A Mi'kmaq Declaration of War?

Pierre Maillard's Letters to Cornwallis and Du Fau, 1749

2016 Joel Zemel

"All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and shortest means to accomplish it."
   - Alexis de Tocqueville

"Man is the highest essence of man, hence with the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence."
   - Karl Marx

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Background: In 1734, a priest named Abbe Pierre-Antoine-Simon Maillard (1710-1762) was dispatched to Quebec by the Foreign Missions in Paris. He subsequently began his work at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island (Ile Royale) in 1735. During the winter of 1737, Maillard managed to master the Mi'kmaq language and perfected a system of hieroglyphics to facilitate transcriptions. He developed formulas for the principal prayers and the responses of the catechism. Similar work had been carried out by Father Chrestien Leclercq at the Gaspe Pininsula in 1691.


Maillard believed his visits to the Mi'qmaq in Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island were too intermittent. He therefore requested a permanent mission at Chapel Island after 1754, just south of his main mission in the south of Bras d'Or Lake. It is here where much of his valuable historical records were written. For a more detailed biography go to the Dictonary of Canadian Biography.

The purpose of my article is to examine, in detail, two letters, most often referred to as the "Declaration de Guerre" or "Declaration of War," written by Father Maillard on behalf of the Mi'kmaq under the leadership of sakmow Thomah Denys. The original was sent to the then governor of Nova Scotia, Edward Cornwallis, in Halifax (23 September 1749), and the other, essentially an aide-memoire, to Abbe Du Fau in Paris (8 October 1749).

I developed this page primarily to present the available evidence and then make a conclusion based on that evidence. I present original documents where possible and not simply make references to them. The page is also a work in progress, therefore, it is a continual state of change. (Click on the thumbnails to see the larger documents.) Please take note that French accents are not present in the body of this html but do appear in the PDFs.

My efforts were also aimed at locating a Mi'kmaq to English translation of Maillard's original letter to Cornwallis. Despite several visits to the Nova Scotia Archives, queries to Cape Breton University, the Nova Scotia Museum, the Treaties & Aboriginal Rights Research organization (TARR), and the Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaqs, as well as discussions with other researchers, this translation has remained elusive.

At the conlusion of this article, I offer my own interpretation/translation (French to English) of Maillard's original letter to Cornwallis.

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An esteemed Mi'kmaq historian has stated to me that the letters to Edward Cornwallis and Abbe Du Fau were indeed meant to express a declaration of war. This notion, handed down through the Mi'kmaq Oral Tradition does not seem readily apparent in the available English translations from the 18th Century French (considered "modern"); which are incomplete at best. I mentioned to my colleague that if it were true that the letter was indeed meant to be a declaration of war, then from the documented evidence available, Abbe Pierre Maillard perhaps failed in his attempt to impart this meaning in French. Maillard refused to teach the Mi'kmaq how to read or write French because he believed they would abuse the language by learning what was evil rather than what was good ("Lettre de M. L'Abbe Maillard sur les Missions de l'Acadie et particulierement sur les Missions Micmaques," Les Soirees Canadiennes: Recueil de Litterature Nationale, III (Quebec, 1863), p. 358). The Mi'kmaq would have put their full trust in Maillard to impart their true intentions to Cornwallis.

When I began my initial research for this page, I attempted to find a translation from the Mi'kmaq version contained in the letter to Du Fau with very little success. I understand that the intent of the letter has been passed down through the Oral Tradition. However, I wanted more than just rhetoric and generalities but a substantive translation that spoke to the overall content of the actual letter itself. An accurate translation of this document to English from the Old Mi'kmaq, a polysynthetic language that is composed of many morphemes, may add some further insight.

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The Letters: After establishing an initial settlement in Halifax in the summer of 1749, it was imperative that Governor Edward Cornwallis make peace with the Native peoples of the province before further colonization could proceed. On 15 August, Governor Cornwallis and members of his Council met with representatives of the Penobscott, Naridgwalk, St. John, Cape Sable and other tribes aboard HMS Beaufort in Halifax Harbour. They agreed to sign a redrafted treaty of 1725 that would be ratified at a later date. The dialogue between them and the treaty itself are displayed below (Selections from the Public Documents of the Province of Nova Scotia, Akins, 1869).


Governor Cornwallis was informed in August that two vessels were attacked by the Indians at Canso whereby "three Englishmen and seven Indians were killed." Council believed the attack had been orchestrated by an Abbe Le Loutre, [the assistant of Abbe Pierre Maillard, a missionary who lived on Chapel Island and was a spiritual leader to the Mi'kmaq.] (Akins, 1869, p. 580) Prior to this incident, the priest had written the following to the minister of marine in France: "As we cannot openly expose the English ventures, I think that we cannot do better than to incite the indians to continue warring on the English; my plan is to persuade the Indians to send word to the English that they will not permit new settlements to be made in Acadia. . . I shall do my best to make it look to the English as if this plan comes from the Indians and that I have no part in it." (The Atlantic Region to Confederation - A History, Eds. Phillip A. Buckner & John G. Reid, 1994 U of T Press Inc., p. 129)

The correspondence (shown below) was written on behalf of Mi'kmaq tribes gathered at Port Toulouse on Cape Breton Island (Isle Royale) by Abbe Pierre Maillard. The letter, dated 23 September 1749, was sent to Governor Edward Cornwallis in Halifax. A copy was included in a 17 October report to Secretary of State Bedford.* This report also included a copy of the scalping proclamation of 1 October 1749.

*From the Canadian Archives, 1894): A letter of the same date (October 17) was written by Cornwallis to Lords of Trade, not identical, although to the same general effect. F. 95, B. T. N. S. vol. 9- The enclosures are the same and marked F. 96 to F. 100, but the plan mentioned in F. 85 (August 20), is additional marked F. 102.

Please note: No serious work has been carried out on these translations for nearly two decades. The reasons why several lines were omitted from these published translations is unknown. The overall texts seem quite literal as they do not flow and, in particular instances, do not make sense. I have written to Stephen Patterson requesting his complete translation but have not received a reply. Leslie F. S. Upton passed away in 1980.

The English translations of the 23 September and 8 October letters presented on this page appear to be from the 18C French and not the Old Mi'kmaq, e.g. use of the phrase "as it were." It is also important to remember that no document with the Mi'kmaq text contained in the original letter to Cornwallis has ever surfaced to my knowledge, and remains the unknown factor. It follows that this particular Mi'kmaq text would differ from that of the Du Fau letter because the record documents clearly show the French word forms Maillard used in the respective letters to be very dissimilar.

The following nearly complete English translation of Maillard's letter to Cornwallis was provided by Stephen Patterson (UNB) for Mi'kmaq Treaties on Trial, History, Land, and Donald Marshall Junior by William C. Wicken (2002, University of Toronto Press) pp. 179-180.

"The place where you are, the place where you live, the place where you are building a fortification, the place where you want now to establish yourself, the place of which you want to make yourself the absolute master, this place belongs to me. I come out of this earth like [a blade of] grass, me, the Indian, I have been born there the son [and] from father to son. This place is my land, I swear it. It is God who has given me this land to be my homeland forever. . .My king and your King together distribute these lands, and it is because of that they are presently at peace, but for me I can neither make alliance or peace with you. Show me where I could, an Indian, withdraw to. As for you, you hunt me down. Show me then where you want me to take refuge. You have taken over almost all of this land, so that the only resource left to me is at Kchibouctouk [Halifax]. Yet you begrudge me even this piece [of land] and you even want to chase me from it. That is what makes me know that you have sworn to not cease to make war on us and to never enter into alliance with us. You are proud of your great numbers. I, who is in very small number, can only count on the God which knows what this is all about. . .I am going very soon to go and see you, yes, I shall certainly see you soon."

The first omission is "je te decouvre d'abord ce qui mon Coeur pense vers toi car il ne se peut que les buvrages que tu fais a Kchibouktouk ne me donnent fortement metiere a reflecher."

The second omission is "un vorm peau rampant fait se defendre quand il dent quon l'attaque; Assurement, moi Sauvage vaux un peu plus quan vormipeau, a plus forte raison dois je savoir me bien defendre quand on m'attaque. Je vais faller voir incessamment oui certes."

The following is an archival description of Maillard's 22 September letter to Cornwallis from the National Archives' Colonial Office records (Report on Canadian Archives, Douglas Brymner, 1894, p. 147) and also offers a summary and partial translation of these two omitted passages:

Enclosed. Letter (in French) ending: "Je te salue. Tous les sauvages de l'lsle Royal et de Malhickonneich 6 jours avant le St. Michel," i. e. 23rd September, 1749. The letter sets out the title of the Indians to the land, for the preservation of which they can trust only in God. Even a worm can defend itself when attacked and the Indians being worth more should also defend themselves. Hope that when they see Cornwallis, he may say something that may lighten their hearts.

Stephen Patterson's source (PRO, CO 217/9:117r-118r, Mi'kmaq to Cornwallis) is the same as the document shown. This record copy, written in French only, did not include the heading "Declaration de Guerre" (Declaration of War). Wicken states in his note 36, p. 272, that the letter was sent on 24 September 1749, five days before the feast of St. Michel (the 29th). The letter to Cornwallis clearly states it was sent "6 jours avant le St. Michel," that is, on the 23rd of September. Maillard's letter to Abbe Du Fau in Paris dated 8 October (shown below), states the declaration was sent "cinq jours avant la St. Michel."** This letter shows the Mi'kmaq text alongside the French translation.

**The word "n'an" [appearing in the Du Fau letter as "nan"] translates as the number five (www.mikmaqonline.org).

The content of the document above was included in a correspondence to Abbe Du Fau, dated 8 October 1749, and sent on the 18th (source: Archives du Seminaire de Quebec). A portion of the letter can be found in Le Canada-Francais 1, 1888, pp. 17-19. This source is referred to by many scholars and contains the heading, "Declaration de Guerre." However, the full content of the Du Fau letter was not published in the 1888 publication e.g. "The Indians are really forced to defend themselves as they can and to prevent the British from becoming entirely the masters of the interior of Acadia." (Biography - Maillard, Pierre - Volume III (1741-1770) - Dictionary of Canadian Biography)

A partial translation of the declaration can be found in Micmacs and Colonists: Indian White Relations in the Maritime Provinces 1713 1867 by Leslie F. S. Upton (1979, UBC Press) pp. 201-202:

"The place where you are, where you are building dwellings, where you are now building a fort, where you want, as it were, to enthrone yourself, this land of which you wish to make yourself now absolute master, this land belongs to me, I have come from it as certainly as the grass, it is the very place of my birth and of my dwelling, this land belongs to me, the Indian, yes I swear, it is God who has given it to me to be my country forever. . .show me where I the Indian will lodge? you drive me out; where do you want me to take refuge? you have taken almost all this land in all its extent. Nothing remains to me except Kchibouktouc. You envy me even this morsel. . .Your residence at Port Royal does not cause me great anger because you see that I have left you there at peace for a long time, but now you force me to speak out by the great theft you have perpetrated against me."

A rough translation of Note 1 on the first page reads as follows:

The text of the summons to which Mi'kmaq chiefs affixed signs of their tribes, was drafted at Port Toulouse, in Cape Breton, and entrusted to a British officer who gave it to the Governor of Halifax. A copy of the summons, with literal translation of the French opposite, was sent as a curiosity by Father Maillard to Father Du Fau, Superior of the Foreign Missions in Paris, in a letter from Louisbourg dated October 8, 1749. This is the copy that is printed here (Abbe H. R. Casgrain).

Although Maillard's letter to Du Fau appears similar to the one sent to Cornwallis, the two letters are by no means identical. This observation is also mentioned by Stephen Patterson in his paper for Acadiensis in 1993, "Indian-White Relations in Nova Scotia, 1749-61: A Study in Political Interaction" (note 16, p. 30).

According to John Grenier, author of The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710-1760 (Campaigns and Commanders Series), (2008, University of Oklahoma Press) p. 249, Note 37, the "Declaration de Guerre" heading was not contained in the original letter to Du Fau, but was added later by a compiler. Mr. Grenier states the following:

"I determined that the heading in the letter was added by a complier because there was no formal declaration of war (which Maillard, as a European, would have known to include if there had been one) included in the letter. Antiquarians regularly chopped and "edited" primary sources, and this is a classic example of them reading something more into a document than the document actually contained. That practice, sad to say, makes it really difficult to use collections like this and The Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York. You have to do a lot of double and triple checking to making sure there hasn't be a "little something extra" added to the materials, and you have to keep the contemporary context in mind."

The Colonial Office copy record of the original letter to Cornwallis contained no declaration of war heading. The text was much shorter in length and written with different language throughout. The letter puts forth many Mi'kmaq concerns to Cornwallis regarding the British colonization of their lands. They asked where they were supposed to go, asserted the land originally belonged to the Mi'kmaq, and that they would defend themselves.

It should be noted that the copies of the original 23 September letter to Cornwallis later sent to England did not contain Maillard's signature. The following final paragraph of the Du Fau letter is not present in the record of the correspondence to Cornwallis:

"Ta residence au Port Royal ne me fait pas grand ombrage, car tu vois que depuis long tems je t'y laisse tranquile. mais presentement tu me forces d'ouvrir la bouche par le vol considerable que tu me fais. J'iray bientot te voir. peut-etre recevras-tu bien ce que je te dirai; si tu m'ecoutes et que tu me parles comme il faut, et que tu executes tes belles paroles, je connoitrai par la que tu ne cherches que le bien, de sorte que toutes choses prendront un net bon tour; je ne t'en dis pas davantage pour ne te pas plus longtems rompre la tete par mes discours."

In the document below, the version on the left is my laymanesque transcription of the official record of the 23 September letter to Cornwallis. On the right, is a transcription of Maillard's 8 October letter to Du Fau. There are obvious and marked differences between the two texts.

As stated, the original document with accompanying tribal signs has never surfaced. This document and the specific content of Abbe Casgrain's note, that is, reference to the affixed signs by the tribes, have never been mentioned in the many published books, academic papers or general materials I have referenced.

On 1 October, "The Council assembled to take into consideration the late Hostilitys committed by Indians of this Province at Canso, Chinecto, & yesterday at the Sawmill upon this Harbour. They were of opinion that to declare War against them would be in some sort to own them a free people, whereas they ought to be looked on as Rebels to His Majesty's Government, or as so many Banditti Ruffians - and treated accordingly." (Akins, 1863, p. 581).

In his 17 October report to the Lords of Trade and Plantations (see below), the governor wrote: "I acquainted you in my last I was apprehensive that the Indians called Micmacks in this Peninsula encouraged and set on by the French would give us trouble as all my accounts from Cape Breton denoted it, and more that they would attack the settlement - these Micmacks include the Cape Sable, St. John's Island, Cape Breton and all inhabiting the Peninsula. De Lutre a Priest sent over from France as Missionary to the Micmacks is with them, a-good-for-nothing scoundrel as ever lived . . . The resolution of the Council I send you will show what part has been taken to bring these rascals to reason, which I hope you will approve without which there will be no living." (Akins, pp. 591-593)


Council minutes & scalping proclamation (above left image) and provincial record (2nd from left). Both 17 October letters from Cornwallis are contained in the above pages from the provincial records (3rd from left). Click the image on the right for the archival description of these letters (above right, Brymner, 1894).

The letter from Maillard was the Mi'kmaq response to the expropriation of their lands by the British which they viewed as a clear violation of the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1725. However, the missive only managed to fortify Cornwallis' negative predisposition towards the Mi'kmaq and his belief that the French were behind the recent attacks. This correspondence, compounded with the attack and seizure at Canso in August of a sloop from Boston that resulted in 3 British killed and 20 prisoners taken, a subsequent attack on two vessels at Chignecto, and the the 30 September attack at a sawmill in Dartmouth that ended with four men killed and another taken away, only served to exacerbate an already fluid and extremely volatile situation.

Conclusion: It should be obvious to anyone who researches this subject that the syndrome of kill or be killed existed on both sides. Atrocities were committed by both sides. One thing is clear: it was the English who desired to subjugate the indigenous peoples of Nova Scotia and the Mi'kmaq, in turn, who fought for their very survival.

There has been a long-standing debate as to whether Maillard's 23 September 1749 letter to Cornwallis constituted a declaration of war by the Mi'kmaq. Though some may prefer to believe the letter was not a declaration of war, this notion is rendered moot by one simple statement in the letter from Whitehall shown below. Whether the heading "Declaration de Guerre" was present on any document is also made irrelevant.

This letter (CO/218/3, p. 174-175, NSA), dated 19 December 1749, was sent from the Board of Trade and Plantations (Dunk et al) to the Secretary of State, the Duke of Bedford - authorities at the highest levels of British Government - regarding Cornwallis' letter of 17 October. In the opening paragraph it states:

"A letter from the Honble. Edward Cornwallis. . .acquainting us, amongst other things, with the hostilities committed by the Micmac Indians headed by one De Loutre, a French priest, and enclosing the Declaration of War and the Resolution by His Majesty's Council, thereupon, and the Proclamation published by Him. . ."

Although my Mi'kmaq colleague and I arrived at our conclusions regarding this aspect and the letter's intent - assuredly, via different means and experience - they are the same nonetheless. Despite confusion caused by contradictory historical records and/or mixed perceptions by both Anglo and Mi'kmaq scholars and the public in general, this fact remains: the letter written by Abbe Pierre Maillard on behalf of the Mi'kmaq, dated 23 September 1749, and sent to Governor Edward Cornwallis in Halifax, was perceived by the English as a threat to its sovereignty; although it is unfortunate that the last line of the letter suggesting a meeting between the Mi'kmaq and Cornwallis was ignored. Even though there is no real evidence to suggest that the letter to Cornwallis contained the oft-cited last paragraph of the letter to Du Fau: "Ta residence au Port Royal. . .la tete par mes discours," the text was provocative enough without it to have been perceived by the English recipients as no less than a Mi'kmaq Declaration of War.

Even without an English translation from the Old Mi'kmaq of Maillard's original letter, Dunk's correspondence to Bedford clearly shows that Pierre Maillard was successful in conveying the Mi'kmaq concerns and intentions to Governor Cornwallis. Therefore, if only for the fact that Whitehall itself thought of, referred to and documented the letter as a Declaration of War by the Mi'kmaq, there is no reason to view it otherwise.

In closing, I wish to present my layman's French to English translation of the letter from the Mi'kmaq to Cornwallis with advice from Dr. William Barker, Former Professor of English, Dalhousie University and University of King's College. The phrase "have sprung from this land" suggested by Bernie Francis, Mi'kmaq Linguist (private correspondence):

My Lord

The place where you are, the place where you now reside, the place where you make a fortification, the place where you wish presently to establish yourself, the place that you wish absolutely to make yourself the master, this place is mine. I the Indian have sprung from this land (like the grass). I was born there (from father to son). This place is my land, I swear. It is God who gave me this land to be my country forever.

I will reveal to you what my heart thinks about you, for the actions which you have undertaken at Kchibouktouk give me much pause. My king and your King between them have made a distribution of these lands, and it is because of that they are presently at peace, but for me I can make neither alliance nor peace with you. Show me where I, an Indian, might withdraw. You, you pursue me - show me then where you want me to take refuge. You have taken over almost all of this land, so that the only resource left to me is at Chibouctouk. Yet you begrudge me even this scrap, and you want to drive me from it. That is what makes me see that you yourself will engage with me, not cease to make war and never to make an alliance between us.

You are proud of your great numbers, but as for me, I have very few. I can do no more than to trust in God who knows what is happening. A crawling worm defends itself when it senses an attack. Assuredly, I, an Indian, am worth somewhat more than a worm, and thus with greater reason must I know to defend myself when I am attacked.

Yes, certainly I am going to go see you, soon I will see you, and hope that what I hear will to some degree lighten my heart.

I greet you ~

All the Indians of Isle Royale and Malkukonneich at Port Toulouse, 6 days before St Michael's Day ~

With the exception of Maillard's letter to Du Fau, all of the visual historical records on this page are available to the public at the Nova Scotia Archives.

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Appendix: From An Account of the Customs and Manners of the Micmakis and Maricheets Savage Nations etc. by Abbe Pierre Maillard (1758, London), pp. 68-69 (commentary written by a compiler after the fact is omitted):

"The same year, 1745, several bodies of the savages, deceased, and buried at Port Tholouze, were dug up again by the Bostoners, and thrown into the fire. The burying-place of the savages was demolished, and all the crosses, planted on the graves, broke into a thousand pieces. In 1746, some stuffs that the savages had bought of the English, who then traded in the bay of Megagouetch at Beau-baffin, there being at that time agreat scarcity of goods over all the country, were found to be poisoned, so that more than two hundred savages of both sexes perished thereby.

"In 1749, towards the end of the month of May, at a time that the suspension of arms between the two crowns was not yet known in New France, the savages, having made prisoners two Englishmen of Newfoundland, had from these same prisoners the first news of the cessation of hostilities. They believed them on their bare words, expressed their satisfaction to them, treated them like brothers, unbound them, and carried them to their huts. The said prisoners rose in the night, and massacred twenty-five of these savages, men, women, and children. There were but two of the savages escaped this carnage, by being accidentally not present.

"Towards the end of the same year, the English being come to Chibuckto, made the report be every where spread, that they were going to destroy all the savages. They seemed to act in consequence thereto, since they sent detachments of their troops, on all sides, in pursuit of the savages. These people were so alarmed with this procedure of the English, that from that time they determined, as weak as they were, to declare open war against them. Knowing that France had concluded a peace with England, they nevertheless resolved not to cease from falling on the English, wherever they could find them; saying, they were indispensably obliged to it, since, against all justice, they wanted to expel them out of their country. They then sent a declaration of war in form to the English, in the name of their nation, and of the savages in alliance with it."

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An observation on New Brunswick Mi'kmaq sentiment with regard to unrelenting and massive European colonization. From an account by Gamaliel Smethurst - written in 1774 (commentary written by a compiler after the fact is omitted):

Smethurst journeyed from Nepisiguit to Fort Cumberland, New Brunswick in 1761, shortly after a treaty had been signed with the British. At one point, he travelled with a small group of Indians from the "Pookmoosh tribe of Mickmacks." Upon entering their small village, he saw "five or six large cabins of Indians - Their chief [Aikon Aushabuc] called a council upon my coming amongst them. . .As I did not understand Indian they appointed an Interpreter, who spoke broken French; besides, a person in such a situation as I was then in, is very quick of apprehension; a look or a gesture is often sufficient intimation of their thoughts. They were very shrewd in their remarks, and significant in their signs:

When they wanted to inform me that the French and them were in one interest, they said they were so, (pointing the same way with the forefingers of their right and left hands, and holding them parallel); and when, that the English and Indians were in opposite interests, this they described by crossing their forefingers. Their chief made almost a circle with his forefinger and thumb, and pointing at the end of his forefinger, said there was Quebec, the middle joint of his finger was Montreal, the joint next the hand was New York, the joint of the thumb next the hand was Boston, the middle joint of the thumb was Halifax, the interval betwixt his finger and thumb was Pookmoosh, so that the Indians would soon be surrounded, which he signified by closing his finger and thumb."

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Click on the image below for a commentary from MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell on the historical impact of the Indian Wars initiated by the government of the United States and the present-day ill treatment of their Native American peoples (26/08/16):

2016 Joel H. Zemel. All rights reserved.