We know that the Mi’kmaq people gradually settled on Isle St. Jean about 3,000 years ago. They were nomads and lived their daily life by hunting and fishing most of the year. In addition, they ate all kinds of dried fruits, vegetables and wild berries which they pounded and then dried into round patties. However, most of their diet was based on animal flesh, eaten raw or smoked, including the eel they called “jipijka’maq” meaning the great horned snake. This revered snake-like fish is mentioned in many Mi’kmaq legends as a spiritual being. In the history of the Mi’kmaq First Nation, the eel has also served as an important food source, medicinal ingredient and ceremonial object. As food, the eel was cooked in several ways. It was sometimes prepared for a stew, baked, smoked, and stored for later use. Its skin tightens while drying. This tightening ability and durability further enabled the Mi’kmaqs to use its hide for a variety of purposes, including tying sleds, moccasins, clothing, as well as binding spears and harpoons to broomstick-type sticks, etc. It also had healing properties, as its tightening ability enabled the Mi’kmaqs to use it as a type of brace to soothe sprains. Moreover, it was applied to the skin to relieve cramps, rheumatism and headaches as well as to balance lameness problems. Various Mi’kmaq traditional ceremonies made use of the eel, such as the Apuknajit ritual performed annually on January 31 to thank the Spirits for having survived the most difficult time of winter.
Eel fishing in Savage Harbour and its main tributary has traditionally been done in two ways. Stone fishing dams, called eel spillways (photo above), or different types of spears were used. Drying and smoking were done on site.
According to Isle St. Jean’s first census of 1728, the family of Joseph Laforestrie, made up of 10 people (including eight children), was the first one to colonize Savage Harbour in 1725. Three years later, the Blanchard, Chiasson, de Veau, Garenne and Poitier families joined the colony to live amicably with the locals of this peaceful part of the island. It is interesting to note that in 1730 the census enumerator, perhaps at the request of the first white settlers, renamed the place Havre à l’Anguille. However, the English name remained unchanged. Considering the importance of the eel to the Mi’kmaq people, the name change was respectful of traditions and most appropriate.
An exemplary farming community
The census of 1728 also reveals that all heads of families were farmers, not fishermen or sailors. Moreover, no fishing boat or kilogram (quintal) of cod landed are reported. It should be noted that the riparian soil of Havre à l’Anguille is bright red, fine and sandy. This high-quality soil drains water admirably and lends itself very well to agriculture. The redness of the soil is due to its high content of iron oxide (rusty). In the history of the island written by A.B. Warburton, the author points out (at page 40) that visitors spoke of the place with admiration and of the excellent harvest. Mention is made there were saw and flour mills and the inhabitants lived at ease. By comparison, the census of 1752 shows the farms were well supplied and the harvests were abundant. Savage Harbour, which became Havre à l’Anguille (in French only), was an exemplary farming community. Some would say that the objective of the authorities of the time to make Isle St. Jean the “granary” of Louisbourg was accomplished thanks to “Charlottetown soil” (a contemporary designation given to the province’s soil), because Isle Royale (Nova Scotia) was poorly suited to agriculture as it was too rocky.