Newfoundland Mi’kmaq

The Mi’kmaq on the island of Newfoundland seem to be going through something of a cultural revival; more and more people are recognizing their ancestral roots and learning about their past. The Mi’kmaq are perhaps best known in the province of Nova Scotia, but they have a long history of occupation on the island of Newfoundland according to documentary and oral history evidence.

      “The earliest account of Mi’kmaq travel to Newfoundland dates from 1602. In the spring of that year, an English explorer named Bartholomew Gosnold encountered a Basque shallop manned by eight Indians somewhere off the New England coast. These Indians “…with a piece of Chalke described the Coast thereabouts, and could name Placentia of the New-found-land…” Gosnold does not identify the Indians, but it is likely that they were Mi’kmaqs, since no other mainland tribe (south of Labrador) lived so near to Newfoundland. If these Indians were not Mi’kmaqs, the argument for early Mi’kmaq knowledge of Newfoundland is in fact strengthened, since it is inconceivable that a more distant tribe would know of the island while the Mi’kmaqs remained in ignorance of it. A few years later, the great French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, observed that Indians from the mainland sometimes came over to the island to trade with European fishermen. In this instance, as well, the Indians in question were probably Mi’kmaqs, but cannot be identified as such with absolute confidence. However, in 1612, one Father Pierre Biard, a Jesuit missionary to the Mi’kmaqs, recorded that they had given the name “Presentic” to the island of Newfoundland. His account is the clearest indication yet found of Mi’kmaq familiarity with the island at the beginning of the 17th century” (Pastore 1978).

(Incidentally, Bartholomew Gosnold was instrumental in founding the Virginia Company of London, and Jamestown in colonial America. In 2003, archaeologists at Jamestown announced that they had uncovered a skeleton that they thought was Gosnold.

Mi'kmaq woman weaving baskets, ca. 1845 (Watercolour by Mary R. McKie.
Mi’kmaq woman weaving baskets, ca. 1845
(Watercolour by Mary R. McKie.

In 1989, Charles Martijn suggested that Cape Breton Island, southern Newfoundland, the Magdalen archipelago and the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon were a single post-contact period territorial range for the eastern Canadian Mi’kmaq. While there is no definitive proof that this situation existed in the pre-contact period, the Mi’kmaq believe that they did inhabit the Island of Newfoundland at least before the 18th century, referring to the early inhabitants as the Say’ewedjkik or Ancients (Martijn 1989:210-11 & Martijn 2003).

Mi'kmaq domain of islands as suggested by Martijn.
Mi’kmaq domain of islands as suggested by Martijn.

So, there is historic documentation and oral history evidence for the antiquity of the Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland, archaeologically, support for the historic and oral history evidence has yet to be found. Currently there are 21 known Mi’kmaq archaeology sites on the island. Most date to the early 19th century and there are a few from the 20th century. Despite several surveys on the south and west coasts of the island, earlier sites have not been found.

Red dots are known Mi'kmaq sites.
Red dots are known Mi’kmaq sites.

Two of the four surveys along the south and west coasts of the island were part of the work required for Masters Degrees, one was by Penney and the other was by Rast. Part of the express purpose for the Penney thesis was to look for Mi’kmaq sites. This thesis survey resulted in the discovery of 18 archaeology sites. Three of these sites had Mi’kmaq components, all were from the late historic period.

 The Rast thesis resulted in the discovery of 26 new archaeological sites and the revisit of 11 previously known sites, several of which were found by Penney. None of the sites found or relocated by Rast contained Mi’kmaq evidence.

 In 1993 and 1994, Penny carried out an archaeological survey of the south west coast of the island called the Katalisk Archaeological Survey. The survey had three objectives;

  • to identify prehistoric and historic sites in Grand Codroy and Little Codroy river valleys;
  • to instruct native post-secondary students in archaeological field survey methods; and,
  • to raise community awareness of archaeology and Canada’s cultural heritage.
    The Katalisk survey area (Penney 1994).
    The Katalisk survey area (Penney 1994).

    The Katalisk survey resulted in the discovery of 18 new archaeological sites, none of which were Mi’kmaq.

    According to Speck, in the early 1900s he found both Beothuk and Mi’kmaq historic material culture at Wigwam Point in Badger.

    A Mi'kmaq wigwam used by hunters and trappers early in the 20th century.From J. G. Millais, Newfoundland and its Untrodden Ways (London: Longmans, Green, 1907) facing 16.
    A Mi’kmaq wigwam used by hunters and trappers early in the 20th century.
    From J. G. Millais, Newfoundland and its Untrodden Ways (London: Longmans, Green, 1907) facing 16.

    In 2011, the author visited a reported unmarked Mi’kmaq cemetery near Kippens that was given a Borden number. The cemetery reportedly contained just over 30 burials and was next to impossible to distinguish. This cemetery was known locally but it is not known who is buried there beyond that the people were Mi’kmaq. There was little to no physical trace of the burials. In several places, we walked over small undulations in the ground. According to a former Mi’kmaq Band chief in the area, the Mi’kmaq did not bury their dead very deep and the burials were actually the rises under our feet and not the typical dips of settled burials. Despite it being hard to distinguish the burials, we were certain we were in the right location because of information provided by several informants including that the cemetery was fenced in during the 1970s and 80s. We were able to find traces of the fence.

    Parts of the fence from the Mi'maq cemetery next to a steak we place in the ground
    Parts of the fence from the Mi’maq cemetery next to a steak we place in the ground.

    Burnt Knaps is perhaps the best-known Mi’kmaq archaeological site on the island. It is an interior caribou hunting site, that was occupied by Conne River Mi’kmaqs during the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is the first Mi’kmaq site excavated in Newfoundland, and provides information concerning traditional dwellings, diet, and lifestyles.

    Showing the excavation at Burnt Knaps (Penney & Nicol 1984).
    Showing the excavation at Burnt Knaps (Penney & Nicol 1984).

    Penney also conducted and archaeological survey of King George IV Lake:

    “A survey of the shorelines and hinterlands surrounding King George IV Lake resulted in discovery of two Mi’kmaq sites. A partial excavation of one site (DbBl-l) revealed two fireplace features (hearths) and associated stone and European (iron) artifacts. These features represent separate Recent Indian and Mi’kmaq occupations. Their temporal separation is uncertain, with the Mi’kmaq occupation dating to the first quarter of the 20th century. The Recent Indian feature possibly dates to the late prehistoric period.

    A second site (DbBl-2) is a collapsed tmoqta’wi’kn (or square wigwam) used by Mi’kmaq hunters from Bay St. George in the 1940’s. From limited testing, site function appears as butchering and salting moose in barrels during the winter months” (Penney 1987).

    Documentary and oral history evidence suggest the Mi’kmaq have been on the island for several centuries, perhaps going back to the precontact period. However, despite several archaeological surveys, the archaeological evidence does not support the documentary and oral history evidence. Obviously, further investigation is required to shed light on this matter.


Martijn, C. 1989  An Eastern Micmac Domain of Islands. In Actes Du Vingtiéme Congrés
des Algonquinistes, edited by W. Cowan, pp. 208-231. Carelton University,

2003  Early Mi’kmaq Presence in Southern Newfoundland: An Ethnological Perspective, c.1500-1763. Newfoundland Studies, 19(1): 44-101.

Pastore, Ralph 1978 Newfoundland Micmacs: A History of their Traditional Life. Newfoundland Historical Society Pamphlet No. 4.

Penney, Gerald 1985  The Prehistory of the Southwest Coast of Newfoundland. MA, MUN.

1994  Preliminary Report Katalisk Archaeological Survey 1993. 

1995  Preliminary Report Katalisk Archaeological Survey 1994. 

Penney, Gerald & Heather Nicol 1984  Burnt Knaps: A Micmac Site in Newfoundland. Canadian Journal of Archaeology, 8(1): 57‑69, Ottawa.

Rast, Tim 1999  Investigating Palaeo-Eskimo and Indian Settlement Patterns Along a Submerging Coast at Burgeo, Newfoundland.  MA, MUN.


26 thoughts on “Newfoundland Mi’kmaq

  1. This is a handy summary, thanks. The map of Mi’kmaq sites is very interesting. Most of the sites from other cultures follow the coast, with sites on the interior being much less common. The Mi’kmaq sites show the opposite pattern: mostly interior, few coastal. Survey of the interior is much more difficult than the coast, and since there are fewer people living there we get fewer accidental discoveries, so its very interesting that the interior is so well represented by Mi’kmaq sites. If they were living on the interior more than the coast, it’ll be a much slower process to track the people archaeologically.

    1. You’re welcome.
      I noticed the same thing with the map. It is pretty much the exact opposite of the other aboriginal cultures. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the resources the historic Mi’kmaq had access too? Obviously they had European goods/foods and were just hunting large game on the interior to supplement the Euro goods. Essentially they only utilized part of the season cycle the precontact aboriginals were using. I wonder if post contact Mi’kmaq sites in NS show a similar pattern.

  2. I noticed that there are no red dots in Placentia Bay. While there are quite a few places where the Mi’kmaq were suspected to have frequented, present day Black River, for example I take this to mean that no formal work had been done to authenticate those sites. With more-or-less ‘known’ places on the Islands (Haystack on Long Island and the appropriately-named Indian Harbour on Merasheen, for example) and a long history of at least partial Mi’kmaq ancestry of the people who have lived in the former communities of the so-called western shore (the northeastern part of the Burin Peninsula) it’s clear that there’s much more work to be done!

  3. Yes, from my 40 years of work in the Eastern James Bay area, it is perfectly logical that hunters from the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula would be comfortable moving inland for their hunting, Note that I did not say “big-game”. I suggest that ‘base’ camps were located in locations with sufficient ‘near-camp’ resources for those staying in-camp to provide the more certain food (ptarmigan, hare, fish) needed to sustain life in view of the less-guaranteed harvest of big-game. It all works together in “my” area, and I suggest that it would have been the tried-and-true strategy for survival when they went to the island. They did not need ‘new’ technology, just a good strategy. However, I will say that certain locations WOULD suggest new technology: at Washadimi, the traditional families with me carefully explained why and when various locations were used, but when it came to a high till hill with numerous cut-and-fill tent rings overlooking two resource-rich wetlands, I could find NO signs of earlier habitations or occupational debris. Then it struck me that you need metal tools to cut into that hard, stone-infested till.

    1. Hi
      Thanks for the comment. When I said large game I did not mean they were only hunting large game, it was a quick response, I should have read it thoroughly before posting. However, I was also thinking about several of the interior sites and their known functions, one of which was moose hunting and the other was a location for salting moose. I certainly agree that flexibility when it comes to food resources is the best approach, they would take whatever game was available large or small.

  4. Sorry, I did not mean to imply that people were not hunting big-game. However, it has been my experience that ‘mixed’ hunting is always the best guarantee of survival, even it the hope is for big-game.

  5. I wonder if the flooded areas that were dammed would show any evidence? According to many, the river systems were used like highways years ago. Many sites are possibly under water.

  6. I definitley agree with Maurice Barry that there has to be more applied archaeological fieldwork in the Placentia Bay area, including Upper and Lower PB, to determine the distribution of ancient human occupation sites in the area.

  7. As a reply to Maurice Barry’s query regarding archaeological surveying of the Upper PB area, namely the Black River-Piper’s Hole watershed areas, the preliminary published results of a 2013 field survey conducted under Maclean & Hutchings, albeit very terse in length and explication, have been published in the PAO 2013 Annual Report (PAO 2013:99), as excerpted or quoted below:

    “The Burnside Heritage Foundation Inc. conducted five archaeological projects in 2013. They are summarized below, organized per Permit Number. Laurie McLean was the permit holder in all of the projects. Piper’s Hole, Placentia Bay (13.18) Laurie McLean and Corey Hutchings surveyed the north and south shores of Piper’s Hole over six days between May 31 and June 7. Most of the area was surveyed through walking, assisted by speedboat when necessary. Ten new sites were recorded. They consist of five unknown aboriginal, three historic/aboriginal and two historic localities. Piper’s Hole-1 (ClAn-03), one of the historic/aboriginal sites, is a possible Beothuk occupation, based on the recovery of a headless wrought iron nail and 33 non-diagnostic lithic artifacts. The four other historic components include the alleged homestead ofJohn Barrington, a prominent late nineteenth-century
    Mi’kmaq resident. The Piper’s Hole shoreline has suffered extensive erosion that has impacted the archeological record. Nine of the 10 new sites yielded surface finds, four of the localities produced artifacts from test pits. Thirty-one of ClAn-03’s 33 stone artifacts were found on the surface of a blowout and eroding banks. In total, 49 of 53 lithics found in the survey were collected from the surface of eight sites. Nine of 14 historic artifacts were taken from sites’ surface. …”

    G. Penney (2015) later tentatively identifies the approximate location of these 10 sites in the Stantec final survey report titled: GPALT (2015). Historic & Heritage Resources Study: Proposed Bay d’Espoir to Western Avalon Transmission Line (TL 267)-Final Report. Dept .of Env., Gov. of NL, Prep. July 2015 ( _res.pdf). GPLAT (2015: 10) identifies the following attested sites discovered within or adjacent to the Black River-Piper’s Hole watershed areas (Note: the distance from the known archaeological site to the proposed Transmission Line ROW-Right of Way is not included herein, for further details the reader is directed to the article referenced herein), with their PAO reference numbers and app. topographic map correlates:

    Piper’s Hole Northwest

    North Harbour 2
    European; Euro-American

    Black River Pulp Mill

    Pipers Hole 1
    Precontact: Beothuk; Euro-American

    Pipers Hole East
    Precontact; Euro-American

    Pipers Hole 2

    Swift Current General
    Maritime Archaic

    Pipers Hole 3
    Precontact; Euro-American

    Pipers Hole North

    Pipers Hole West

    Barington (sic.) Residence

    Note that although radiocarbon dating has not been conducted on the known discovered Beo-Mc sites, in all probability the Beothuk sites as referenced predate to the early contact period ca. 1612-1670, as contemporaneous to the Guy TB-PB survey expedition in Lower TB-Upper PB, and the app. incursion of NS Mi’kmaw kin groups, as in the case of the Turpis (Nerpin or Turbin) family in Upper PB (Martijn 2003). Early Mi’kmaq Presence in Southern Newfoundland: An Ethnohistorical Perspective, c. 1500-1763. Newfoundland & Labrador Studies 19(1).

  8. Just a brief question for NL Archaeology and by extension PAO: when will follow-up archaeological digs of the 10 recently discovered sites found by Maclean’s 2013 field survey be inititated by PAO in the near or distant future? Just asking!

    1. Thanks for your question. Usually, the Provincial Archaeology Office doesn’t carry out full excavations/research on sites unless a site is threatened. I can tell you there is an intention to have more survey work done in the area. This will include the area south of the work done by McLean including the west side of Sound Island and the opposite side of the mainland.

  9. As per a follow-up to Maurice Barry’s query above, with a detailed overview of applied fieldwork completed by Burnside Heritage Foundation (2013) by the present said blogger, NLAS (Newfoundland and Labrador Archaeology Society), has recently posted an updated map on its Facebook page ( showing a red dot designating the so called Beothuk archaeological site (ClAn-03) discovered at Piper’s Hole, PB in 2013-presumably the same site adjacent to the area known during the post-contact historic period as Hayse’s Cove & Rattling Brook-Indian Cove (approximate to John Barrington’s family residence), and also known as Nukamkia’ji’jk “Little Sandy Harbour”, according to Newfoundland Mi’kmaw oral tradition accounts at least-the site of an early contact period Newfoundland Mi’kmaw encampment or seasonal village. It is nice to finally see that NLAS has updated its map to reflect the recent 2013 discovery.

  10. Any word on when PAO will publish the 2016 field survey report for the Upper PB area, notably the area extending SW from the Grip’s Nest, opposite of Swift Current, PB to The Reach Sound Island (west side of SI & adjacent mainland). I look fwd to reading the final report when published-should be interesting! Thanks.

    1. Not entirely sure what you mean by ‘publish’. As far as I understand the reports are on file but are not published in any way.
      You will have to contact the PAO for the answer to that question.

  11. By “publish” I specifically mean posted on-line through the PAO website, namely the PAO Annual Review Reports, and not “published” in the sense of a peer-reviewed academic or scholarly journal -so, I guess that the report in question related to the above query should fall under the PAO 2016 Field Season report which should be posted in Volume 15 for 2016 Field Season. Thank you for the response and questioning the perceived ambiguous meaning of “publish”. Your feedback and input is duly appreciated.

    1. OK, thanks for the clarification.
      As far as I know there was no PAO survey in that area this summer. Do you have any more details, perhaps I am missing something?

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