Catons Island (Akmenhenik)

The first European settlement in New Brunswick was established on Catons Island in 1611. Catons Island is situated in the Long Reach section of the St. John River and lies about thirty-five kilometers from the city of Saint John

Two Frenchmen, Robert Gravé du Pont and Captain Merveille, both originally from St. Malo, France, set up a trading post on the island. Robert Gravé was born around 1585 at Saint Malo in northern France. His father was François Gravé du Pont who travelled to the new world prior to 1600 and was a significant influence in the early Huguenot settlement at Tadoussac, on the St. Lawrence River. François was a skilled soldier and sailor, but his primary interest in New France was as a merchant, seeing this new land as a wealth of resources, in particular, furs. François sailed across the Atlantic many times as master and was a key navigator in the early explorations of the St. Lawrence and La Cadie.

François was deputy to Sieur de Monts on the 1604 voyage to La Cadie, when an unsuccessful settlement was made on St. Croix Island (now part of the state of Maine). François did not remain at St. Croix during that fateful winter and returned to France. The following spring, in 1605, he sailed to La Cadie again and helped relocate the remaining settlers to Port Royal in what is now Nova Scotia. François became very close friends with the young cartographer, Samuel de Champlain.

Robert Gravé decided to follow his father’s career and became a naval captain. François’ influence was well established in New France, and around the young age of twenty, Robert was allowed to sail to La Cadie. He travelled with the new Lieutenant-Governor, Jean de Poutrincourt on his return voyage to Port Royal in 1606.

That fall, Robert accompanied Poutrincourt and Champlain on an exploratory voyage down the east coast as far as Cape Cod. A clash occurred during their trip and Robert lost three fingers when his musket exploded while firing at local inhabitants. They returned to Port Royal for the winter.

Poutrincourt made great efforts to establish relationships with the local Mi’kmaq around Port Royal, and the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) of the St. John River area. Unfortunately, in the fall of 1607, a ship arrived at Port Royal informing Poutrincourt that his trading rights had been revoked by the King of France. He and the settlers at Port Royal had to return to France immediately. Poutrincourt was severely disappointed, but sailed back to France, vowing to reverse the King’s decision. It took him a while, but he managed to return to Port Royal in 1610. One compromise he had to make was to commit to the Catholic Church’s request to begin conversion of the local natives. To ensure this occurred, Jesuit priests joined Poutrincourt on his voyage back to Port Royal.

Whether Robert Gravé joined Poutrincourt on the trip back to France, or if he remained in New France, is unknown. Either way, before Poutrincourt returned to Port Royal in 1610, Robert had travelled up the St. John River and established a trading post on Akmenhenik (Catons Island), was fluent in the Wolastoqiyik language, and was shipping furs back to France.

Robert had been having success trading, but he was not without troubles. The local chiefs were very upset at Robert’s part in the abuse of at least one of their women. The situation must have been much worse than that involving a single woman, as some of the French began to call the island “Isle au Garce”, which loosely meant it was a place to find women, much like a brothel. It is interesting to ponder why the Wolastoqiyik did not attack the settlement on Akmenhenik in retaliation. Instead, the Wolastoqiyik chiefs, who trusted Poutrincourt, asked him to punish Robert for his actions.

Poutrincourt jailed Robert in Port Royal, but Robert managed to escape and somehow returned to Akmenhenik. Poutrincourt was upset about Robert’s escape, and he worried about the effect this would have on the Wolastoqiyik. But he was busy re-establishing Port Royal, and it was not until the fall of 1611 that Poutrincourt sent his son and a Jesuit priest, Father Baird, to see if Robert and the traders were still on Akmenhenik. The evening of their arrival at the trading post saw the night sky turn a brilliant red, (possibly northern lights), and all those present took it as a fearful omen. Robert, and his business partner, Captain Mervielle were not initially found on the island, but were captured by the next day.

Father Baird held the first recorded mass in New Brunswick and heard all the traders’ confessions. He must have put the fear of God into them, as they all professed to be changed men. Father Baird no doubt realized Robert’s value in his connection with the Wolastoqiyik, notwithstanding the incident with the woman.

Father Baird convinced Poutrincourt’s son that Robert was repentant and that he should be allowed to remain at Akmenhenik.

After returning to Port Royal, they found the senior Poutrincourt was not pleased with the Jesuit’s interference, but he gave in to Father Baird knowing the Jesuit had significant influence back in France.

Robert Gravé remained at the trading post until 1618. In 1619, he sailed to the East Indies where he eventually died at sea in around 1621. How long the settlement continued after his departure is unknown.

The First Nation communities were greatly affected by the arrival of Europeans to North America. There had been some contact, beginning with the Norse, and followed by the Basque and other fishermen, but it was the European colonizers who brought the biggest changes. The technology differences were significant, with the First Nations living a minimal impact existence, using the materials around them in sophisticated designs (i.e., canoe, shelters, weirs, and bows). The European’s used a heavier handed approached, but were in possession of metal tools and large-scale manufacturing (i.e., sailing vessels, iron axes, knives, pots, and guns). The capabilities of the Europeans must have shocked the First Nations people and given them great concern for their very existence.

The first settlers, the Dutch and English, along the eastern seaboard might not have contacted the Wolastoqiyik directly, but their influence was felt. Diseases spread through the land, with three major waves affecting the Wolastoqiyik. One of these diseases was smallpox, which during an extended period, killed three out of four natives in much of the area during the early trading days on the St. John River. These diseases killed the young and the old and left many with negative long-term effects and poor health.

The significant loss of life and negative health effects due to disease would also have affected the ability to survive the normal rigors of First Nation life, let alone capture fur animals to trade with the Europeans. This, accompanied by the depletion of animals, may have hastened the end of the Akmenhenik trading post and Robert Gravé’s eventual departure. The Jesuits did not leave. They set about spreading the Christian faith.

The French continued to send settlers to the area in small numbers and the two groups, Wolastoqiyik and Acadian, coexisted on the river. The arrival of the English and the expulsion of the French brought more change to the lives of those who had lived here for thousands of years.

To commemorate the 300th anniversary of this first settlement, the New Brunswick Historical Society erected a cairn on Catons Island in 1911.

To commemorate the 400th anniversary, the Kingston Peninsula Heritage group organized a gathering and celebration on the island on September 10, 2011. The public was invited to attend by crossing from the Browns Flat side of the river via the Catons Island Camp ferry between 8 and 11am. Representatives of all the associated groups of this historical location spoke giving their perspective on this coming together of two great cultures.

The speakers included the Hon. Trevor Holder, MLA for Saint John Portland and the Minister of Wellness, Culture and Sport and the Minister of Tourism for the Province of New Brunswick. His department had financially supported the day's events and he stated that the island has been a place of faith and praise and worship for many years whether for the First Nations, the French, or the Loyalists, or in more recent times, the Catholic and Wesleyan communities.

Mr. Holder was followed by Ron Tremblay of the Wolastoqiyik Nation who was the Culture and Language Advisor for the First Nation Education Initiative and a member of the Maliseet Grand Council. Mr. Tremblay performed a traditional prayer explaining that at every gathering the ancestors were welcomed and that they came from all directions. Mother Earth was thanked for providing us with all life; with water, with food, with medicine, for the animal world, the wing world, and the insect world. He thanked the Father Sky for taking care of our Great Grandfather the sun and our Great Grandmother the moon that balances the night and the day and the stars that are our brothers and sisters. He then blew a sacred whistle to wake up the ancestors. After that, he sang a welcome song pointing out that this song was probably sung by his ancestors to welcome the first Europeans.

Mr. Tremblay was followed by Adrien Arsenault of the Societe de L’Acadie du Nouveau Brunswick. He gave a brief account of the arrival of the French into this area. He noted that while the King of France was interested in establishing colonies and developing the fur trade, the ordinary French citizen did not want to immigrate to the New World, and that women and children did not arrive until the 1630s. He noted that the island’s French name of Isle aux Garce came from the slang word for loose women. The island was a place the sailors and traders could go to find female companionship.

Next, Monsignor Brian Henneberry spoke on behalf of Bishop Robert Harris of the Saint John Diocese of the Catholic Church to indicate the significance of the island as the location of the first recorded Mass in New Brunswick.

He was joined by Reverend Jim Webb, the Provincial of the Jesuits for English Canada. Rev. Webb related the hardships endured by Fathers Baird and Masse on their journey from France to the new world. He explained how the first Jesuits who came to Canada were motivated by a deep love of Jesus Christ and a desire to make that love known among the native people. He noted the great generosity the first nations people showed to each other and to the arriving French.

Kathy Wilson from the New Brunswick Historical Society then spoke about the celebrations and the building of the cairn in 1911. A large group of local dignitaries travelled from Saint John on a steamboat to dedicate the cairn. Kathy noted what a romantic tale these first settlers lived in venturing to this rugged land.

Pastor Rob Trafton, the Executive Director of Camping for the Wesleyan Church welcomed everyone to the island where the church operates a Christian Youth Camp every summer. Dean Stephenson, the Director of the camp spoke of the many young people which have had a great experience on the island through the efforts of the camp and surrounding community.

Lieutenant Governor Graydon Nicholas spoke of the St. John River as the Wolastoq or Beautiful River. He explained how the river was a highway for his people, and in the spring when people began to travel on the river what is now called Catons Island was one of the places they would stop and worship. He also stated that the river was like the life blood of the mother, nurturing its people. He discussed the four seasons we are fortunate to have in New Brunswick and the fact that thanks were even given for snow as it helped our ancestors to track game in the winter.

The Lieutenant Governor discussed the fact that up until 1952 it was against the law to celebrated traditional medicine and religion and that Ron Tremblay would have been sent to prison for his performance.

He concluded with the thought that we are all part of history, and it is important to remember who we are. To remember who we are we must respect the past because we cannot go forward in peace if we don’t respect the ancestors.

The celebration concluded with the rededication of the 1911 monument. Dave Wood played traditional French fiddle tunes while people encircled the monument. There was a moment of silence for the First Nations and French people who came together on the island 400 years ago. This was followed by Ron Tremblay who drummed and sang a song to the river.

The two hundred and sixty people who attended the event were then treated to a reception in the dining hall. Volunteers from the Kingston Peninsula Heritage group served tea and coffee and provided a wonderful array of sandwiches and sweets including a commemorative cake.

The project’s objective of raising awareness of the significant history of Catons Island was achieved through the great participation in the event and through the various radio and newspaper articles published.

Many thanks need to be extended to several groups whose help allowed this event to occur. The Wesleyan group’s significant support was critical. They allowed the use of their facilities on the island and provided manpower for cleanup and guides. A special nod goes out to Dean Stephenson for his wisdom and efforts. The New Brunswick Department of Wellness, Culture and Sport and Minister Trevor Holder provided funding to finance the event. The speakers and performers brought a unique and heartfelt perspective to the island’s history. The Browns Flat volunteer fire fighters provided support in parking control at the ferry landing.

The effort of those friends and members of the Kingston Peninsula Heritage group who stayed over on the island the night before the event and prepared food was greatly appreciated. A special nod goes to Beth Quigley for organizing the crew and for much prior preparation.

This was a major undertaking for KPH but it showed the amazing energy and skills our group has. Many thanks to all who helped.

Recently a novel was published about Akmenhenik and the interaction between the Wolastoqiyik and the first European settlers. It is called Akmenhenik and can be purchased through Kingston Peninsula Heritage.