Mi’kmaq Seagoing Legacy, Dan Conlin

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Hi Folks: George Paul, Eskasoni, sent me the following story about the rescue at sea of John Turnoe by the Mi’kmaq, who had been arrested by the British for deserting his master in Boston. To attest to the fact that the story is genuine, I’ve cited some of the instances where it was discussed by the British Military Government at Council meetings held at Annapolis Royal during March and April 1731.

Take care,


Mi’kmaq Seagoing Legacy, Dan Conlin

“In March 1731, a schooner was sailing past the Parrsboro shore with an unhappy prisoner aboard. The law had caught up with John Turnoe.

Apprenticed to harsh master in Boston, he had run away to live with the Mi’kmaq and the Acadians in Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, an armed schooner discovered Turnoe and kidnaped him to claim the reward.

However, the schooner’s captain, John Cate, had overlooked the sea skills of Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq. A swift flotilla of canoes surprised the schooner as it left Minas Basin, overpowered the crew, and rescued their friend, John Turnoe.

Nova Scotia’s native peoples, the Mi’kmaq, were the province’s first masters of wooden boats and seafaring. Their graceful cedar and birch bark canoes, ranging from lightweight portage models to oceangoing versions, took them fishing and trading from Boston to Newfoundland and up the Saint Lawrence River. It is believed that the canoes of the Mi’kmaq first convinced skeptical early (European) explorers to adapt the canoe for the fur trade throughout North America.

When threatened by aggressive European fishermen, the Mi’kmaq proved formidable sea raiders, capturing over 80 vessels at sea in the wars (with the British) of the 1700s.... Some scholars have suggested the pirates of the Caribbean may have learned many of their tactics while living among the people of Glooscap.”

The before mentioned is verified in the Original Minutes of His Majesty’s Council at Annapolis Royal, 1720 - 1739. The rescue was first brought before the Military’s government’s meeting on March 11, 1731. They called in Captain Cate and Prudane Robichau, who was present at the rescue, for examination.

They then decided to blame the Acadiens for inciting the Mi’kmaq to rescue Turnoe and charged Amand Beaujeau, John Landry and John LeBlanc with the offence. The Incident was again discussed at a Council meetings held on March 22, 1731 and April 25. The best tribute I found to Mi’kmaq seamanship is this one found on page 26 of my book We Were Not the Savages:

Although land-based competitions were very important, those associated with harvesting food from the bountiful ocean were of no less importance. From working the sea, Mi'kmaq warriors developed exceptional skills in seamanship. In fact their sailing abilities were such that many of their British and French peers recognized them as being among the greatest sailors on Mother Earth. During their wars with the British, they routinely commandeered European war and merchant ships, sailing them up and down the coast of eastern North America with such great skill that it seemed they were born to it.

Father Lallement wrote a letter in 1659 describing Mi'kmaq seamanship with awe: "It is wonderful how these savage mariners navigate so far in little shallops crossing vast seas without compass, and often without sight of the sun, trusting to instinct for their guidance."5

The "shallops" referred to by Father Lallement, and sea canoes, were routinely used by the Mi'kmaq to cross the Bay of Fundy, the Northumberland Strait, and the North Atlantic between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Their skills probably had more to do with their ability to read tides, currents and other directional information than with instinct.

  • Legends of the Micmac," by Rev. Silas T. Rand
  • Mi'kmaq and Acadian good relations - unparalleled in America