As a traditional Mi'Kmaq meeting place, a tragic Acadian refugee camp, a prosperous shipbuilding centre, and now a National Historic Site, Beaubears Island has served as a barometer of Miramichi history. The island is only 2 kilometres in length and less than a kilometre wide, but its location, at the forks of the Northwest and Southwest branches of the main Miramichi - about 50 kilometres upstream from the river's mouth, in the middle of the modern-day City of Miramichi - has invested it with strategic importance.
Acadian Agony: For thousands of years, the island was a natural gathering place for native Mi'Kmaq of the Miramichi, who called it "Quoomeneegook" (pine island). But it became a scene of misery and death during the British expulsion of the Acadians in the mid -1700's. In 1757, in a desperate attempt to evade British troops in the St. John Valley and the Bay of Fundy, the French general, Charles des Champs de Boishébert, led the French fugitives up the northeast coast of New Brunswick to the Miramichi, installing about 900 of them on Beaubears Island with hopes of only temporary deprivation, followed by a timely rescue.
But when provisions from Quebec finally arrived the following May, it was far too late; after a harsh and hideous winter of subsisting on cattle hides, seal oil, beaver skins, and finally, their own deerskin boots, at least 200 refugees were dead. Those who survived, and attempted to settle in the areas surrounding Beaubears Island, faced even more suffering. In 1758, British forces, led by Colonel Murray, erased almost every trace of human settlement - Acadian and Mi'Kmaq- on the Miramichi River. Amazingly, in spite of these catastrophes, a few of the Acadians remained; today, some Miramichi families can trace their ancestry to the refugees of Beaubears Island. Even the island's name recalls this sad chapter in Miramichi history: "Beaubears" is actually a corruption of "Boishébert."
The Miramichi River runs through Northumberland County and empties into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. From its origins, the whole area including towns and seaports were known has been called Miramichi. It is the oldest Indian place name in Eastern Canada still in use
today and is believed to be a Montagnais Indian word meaning Miqmaq Land.
For at least 10,000 years before the coming of the Europeans, the area was inhabited by Micmac Indians who called the river the Lustagoocheehk (little goodly river). Basque and French fishermen came to fish in the Miramichi Bay each summer from the early 1500's but no attempt was made at settlement. In 1534 Jacques Cartier sailed across the mouth of the bay during his first voyage of discovery and recorded it in his journal. In 1653 the huge seigneury of Gaspésia was granted to Nicolas Denys, Sieur
de Fronsac, whose son Richard was placed in charge of his prosperous fort and trading post at Miramichi. The post declined after Richard's death at sea in 1691 and the river was left to the Indians and a few French settlers at Bay du Vin, Burnt Church and Neguac.
Two thousand years ago there was a sizeable Micmac population spending the warm weather months living in several large Metepenagiag villages. These same sites had been occupied earlier but not by such large groups of people. Changes in the style of artifacts found at Metepenagiag suggest that from time to time the villagers were influenced by contacts with their neighbors
to the southwest. Despite their contacts with other peoples, the everyday lifestyle of the Miramichi Micmac remained basically the same for 200 years. The Atlantic salmon and Atlantic sturgeon bones recovered from the Oxbow campfires and from the hearths of other nearby sites show us that the principal activity of the people living at Metepenagiag was fishing. Of the nearly 100 ancient campfires that were excavated at the Oxbox site, only a
handful lacked burnt fishbone. From the excavations in the year 1984, only one non-fishbone hearth was excavated. Additionally, all of the larger Metepenagiag villages including Oxbow were situated at excellent fishing locations. In the days of the ancient Micmac, the Miramichi River must have been alive with fish. In the 17th century Nicolas Denys wrote "If the pigeons bothered us by their large numbers, the salmon give us even more trouble."
The Metepenagiag people fashioned their lives around their fishery. Fish was the primary food of the warm weather months and fish were preserved for the winter. Extra supplies of dried or smoked fish would have been used in local and regional trading. In addition to the salmon and the sturgeon, annual runs of smelt, gaspereau, shad and striped bass were also fished. In winter, Red Bank was the spawning grounds for swarms of tom cod and the American eel
was present in the muddy bottom at the confluence of the two rivers.
The Metepenagiag people enjoyed one of the best fishing locations within the Miramichi estuary. They were also conveniently situated between the forest and the coast. Resources from both areas were within easy reach. Inland hunting parties travelled only a short distance to find some of the best wintering areas for deer, moose and caribou. Spring and summer visits to the sea shore saw the people collecting birds eggs and tender beach peas.
Fall expiditions to the coastal marshes for migratory bird hunts were
conducted from Red Bank with ease.
After the Acadians were expelled from Nova Scotia in 1755 the northward withdrawal of Acadians from Chignecto and the lower Saint John River posed a problem for General Boishébert, commander of the French forces. He helped the refugees to reach Miramichi and in 1757 established a camp for them here. This was on Beaubear's Island, just below the forks of the river, and it has ever since been known as Beaubear's Island, a corruption of his name. During the winter, hundreds died of hunger and starvation and scurvy and
were burried at Beaubear's Point. In the spring the majority of the
survivors went to Chaleur Bay and Quebec where they hoped to be safe from the British soldiers. Some remained on the island and at French Fort Cove where a battery was set up. These two settlements were destroyed by British forces in 1760, three years before the Treaty of Paris ceded the French possesions in North America to Britain.