History of the Miramichi River

Native Peoples of the Miramichi
The Aboriginals of New Brunswick belong to the Algonquin Indian family. There are three tribes: Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Mi’Kmaq. The Maliseet tribe lived in Western New Brunswick along the Saint John River. The Passamaquoddy Indians lived in Southern New Brunswick around Passamaquoddy Bay. The Mi’Kmaq tribe lived along the Eastern shore of New Brunswick including the Miramichi.

For many years the Mi’Kmaqs lived as nomads; nomads are individuals who do not stay in one place. They followed the fish along the seashore for most of the year. The Mi’Kmaqs called the Miramichi “Lustagoocheehk” which means “godly little river”. Other rivers in the area also have Mi’Kmaq names such as the Napan, the Kouchibouguac, and the Tabusintac.

Story telling was a well-liked pastime of the Mi’Kmaqs. Their best known stories were about Glooscap. He looked like an Aboriginal, but was much bigger and stronger; he was a kind of God. Aboringinal history has it that one day Glooscap left his people, never to return. Before he left he warned his people that strange white men would come to their land.

Metepenagiag – Red Bank
The traditional name for the community of Red Bank on the Northwest Miramichi River is Metepenagiag (MET-DEH-B’-NAH-GHEE-AGH). About two thousand years ago there was a sizable Mi’Kmaq population spending the warm weather months living in several large Metepenagiag villages. These same sites were occupied earlier but not by such a large group of people.

The principle activity of the people of Red Bank was fishing as evident by the archaeological recoveries that were done in the area. Atlantic salmon and Atlantic sturgeon bones were recovered from the Oxbow campfires and from the hearths of other nearby sites. All the larger Metepenagiag villages including Oxbow were situated at excellent fishing locations.

The Metepenagiag people fashioned their lives around their fishery. Fish was the principle food of the warm weather months and preserved for the winter. In addition to the salmon and the sturgeon, annual runs of smelt, gaspereau, shad, and striped bass were also fished. In winter, Red Bank was the spawning ground for swarms of tom cod and the American eel was present in the muddy bottom of the confluence of the two rivers.

The Metepenagiag people enjoyed one of the best fishing locations within the Miramichi estuary. They were also conveniently situated between the forest and the coast. Resources from both areas were within easy reach. Inland hunting parties traveled only a short distance to find some of the best wintering areas for deer, moose, and caribou. Spring and summer visits to the sea shore saw the people collecting birds eggs and tender beach peas. Fall expeditions to the coastal marshes for migratory bird hunts were conducted from Red Bank with ease.

Early History
Jacques Cartier sailed through the outer waters of Miramichi Bay on his first voyage to America in 1534. In these same waters the fleet of Colonel Murray’s forces anchored in September 1758 while the punitive expedition proceeded up the river to destroy the French and Aboriginal settlements. Passing between the low islands barring the entrance to the inner bay the explorers could see the sandy beaches where the French, for the better part of two centuries, had dried their fish. On Bay du Vin Island an establishment was maintained (about 1644) for collecting furs and peltries. Opposite the Island on the south shore, near what is now called Gardiner’s Point, were the ruins of a French settlement on the mainland, while six miles distant on the opposite side of the bay was Burnt Church. Some twenty-five miles up the river they sailed past the abandoned French Fort on the rocky north side cliffs below which Boishebert had moored his two vessels broadside across the river to meet the threat of Colonel Murray’s expedition, which, however, did not come so far up the river.

Everywhere on the Miramichi the Europeans discovered great stands of timber reaching to the waters edge. The river, with its many branches, offered an abundance of fish. Animal life was plentiful. Nicholas Denys described Canadian Marsh at Chatham Head in the mid-seventieth century:

“On it are found also a great quantity of strawberries and raspberries, and here collects so great a number of Pigeons that it is incredible. I once remained there eight days towards the feast of Saint Jean, during which every morning and evening we saw flocks of them passing, and of these the smallest were of five to six hundred. Some alighted on the meadows, and others opposite upon a point of sand on the other side of the river. They did not remain on the ground more than a quarter of an hour at most, when there came other flocks of them to rest in the same place; the first ones then arose and passed along. I leave you to imagine whether they were not killed in quantities, and eaten in all fashions. If the pigeons plagued us by their abundance, the Salmon gave us even more trouble. So large a quantity of them enters into this river that at night one is unable to sleep, so great is the noise they made in falling upon the water after having thrown or darted themselves into the air.”

* Nicholas Denys, The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America, trans. And ed. By W.F. Ganong, the Champlain Society, Toronto, 1908, p.199.

In 1765 the only fishermen on the Miramichi were a few Mi’Kmaq people with their spears. There was not a house or white settler in the whole river valley with the exception of a few refugee Acadian families; no farms and no large areas of grassland, nothing but a river and mile upon mile of unbroken forest.

On October 31st, 1765, William Davidson and John Cort were granted a block of land of 100,000 acres. It was a five sided block that extended from the east end of Beaubear’s Island westward up both branches of the Miramichi river for thirteen miles. Davidson and Cort did not desire such a large parcel of land but were interested in starting a fishery.

Description of River
The Miramichi River has a maximum axial length of 250 km and drains an area of approximately 14,000 km2. The river has one of the the largest Atlantic salmon runs in Eastern North America. There are two major branches: the Northwest Branch covers about 3,900 km2 and the Southwest Branch about 7,700 km2 of drainage area. The two branches drain into a common estuary and subsequently drain into the Gulf of St. Lawrence at latitude N 47°.