Metepenagiag: New Brunswick’s Oldest Village

The Archaeology

Per square kilometre, Red Bank on the Northwest Miramichi has the most prehistoric archaeological sites anywhere in the Maritimes. Where the Northwest and the Little Southwest Miramichi Rivers meet, there are many, many sites! Old campsites, ranging anywhere from 10 metres to 500 metres (about 30 to 1500 feet) in length, line the river banks near the best fishing pools, where deep channels cut close to the shore, and where the fresh and salt waters meet. Without a great deal of carefully controlled testing, it is sometimes difficult for archaeologists to determine where one campsite ends and another begins. This is especially true for the area of the high terrace between the two rivers.

The majority of Red Bank's ancient villages or campsites were lived on within the last 2500 years. At least three of the villages were very large. While there is little on the present surface to indicate the locations of these former communities, the earth beneath reads like a book. At undisturbed sites layers of charcoal and household debris represent ancient earthen living floors. The sites were often heavily used and contain remains of campfires, many cooking pits and evidence of houses and food drying racks. There are butchering areas and places where tools were made. Artifacts from the old villages include stone arrowheads, scrapers, knives and axes. As well, thousands of stone chips, pieces of clay cooking pots and fire burned rocks are present.

In addition to the villages, archaeological surveys of the higher terraces surrounding Red Bank have turned up over sixty large food storage pits which are at least 1200 years old. These storage cellars, some as deep as two metres (over six feet) and having diameters of four to five metres (12 to 16 feet), were dug into heavy gravel which offered excellent drainage. Archaeology work at one of these cellars suggest that the storage pits were covered with bark or sod roofs. Excavations also suggest that many pits are not visible on today's surface.[…]

From the age, number, size and type of archaeological sites present, it is clear that Red Bank was an important social and cultural center for the ancestors of the Miramichi Micmac. In 1977 the largest and deepest prehistoric village ever found in the Maritimes was discovered. The Oxbow site is on the Little Southwest Miramichi less that one kilometre from the present day community of Red Bank.

The Way of Life

By 2000 years ago there was a sizeable Micmac population spending the warm weather months living in several large Metepenagiag villages. These same sites had been occupied earlier but not by such large groups of people. Changes in the styles of artifacts found at Metepenagiag suggest that from time to time the villagers were influenced by contacts with their neighbours to the southwest. Despite their contacts with other peoples, the everyday lifestyle of the Miramichi Micmac remained basically the same for 2000 years.

The Atlantic salmon and Atlantic sturgeon bones recovered from the Oxbow campfires and from the hearths (fire places) of other nearby sites show us that the principal activity

of the people living at Metepenagiag was fishing. Of the nearly 100 ancient campfires that were excavated at the Oxbow site, only a handful lacked burnt fish bone. From the excavations in the year 1984, only one non-fish bone hearth was excavated! Additionally, all of the larger Metepenagiag villages including Oxbow were situated at excellent fishing locations.

In the days of the ancient Micmac, the Miramichi River must have been alive with fish. In the 17th century Nicolas Denys wrote "If the pigeons bothered us by their large numbers, the salmon give 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 make in falling upon the water after having thrown or darted themselves into the air."

The Metepenagiag people fashioned their lives around their fishery. Fish was the principal food of the warm weather months and fish were preserved for the winter. Extra supplies of dried or smoked fish would have been used in local and regional trading. 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 at 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 travelled 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.

Spring and Summer

During spring and early summer Metepenagiag hummed with activity. Just following or perhaps even during the height of the spring freshet, the people moved from their winter camps to their riverside fishing locations. Men, women and children carried bundles of sleeping robes, bark boxes and other possessions from high terraces to their warm weather homes. As soon as the river was ice free, the salmon, tired and lean from its winter under the ice was taken by spear or scoop net. In late April or early May, older boys scooped thousands of spawn-filled smelt as they ascended the river in swarms. Within a few weeks the women and younger children were gathering fresh spring greens. Boiling pots were filled and refilled with chunks of fresh salmon, fiddleheads and cattail shoots. Roasting fish hung near every campfire and the people delighted in fresh food and the warmth of the new season.

During May while they eagerly awaited the arrival of the sturgeon, the people were very busy. Along with the usual activities of hunting, fishing, gathering and cooking, the entire community was preparing for the arrival of the big fish. New canoes were built and old ones were repaired. Young boys were sent to gather spruce roots for mending. Older boys were taught how to build canoe frames and how to split long wooden strips from cedar poles. In addition to the canoe work, smoke houses were constructed, fish drying racks were erected and fishing gear was overhauled. A large store of wood for the smoking fires was gathered. As the women and girls collected the firewood, the younger ones were taught which types of wood gave the fine flavour to the drying fish and meat. At the same time, a quantity of birch bark was collected for making new storage boxes. Throughout the preparations, old men smoked and remembered the adventures of their youth. For the young children, every day offered some new lesson in life.

In late May or early June the sturgeon would come upriver and serious fishing would begin. An Atlantic sturgeon can provide up to 360 kilograms (near 800 pounds) of tender rich flesh, most suitable for smoking. Sturgeon eggs make excellent eating and a 160 kilogram (near 350 pounds) female can produce up to 40 kilograms (near 90 pounds) of eggs. To successfully capture, land and process the large fish, every member of the Metepenagiag community had certain duties to preform.

Deny's 17th-century description of Micmac sturgeon fishing gives a detailed picture of how the fishery was conducted at Metepenagiag during those early years.

It is taken with a harpoon, which is made like a barbed rod, of eight or ten inches long, pointed at one end with a hole in the other in which is attached a line. Then it is fastened at the end of a pole, so that it may be used as a dart. The fishery is made by night. Two Indians place themselves in a canoe; the one in the front is upright, with a harpoon in his hand, the other is behind to steer, and he holds a torch of birch bark, and allows the canoe to float with the current of the tide. When the sturgeon perceives the fire, he comes and circles all around, turning from one side to the other. As soon as the harpooner sees his belly, he spears it below the scales. The fish feeling himself struck, swims with great fury. The line is attached to the bow of the canoe, which he drags along with the speed of an arrow. It is necessary that the one in the stern shall steer exactlv as the sturgeon goes, or otherwise it will overturn the canoe, as sometimes happens. It can swim well, but with all its strength it does not go with fury more than one hundred fifty or two hundred paces. That being over, the line is drawn in, and it is brought dead against the side of the canoe. Then they pass a cord with a slipknot over the tail, and they draw it thus to land, not being able to take it into the canoe because it is too heavy.

In the middle of the sturgeon fishing the first run of bright Atlantic salmon would arrive. By torch light men speared both salmon and sturgeon. The women gutted the fish and carefully separated the rich caviar (fish eggs). With sharp quartz knives they cut the flesh for immediate cooking or for smoking or drying. When fillets were placed on drying racks, ground wild mustard was sprinkled over the flesh. (Mustard was a popular spice. It was collected and used in many Metepenagiag dishes.) The women and older girls turned the drying fillets every few hours and carefully tended the fuel mix of the smoke fires. When the fillets were ready for storing, they were packed in birch bark boxes. The preserved spring and early summer fish was taken on canoe trips or offered to summer visitors. The Metepenagiag fish was well known for its fine quality and special flavour.[…]

Source: Patricia Allen, "Metepenagiag: New Brunswick's Oldest Village" (Red Bank, Nova Scotia: Red Bank Indian Band, 1991), 15-16, 19, 23-29.

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