Writing in the last quarter of the 17th century, following a decade of missionary activity in Acadie, the Récollet Chrestien LeClercq made an eerily prophetic recommendation. The Mi'kmaw people would be far better off, he argued, both in spiritual and material terms, if they would eschew the wandering life and settle down to a more civilized, i.e. European, mode of existence. For starters, he must have thought, it would make the missionary's job much more bearable. This comment is perhaps the earliest articulation of a policy that would see its ultimate expression two and a half centuries later, during the 1940s, in the centralization program carried out under the auspices of LeClercq's distant intellectual descendants, the Department of Indian Affairs.
Father Louis-Pierre Thury sought to gather the Mi'kmaq of Peninsular Nova Scotia into a single settlement around Shubenacadie as early as 1699, but his plans failed to account for his own untimely death at Chebucto later that same year, and the scheme miscarried. In the years following, however, at least one other pugnacious priest appeared ready to revive Thury's vision. Antoine Gaulin, a Quebec-born missionary, came to Acadie in 1698 and replaced Thury a year later. In 1707, he also endeavored to erect a permanent mission at Shubenacadie, the site of a long-established Mi'kmaq community, but was thwarted when the English made off with the necessary supplies. By the mid-1720s, however, he had made good on this loss, successfully establishing the Shubenacadie mission, but also making seasonal trips to Cape Sable, LaHave, and Mirlegueche. The Mi'kmaq were reluctant, evidently, to pick up the plough just yet.
The Shubenacadie mission's dedication to Saint Anne speaks to a spirit of accommodation on the part of both the French and the Mi'kmaq. Anne, traditionally identified as the mother of Mary, was the grandmother of Jesus himself. The esteemed position of grandmothers in Mi'kmaw society was a point of agreement between Roman Catholicism and the Mi'kmaw worldview, and highlights the complexity and contingency of the 'conversion' process.
In 1738, one of most controversial personalities of Maritime history came to Mission Sainte-Anne. Abbé Jean-Louis LeLoutre arrived in October of that year, having spent the previous winter in Cape Breton learning the Mi'kmaw language with Abbé Pierre Maillard. Just thirty years old and a newcomer to the colonies, he could not have imagined the extraordinary events that were about to overtake him, nor could he have known, as he swept the cobwebs out of the mission, that a world war was brewing in Europe. During the war years of the mid-18th century, there must have been times when Mission Sainte-Anne appeared more like a military base than a place of worship. Coulon de Villiers' hardy troop passed this way on their brutal mid-winter march toward the Battle of Grand-Pré in 1747, and Mi'kmaw warriors used the site as a staging point for their attacks on Halifax and Dartmouth in the early days of those settlements.
It was perhaps a delayed response to these attacks that brought Captain Matthew Floyer, at the head of a small troop, to survey the Shubenacadie River in the summer of 1754. His journal entry for August 18th offers a rare glimpse of the mission:
Floyer's map, which accompanied his written report, suggests the presence of three structures at the mission site, and provides a reasonably accurate sense of its location. While Mission Sainte-Anne appears on several British maps during this period, the Floyer map, with the largest scale, is by far the most accurate, and is one of the few period maps of any practical archaeological use.
We are fortunate that Floyer made his journey when he did. Twelve months later, the storm clouds of the Deportation burst over the entire region, and by October of 1755, Mission Sainte-Anne appears to have been swept away in the general destruction. A decade later, when Captain William Owen rowed the mighty Shubenacadie for an almost 'Pickwickian' lark, all that remained of the mission was a silent ruin. His guide, an Acadian man who had managed to resist the riptide of the Deportation, now made a living at a dollar a day, conveying intrepid gentlemen adventurers through what had been, only a decade before, their terra incognita. Owen's party glided past deserted Mi'kmaq settlements and decaying wigwams, and stopped to pick apples from the abandoned Acadian orchards near the ruins of the village of the Héberes.
While the mission complex gradually disintegrated, its memory remained a part of the oral traditions of the English-speaking settlers who took up these fertile lands in the late-18th and 19th centuries. Like much of Nova Scotia's storied past, it received little attention beyond the occasional retelling amidst the warmth of a country kitchen. Fortunately, historically minded individuals like Henry Youle Hind and Elizabeth Frame in the late 19th century, and Douglas Ormond, F. H. Patterson, and others in the early 20th, rendered enough of this folklore into ink to save it from oblivion.
During the late 1990s, photographer local historian Jacques Perron was working in the Shubenacadie River Valley, when he began to hear remarkable stories. His research brought him into contact with the archaeological community, and then to me. Having researched the colonial landscapes of Nova Scotia for several years, I found the thought of locating the mission complex very appealing, and we set out, over the next few months, to co-ordinate our background research and plan a survey. Friend and colleague Donna Morris, a Mi'kmaw archaeologist, also agreed to join the team.
On July 8 2001, a small group of volunteers began sub-surface testing the first high potential area on a quiet Shubenacadie farm and, over a two-day period, a total of 54 50x50cm test pits had been excavated. The small artifact assemblage recovered suggests a 19th century occupation, likely from a long vanished homestead. Clearly, somebody had been living at out first location, but it wasn't the people we were looking for.
Further excavations have not yet been scheduled.