Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Native American Canoe Trails of the Maritime Peninsula

Nowhere was birchbark canoe culture more deeply ingrained in overall culture than in the Maritime Peninsula. Where's that? you say. In Twelve Thousand Years: American Indians in Maine, Bruce Bourque explains that it's the area consisting of Maine, New Brunswick, and Quebec south of the St. Lawrence River. (Geographically, it makes sense to group these areas together as they do in fact cover a single huge peninsula. Most of Maine's [arrow-straight] border with New Brunswick, on the other hand, is entirely artificial.)

The birchbark canoe was by far the most efficient way to travel through much of this region during much of the year, and Native Americans used the bark canoe to maintain extensive trade networks, both before and after European contact. Pre-contact, items and materials such as tool stone (e.g., flint, chalcedony), copper, furs, and birch bark itself, were traded between widely separated areas of New England and New York state via canoe, some of the routes connecting with overland routes extending into the American midwest and even into South Carolina. Post-contact, First People used the routes to trade furs for manufactured goods, especially firearms, fabrics, metal tools, and alcohol. During the  numerous small and not-so-small wars of the colonial period (King Phillip's War, King William's War, Gov. Dummer's War, etc.), large numbers of warriors moved quickly across hundreds of miles of otherwise difficult terrain by the same means.

Two sources of note:

Above the Gravel Bar: The Native Canoe Routes of Maine, by David S. Cook, was originally published in 1985, and republished in 1997. This is a well-detailed book describing dozens of individual canoe routes, including both water and portage portions. Many of the original native place-names appear with the current names, and many anecdotes and legends accompany the various route descriptions. (The phrase "Above the Gravel Bar" is the translation of one such ancient place-name, but this brings up a gripe: I've seen at least two, maybe three totally different native names that purportedly translate as "where we speared sturgeon by torchlight." Maybe they loved caviar so much that they created two totally different languages to describe it?) Several maps are included which are helpful, but more detailed maps would make a good book better. Three or four chapters precede the route descriptions, covering subjects such as the importance of the beaver in establishing and maintaining some of the routes; descriptions of the region's geography and canoes; and some canoe tripping techniques.

The trails are impressive in their scope and intricacy. In days before private property (but with due regard to tribal territorial imperatives), there was virtually no point in Maine that could not be reached to within just few miles by canoe at the right time of year, and this surely applied throughout the rest of the Maritime Peninsula. Before there were maps of the region or "modern" navigational tools (e.g., compass), the First People pieced together sometimes highly complex routes, moving both up- and downstream, carrying over usually short portages from one watershed to the next or to bypass rapids or long river twists, and communicating the directions verbally with such consistency that they became virtually highways, established routes known to many.

The Maliseet Trail is a website to "celebrate the Ancient Maliseet Canoe Trail; recognize the role the Trail played in both pre-contact societies and post-contact politics; and, encourage a respectful future for the Trail." The Maliseet people (also spelled Malecite) are the native people of the St. John River valley in western New Brunswick, southern Quebec, and northern and eastern Maine. As shown below, the trail itself runs from near Woodstock, NB, to Indian Island, near Old Town, in Maine. -- a distance of some 200 km. of paddling plus 15 km of portaging.

The Maliseet Trail (the website) includes old maps and trail descriptions, reports of recent trips along sections of the trail, and a link to much interesting material about Edwin Tappan Adney, author of Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America.

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