New Brunswick

Mapping the Wabanaki canoe routes of yesteryear

Since people have lived in New Brunswick there have been highways, though not all were created equal.

Software, linguistics and history come together to uncover ancient water highways

Maliseet people standing along the edge of the water at French village, Kingsclear, celebrating Corpus Christi Day, ca 1887. (New Brunswick Provincial Archives: P5-170)

Since people have lived in New Brunswick, there have been highways, though not all were created equal. 

In 2015, the provincial government closed the neglected Jemseg Bridge, leaving a large section of the former Trans-Canada Highway still standing — abandoned and inaccessible. 

Part of a so-called "modern highway," the route has decayed past the point of use just a few decades after it was built. 

But underneath it runs another highway, thousands of years old, and still in working condition. 

The Jemseg River, along with hundreds of other rivers, creeks, and streams make up the highways used for centuries by First Nations communities for trade and travel using birch-bark canoes. 

Despite being built in the 1960s, the Jemseg Bridge, part of the TransCanada Highway, was closed in May 2015. The Jemseg River was used for centuries as part of the river highways used by First Nations for travel and trade and still hosts canoe travellers each year. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Some of these routes are well-recognized today, their winding routes shared though the oral history of several First Nation communities. Others were thoroughly recorded by famed New Brunswick cartographer and historian William Francis Ganong. 

Some are less known, and some may be lost to history, but researchers are working to map those possible routes using a combination of computer software and linguistics study. 

First Nations guide holding a paddle with birch bark canoe on the shore of the St. John River at Edmundston. Ca 1862. (New Brunswick Provincial Archives: P5-580)
"One of the things I was interested in looking at was the use of smaller, or more ephemeral routes, that would have been only available during some times of year," said Chris Shaw, a graduate student at the University of New Brunswick. "Such as smaller headwaters, or smaller rivers between the major watersheds of the St. Croix and the St. John that may have only been usable when it was high water or in the freshet flooding season in the spring." 

By using annual recorded water levels and cross-referencing them with known archeological sites, Shaw is mapping where people of the Wabanaki Confederacy could have travelled by birch bark canoe during different times of the year. 

The Wabanaki are made up of the Maliseet, Mi'kmaq, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Abenaki nations stretching from Maine, across the Maritimes, and parts of Quebec. 

Chris Shaw, a researcher at the University of New Brunswick, has been using computer modelling to map ancient canoe routes used by different First Nations in New Brunswick, Maine, Nova Scotia, and Quebec. (Shane Fowler/CBC)
"Maps 100 years ago, or even more recently than that, aren't as effective as computers and geographical information systems at showing how landscapes can change over time or even over short time scales," Shaw said.

"So what I've done is use computer-modelling tools that look at how canoe travel routes and times would have changed seasonally based on water levels and the velocity of the waters." 

"Those environmental changes may have affected the ways prehistoric ancestral Wabanaki people would have moved through the landscape, the routes they would have selected, and how long it would take to move to significant places such as archeological sites in the interior to coastlines."

Receding from left to right, some of Chris Shaw's computer modelling shows portions of New Brunswick's rivers becoming inaccessible for canoes as the seasons progress. (Chris Shaw/ Submitted)

Shaw has also been able to map what travel times would be like along those routes by averaging water flow during different seasons. 

A different approach 

Instead of looking at the strict data provided by computer modelling, another researcher at UNB is trying to map ancient canoe highways by studying the language of the people who travelled them. 

Mallory Moran, a PhD candidate in the department of anthropology at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, studies First Nations travel routes out of UNB by matching names and nomenclature.

Mallory Moran, a PhD candidate with the University at William and Mary in Virginia, studies First Nations travel routes. (Shane Fowler/CBC News)

"We are still trying to figure out where all the routes went," Moran said. "That's one of the questions we are still trying to bring into focus.

"I am looking at it from a linguistic perspective. So I study the place names of this region to try and understand the broader cultural landscape of New Brunswick." 

"They are First Nation names, so they are very ancient," Moran said. "I'm able to work with early European maps to note where all the names are on the landscape and develop a map of place names." 

Moran said discovering the ancient named portage routes, where people would carry their canoes across land to access different waterways, are important landmarks that help connect the dots of centuries-old routes. 

Maliseet men building a birch bark canoe at St. Mary’s on the north side of the St. John River around the 1890s. (New Brunswick Provincial Archives: P5-381 )
"Many of these routes were part of a seasonal cycle. And we can tell by the names of these routes that they were used for the hunting of specific animals, or to hunt specific fish, and so it gives us an idea of why people were moving." 

Moran points to the First Nations names of many New Brunswick rivers, specifically in the northern and eastern sections of the province, as examples of language describing seasonal purposes, and is working to map out similar, less known, possible routes in the same manner. 

This summer Moran is organizing travel alongside different First Nations communities to examine many of these pathways in person. 

Sharing the story 

Despite being perhaps thousands of years old, many of the ancient routes are still intact and can be travelled. And although Fiberglas and plastic are what canoes are made of today, they are not the first choice for the descendants of those who first travelled these waterways. 

Artist Shane Perley-Dutcher of Tobique First Nation has helped build traditional birch bark canoes. He says researching the routes used by his ancestors for trade and travel is important to understanding First Nations history. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"I've built three of these canoes," Shane Perley-Dutcher said.

The Tobique First Nation resident has worked extensively with birch bark to build canoes the way his ancestors did in centuries past. 

"And it basically changed me," Perley-Dutcher said. "Working with that material opened up a whole window into my culture." 

An artist and a band councillor, he said the routes wind through the history of his people, not just during contact with the French and Europeans but as far back as 12,000 years ago. 

The Grandfather Akwiten Birchbark canoe, built on the St. John River in the 1820s by the Wolastoqiyik, is thought to be one of the oldest vessels of its kind in existence. It is on display at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton. (Shane Fowler/CBC)
"The rivers were our highways, and those portage routes were our main travel areas so that we could acquire things from other nations that we could use in our own communities."

"We were constantly going back and forth," Perley-Dutcher said. "So it's important to know those things because it really explains how we built our society." 

As well as being used for trade and hunting, Perely-Dutcher said, the rivers were used extensively for keeping strong relations with neighbouring nations and establishing and maintaining diplomacy between communities across great distances. 

Maliseet men in canoes around 1863. The date is based on the New Brunswick Museum's dating of item X12105, an albumen print of Wolastoqiyik men and canoes, attributed to George Taylor. (New Brunswick Provincial Archives)

Studying and researching these routes, even as they open up again from winter's ice, is a start to reconnecting, and acknowledging the past he said. 

"We have a history of not talking about our history, the real history of New Brunswick and of Canada. And I think that's starting to change." 


Shane Fowler


Shane Fowler has been a CBC journalist based in Fredericton since 2013.