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The Life of John W. Johnson
Chapter 3
Mi'kmaq Life - 1840 to 1847
(age 10 to 17)

Transcribed - June 1998 - by Ne-Do-Ba

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The Indian family that I lived with in the winter of 1840 belonged to the Micmac tribe, and the man's name was James Paul. He was a kind man when himself, but he was accustomed to drink whisky, and when under its influence he was savage and cruel, and many times has he driven his wife and myself from the camp to pass the night in the woods. The spring following, part of the tribe went in canoes to Prince Edward's Island, which place is a great resort for fishing vessels, and is therefore a good trading place for the Indians, who dispose of baskets, furs, and fancy articles that they manufacture to the sailors.

The company that I was with, stopped at the island all the summer and part of the fall, and then went to Mirimichi's bay, which is on the coast of New Brunswick. The company stopped there through the winter months, making baskets, coopering, hunting, etc, They travelled from this place in the spring to Londonderry, which in at the head of the Bay of Fundy, going the distance by land and water, camping as they went along.

At times we encamped upon the side of some beautiful lake, whose placid waters, under the bright and full light of the moon, shone like a shoot of silver before us, sparkling and glistening under its beam, until the existance of the lake was forgotten by the beholder, and all that attracted the gaze or absorbed the attention was the fantastic dancing of the silver light before us. Anon a gentle breeze sweeps silently across the waters, ruffling the bosom of the lake, and causing belts of silver light in continuous lines to extend from the shore as far an the eye could discern in the distance; but ever varying, this would last but for a moment, when the scene would change, and the lines part, and light intermingled with light, until it softened down into one broad expanse and mingled together, and the broad lake would be covered entire with its silver coat again, to be broken by the playful winds that swept across the surface.

As this beautiful scene was stretched before us, there was another, perhaps not so beautiful but equally grand and majestic, lay behind our camps; the forest with its openings here and there, through which the rays of moonlight entered, lighting up as if with a thousand torches the wood, displaying a scene of marvelous grandeur; reflecting in somber hue the massive trunks of the forest pines and making the dark avenues of the forest seem still more dark and gloomy, as it stood in contrast with the bright spots around it. At times a dark cloud would pass through the heavens extinguishing the light of the moon, and so changing the forest scene that naught could be seen but a gloomy belt of darkness extending around upon every side. At other times we encamped upon the side of some river, where the dark cliffs arrayed their craggy peaks, presenting an insurmountable front behind us, and the river rolled sluggishly along in front. At one time as we were thus encamped, the heavens were enshrouded in darkness, and in the distance was heard the advancing storm. The low moaning wind increasing in its mutterings as it approached, until it seemed to tower in the mountain top, and gathering there its united force it broke in awful fury upon us.

The glare of the lightning and the harsh thunder appeared to come from the mountain top; commencing with a low, rumbling sound, and seeming to roll down increasing in its power and force, until it seemed as if it was about to crush our tents, and smite us to the ground. The river now came roaring on, and this with the deep-toned thunder and the howling wind in one united power, made the night frightful. The wind rushed on madly, sweeping in its progress our tents, and rocking the forest trees, whilst some were prostrated before its powerful force. The rain came down in torrents, and the river seemed to gather now strength, and bounded on with redoubled speed, foaming and roaring as it swept by a few rods in front of our tents. The elements seemed to be at war one with another, for above the fire flashed from the heavens, followed by the sharp crackling thunder, the wind in suppressed tones was heard in the distance as if some armies were rushing to a contest, but as it approached nearer the ground seemed to tremble, and soon it appeared to meet in contest over our heads, where the battle fiercely raged, until one yielded, and it passed on, its low mutterings being lost in the distance. The rain drops came gently at first, like the soft pattering of leaves before the autumnal wind, but as it approached it increased to chord with the other elements, until the fountains above seemed broken, and sheet after sheet the water came from the heavens. Thus in wild confusion and fearful power the elements blended together on that dreadful night, our tents were laid flat, and ourselves drenched with water.

In the year 1843, I had lived with Paul about two years, and had been used so badly that I was determined that the first chance that I had I would run away. An opportunity soon presented itself for one night when Paul was under the influence of liquor, and in an excited state, he pulled down the tent, and his wife took refuge in a neighboring house, as we were not with the tribe. I ran and hid myself in the woods until about midnight, when I went towards the tent, where I found Paul asleep. I thought that this was a good opportunity to escape, and I started off for Truro, which was about thirty miles distant. I traveled that night upon the road, keeping upon the alert, fearing that Paul might miss, and start after me.

I arrived at the close of the first day at a town called Onslow, and stopped there that night, and thought some of remaining, but as it was near my old master, I feared that he might find me, and therefore determined to push on. The next day I kept on the road, and at noon arrived at Truro, and succeeded in getting a place to work at a tavern, and pay my board. I stopped in this place about one month, but as there were no Indians in the vicinity, and having long been accustomed to their kind of living, and to exercise in the open air, I was dissatisfied with my situation, and made up my mind to go to Halifax, about 70 miles distant, where there were Indians encamped. I therefore started off one morning and went as far as Brookfield, where, in a tavern, I did some chores, brought water, etc., and got my meals and lodging.

While there I fell in with a boy who said he had run away from Truro, and was going to Halifax. The second day he started with me, and we went as far as Lower Stewiac, about a dozen miles from Brookfield. The tavern where we stopped, was a stage depot, and we assisted in watering the horses, bringing wood, and other errands, and got our lodgings. Whilst stopping there I saw a negro boy in the kitchen where my companion and myself were peeling potatoes, and as I had never been so near a negro before, I said to my companions "How his eyes glisten." The negro boy said with a scowling look, "Be gorry!. I'll make your eyes glisten." This remark frightened me as he was somewhat larger than I was and looked pretty savage, and after that I was very cautious about expressing my thoughts while I was in his company, and the expression of his face I can remember to this day.

The next morning my companion turned back, but I kept on my way toward Halifax, and at night I arrived at Dartmouth upon the Chebucto Bay, and upon the other side of the Bay was Halifax. Hearing that there were Indians, I went to the place where they were camped, and fell in with an Indian doctor named Tomah, and who had quite a large family, having sons and daughters married, who with their children were living with him, making in all, with myself, thirty in number. I stopped with this Indian about a week, gathering roots and herbs, and then I went with the family to Digby, N.S., where we remained about two months, the doctor practicing medicine, some making baskets, and others gunning and fishing. We caught while here plenty of Codfish and mackerel, and had also some fine sport shooting porpoises.

From this place we went to, Annapolis, a seaport near Halifax, where we stopped two or three months selling baskets and other fancy articles that we had made, and then went to a place called "Old Barns," on the Bay of Fundy. At this place we had fine times fishing and hunting, but as winter was approaching, the family began to think of pitching upon some place for winter quarters. We went to Brookfield where we pitched our camp in a grove of rock maples, and while building our camp, the owner of the grove came to us, and ordered us away, but finding that there were quite a number of us, and that we intended to remain, he, after some considerable talking, went away. We built an excellent camp here, which was forty feet in diameter. We cut first six long spruce poles, and stacked them together in the form of a cone, tying the top ends, and allowing the other ends to be about twenty feet from each other in the form of a circle. Between these poles we placed numerous smaller ones, running both ways, and upon these poles we placed our strips of birch bark, each piece nicely lapping over others, and neatly stitched together with spruce roots. These were tied to the poles, and when thus covered, it was perfectly tight, excepting a hole in the top through which the smoke passed. The fire was built in the middle of the tent, around which when very cold, we would all gather, and pass the time very comfortably.

The Indian that I was with used me very well, and I was allowed to go to school, but as it was some four miles distant from the camp, and as this was in the winter time, when it was rather bad traveling, I could not got there on an average more than three times a week. The family that I was with had twelve large dogs, that did all their teaming, as they could haul a load of twelve hundred pounds easily, but we rarely harnessed more than six at a time, when we went to the store. It was about twelve miles distant, and we usually went the distance in two hours, taking a load of five or six hundred pounds.

One day I went with some of the family to Truro, and while stopping at a tavern there, I had my bow and arrow with me, and as I was standing at the tavern door the keeper asked me what I could shoot. "I can shoot," said I "One of those geese in the yard," as there were quite a number, some fifty or seventy-five feet distant. "Well," said the keeper, "my little follow, if you will knock over one of those geese by striking him in the eye with the head of your arrow, the goose is yours." I agreed to the proposition, and taking aim at one of the largest of the flock, let an arrow fly, and the point of it struck the goose fairly in the eye, and knocked him over. I ran and picked him up and was going off, when the keeper started after me to take it, but finding that a number who had gathered around were in my favor, and said that if he took the goose they would take it from him and give it to me, he came to the conclusion that "discretion was the better part of valor," and left the field, whilst I marched off, feeling rather proud of my game.

We moved from Truro to Pictou, and from thence we went to Aristigooch, and then to Ishcomich, an Indian village.

In the winter we camped in Pictou, trading and manufacturing different kinds of baskets, which we sold to the whites.

In the spring we camped on the John's river, where we caught shad, alewives, smelts, and other fish, and traded off quite a number of baskets. We next went to a town named Wallace, stopping there all the summer, where we hunted, fished, and manufactured baskets. In 1846 we stopped at Cape Breton Island all the winter, most of the time making baskets, and porcupine quill boxes; the fancy quill boxes are very pretty, and make a beautiful ornament, and sell from one to fifteen dollars. We had some fine times while in this place, hunting moose, shooting quite a number.

The spring following we went to the "Gut of Canso," where the fishermen put in to get provisions, where we disposed of quite an amount of our winter's work. We stopped all the summer and late in the fall, trading with the fishermen, and then we went in our birch canoes around to Halifax, and camped near Halifax Hill, there making baskets and quill work. I had at this time some money that I had saved up, as I had been pretty busy the last few winters making and selling work. I had been more saving of my money than many of the company, who only prized their money for the time being. What money I had I expended for baskets and fancy work, which I bought of the Indians; besides this I had a number of things given to me, and packing them up, I went with a nephew of Tomah's to Boston, taking the steamer, and arriving there in March, 1847.

After arriving there, we went off and got us a boarding house, and had our things moved to it, and commenced to sell out our stock by standing upon the Common, and selling to passers by, and at other times going from house to house. I have been very rudely treated at some places, having the door shut in my face, a very polite way some people have of ridding themselves of intruders, as they think all persons are, who call at their habitation to dispose of anything.

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