The Great Sagamow from LaHave
Messamouet had an extraordinary career as sagamow, District Chief, diplomat, navigator, trader, and warrior. He was one of the few Mi’kmaw chiefs respected, known by name, and recorded by contemporary French and English explorers and settlers. Such was his reputation and influence that later historians called him "The famous Messamouet" and "The Equal of Kings."
Messamouet's home territory was around the Pijinuiskaq river bordering the Kespukwitk and Sipene’katik districts. The river, later called the La Hève by the French and then the LaHave by the English, was one of the great hubs of settlement and trade in Mi’kma’ki. Most of the Mi'kmaq in the district lived in villages close to the sea: the main source of food, trade, and transport.
The early French visitors called the Mi'kmaq the "Souriquois" and Messamouet, ‘‘Martin.’’ French authorities recognized his qualities as spokesperson and representative of his people, and in the 1570s he was invited to Bayonne, a French-Basque city, where he was houseguest of its mayor, M. de. Grandmont. This experience gave him the opportunity to assess the potential of European navigation, ship-construction, trade goods, military might, and mindset.
The Mi'kmaq had long taken advantage of trade with the Breton and Norman French, the Basques, Spanish and Portuguese, and then the English. Their trading empire stretched down the St. Lawrence, across to Newfoundland and around Mi’kma’ki to the mainland American coast. Messamouet became a powerful and influential trader. He was a pioneer in adapting the Basque style shallop: workboats-decked and propelled by sails and oars that could carry trade cargo long distances and be used for ocean fishing. This innovation revolutionised trade and travel across open seas and along rivers.
In 1604, Messamouet’s band welcomed the arrival of De Mont’s expedition. Samuel Champlain, the group’s navigator, drew the first recorded European map of the La Hève and its Mi’kmaw settlements. Messamouet went on to guide Champlain, particularly in the search for a mine of “pure copper” in the upper Bay of Fundy. The Mi’kmaq made the French welcome and ensured their survival at Port-Royal.
Messamouet has the distinction of being featured in a French poem written by Marc Lescarbot, who lived at Port-Royal. The verses tell of the Mi’kmaw fleet and warriors that battled against mainland opponents at Saco (in present-day Maine). Messamouet’s efforts at peaceful diplomacy had been rejected. Lescarbot describes how, at a decisive moment in the battle, the enemy "Met the forces of the valiant Messamouet…who once breathed the air of France…Had learned the knowledge of warfare." Messamouet’s warriors were victorious, using muskets. A new age of warfare had begun.
1610 was a landmark year, as Grand Chief Membertou led the Mi'kmaq in an agreement with Catholic and state authorities. It was essentially an alliance between the Mi'kmaq and French, which, among other things, resulted in many Mi'kmaq being baptized as Catholics. Mi’kmaw tradition, explained by Indigenous scholars such as Marie Baptiste and James (Sakej) Younngblood Henderson, has Messamouet as the visionary behind this agreement.
Messamouet died in 1610, victim of one of the epidemics associated with European germs. There is a touching French account of his death. Messamouet's life spanned the vital years when contact with European culture, trade, and settlement brought real change to the lifestyle and mindset of the Mi’kmaq. He was an agent of transition: a leader with the vision and strength of character that enabled him to influence changes. He led by example, accumulating prestige, power, and influence. A leading navigator and trader, he established a wide trade network that brought valued goods to his people. The Mi’kmaq became a real trading and naval force at sea. His great standing enabled him to act as guide, translator, spokesman, and diplomat.
American historian, Daniel P. Thorpe wrote, "at the turn of the sixteenth century, the most powerful sagamore in Acadia was probably Messamouet." He had a vision of coexistence. It was his children and grandchildren that welcomed Isaac de Razilly and his settlers to the La Hève in the 1630s. La Hève was designated the first capital of New France and became a cradle of Acadian culture.