainland to the island.

Fortunately the Native people of the area would play a key role in ensuring the survival of the expedition and the settlement.  Suffering from scurvy, cut off from resources on the mainland by ice and devastating weather, the settlers only made it through the winter due to the generosity of the Natives bringing game, water and other goods to them.  In this, a relationship was formed between these settlers and the Aboriginal people, including Chief Membertou.

After the horrible winter ended, 35 of the original settlers had succumbed to the horrors of winter.   The decision was made to move the settlement to the mainland to preserve from another such tragedy.  The entire settlement on Île Ste.-Croix was dismantled piece-by-piece and transported across the water to re-assemble on the other side.  The new settlement built was called Port Royal.

Life on the mainland meant even more regular interactions with the Natives, and this is when we learn much more about the enigmatic Chief Membertou.  He greatly impressed everyone that encountered him.   When he interacted with the settlers, they were very shocked to learn that he recalled meeting Jacques Cartier, and to the best they could estimate, he was already close to a hundred years old.    He was described as being much taller than was normal for his people, and this in itself would have made him seem bigger than life.  He was the Grand Chief of the Mi’kmaq situated near the settlement.  Aside from being Grand Chief, he was also the spiritual leader for his people.  They believed him to have strong powers of healing and prophecy.  He was also considered unusual because, even at his advanced age, he had a full head of thick, long hair, and wore a full beard, unlike his counterparts who generally were clean-shaven or had very little facial hair.  Chief Membertou was also monogamous, which was virtually unheard of for men of his standing in the Native community at this time in history.

In modern times, much of what we hear of the history between Aboriginal peoples and European settlers is negative and ends badly for the Aboriginals.  This was not the case at the time of Chief Membertou in dealing with the colonists at Port Royal.  His people were in the superior position of being able to help the settlers, and the settlers, in turn, helped afford some protection to Membertou’s people with their advanced weaponry.  This was a very unstable time for Indigenous people in North America.  The invasion of the Americas by well-armed Europeans had been going on in force for decades.  Several First Nations groups had essentially been wiped out and plundered, with many being sold into slavery overseas.  Membertou would have been well aware of the situation being suffered by other Indigenous Nations, and he would have been motivated to find a way to ensure the survival of his people, both from foreign invaders and from neighbouring tribes.

Over the next few years, the colony continued to do well, and hear more of Membertou’s actions and character.  He is said to have acquired a French shallop (ship or sloop) which he decorated with his own totems, and he used the ship to trade with Europeans out at sea.  Not only was he an imposing man, he was a shrewd one.  He built up his relationships with the settlement, and he was well-respected and appreciated by the settlers.  There are stories that when Membertou came to visit at Port Royal, which he did often, he was given full honours due a foreign dignitary or leader.  Surely he enjoyed all the pomp and celebration when he came to visit his friends for a nice meal and an evening of laughter. Membertou created an especially close relationship with Poutrincourt, one that would last until his own death.

In 1607, des Monts received word that his trade monopoly in the New World was being revoked by the King. Jealous merchants who were not able to profit from the arrangement were exerting immense pressure to have the monopoly revoked, using religious reasons as an excuse.  Forced with the need to return to France and beg for a reversal of the decision, he took all but a few men with him and asked Chief Membertou to take care of Port Royal in his absence.  Des Monts had been charged with creating a Catholic colony, and his lack of focus on the conversion of the Natives had lost him his mandate.  Not wanting to lose the work that had been done, and passionately committed to creating a successful colony in the New World, Jean de Biencourt de Poutrincourt picked up the mantle and secured funding in 1609.  In order to secure this funding, he had to make a commitment to put more focus on Christian conversions of Natives to Catholicism, and was forced to allow the priests and Jesuits to accompany him back to continue his mission.  In 1610, he returned to Port Royal, finding it in excellent condition under the care of Chief Membertou and his people.

Jesse Fleche, a secular priest who had accompanied Poutrincourt to further the Christian mission, then made quick inroads with the Mi’kmaq people.  Shortly after his arrival, Chief Membertou along with 21 members of his immediate family were baptized.  Membertou was given the baptismal name of “Henry” in honour of the King, thereby officially converting to Christianity.  This act forged the beginning of a very important relationship between the Mi’kmaq and the Church.  The Concordat (or Treaty) of 1610 was recorded on a great wampum belt, the most common way to catalogue such treaties in Native Nations at the time.  It signified a relationship between the Grand Council and the Pope, and the Mi’kmaq people.  This agreement involved the Mi’kmaq people protecting priests and French Catholic settlers, and in turn, the Church granted certain religious authorities to the Mi’kmaq Nation.  It afforded the Mi’kmaq sovereignty, and affirmed the Roman Catholic religion as the “official state religion” of the Mi’kmaq.  This was a good deal for Membertou and his people.  Many European settlers attempted to convert Native peoples, however, the French were not actively pursuing the destruction of Mi’kmaq culture and the assimilation of her people making such an accord more readily acceptable.

Pesamoet, the Grand Captain at the time of Membertou, was instrumental in the creation of the Concordat.  He agreed to go to France with the Jesse Fleche and to live there for a year, learning about the culture and religion.  While in France, he stayed in the castle as a guest of honour, moving amongst the elite of society.  He also observed the deplorable conditions of the lower class, and worried that they would also be coming to the New World.  He saw that the Europeans had a different way of doing things, and it definitely disturbed him.  The Natives had a culture of giving and sharing, it seemed that the Europeans preferred to take and keep from others.  However, Pasamoet also observed that on Sunday, when people were going to Church, they would calm down and act more like his own Mi’kmaq people.  He liked the stories of Jesus, identifying his as a man who shared the morals and ideals of the Mi’kmaq, and he believed that following Jesus would be no different than what his people already believed.  He made the decision to enter the Concordat with the option for his people to have some choice to be a Catholic, a traditional Mi’kmaq, or both.  Bringing this knowledge back to Port Royal and his own people, he further solidified their conversation to the Catholic faith.

In 1611, the Jesuit Pierre Baird arrived in Port Royal.  His arrival was the result of even more pressure from France for Poutrincourt to ensure Native conversions, and to make good to his debtors to further the Jesuit agenda in the New World.   Father Baird was very impressed with Membertou, and wrote about him, “He was the greatest, most renowned and most formidable savage within the memory of man; of splendid physique, taller and longer-limbed than is usual among them; bearded like a Frenchman, although scarcely any of the others have hair upon their chins; grave and reserved; feeling a proper sense of dignity for his position as a commander.”  Remember, at this time, Membertou was allegedly well over 100 years old.  For him to make such a strong impression on this well-read and well-travelled Jesuit priest speaks to what kind of man Chief Membertour really was.

Shortly after Father Baird’s arrival, Membertou’s second son, Actodin (who had been baptized as Paul), fell deathly ill.  Membertou and his family began traditional funeral rights, expecting that he would not live long.  Father Baird was very upset with this, feeling it was not in accordance with the Catholic faith which Membertou and his family were supposed to have embraced.  He convinced Membertou to release the boy to his care, and after being moved to Jesuit quarters, he suddenly recovered completely.

Membertou himself was suffering from dysentery, and it was getting worse.  Seeing the miraculous recovery of his son while under the care of the Jesuits, he sought out their help.  Father Biard was travelling with Poutrincourt to France, carrying letters and performing his duties there.  Membertou was given the bed of the travelling Father, attended by the Jesuits and also by his wife and daughter.    Either from worry of the spread of illness, or as some stories suggest, the difficulty of handling a man such as Membertou, the Jesuits transferred him to a cabin that was set up for him outside.  Father Biard had returned to Port Royal (without Poutrincourt who was still working on further financing for his growing colony), to find that Membertou’s condition had further worsened.  Father Biard performed the Sacrament of the Sick, and heard Membertou’s confession.

At this point however, the two men who had been friends and generally respectful of each other, had an argument.  Membertou expressed his wishes to be buried with his ancestors, as had been the way of his people for time immemorial.  Poutrincourt, his close friend, had promised that he could do so before he had been baptized.  Father Biard, however, was adamant, and railed against Membertou for wanting to be buried with “pagans who were damned”.  He tried to imply that Membertou was not really a Christian if this was the case.  He threatened him, saying that all of the dead in the Mi’kmaq cemetery would have to be disinterred, and the whole cemetery would have to be blessed before it would be adequate for burial.  Upset, and surely tired of arguing, Membertou finally agreed to Father Biard’s wishes.

Poutrincourt’s son was there at the colony maintaining things for his father and attended Membertou’s beside in his final hours.  Membertou implored his family to maintain their Christian faith.  He obviously remembered with fondness the close friendship he’d fostered with Poutrincourt, and admonished his own children to continue to cherish the relationship.  He is quoted as saying, “I enjoin you to love M. Biencourt just as I have loved M. Poutrincourt, my brother.  You will tell your brothers, Louis and Philip, that I insist that they not quarrel or make trouble for him.  You will love and honour my brother Poutrincourt.  He will be a father for you and you will be his children.”

Biencourt later wrote to his father about Membertou’s passing, sharing Membertou’s regret in not being able to see his dear friend one last time and conveying the events that led up to his passing, and also his words.

2007 Stamp of Chief Membertou: Canada Post

In Father Biard’s own writing, he confirms the final words of Membertou in imploring his people to cooperate with the Biencourts.  Biard had only known him for four months, but he wrote of the mourning of the Jesuits for this man who seemed bigger than life.   He says “They loved him, and were loved by him in return.  He was the greatest, most renowned, and most formidable Aboriginal within the memory of man.” Biencourt made sure that Membertou was honoured in his death and it’s said that his funeral was provided with “honours shown to great Captains and Noblemen in France”.

Not only was Chief Henri Membertou a bastion of wisdom and an instrument of prosperity for his people, but his memory and legacy lives on even today.    In 2007, Canada Post released a stamp commemorating Chief Membertou and his contributions to the foundation of the country.  A Mi’kmaq tribe in Nova Scotia was also named after Membertou and is part of the greater Mi’kmaq Nation, honouring his memory and contributions.   In 2010, the 400th anniversary of the Baptism of Membertou was celebrated as the start of the peaceful relations between the Mi’kmaq people and the nations of Europe.  This historically significant, obviously vibrant and vital man left a legacy and a heritage that few people enjoy.   His legacy lives on not only in the role he played in Canadian history, but in the wonderful men and woman who are fortunate to have him as part of their family lineage.

References for this article can be found here.