Chief Membertou and the Legend of St.

Aspinquid By Charles Francis One of the most fascinating figures in the earliest days of European exploration and settlement of eastern North America is a Mi'kmaq chief named Membertou. If the records of the first explorers and missionaries of what would become the Maritime Provinces and New England are to be believed, Membertou lived to be well over 100 years. These records indicate Membertou encountered Jacques Cartier on the shores of the St. Lawrence in 1534. He also met de Mons and Champlain when they sailed into the Annapolis Basin in 1604. All accounts of Membertou have certain things in common. The chief was a tall, dignified figure. Even as an old man he was considered exceptionally strong. This goes along with the assertions that he was a sagamore as well as a chief. Sagamores were believed to possess a variety of supernatural powers including ginap and puoin. Ginap endowed the possessor with phenomenal strength so that he was able lift great weights and even bend metal bars and gun barrels. Puoin was associated with the power to heal. The accounts also say that Membertou was the first or one of the first Native Americans in the northeast converted to Christianity. Membertou made his home on the shores of what is now the Annapolis Basin. When de Mons and Champlain decided to attempt a settlement there after suffering through a disastrous winter on St. Croix Island upriver from Passamaquoddy Bay, Membertou befriended them. He also provided them with guides when Champlain, the first great cartographer of the New World, set out to map the coast from Fundy to Cape Cod. Then, when that party was attacked by the Armouchiquois, whose territory ranged from what is now southern Maine to Cape Cod, Membertou led one of the greatest Native American armadas ever seen in the Gulf of Maine to the Saco River. Here he extracted one of the bloodiest acts of revenge ever visited by one North American Indian tribe on another. The story of that attack, the events leading up to it, and its influences on the major participants, which historian Francis Parkman identifies as one of the key episodes in the history of North America, reads more like something out of a Hollywood movie than the work of the savant who is identified as one of the Western Hemisphere's most meticulous historians. That Membertou was a great Mi'kmaq chief is an established fact. There is a question as to just how far his authority extended, though. Some traditions have his hegemony extending as far as Quebec. While this is probably an exaggeration, there is sound evidence to the effect that the Maliseet living across the Bay of Fundy were in some respect subservient to him. The same seems to be true of the Armouchiquois whose territory extended to what is now the south coast of Massachusetts as well as those tribes living between the Maliseet and the Armouchiquois. While the name Membertou is clearly that of an historic figure, there is another that has come down from the same period of somewhat similar or equal repute that may not be. That name is St. Aspinquid. Some call St. Aspinquid "the imaginary saint." Others call him "the praying Indian." Most, however, say Aspinquid is nothing more than a folk tale possibly based on the great New England chief and sachem Passaconaway. Tradition has it that St. Aspinquid lived in a time period that would make him a contemporary of Membertou. That same tradition has it that Aspinquid- like Membertou- was a Christian convert. Some tales say that after his conversion

Aspinquid traveled westward to California making converts along the way in much the same manner that Johnny Appleseed spread seeds. The most persistent story of Aspinquid involves his burial near the peak of Mt. Agamenticus in southern Maine. Intriguingly, 200 and more years ago there was a Feast of St. Aspinquid. Mi'kmaq and whites are known to have celebrated it on Point Pleasant in Halifax. So too did others living in the coastal northeast. The question is, is Chief Membertou the source of the St. Aspinquid legend, the legend which seems centered in southern Maine? Perhaps a possible answer lies in Membertou's expedition to Maine's Saco River in that long ago time Membertou's attack on the Armouchiquois took place in 1605. At that time there were four major groupings of Native Americans inhabiting the lands that the French called Acadia. The Abenaki dominated inland western Maine, extending into what is now Quebec. The Etchemin, who included the Penobscots and the Passamaquoddies, lived in eastern Maine and southern New Brunswick. The Armouchiquois lived on the coast between what is now Cape Elizabeth, Maine and the Cape Cod area. The home of the Mi'kmaq was to the east of the Etchemin. This latter circumstance would seem to place the Mi'kmaq out of mainstream Acadia as a whole. This was not the case, however. To begin with the Mi'kmaq were the greatest travelers of the time. As evidence of their far reaching influence, the Mi'kmaq were responsible for a great number of place names in the region. e.g. The suffix 'quid' as in Cobequid and Pemaquid is of Mi'kmaq origin. This gives some sense of the propriety which they held for the region. It also helps explain Membertou's outrage when someone under his particular protection was attacked by a tribe close to his base of power and authority. The descriptions of Membertou, when he was the most important Mi'kmaq chieftain and sagamore or wise man, come from his later life when he should have been bent with the weight of his years, living a life of ease and relishing the warmth of his hearth. Instead, however, he is described as a tall, white-haired figure of a man and such a strong fighter that he was able to instill dread in anyone who was foolish enough to oppose him. Intriguingly, he is sometimes said to have worn a beard much like that of any European. The image that the dominant description of Membertou brings to mind is not that of a European, however. It is that of an Old Testament Prophet. The attack on the de Mons and Champlain party occurred in July of 1605. In June of that year, the Frenchmen had set out from Port Royal- as they were now calling the Acadian settlement- with a Mi'kmaq sub chief by the name of Pennoniac and his wife as guides. Their purpose was to explore and map the coast to the south. They landed on Mt. Desert Island, sailed up the Penobscot River and into Casco Bay. On June 9 they entered Saco Bay and the territory of theArmouchiquois. This was where the trouble began. The French had found the Mi'kmaq to be friendly and desirous of building good relations. The Indians to the south, however, proved quite different. As the French proceeded southward, they found the Armouchiquois to be argumentative, if not outright hostile. In Massachusetts real trouble occurred. At some point an argument over a kettle started. Tempers flared until suddenly the French found themselves under attack. During the fight Champlain's arquebus exploded, almost killing him. The greatest mishap to occur during the trip was the death of Chief Pennoniac. While it is not exactly clear when and where he was killed, it would seem that Membertou thought the tragedy occurred in Maine.

When Membertou learned of the attacks on de Mons and Champlain and the death of Pennoniac, he set out to exact revenge. What he did was to call his under-chiefs to Port Royal. Altogether an army of some 500 Mi'kmaq braves massed there. Paddling across the Bay of Fundy in birch bark canoes to what is now St. John, the Mi'kmaq met up with a contingent of Maliseet warriors. From there, the whitehaired, bearded chief led his flotilla down the coast to the Saco River. Here, like a figure from the Old Testament, Membertou wrecked bloody havoc on those who had transgressed upon him, killing among others, it is said, the Armouchiquois chief, Bessabez. Then he returned to the Annapolis Basin in triumph. According to Francis Parkman, it was Champlain's experiences among the Armouchiquois which led the future Father of New France to look to the St. Lawrence as the potential site for a permanent French colony rather than to the south. Undoubtedly, the friendship of Membertou, who had- impossible as it may seem- also known that earlier explorer Cartier, played a part in this decision. There is a postscript to this story. Soon after Membertou's attack, the Armouchiquois were visited by a plague which further decimated them. By the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they were so weakened that they could muster little if any resistance to the settlement of these first Europeans to make a permanent home in New England. This leaves the question or the possibility as to whether or not Chief Membertou could be a source for the legend of St. Aspinquid. Clearly Membertou was a force well beyond the shores of the Bay of Fundy. Moreover, he converted to Christianity. We will probably never know the final answer to this riddle. However, the connections are there.