Massacre Island [Quebec] | Where Legend & History Collide

The collision of legend and history, and how this interaction can change our understanding of the past, has been of great interest to us as we research early Canadian history. In fact, this dynamic duo recently cropped up as we examined stories in Atlantic Canada, particularly in Quebec along the St. Lawrence River. This exploration led us to investigate the relationship between the St. Lawrence Iroquois/Kwedech and the Mi’kmaq, a legend that described them as fierce enemies, the impact early European contact [Jacques Cartier] had on this relationship and how the dynamics of this legend informs our understanding of the past. We quickly discovered that there was more at play within these relationships and legend than once met the eye.

Who were the Subjects of this Legend?

This legend revolves around two groups, the Mi’kmaq and St. Lawrence Iroquois. We have been particularly interested in the St. Lawrence Iroquois, especially when it comes to – the Kwedech. The story of the Kwedech still leaving us with more questions than answers. They have often been described as legendary and mysterious. From the few records that exist, we know that the Kwedech were most likely the St. Lawrence Iroquois or a group within this culture, and that they were the very people that Jacques Cartier first encountered as he sailed into Gaspé Bay in 1534. Unlike the Mi’kmaq, the Kwedech were an agricultural people who lived a more sedentary way of life along the St. Lawrence River estuary, the Gaspé Peninsula and the boundary of the Restigouche River.

On the other hand, the Mi’kmaq are the most easterly of the Algonquian peoples, their territories were expansive, including much of today’s Atlantic region of Canada and parts of Maine. They were a semi-nomadic people, adapting to the seasons, moving as the weather shifted to better access vital resources, including, for some northerly groups, the St. Lawrence River. For the Mi’kmaq, from early spring to December, the St. Lawrence was an invaluable resource to fish and hunt waterfowl and seals, but in the winter, their people would move inland, dispersing into smaller groups to hunt game. This nomadic existence, following food and resources, and the proximity of the Mi’kmaq and St. Lawrence Iroquois/Kwedech meant that these groups came into regular contact with one another.

The St. Lawrence Iroquois/Kwedech and Mi’kmaq could be described as – reluctant neighbours. This proximity making for a complex set of circumstances. A strong folk tradition of their volatile relationship enduring, describing numerous battles (including ritualized conflict) and ultimately the end of a people.

Where did this Legend take Place?

In researching this relationship between these Indigenous groups, we caught wind of a legend that had taken place in what is now the National Parc du Bic, in eastern Quebec – particularly on an island in the St. Lawrence called, Île du Massacre (Massacre Island). Iroquoian and Algonquian (Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik for the purposes of this legend) groups were plentiful in this region before the 16th century. They hunted, fished and eventually traded with European vessels, but by the 17th century, European fishing vessels rarely, if ever, saw the Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik here. What was considered a vital supply of resources for Indigenous groups of this region would shift in value under the weight of European encroachment, to be focused on profit and as a strategic base. For Europeans this area would mostly be known for its fishing, fur trading, speculation, logging industry and as a “communications base,” port and meeting point during various conflicts.

The Legend of Massacre Island

And, while this region was significant in a number of different ways, to a number of peoples throughout time, to the Indigenous groups who lived and subsisted here, it held a lot of significance. Legend speaks of a large, roughly 200 person Mi’kmaq fishing and hunting party, camped out in the vicinity of Bic sometime around the 1500s (with a number of accounts suggesting specifically 1533). Coming together before the winter months was a tradition and they would spend some weeks gathered in a village setting, before dispersing for the season. While here, scouts brought news that an Iroquois party was on their way with at least a hundred warriors (some sources saying that the Iroquois far outnumbered the Mi’kmaq).

The Mi’kmaq had to think quickly, sending off a few of their most vulnerable towards help in a nearby Wolostoqiyik camp. In the meantime, those left behind would use a large cave on a nearby island to shield and conceal the camp’s remaining vulnerable members who could not flee. They would make the most of the protection provided by the cave and this island’s unique, drawbridge-like feature, a land bridge that would come and go with the tides. For added protection, they blockaded the cave’s entrance with branches, felled trees, paddles, fishing rods and wigwam poles, even reinforcing areas with stones, sand, furs and even provisions, hoping that the rising tide and their makeshift fortification would be enough to protect those inside – and it did for a time.

Men, women and children were packed tightly together in this cave, staying as quiet as possible, while Mi’kmaq warriors defended their position along this island’s shores. The Mi’kmaq held the superior ground, because of the land bridge, wooded high-ground and steep shores, they had the upper-hand, while the Iroquois would have to reveal their positions, going out, into the open, on soft, shifting sands, attacking, while being funneled onto a narrow strip of exposed beach. These factors helped the Mi’kmaq successfully repel the Iroquois’ first attack. So, as the tide rose, the Iroquois retreated, deciding to wait for the next low tide, in order to rest, recover and look for their next opportunity to strike.

At this point, both sides had suffered casualties and were exhausted. But the Mi’kmaq were said to have been at a serious disadvantage, having few remaining, healthy warriors. Perhaps with this knowledge or intuition, the Iroquois attacked even more aggressively for a second time. But, again, the Mi’kmaq managed to push them back. And, again, the Iroquois retreated to regroup, with both sides further weakened by loss and wounded members.

After having defended their position twice, the Mi’kmaq were now too few and too exhausted. They now knew that the help they had sent for would not arrive in time to save them and their ranks were much too weakened to succeed without them. As the tide receded once more, revealing the land bridge to the Island, the Iroquois, with torches in hand, moved with purpose quickly and directly for the cave, setting fire to the makeshift palisade wall covering the cave’s entrance. The smoke, either suffocated or forced the remaining, hiding Mi’kmaq to flee, which is when the final massacre occurred. According to legend, only 5 out of at least 200 Mi’kmaq escaped, which is why today this island is known as – Massacre Island.

Alternate Tellings of this Legend

This is the most frequently relayed version of this legend, rooted deeply in oral tradition among the area’s original and current inhabitants. But, in 1535, European explorer, Jacques Cartier would record details of a very similar event, based on an account given to him by Chief Donnacona of the St. Lawrence Iroquois. And this is where the collision of legend and historical documentation occurs. While the most prolific narrative of this story focuses on the idea of the Iroquois as the aggressors and the Mi’kmaq as the defeated, within the context of Cartier’s retelling, there seems to be a role reversal, where the Mi’kmaq are described as the attackers and the Iroquois as the victims. So, let’s take a look at the version of events documented by Cartier, based on Chief Donnacona’s recounting (Hoffman, 1955):

…Donnacona showed the Captain the scalps of five Indians, stretched on hoops like parchment, and told us they were Toudamans from the south, who waged war continually against his people. He informed us also that two years previously these Toudamans had come and attacked them in that very river, on an island which lies opposite to the Saguenay, where they were spending the night on their way to Honguedo [Gaspe], being on the war-path against the Toudamans with some two hundred men, women, and children, who were surprised when asleep in a fort they had thrown up, to which the Toudamans set fire round about and slew them all as they rushed out, except five who made their escape. Of this defeat they still continued to complain bitterly, making clear to us that they would have vengeance for the same…

To unpack the above quote, in this version of events, Chief Donnacona is described as telling Cartier how the Toudamans from the south (thought to refer to the Mi’kmaq, or at least include the Mi’kmaq) were continually waging war on the St. Lawrence Iroquois. As evidence to this, he describes details of a particular incursion where the Toudamans came to attack the Iroquois, who were resting over night on what is described as Massacre Island. In this case, as they slept, the Toudamans set their fort on fire and as the Iroquois tried to escape, they were killed. While this version of events is certainly less discussed colloquially, it presents a compelling alternative narrative of this legend.

Keeping these two versions of the legend of Massacre Island in mind, each account of this story actually could have been advantageous for the various players involved. And, when considering these various retellings, it is important to remember the adage – history is written by the conquerors. Whether the conquerors were the French, who we have our original written documentation of this information from and whose alliances could have been manipulated based on the telling of this story; the St. Lawrence Iroquois/Kwedech, who supposedly told this story to the French and who could have had ulterior political motives in how it was portrayed; or the Mi’kmaq, who despite what is often described as their defeat, would not disappear as the Kwedech would in the coming years. Outside of this concept, maybe this legend was simply communicated with incorrect details throughout time or was more of an illustrative lesson of a volatile relationship. No matter the circumstance, this is a story about the importance of legends to history and how they shape our understanding of the past, either in its reality or the way it has been propagated to us, which is important in its own right.

In Conclusion

And, though there may have been physical evidence of this legend at one point in time, it would eventually be erased. In the very early 1900s, the Minister of Public Works decided that a wharf should be built in Bic Harbour. While several locations were at first considered, in the end, the northeastern end of Massacre Island was chosen. It was decided that the stone in this area, where the infamous cave stood, would be dynamited to provide the building material for this new wharf. This demolition was completed and with it, any traces of evidence to support or disprove the validity of the various tellings of this legend would too be destroyed. But, within a year or two of completion, this new wharf, made with the material from this legendary cave, washed out to sea…much like the physical evidence of this legend may have. Today, to preserve what remains of this island, it is protected as an annex of Bic National Park.

Whether a version of this story along the St. Lawrence is completely accurate or not, it exemplifies the reality of the deep conflict between the Mi’kmaq and St. Lawrence Iroquois/Kwedech. Providing insight into a relationship that was complex and an Indigenous group that would eventually disappear as a distinct cultural entity, their people being absorbed into other groups. This legend proving to be an invaluable historical resource in understanding early contact life along the St. Lawrence.

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